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no justice, no peace

06/07/2020 12:55:37 PM


I am not proud of my initial response to the image of George Floyd that appeared on Facebook: the image of Mr. Floyd pinned cruelly under the knee of the police officer; the image of Mr. Floyd gasping that he could not breathe. 

My reaction was, “This is terrible.  Another black man killed by the police.”  Then I scrolled on. 

There was so much else on my mind: COVID-19, the economic crisis, people who need food and money for bills, people who need my pastoral support. I felt like I couldn’t handle another thing.
I just wanted some peace.

So I scrolled past the photo of George Floyd. That was wrong.

Others did not scroll past. They reacted to the murder with posts of their own and planned peaceful demonstrations to protest it.

I realized that my own stress and weariness is no reason to remain silent. I remembered those who marched with Martin Luther King, Jr., those we learned more about on our congregational civil rights trip. These protesters were exhausted and stressed too. 

And many of them had reason to fear protesting. They faced danger that I do not. My white skin offers me privilege and it offers me safety. I don’t have to fear that a random racist, whether in uniform or not, would harm me, a middle-aged, white, female rabbi. I need to use my privilege and my safety for those who do not yet have what I have.

Last Saturday afternoon I attended a demonstration in Peekskill, the city in which I live. It was a peaceful and diverse gathering.  Demonstrators respected the police officers there, and the police respected the demonstrators.  
I was struck by one of the chants, the one most prevalent at the demonstration: “No Justice, No Peace.”

It occurred to me that in this time of exhaustion and stress, I wanted peace in my life. But there cannot be true peace in the absence of justice.

This truth is reflected in a teaching attributed to Hillel and preserved in the rabbinic work Pirkei Avot: 

מַרְבֶּה צְדָקָה, מַרְבֶּה שָׁלוֹם

The more tzedakah – the more righteousness, the more peace. (2:8)

Racism is real and racism is not righteous.  If we accept racism, how can we possibly expect to have shalom – peace?  What are we to do?

There is another rabbinic teaching, also from Pirkei Avot (1:18) that offers some guidance. 

עַל שְׁלשָׁה דְבָרִים הָעוֹלָם עוֹמֵד, עַל הַדִּין וְעַל הָאֱמֶת וְעַל הַשָּׁלוֹם, 

The world is sustained by three things:  by justice, by truth, and by peace.  (1:18)

Let’s talk about emet – truth—first.

To find truth we open our eyes to the truth we may not know.  To find truth we listen to the experiences of those who suffer from racism every hour of every day in this country.  We listen, even though it might make us feel upset, or sad, or guilty.  

We’ve heard this truth spoken here in our sanctuary, on Yom Kippur four years ago, when Eddie Pleasant spoke to us.
These are some of the words he said on that day:

As a black man, I am dismayed that even after having had a two-term President of the United States who looks like me, we find ourselves being bombarded with headlines of police shootings of black men.  I’d hoped that somehow we as a people had moved past a major hurdle of racism and that we were well on our way to a better understanding of each other.  It seems that things somehow have gotten worse…now, more than ever before, I feel as though I walk through life with a target on my back, knowing that no matter how well-spoken I am, how educated or accomplished I am, being this color is still a dangerous thing and given the right set of circumstances, being this color could cost me my life.” 

We have heard the truth spoken in our sanctuary.  

Let us not forget what we heard.

I know that I have more truth to learn.  More to learn about the 400-year history of slavery in our country.  More to learn about the failed reconstruction after the civil war, more to learn about Jim Crow and the pervasive racial terror of the white hood and the lynching noose. 

I have read three books recently that have helped me with a fuller understanding of the truth: Between the World and Me (Ta-Nehisi Coates), Just Mercy (Bryan Stephenson) and The Color of Love (Marra B. Gad).  This summer, I plan to read How to be an Anti-Racist (Ibram X. Kendi). I have more to learn.

The world stands on Truth.  And the world stands on Justice.

We Jews are called to become a part of this ongoing work for justice.  We can answer the call in many ways.  
We can stand with the peaceful demonstrations in our towns. And if we cannot demonstrate physically, we can support the organizations that work against systemic racism and police violence. We can join organizations that support the African American community, organizations like the NAACP.  We can patronize black-owned businesses. We can email our legislators.   We are publicizing action alerts from the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism on our website to help you make your voice heard.

If the world stands on truth and the world stands on justice, then we will have peace. But not until then.  We have to bring the peace we so desperately crave. 
I still have not watched all of that footage that shows the murder of George Floyd. I’m afraid that it will break my heart.

But I remember the words I heard last August when fifty other Reform rabbis and I met with a group of black Christian ministers in Montgomery, Alabama.

One of those ministers said to us, “We will see things that will break our hearts. We can’t let them break our spirits.”

Let our hearts be broken, as they should be. Let our hearts be broken, but let our spirits be emboldened. Let our spirits be emboldened so we may rise in answer to the call of liberty and justice for all. 

Thu, June 30 2022 1 Tammuz 5782