The Charleston Nine: Rev. Dr. J. Herbert Nelson Responds

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Sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. J. Herbert Nelson, II on Tuesday, June 30, 2015 on the occasion of remembering the Charleston 9 and embracing the issue of race in the United States. The worship service was held in the United Methodist Building on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC. Originally published in the PC(USA) Office of Public Witness Blog. Reprinted with permission.

Listen to the audio here and watch a short clip here.

“What We Are Contending With”

“For we are not contending with flesh and blood, but against the principalities, against the powers against the world rulers of this present darkness, against the spiritual hosts of wickedness in heavenly places.” (Ephesians 6:12)

Rev. Dr. J. Herbert Nelson, II
Rev. Dr. J. Herbert Nelson, II

Today we remember the horrid incident in Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, SC, almost two weeks ago. The funerals continue even today which serve as a constant reminder that even the Church of Jesus Christ is not necessarily a safe place in our society. However, it seems that signs of hope are beginning. Dylan Roof, suspect in the killing of the nine who were attending to prayer when the shooting occurred, is incarcerated. Racially mixed unity marches with thousands of persons calling for the removal of the Confederate battle flag are occurring in South Carolina. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) is renewing its fight for the removal of the Confederate battle flag from the South Carolina State Capitol that began in 1988. Major corporations are now supporting the efforts to remove the Confederate flag by pledging not to produce or sell any products that feature the confederate battle flag or the flag itself. Amid this tragedy, it seems like the mill of progress is springing forth. Or is it?

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Our role is to speak a prophetic voice to a nation that is falling in the ditches of despair.
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The writer of Ephesians, believed to be a disciple of Paul, is credited with this letter to the Church at Ephesus. However, one must note that in chapters 3 and 4, the author assumes the identity of Paul as a prisoner of Jesus Christ. The writer of Ephesians reminds us in our text for today that the challenges we are facing are more than the symbols represented in the Confederate battle flag, or the public outpouring of sympathy extended to the families of the victims, or the momentary unity marches among the descendants of Europeans and Africans in the streets in South Carolina. He writes:

Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church Photo Credit: Flickr user Leoboudv, CC 2.0
Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church
Photo Credit: Flickr user Leoboudv, CC 2.0

“For we are not contending with flesh and blood, but against the principalities, against the powers against the world rulers of this present darkness, against the spiritual hosts of wickedness in heavenly places.” (Ephesians 6:12)

This community is grappling with the merging of Jews and Gentiles in the same communal context of worship and faith. What does it mean to unify across the lines of communal divide in the House of the Lord? Inherent in this question is how do we take on the challenge of being the community that God wants us to be while limping towards a unity in the oneness of Jesus Christ. The writer’s warning is found in the recognition that this will require engaging spiritual warfare for the sake of Jesus Christ in the world. Therefore, he outlines the spiritual war clothes needed to remain focused on the task of becoming and being what Jesus Christ wants them to be.

I must admit some frustration over the convenient ways that people, commerce, and other groups of my home state are coming together around the guilt associated with this massacre after years of ideological divide over the civil war, slavery, Jim Crow segregation, the confederate flag, and a host of other racially divisive issues that have plagued the State of South Carolina. My life is still pained by the massacre in my hometown of Orangeburg, South Carolina, during my growing years. Twenty-seven students were shot, three of them killed from South Carolina State and Claflin Universities (two Historically Black Colleges) and Wilkinson High School as they were trying to integrate Harry Floyd’s Bowling Alley. My father was significantly involved as a local Pastor and past State Conference President of the NAACP in South Carolina. The violence that night on February 4, 1968, is now known as the Orangeburg Massacre. Ironically, in 1968, two months before the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. the Orangeburg Massacre occurred. And in 2015, during the second term of the first African American President of the United States, the Charleston Massacre occurred. Both were fueled by race and the belief that white supremacy still is the order of the day.

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I must admit some frustration over the convenient ways that people, commerce, and other groups of my home state are coming together around the guilt associated with this massacre after years of ideological divide over the civil war, slavery, Jim Crow segregation, the confederate flag, and a host of other racially divisive issues that have plagued the State of South Carolina.
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Therefore, I hear the words of the writer of Ephesians, who intimates that this is not an ideological war we are fighting. No, this is a spiritual war throughout the United States. In speaking boldly to the way ahead, the writer of Ephesians reminds us in these denominational offices that we are engaged in spiritual warfare.

He writes in verses 14-19: “Stand therefore, having girded your loins with truth, and having put on the breastplate of righteousness, and having shod your feet with the equipment of the gospel of peace; besides all these, taking the shield of faith, with which you can quench all the flaming darts of the evil one. And take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God. Pray at all times in the Spirit, with all prayer and supplication. To that end keep alert with all perseverance, making supplication for all the saints, and also for me, that utterance may be given me in opening my mouth boldly to proclaim the mystery of the gospel.”

gun-on-groundDo you hear this? We are called to a bold proclamation of the gospel! I am often perplexed by how casually we assume the power of the gospel in this environment. I remember a couple of years ago when there was a massive campaign to pass a bill to reduce gun violence. The Manchin-Toomey Bill was on the table in the Senate. There was a full court press from Gabrielle Giffords, Newtown families, Virginia Tech Survivors, and other mass shooting advocates for ending gun violence across the U.S. Many were meeting here in this building. But, the Manchin-Toomey Bill became so watered down with compromise that there was really nothing left. Here in the faith community, we compromised on the nothing that was left. We are often vacillating between whether we are pseudo-politicians or people of faith in our work on the Hill. I want to suggest that faith has power over politics if we learn to lean on God’s unhanging hand. Faith has power over politics when we declare, as the Bible does in Proverbs 14:34, that “Righteousness exalts a nation, but sin condemns any people.” Jesus said it another way,

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed… (Luke 4:18)

Our role is to speak a prophetic voice to a nation that is falling in the ditches of despair.

It is imperative that Charleston not only becomes a watershed moment in South Carolina, but a wake up call for those of us in this faith community and around the world, that our role is to speak truth in love to power, including to our own faith communities with an unrestrained vigor and zeal for the living gospel of Jesus Christ. If we leave this place in history removing only a flag while the vestiges of Jim Crow education plague our public schools, while systems of incarceration and inequality place whole families in systemic isolation from opportunity, then injustice remains the order of the day. If we remove the vestiges of the Confederate flag, but leave the domination of corporate greed in place, we will have traded one evil for another and will still find death on our street corners, imbalance in world markets, and justice and freedom eclipsed by the illusion of success in the United States.

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If we leave this place in history removing only a flag while the vestiges of Jim Crow education plague our public schools, while systems of incarceration and inequality place whole families in systemic isolation from opportunity, then injustice remains the order of the day.
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We must not be afraid to challenge the powers and principalities in this present age. Our work is about redeeming people through the hope found in Jesus Christ, whose statement of purpose is captured in Luke 4:18-19: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to preach the good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord.” In other words, to turn the world upside down – that righteousness might overcome the usury mill of corporate domination, our electoral politics, and the world order.

Outside the Charleston shooting memorial service at Morris Brown AME Church in Charleston, SC Photo Credit: Wikimedia user Nomader CC 3.0
Outside the Charleston shooting memorial service at Morris Brown AME Church in Charleston, SC
Photo Credit: Wikimedia user Nomader CC 3.0

I too mourn the loss of my brothers and sisters in Charleston. But I have also committed to making my advocacy more visible and vigilant so that we can at least go to prayer meeting and Church in peace. I am thankful for the possible removal of the Confederate flag that symbolizes all of the vestiges of White supremacy in the South, but equally important is that White Supremacist thinking and corollary actions not be dismissed by political ideology couched in media sophistication. I am grateful and consider it an undeserved honor to serve the Church of Jesus Christ in the nation’s Capitol, but my daily prayer is that the Lord will keep me humble. I see too much pomp and circumstance fueled by ego both on the Hill and in our faith community. We are not exempt from that assertion. If we were, Capitol Hill would possess a different climate. It would be a climate that denotes the Godly intention of our founders – a nation truly “of the people, for the people and by the people” [1].

Let us not become weary in well-doing. Let the Charleston Nine be a reminder that the epitaph of our life will be written. We do not know the day nor the hour. What we do know is that our work will be judged, and so will our lives. God has placed us here to be prophets who declare that powers and principalities are subject to a day of reckoning. This may cost us something, but to play the game by the rules of our political leaders will cost us even more. Who do we serve….Answer ye this day!

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[1] Abraham Lincoln. “The Gettysburg Address.” November 9. 1863. Gettysburg, PA.

AUTHOR BIO: The Reverend Dr. J. Herbert Nelson, II, is the Director for Public Witness at the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) Office of Public Witness in Washington, DC.

Read the response from PC(USA) Stated Clerk Gradye Parsons.

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