By Jeff Brumley
The Charleston church massacre is not a problem of gun violence or even of racism. Rather, it uncovers a spiritual sickness afflicting the American soul, social justice advocate Iva Carruthers told members and supporters of the New Baptist Covenant in Dallas on Thursday.
The challenge in America is one of what she called “soul lockdown,” a spiritual and moral malady blinding the nation to the systemic racism, white entitlement and other entrenched attitudes that inspire events like Wednesday’s mass shooting in South Carolina, said Carruthers, general secretary of the Samuel DeWitt Proctor Conference, an interdenominational faith group focused on social justice issues.
Carruthers was the keynote speaker at the NBC’s luncheon during the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship’s annual General Assembly.
She also told some 350 in attendance that soul lockdown limits the movement and perception of truth and confines the outward flow of the breath of God.
That condition not only contributes to acts like Wednesday’s shooting in Charleston, which killed nine people attending a Bible study at an historically black church, but also to police violence, wars like Iraq and immigration policies damaging to individuals and families, she said.
‘Will the church lead?’
It is also manifest in systemic racism, police militarization, mass incarceration and a disdain for the poor, she said.
“It’s a poisoned soul suffocating the nation,” Carruthers said.
Well-known slogans that have come from incidents of law enforcement violence, such as “I can’t breathe,” “no justice, no peace” and “black lives matter,” often function as metaphors of the condition, she added.
“All of us are on soul lockdown and none of us can truly breathe,” she said.
And it was on full display in Charleston, she said.
“Soul injury was again repeated last night,” Carruthers said.
The prescription for soul lockdown, she said, includes immersion into a process of reconciliation that addresses deep, systemic forms of racism and white entitlement.
Those must be replaced with the ancient African notion of Ubuntu, which means “my humanity is bound up in yours.” It also means that all of humanity is hurt when any group of people is tortured or mistreated.
Carruthers said it will also take a “serum of truth” to enable Americans to see that African Americans have been war crime victims in their own nation and that the United States was built on the black of their free labor.
That truth must include confession, reparations and reconciliation, she said.
“We must accept the transforming nature of radical reconciliation and reparations and let go of the ethos of entitlement,” Carruthers said.
While those things are clear, Carruthers said, there does remain one uncertainty.
“The only question is whether the church will lead or will the church follow” in this process, she asked.
‘A noble call’
A number of Baptist leaders at the banquet said the church must choose to lead the nation out of the spiritual slavery Carruthers described.
The past year has seen repeated cases of injustice and division that the world claims are simply human nature and that the proper response is “to fear our brothers and sisters,” said Hannah McMahan, coordinator of the New Baptist Covenant.
But the organization’s covenants of action program, in which churches of different ethnicities join together to tackle social justice issues, has been steadily growing, McMahan said.
In that same 12-month period, NBC has seen 10 new covenants of action, proving that justice is a viable response to injustice, she said.
Suzii Paynter, executive coordinator of CBF, Baptists and the wider church must act and respond to the year of cumulative tragedies that have befallen the nation.
She praised the the covenants of action as a proven way to address those systemic issues.
“They are a template for the local church to reach out … to put love and compassion into action,” Paynter said.
Whatever form the action takes, there must be action, said Gary Simpson, pastor of Concord Baptist Church in Brooklyn, N.Y.
Simpson said he agreed with Carruthers’ description soul lockdown, and with her prescription for fighting it.
“I think we’ve got to tell the truth, and the truth is painful,” Simpson said.
He said the church must take the lead in the movement.
“It’s a noble call, but it is our call — ‘thy kingdom come,’ right?”