There are not enough words to properly respond to the tragedy of George Floyd’s murder. I pray that his loved ones, and every family and community who has been afflicted with police violence find comfort and healing. I pray that our nation will awaken to the depth of our structural racism and find the will to do transformative work on every level.
But prayers feel insufficient.
For days I have been watching and feeling helpless. Afraid for the health of my family and community in this pandemic, I felt I should not march or call for marching. So instead I, like so many, have been relating (again) to our moment through the screen, watching and wondering if this unrest would turn out to be a long overdue awakening, or just the next predictable chapter in the unfolding authoritarian playbook.
Yesterday felt like an opening. Or perhaps more precisely, it felt like a taunt.
When the President decided to use tear gas and rubber bullets to clear non-violent protestors so that he could have a photo-op brandishing a bible, I felt, as a member of the clergy, uniquely called to respond. Any God-fearing person who believes in freedom should have been horrified to see this display; the President waving around the sacred scriptures as he violated the rights of free political speech at the heart of our democracy.
The Bible is not meant to be a weapon used for shallow divisive political purposes. It is meant to guide us to be better people in pursuit of creating a sacred society. If he had but opened the book to read the teachings at its heart, he would have been confronted with sacred principles he desecrates every day.
Love your neighbor as yourself. (Leviticus 19:18)
You shall not lie. (Leviticus 19:11)
If the stranger sojourns in your land, you shall not wrong him. Like a citizen among you shall be the stranger who dwells with you, and you shall love him as yourself. (Leviticus 19:33-34)
You shall not pervert justice. (Deuteronomy 16:19)
Whoever causes the righteous to go astray … he shall fall himself into his own pit; but the upright shall have a goodly inheritance. (Proverbs 28:10)
These ideas belong not only to people of a particular faith. Every religious and spiritual path has similar teachings. Every free and legitimate secular society begins with a premise of fundamental human worth. Genesis 1:27 expresses it this way: “God created humanity in the Divine image. In the image of the Divine God created him, male and female God created them.”
George Floyd was a reflection of God. His murder, any murder, is a tragedy that desecrates God. But it is a particularly egregious sin when the murderer wears a uniform and therefore acts in the name of the society as a whole. It is a sin damaging not only to the victim and his or her loved ones, but to justice and the rule of law itself. Civilization works only in as much as we entrust our courts and police to keep us all safe and mediate our conflicts without vigilante vengeance. Our police are entrusted with permission to use force in order to protect our safety.
Are we safer now that George Floyd is dead? Are we safer now, as our cities rage, and the President threatens peaceful demonstrators with military force? Are we safer now, as despair and desperation boil over after decades, no, centuries, of state-sanctioned violence against black and brown skinned people?
There is a deep sickness in America that we must no longer ignore.
Yesterday the New Yorker published an interview with Bryan Stevenson, founder of the Equal Justice Initiative and author of Just Mercy, (recently made into a feature film). He says, “We have never honestly addressed all the damage that was done during the two and a half centuries that we enslaved black people…that is why I have argued that slavery didn’t end in 1865, it evolved…”
America needs to reckon with the deep injustices baked into our economic and political structures, our criminal justice system, our education and health systems and beyond. In the Jewish paradigm, we would say we need to do massive collective teshuvah (repentance). Our tradition offers wisdom about the key elements: facing and naming the sin, apologizing to the parties harmed, making restitution, and most important, changing behavior to ensure that the sin is not repeated ever again.
What would this kind of teshuvah look like on a collective level? I do not have a simple formula or policy to suggest. Perhaps we could begin with the new proposal from Representative Barbara Lee to open a Truth, Racial Healing, and Transformation Commission. Maybe it would mean reparations. Certainly it would mean deep transformational work that touches all dimensions of a society that aspires to be a beacon of justice and equality but so far has fallen short.
The undertaking is overwhelming, but we must not let that defeat us or tempt us to waste our anger on destructive actions which only play into the narrative of white supremacy that got us here in the first place.
We do not need to destroy, we need to heal and help our nation to more fully live up to the promise of our founding vision. I believe it’s still not too late.
Nikole Hannah-Jones writes in the powerful NYT Magazine 1619 Project about how she came to understand her father’s patriotism, despite the painful history and ongoing struggles of black Americans:
… My father knew exactly what he was doing when he raised that flag…More than any other group in this country’s history, we have served, in an overlooked but vital role: perfecters of this democracy…. Through centuries of black resistance and protest, we have helped the country live up to its founding ideals. And not only for ourselves – black rights have paved the way for every other rights struggle…without the idealistic, strenuous and patriotic efforts of black Americans, our democracy today would most likely look very different – it might not be a democracy at all.
In this moment of pain and anger, may we take courage and inspiration from the ‘idealistic, strenuous and patriotic efforts’ that people of color and their allies have made since the founding of our nation to bring us closer to our founding ideals. Let our struggles and our progress not be in vain. May we find the patience, discipline, resilience and skill to defeat the forces of hate which threaten to destroy us. Let 2020 be a year that gives birth to a new chapter of justice and healing, that America may emerge from our sicknesses of racism, selfishness, greed, and violence to build a future of prosperity, peace and joy for every person.