Nonviolence, In Response to the Charleston Church killings

(This article first appeared on two days after the Charleston church killings under the title “Grieve, But then Teach and Organize Nonviolence.”)
Like millions of others, I’m grieving the death of the nine church folk killed in the unthinkable massacre inside Charleston’s Emanuel AME Church on Wednesday night. My heart goes out to the families and friends of the dead, and the church members, and I offer all my condolences, prayers, blessings and love.
I’ve spent countless evenings like that with small groups in churches, but I can’t imagine someone pulling out a gun and killing everyone. I’ve also met thousands of sweet church people like the librarian Cynthia Hurd, the coach Sharonda Coleman-Singleton, the church custodian Ethel Lance and 87 year old regular churchgoer Susie Jackson. I’m heartbroken over their suffering and loss.
But I wept in particular over the death of Rev. Clementa Pinckney. What a good pastor, what a great community leader, what a rare Christian visionary! He did so much good in his 41 years, such as speaking out prophetically, loudly and clearly in recent months against police brutality and systemic racism. He exemplifies the best of the Christian community in the U.S. His death is such a loss, but I give thanks for his beautiful life and example. People like this great man inspire me to work for justice and peace as a church person.
Of course, this was a hate crime, an act of violent racism and domestic terrorism. Press reports claim that the insane young man who shot the church goers had just been given a gun by his father for his 21st birthday. No doubt he was a sociopath, an advocate of hatred and racism, a white supremacist, the normal product of our culture of guns, hatred, racism, violence and war.
Like millions of others, I feel swept up in grief. Where does one start? The police killings of African Americans such as Amadou Diallo, Oscar Grant, Trayvon Martin, Sean Bell, Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, and Walter Scott (of South Carolina, in April)—these are just the well known names. Thousands have been killed. And the big massacres such as Virginia Tech college students, the Sandy Hook elementary school children, the Boston marathon runners and bystanders, and the Aurora, Colorado movie goers. One could go on.
But my grief mingles with the grief of the world, the quiet death of millions of children from extreme poverty and unnecessary disease, and the deliberate killing of children by the U.S. war machine.
Not too long ago, I spent days listening to teenagers in Kabul, Afghanistan, cry as they told me in detail how their loved ones were blown up by U.S. drones which dropped bombs upon them. I remember visiting the Catholic high school for girls in Baghdad and being surrounded by hundreds of girls who cried as they denounced the U.S. bombings and war. I recall the hundreds of people I met in the 1980s in Nicaragua, El Salvador and Guatemala who wept as they told me about the killing of their loved ones by U.S. backed death squads. I have witnessed the tears of grief brought on by the forces of death as well in India, South Africa, Egypt, Palestine, Colombia, Northern Ireland, and the Philippines.
For me, like all my activist friends, it is a lifetime of grief in solidarity with sisters and brothers around the world whose loved ones died by the systemic forces of greed, war, violence and death.
That’s why I see beyond the sickness of hatred, racism and sexism toward something deeper—an addiction to violence—to death itself–that inflicts nearly every living human being to some degree, an addiction which fuels the unjust national and global systems which bring death to so many poor people. It’s like everyone, especially us North Americans, is addicted to crack cocaine, yet we don’t know it, much less try to become sober. We’re all full of violence, and we go forward, not knowing what to do. So we maintain a culture of violence, torture, war and nuclear weapons as if that’s a perfect reasonable way to maintain a society. It’s as if we’re all living in a zombie movie.
Consider the hundreds of devout Christians who attend prayer services, bible studies and Catholic masses at the Pentagon, and then go about the big business of mass murder. Or the thousands of devout Christians who attend church each Sunday in Los Alamos, New Mexico, and then spend the rest of the week devoutly building nuclear weapons. Think of the Jesuits of Baltimore who hold an annual Mass for War, who process their one hundred ROTC graduates up the main aisle at graduation mass to profess their Army Oath to Kill to the Blessed Sacrament, just as the Nazis did long ago.
Think of our brilliant, Nobel laureate president who sips his coffee every Tuesday morning while mulling over his assassination list, deciding who to kill and who to let live.
Our desire to execute the young Boston Marathon murderer is a sign of a common addiction. I presume there will be a rush to execute the Charleston church murderer. In doing so, we reveal our own adolescent sociopathic tendencies. Our support of the death penalty is a measure of our humanity.
We are all addicted to violence in one form or another. We have all surrendered to sociopathic killing in one form or another. We have refused the wisdom, the divine call, the spiritual heights of universal, loving nonviolence. But that is the only option ahead of us.
The real challenge before us, I submit, was laid down long ago by our national teacher, Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. He invites each one of us to undergo the journey he went through toward active nonviolence. We have to renounce the ancient stupidity of “an eye for an eye thinking” (which Jesus outlawed when he commanded in the Sermon on the Mount, “But I say, offer no violent resistance to one who does evil”) and take up where Gandhi left off in his pursuit of truth and nonviolence.
Like Dr. King, each one of us has to learn the wisdom of nonviolence. We have to consciously choose to renounce violence, to stop supporting the culture of violence and to become a person of active, creative nonviolence. That means each one of us—whether we are white supremacists or nuclear weapons manufactuers or members of the U.S. military or rich corporate businessmen or the warmaking president or ordinary Americans—needs to wake up and embark on a new journey toward universal peace.
I think violence starts when we forget who we are—when we forget that we are human beings, sisters and brothers of one another, if you like, children of the God of peace. Once you forgot that, or ignore it, or refuse to learn what it means to be a human being, you have no meaning in your life. You can hurt others, even kill others, even support mass murder in warfare. You have become a sociopath and you do not even know it. You have no empathy, and without empathy, you cannot grow in compassion, understanding, or love.
Nonviolence, on the other hand, requires remembering every day for the rest of your life who you are—a human being, a peacemaker, a child of the God of peace, a sister or brother of every other living human being on earth, a creature at one with all creatures and creation itself.
Once you remember who you are, you realize who everyone else is—your beloved sister or brother–and therefore you could never hurt or kill anyone, much less own a gun, join the military, support war, build nuclear weapons, or have anything to do with the culture of violence.
Not only do you not hurt or kill others, you actively work to stop the killing of your sisters and brothers. You give your life in love for your 7.2 billion sisters and brothers, and for creation itself. This is what the spiritual life is about. This, I submit, is what the bible study was about last Wednesday night in Charleston. This is what the murderer could not grasp, and what we all need to learn—if we do not want to support the culture of sociopathic violence. It means seeing beyond electoral politics and corporate media toward our common calling as human beings at one with humanity and creation. It means engaging in a global intervention, to help every living human being become a sober person of nonviolence.
While I’m tempted to give in to grief and despair, I know that is not the way of creative nonviolence which Martin Luther King, Jr. taught, or Jesus commanded, or Clementa Pinckney lived.
So I recall the advice of Joe Hill and carry on: “Don’t just mourn, organize!”
I urge everyone to study nonviolence as taught by Martin Luther King, Jr., Gandhi, Dorothy Day and so many others. Choose nonviolence. Choose to be a peaceful human being, at one with every other human being, every other creature, and creation itself. Renounce violence, get rid of your guns, don’t join the military, give up your allegiance to American warmaking, and resist the culture of violence, including its racism, sexism, corporate greed, global warmaking, nuclear weapons and environmental destruction, and pursue the truth of active nonviolence.
In my book, The Nonviolent Life, I propose a holistic vision of nonviolence—that we have to be nonviolent to ourselves; that we also have to practice a meticulous interpersonal nonviolence toward every human being on the planet (beginning with those we don’t like!), as well as toward all creatures and all creation; and that we have to join the growing global grassroots movement of nonviolence, the bottom up movements that are transforming our world, to help make real the possibilities of global change. Each one of us is needed if we are to disarm the world.
In August, I’ll be hosting a national conference on nonviolence at the Hilton Hotel in Santa Fe, New Mexico. It’s sold out, but we will broadcast the entire historic two day event live on line for free, and I hope tens of thousands will watch it live (you can see it at: We will have some of the nation’s greatest visionaries of nonviolence there, beginning with Dr. King’s friend Rev. James Lawson, whom King called the world’s greatest theoretician of nonviolence.
We will also broadcast live on line our peace vigils in Los Alamos, New Mexico, marking the 70th anniversary of the U.S. atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, on August 6th and 9th. (See: for details).
More, we are calling for a week of nonviolent action across the United States, from September 20th to 28th, as we mark International Peace Day, Sept. 21st. Last year, Campaign Nonviolence organized over 250 demonstrations against war, poverty, nuclear weapons and environmental destruction, and for Dr. King’s vision of a new culture of peace and nonviolence, in all fifty states. We hope to double that number this September, and we need more people to step up to the plate and get involved. That means, organizing a march, a rally, a prayer service or a lobby effort in your local community. If you are looking for some way to get involved, consider yourself invited. Here’s a concrete step you can take, in solidarity with thousands of others across the nation. As we take to the streets together, we will know that we are not alone.
This is an appropriate response to the horrific killing in Charleston on Wednesday night. We need to take to the streets in a spirit of nonviolence as Dr. King taught us; to connect all the issues of systemic violence; and to demand an entirely new culture of peace and nonviolence.
No one else will do this. Our politicians and government leaders won’t. Our military leaders can’t. Our television newscasters will ignore us. Our religious leaders are too afraid. We have to do it ourselves.
In memory of Pastor Clementa Pinckney and the church members of Emanual AME, in memory of all those who have died from horrific violence—from Ferguson to Kabul to Gaza to Yemen—let’s stand up and make our voice heard.
Joe Hill was right. Don’t just mourn. Organize!
See you in the street!