A Thanksgiving Reflection on Ferguson

I delivered this sermon on 11/28/2014 at Temple Emanuel:

Hodu l’adonai ki tov, ki l’olam chasdo –Give thanks to God for God is good, God’s compassion is everlasting.  Thanksgiving is a time to appreciate – the people in our lives about whom we care most, the fact that we can hopefully enjoy an abundance of food, and our possessions.  During this time we strive to bring compassion to the world around us in order to engage in tikkun olam and make the world a better place.  Sometimes our best laid plans go to waste.

I once made a foolish mistake.  During a class in which we were talking about a Utopian version of the world I suggested that we wouldn’t need a black history month because we would simply teach a balanced view of the history of our country that included people of every race and religion and told the truths about events rather than apocryphal stories.  The message was not taken kindly by a very mixed classroom.  Someone even called and threatened me that night.  I was in third grade.

Yet as I reflect on that experience I still believe it to be true – when segregate our history lessons we perpetuate a culture of segregation, not so much physically, though that still exists as well, but certainly in our actions, thoughts, and most importantly in our words.  Nonetheless I failed to see that we don’t live in a utopia world – while I was safe in my middle-class house others in my class lived in the projects.  I didn’t know how important it meant that they had a month to help balance the inequality of the history textbooks and the world around them.  Growing up surrounded by black, white, Asian, Christian, and Jewish peers I knew that we were different and segregated, but I didn’t know how deep these rifts were in the rest of the city not to mention the country.

Celebrating our differences, we can be compassionate while recognizing that we are not all the same.

As we now understand, there is a difference between racism and racial biases.  Racism means we think and act ill towards people of other races whereas racial biases are the ingrained prejudices we harbor and cause us to behave in certain ways without even knowing we are doing them.  Racism means not talking to someone because of their skin color; racial biases mean that we gravitate towards other people who look like us at a party.   We all harbor racial biases; our culture demands them of us and pushes them so deep in our brains that we sometimes forget that they are exist.  What we must do is acknowledge that we all harbor them, that it isn’t racism, and that only by talking about race and interacting with people of other races can we succeed in overcoming them and creating a society where we respect and treat everyone equally.

Sadly, we are not close to this outcome, because most Americans do not even know where to begin.  Thus we find ourselves consumed on this Thanksgiving week not with images of people embracing one another, though I hope that most of us have both embraced others and been embraced, but of the riots, violence, and dialogue about the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, MO.

When Brown was first killed several months ago, I participated in an interfaith rally in front of the Denver detention center.  I helped open the gathering with a prayer for peace, in which I prayed that one day we would no longer have to see our unarmed teenagers shot by police.  Like everyone else other than Officer Wilson, I don’t know what happened that night.  I don’t know the fear Officer Wilson felt, I don’t know the events that led to Michael Brown receiving multiple gunshot wounds before ultimately receiving a fatal shot to the head.  Guilty or innocent, ultimately it may not really matter in this one incident and we might never know the full story.  What matters is that this event is now in our history –the history of both white people and the history of black – and we must now face the consequences.  We can channel our anger, as some in Ferguson, into destructive acts of violence towards police and fellow citizens, or, like Michael Brown’s mother suggested, we can channel our anger towards reforming our system.

Our system needs reforming because we all harbor racial biases.  When I’m walking in my neighborhood at night, whether that neighborhood was in a white neighborhood in Cleveland, a black neighborhood in Crown Heights, or South Broadway in Denver, if I see a cop walking the streets or rolling by in a police car, I feel a sense of calm.  I feel protected.  I feel safe.  Feeling safe in our own neighborhoods and homes is essential to our well-being.

That same cop walking the streets or in a car causes many people of color I know to tense up.  To feel unease.  To feel afraid.   For good reason – for decades, even with the end of slavery and the civil rights movement – police have arrested people of color in a staggering disproportion to whites.  According to data gathered from arrest records, across our country people of color are arrested three times more than their white counter parts when adjusted for the cities demographics.  From 2012 data at the Denver Police department, people of color are arrested almost four times more than non-blacks (the data does not separate other races).  Experts have attempted to discern the reasons for these numbers for years, but the data doesn’t always reveal the reason.  It could be racial bias, it could be the fact that people of color are disproportionately in lower income brackets and receive fewer educational opportunities.

Whatever the reason, a teenager lying dead in the streets for over four hours after being shot by law enforcement is a tragedy, and despite my desire to try and come to a conclusion about our judicial process and lay blame, this incident, like Treyvon Martin, and worse, like so many cases which do not make the news, must serve as a wake up call that there are still major issues of race in our country and we currently try to hide and run away from conversations about race, just like Jacob ran away from his family.

In our Torah portion this week we find Jacob, running away from his family because his brother Esau sought to kill him.  While killing might be extreme his anger is not misplaced.  Jacob took advantage of his brother to receive the birthright, and he lied and deceived his father into receiving the blessing meant for the first born.  After presumably travelling a long distance, Jacob finally lays down on a rock to sleep.  He closes his eyes and dreams about latter with angles ascending and descending from heaven, before God appears to him and offers him a blessing.  Jacob awakes and proclaims “Achein yeish Adonai, bamakom hazeh v’anochi lo yadati – God is in this place and I, I did not know.”

We must never forget that each place in our world and each moment in our lives allow for holiness if we only open our eyes.   When we understand the sacred in all of our actions we better position ourselves to feel compassion.  As we try to heal our country and bring justice to Ferguson, to Florida, to the streets of Denver Colorado and everywhere, we seek compassion and holiness.  I hope that each of us felt compassion yesterday, from God, from our friends and family, and from ourselves.  And I pray that we continue to receive compassion through our own lives as we partner with God in order to experience the everlasting compassion of the psalmist.

We don’t want there to be more Michael Browns.  We don’t want to hear this message day after day.  We want and must demand change.  Only when we create real change in our society and system will we be able to truly give thanks and experience only compassion and peace in our world.  No matter how difficult the task, we must never stop trying.

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