My sermon this week
I am not a rabbi. This fact should not surprise anyone. If I were a rabbi, my sermon this week might sound something like this:
His name was George Floyd. The whole world has watched the cruel treatment Mr. Floyd received at the hands of men who wore a uniform issued by a city government. The world watched, and we were horrified, outraged, saddened, terrified, sickened. (The exact emotional response changes depending on the person reacting and the moment.) Protests in response to Mr. Floyd’s death have sprung up around the country—indeed, around the world. Many have turned violent, though there is evidence at least some of the violence is caused by saboteurs, not protestors. In Baltimore, we can’t help but see parallels with what happened here five years ago. To be frank, it’s disheartening. It’s disheartening that so little has changed in these five years, that the pain and anger and heartache is happening again.
But there is also reason for hope. I am noticing my fellow white-skinned Americans, many of you listening right now, paying attention to questions of race and racism more now than in my memory. As I write this, the top three books on Amazon’s best seller list are White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk about Racism, So You Want to Talk about Race, and We’re Different, We’re the Same (a kids’ book about race). In my opinion, this is a great sign. I strongly believe an essential step toward dismantling racism and white supremacy is the deep internal work of recognizing the racism we all carry around with us all the time.
If you are among those embarking on that journey of self-reflection, I want to urge you to be steadfast. We cannot let this impulse to learn more and to move toward antiracism be a trend we abandon as quickly as we picked it up. I believe this work to be among the most important work we can do if we want to leave our children a better world. To that end, I want to offer a thought experiment, especially for you, my fellow white-skinned Jews.
When I want to better understand a situation, I often find it helpful to find a parallel that is closer to me—a situation with which I am more familiar that is somehow similar to the one I seek to understand. I want to offer you a parallel for this moment: imagine what it would look like, what it would feel like if men and women wearing uniforms issued by a governmental agency were disproportionately killing unarmed Jews with little to no consequences. Imagine it happening over and over and over and over again. Imagine complaining about it, protesting it, alerting your non-Jewish neighbors in various ways for generations, and not being believed by the majority who distrust you and think you must be lying because you don’t worship as they do. “You must have done something to deserve it,” they say, and go back to their lives.
Sadly, we don’t have to work too hard to imagine such a reality. It has a familiar air about it.
Stay with me.
Imagine in this reality that however you protest the frequent and seemingly indiscriminate killing of unarmed Jews, you’re told it’s the wrong way to protest. You’re criticized when Jewish athletes use their platform to protest. You’re criticized when you peacefully march in the street. You’re criticized when you dare say, “Jewish lives matter.” Imagine after generations of this, some people at a protest are so frustrated at never being heard, they lose control of their anger and destroy property. Others take advantage of the moment of chaos, and loot or steal. Now your non-Jewish neighbors call you names. They tell you in direct and indirect ways, the fact that your sons and daughters keep getting killed is much less important than the fact that some who participated in protests of those killings caused property damage.
This is not some dystopian future I’m describing. It’s the reality your black and brown friends, neighbors, loved ones, and at least 12 to 15% of our fellow Jews, are living right now, in 2020. I invite you to sit with that for a moment. Really sit with it. [Pause]
Now ask yourself, if the roles were different, if it really were Jews’ deaths being protested, what would you want your non-Jewish neighbors to do about it?
Once you have your answer, you know what you – what we – must do.