Tzedek, tzedek tirdof: Justice, justice shall you pursue. Deuteronomy 16:20
In the Hebrew Scriptures, justice is an extremely important concept. In the book of Deuteronomy, Moses is given instructions to “appoint judges and officials for your tribes . . . and they shall govern the people with due justice. You shall not judge unfairly” (Deuteronomy 16:18). With those words, and in countless other places, Moses insists that justice is an eternal religious obligation, at the very core of what it means to be a Jew. And that insistence is not restricted to biblical Judaism. How we treat the weakest in our midst (the “widow” and “orphan,” to use the Torah’s language) is still the irreplaceable core of Jewish identity.  This is still the core concept of the Christian faith as well. Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world. (James 1:27)
Last week, a terrible tragedy took place in Charleston, SC. Nine persons were shot and killed by a lone gunman who has since stated that his intent was to start a civil war. His hatred of African American people was so strong that he seemed to have thought his acts of violence were necessary to establish the supremacy of white people in our nation. I can’t help but wonder where he learned such hatred. I also wonder where he missed the idea of our republic that all are created equal. We might fall back on the time-honored theory that this young man was mentally ill and therefore not responsible. But he was responsible. He shot nine people. He killed nine people who had gathered to study the Bible. His statement that he almost didn’t go through with his plan because the persons in the church were so kind and welcoming proves he was able to make a better moral decision than he did.
The backlash has been interesting, to say the least. It’s the kind of interesting to which that old Chinese curse, “May you live in interesting times,” speaks. First came the denial that this was a hate crime in spite of the fact that the unfortunate perpetrator was clear about his intent. Then came the denial that the confederate battle flag should be offensive to anyone. After all, the flag only represents Southern heritage. Let’s agree that is true but the heritage is the history of enslaving people for profit.
So the question is always, “Where is God in all of this?” I believe that God was in the room with the shooter and Cynthia Hurd, Rev Clementa Pinckney, Rev Sharonda Coleman-Singleton, Tywanza Sanders, Ethel Lance, Rev Depayne Middleton-Doctor, Susie Jackson, Rev Daniel Simmons, Sr., Myra Thompson. God was shouting into the ear of the gunman telling him that what he was intending to do was wrong. God is in the response that is causing people to reconsider flying the confederate battle flag. God is in the recognition that while some people may believe that flag does not represent racism, for the millions of black Americans who see it displayed on state capitol grounds, on the front of houses, and hanging out of the backs of trucks, or as decals on cars, it does represent racism. It represents the desire to return to a time of segregation, of even more inequality than that which exists today.
I will admit that I have no idea how my white privilege has made life easier for me than for my black sisters. I have never feared for the lives of my children as they walk down our street. I cannot experience those kinds of things. What I can do is recognize that these are very real challenges for my black brothers and sisters. I can speak out when I see the ugliness of racism. I can advocate for fairer and more just practices for people of color. And I can pray that God’s will be done on earth as it is in heaven. I can strive to make that true in my own faith community with the complete cooperation of all the members. The words of the hymn ring true: Let there be peace on earth and let it begin with me.