I'm going to frame my comments by quoting two biblical texts, but first I want to say something I think is really important. Silence is assent.
I have long known about some of the factors that have led us to the situation are are in today: the re-segregation of society, the 30 year long so-called war on drugs and the cost it's had on communities of color, the increased paranoia of post-9/11 America, with its cutting corners on the constitution, and the militarization of the police.
But I've been mostly silent about all that, and silence is assent.
Something happened to me when I watched what happened in Ferguson. I've been to demonstrations in my life, but never have I seen a sniper on an armored personnel carrier aiming a loaded assault rifle at a largely peaceful crowd. When I saw what happened to Mike Brown, and the community's response, and the police's – and I know that's not the only place; when I heard about some of what the African American community has had to face in St. Louis County – the traffic stops, the fines, the petty and less petty hassles - and I know that's not the only place. I thought, I can't be silent anymore. I can't assent to this anymore.
My thoughts went to Deuteronomy 10:
And now, O Israel, what does the Lord your God demand of you? Only this: to revere the Lord your God, to walk only in His paths, to love Him, and to serve the Lord your God with all your soul... Cut away, therefore, the thickening around your heart and stiffen your necks no more. For Adonai you God is God supreme and Lord supreme, the great, the mighty, and the awesome God, who shows no favor and takes no bribes, but upholds the cause of the fatherless and the widow and befriends the stranger, providing him with food and clothing. You too must befriend the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.
Cut away the thickness around your heart. Don't stand there when so much injustice is being done to to your neighbor, to your countryman, to your brother. Don't blame people for being poor, or for unjust traffic stops, or for getting shot in the street. Don't blame Mike Brown for what happened to him. Open you heart. To the white people here tonight I say: cut away the thickness of your heart – feel your neighbor's distress.
But don't just feel it – do something. For God “shows no favor and takes no bribes, but upholds the cause of the fatherless an the widow and befriends the stranger, providing him with food and clothing.” It is in acting for justice for the stranger, for the person we don't know, that God's presence is felt, and known.
I can't solve the drug war, or the militarization of police, at least not tonight, not this week. But you know what I can do? I can befriend the stranger. I reach out to my neighbor. I can promote more interaction, more conversation. I can show up with my voice, and I can withdraw my consent.
My second text is also from Deuteronomy, 16:20: Justice, justice you shall pursue. Because there's a principle that not a word in Torah is wasted, the commentators spend a lot of time trying to figure out the meaning of the repeated word “justice.” Some think it's a repetition for emphasis, some think there are different kinds of justice involved. But tonight, I interpret that line to be “black people standing up for justice, and white people standing up for black people standing up for justice.” Because racism is a problem created and sustained by white people, and it can't be addressed until we address it. By not being silent, by withdrawing consent, by reaching out to the stranger, by working to make sure that this epidemic of black deaths in America ends. Tonight. And don't just wait for it – justice doesn't just happen, you have to pursue it, you have to make it happen.
I pray that tonight is only the first step toward addressing this issue as a community. Let us all, black and white, work for the day when there is there isn't black justice and white justice but an American justice, for all, when each individual will be treated as b'tzelem elohim, created in the image of God, Let us truly work for the day when a person will be judged not by color of their skin, but by the content of their character.