A Statement on Violence in America (5th June 2020) Jun 12, 2020 21:26:36 GMT
Post by Rabbi Neil on Jun 12, 2020 21:26:36 GMT
The prophet Isaiah provides us with a Messianic vision in which the wolf lies down with the lamb, the leopard with the goat, the calf, lion and yearling together with a little child leading them. At that time, the cow will feed with the bear, their young will lie down together, and the lion will eat straw like the ox. The infant will play near the cobra’s den and the young child will be able to put its hand into the viper’s nest. (Is. 11). That vision involves a total inversion of what we know about the world to the point of almost seeming nonsensical and shows us that it is possible to believe in a radically more peaceful future even if it is radically different to the present day. The task of transformation is beyond comprehension but as Rabbi Tarphon says (Avot 2:20) it is not our duty to finish the task but neither may we desist from it…. even if the final goal involves a total inversion of society as we currently know it.
The enormity of the task that faces us is becoming increasingly daunting. Yes, we can and must condemn the militarization of police in this country, we can and must condemn police brutality wherever it appears, we can and must condemn systemic racism wherever it appears, we can and must condemn elected officials who sow the seeds of discord for their own personal gain. But they are mere symptoms, the part of the iceberg that we can clearly see while under the waterline a violent monster far more massive lies frozen, untouched and unchanged by human condemnation of that which rests upon it.
Isaiah challenges every religious gathering with the following words – “When you spread out your hands in prayer, I hide my eyes from you – even when you offer many prayers, I am not listening. Your hands are full of blood” (Is. 1:15). Our hands are full of blood. We have benefited from physical, economic, sexual, cultural and environmental violence against differing sections of our society locally, nationally and globally while publicly lamenting it. We are beneficiaries of violence past and present. We stand on the peak of the iceberg, marveling at ourselves and the progress we have made, at the heights we have reached, always looking at new heights to climb so that we never have to look down at what lies underneath because to do so would undermine our hubris, our success, our entire way of being. We shudder with existential dread that we might even lose our footing and slip back down so that we are forced to look in the eye of those whom we contrived to leave behind in order that we could climb without them. So, the roar of rockets that take a couple of individuals into space conveniently drowns out the cries of billions of people who beg on a daily basis to be treated as equals. “To infinity and beyond!” assumes the devolution of responsibility for human progress to technical experts. Far harder, far more empowering, far more necessary would be “To equality and beyond!” – a cry which necessitates moral experts, a plea for our own voice and action.
Leviticus 19:16, part of the central chapter of the central book of Torah, says, “You shall not stand idly by the blood of your neighbor,” but many of us have too often stood idly by while the blood of our African-American neighbors in particular has been repeatedly spilled in this country. We may have shaken our heads and posted our revulsion on social media, but we are not working as an institution to dismantle the systems of violence and oppression on which our society is based. We have been too silent - and thus too complicit - in the physical manifestations of violence that helped create and that help support our comfortable lives. And it is not only African-Americans who experience violence on a daily basis in this country, but native Americans, members of the LGBTQ community, women, and more. America is a society created by and defined by violence and we must work to end that violence now by recreating and redefining it. It is almost impossible to imagine what that society looks like considering how it looks today, but it is a future we must believe in and work towards together.
The prophet Micah, speaking of a similar revulsion to violence as Isaiah, helps describe how that society can come about. “Shall I come before God with burnt offerings, with calves a year old? Will the Eternal be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousands of rivers of oil? … God has told you, O human being, what is good, and what the Eternal requires of you – simply to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God” (Mic. 6:6-8). If we want to walk with God, first must come justice and kindness. Every thing we do as a community must be based on justice. We must challenge injustice at every moment of our lives. We must abandon the Eurocentric model of progress that defines our successes by the peaks reached by a select few on the backs of the many, and must define progress differently. We have become too silent in the face of injustice and as Revd. Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.”
Rabbinic literature (e.g. Sanhedrin 98b) talks of the “birth-pangs of the Messiah” – the pain that humanity would have to first go through in order to bring about the end of days. The Messianic Age does not come about easily – just as the creation of a single new life is accompanied by pain, so is the creation of an entirely transformed society. These are difficult, painful times. Let us use this pain that we are feeling now to create something new, something beautiful, something that has never before existed. Let us mourn the injustice in our society, let us bewail our previous profiting from previous injustice and then let us bring about a world which is radically different to ours.
After denouncing religious rituals from the supposedly pious who tolerated a society of violence, the prophet Amos adjures us to “let justice roll down like a river, righteousness like a never-ending stream” (Amos 5:24). “Justice, justice you shall pursue,” begs Deuteronomy (16:20), repeating the word ‘justice’ as if to shake us from our slumber of personal convenience and show us that our previous inadequate and disingenuous attempts at justice were a perfunctory façade that barely scratched the surface. Not the justice of personal convenience but total justice for all. We cannot undo the past, but we can and must radically change our society for the future. Every death from the violence of inequality that happens until then is on our hands. We can no longer be, to use the words of Martin Luther King, “appallingly silent”… certainly not if we want to ever claim any religious credibility in the future.
We must immediately work to de-escalate all opportunities for state-sanctioned physical, economic, sexual, cultural and environmental violence. We must furthermore dismantle every system that creates or thrives on those forms of violence. The task ahead of us is incomprehensibly vast but it is nonetheless our Divine task. Even if embarrassingly late, we now understand the immediacy of the task and we have a vision of where we want to be – a radically different place to where we are now. With that sense of urgency and the vision of where we want to end up, we must now urgently create the plan of how to get there.
To create that plan, we must first learn to hear the truths about ourselves that we have avoided. We must then mend our ways and our deeds (Jer. 13:6). We must speak out in rebuke against every act of violence (Lev. 19:17). We must make our righteousness and justice be precursors to our service to God (Prov. 21:3, Gen. 18:19). We must never act in such a way as to ever again allow the righteous to be slain in our society (Gen. 18:25). We must wash and make ourselves clean, take our evil deeds out of God’s sight, stop doing wrong, learn to do right, seek justice, and defend the oppressed (Is. 1:16). We must do what we have always been called to do, not because it is comfortable but because it is right.
We need to create a real, concrete action plan together. Please, for God’s sake… for all our sake… let’s do it very soon.