Charleston attack can be catalyst for moral leadership

June 24, 2015

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Robert Franklin, Berta and James Laney Professor of Moral Leadership at Emory's Candler School of Theology

What is moral leadership and how can it make a difference in responding to acts of violence and times of conflict?

Robert Franklin, Berta and James Laney Professor of Moral Leadership at Emory's Candler School of Theology, has been called on to answer that question following the tragic murders of African Americans in Charleston, South Carolina.

His recent column in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, "Charleston's moral leader an inspiration for all," points to examples of moral leadership in communities torn by violence, and outlines the concrete steps moral leaders have and are taking to help transformation occur.

"I am hopeful that this awful tragedy has catalyzed so many acts of historical reckoning, justice, reconciliation and healing now underway," says Franklin. He says he's encouraged to see politicians demand removal of the Confederate flag and several states' self-examination and moral inventory of public symbols.

"Moral leadership in the political sphere demands repudiation of hate symbols followed by public embrace of more inclusive ones," he says.

In the business sector, as companies take steps to remove flags from retail inventories, Franklin recalls the "well-intentioned but poorly conceived" attempt by Starbucks to initiate a conversation about race.

"The important thing is that business leaders do more to create and sustain inclusive and just communities," he says. "Enlightened business leaders recognize that we are more than consumers; we are citizens learning to live together in peace."

In the religious sphere, interfaith leaders around the country are rallying to affirm inclusivity and respect for difference. Franklin points to last week's interfaith service at Atlanta's Peachtree Christian Church that gathered more than 50 leaders from diverse traditions to support Charleston and examine Atlanta's moral vitality.

"This could go a long way toward helping us reduce prejudice towards the Muslim community," he says.

At the close of the service, Franklin called on religious leaders to follow in the steps of 80 Atlanta ministers in 1957 who signed the Ministers Manifesto to appeal for peace and call for equal rights during the turbulent times of school integration.

The full text of Franklin's op-ed, reprinted with permission, is below:

Charleston's moral leader an inspiration for all

"In life, we are all faced with the opportunity to serve. It is at times a hard choice to make but those hard choices yield great rewards. Those rewards are mostly for others and not for ourselves. That's what service is all about." — Clementa Pinckney, Pastor of Emanuel A.M.E. Church

As we mourn the massacre of Pastor and Senator Clementa Pinckney, pastor of the historic Emmanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, along with his fellow worshippers, this is a good time to reflect on the role of moral leadership during times of community violence and social crisis.

Moral leaders are women and men who live and lead with integrity and imagination to serve the common good while inviting others to join them. Examples of such moral leadership include Gandhi, Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Malala Yousafzai and Pope Francis. They are humans who have devoted themselves to the noble call of doing good. They don't have to be saints, although no saint will be rejected. They can be fully fleshed, flawed and ordinary people who behave in extraordinary ways during times of crisis.

In times of violence and deep and shocking pain, moral leaders initiate acts of healing and reconciliation with justice to repair distressed communities. Such leaders facilitate healing by allowing people to grieve and to grieve in the context of a community of caring neighbors. Moral leaders listen carefully to grief narratives and create the time and space for people to put pain into words. And, amidst their listening, they find opportunities to help grieving communities to conceptualize action that may become constructive responses to the violence and their anguish. Grief must include and lead to truth telling, and reform of public norms, behavior, law and policy. Another moral leader, Desmond Tutu often said, "Without forgiveness, there is no future."

While the shooting suspect was sitting in a Charleston, S.C. black church with a pastor and parishioners before unleashing his calculated and ruthless terror, I was also seated in a black church in San Francisco (Third Baptist Church) co-leading a community forum on violence. In Charleston, the city lost a moral leader in Pastor Pinckney. In San Francisco, another moral leader, Pastor Amos Brown who was an associate of Dr. King and a prominent civil rights activist, was engaged in leading a community forum on stopping violence and transforming working-class and poor communities.

Under the guidance of this moral leader, a mother whose son was killed along with three friends spoke of her grief and determination to stop gun violence. But, during the course of the evening, Pastor Brown broadened the understanding of violence.

The forum began by confronting directly the irrationality of black-on-black violence. Young former perpetrators, some fresh out of jail, were on hand to apologize and pledge their commitment to rehabilitated living. Community members also talked about the need to stop police violence and incompetence, which is a national conversation underway now.

Here is where moral leadership worked. Pastor Brown placed these examples of violence into a larger frame and guided people to consider institutional and systemic violence, such as policies and corporate action to disrespect and destroy longstanding communities by displacing poor families without constructing adequate affordable housing. The friendships and social capital that were nurtured over decades and generations were now being fragmented leading to another form of grief.

As the Charleston community grieves, it will need to reckon honestly with its history of racism and prejudice. It should learn about the moral leadership of the Emanuel AME Church's history of courageous moral leaders, including Pastor Clementa Pinckney.

Moral leaders from every community, and every ethnic and economic enclave, should now come forth to serve the common good and ensure a redemptive conclusion to the narrative of this sickening tragedy. It would be a surprising and refreshing consequence to see Charleston's moral leaders gather citizens from suburban and inner city communities — white and black, Latino and Asian, business, government, civic and interfaith sectors — to commit to long term inclusive community building while mobilizing the resources to make it happen.

Charleston could provide the hopeful, self-reforming model that America desperately needs now. Pastor Pinckney reminds us that these hard choices can yield great rewards.