08 January 2011

Let's Save Ourselves from Ourselves

We knew it would come to this.

At some point, the anger in our nation about its direction, the state of the economy, a sense that things are slipping away--has been moving across the land like a runaway train.  We've watched and read about rallies where the President is dressed as Hitler; we've heard about Unconcealed Gun Rallies in Starbucks; we've seen U.S. Representatives spat upon and reports of Congressional offices vandalized in some of the most partisan political attacks since the Civil War. 

Rising early this morning to get my fill of the news, to try to understand what exactly is happening in America, I read with sadness about the continuing battle over immigration rights in Arizona.  On the opinion pages of the New York Times, critic Adam Kirsch wove together the Republican's farcical reading of the Constitution on the House floor (their edited version neglected to mention that at the time of its composition, African Americans were only considered 3/5 human) and the decision to exclude the word "nigger" from a new version of Huckleberry Finn.  It's a fine essay, worth reading.

Before I begin leading services each week for our guests who've come to hear a kid become Bar or Bat Mitzvah, I say a few words about the ritual, about Judaism, about why we gather to read Torah and say prayers.  Today I thought about Kirsch's essay; I remembered studying Huck Finn with my friend Allen in high school, laughing our way through it, and then going home after school to study the New Republic, and attempt to understand what was wrong with the world then, in early 1980, on the brink (or so it seemed) of nuclear war.  We had a social studies teacher who used to open the storage closet and give us books and I remember the day he gave me a copy of the Federalist Papers.  "This will come in handy some day," he said.  "There are some people out there who have some twisted ideas about what this stuff actually means.  Study up."  That's a good teacher.

One of our members ushering this morning is a constitutional lawyer.  At a quick glance I noticed the seven or eight African Americans were guests at our service.  And so I said:
"It's been an interesting week.  Republican leaders chose to read an edited version of the U.S. Constitution on the House floor but their version neglected to include the designation that African Americans were once considered, by the same sacred document, to be only partially human.  Admitting the fallacy of the document would be a blow the very Originalists whose agenda to transform America would be damaged by such an admission.  Sacred documents, ancient and modern, are meant to be interpreted.  There is a theological case to be made for Progressive Revelation and it's perfectly valid to make the case that we are always in the process of discovering greater truths about human existence.  So the Bar Mitzvah student this morning will be reading an unedited version of Torah.  He will wrestle with the brutality of the Exodus story, the killing of the firstborn in Egypt and God's role in hardening Pharaoh's heart.  These are difficult texts, but they are meant to engage us so that in every generation we can find their truths for our time."
Afterward, at kiddush, someone said to me they appreciated the comments before and during the service.  "I felt like I was in college again, treated like an adult with all the difficult ideas that religion presents." I thought of Levinas' famous essay, "A Religion for Adults," and the centrality that responsibility must play in the construction of religious societies.  And democratic societies.

Watching House Speaker Boehner flounder through an interview with NBC newsman Brian Williams, and prevaricate about the Birthers and their outrageous views that President Obama is not in fact a US citizen, the House Speaker committed the ultimate sin of irresponsibility:  "Sure Obama's a citizen, but I won't tell others what to think."   

And that is precisely the problem.  We knew it would come to this.

When news came in today (as I was finishing Shabbat lunch with my daughters) that US Representative Gabrielle Giffords had been shot at constituent event, practicing democracy; when it was revealed that Federal Judge John Roll was murdered; and that several others were either dead or in critical condition, it becoming abundantly clear for our generation that we were now officially living in our own harrowing time of dissension, division, danger and violence.  The Civil War; Vietnam; and now our time, threatening to divide the country, destabilize its government, place in the cross-hairs of a semi-automatic weapon (wait to will uncover the trail leading the sale and trade of that weapon) a sitting member of Congress whose office has already been vandalized for her pro-health care reform vote, who was the object of violent threats digitally preserved in some lunatic's Twitter account, and the Judge who fell beside her, singled out with death threats himself for his support of immigrants rights--we knew it would come to this.  As much as it pains us to admit it, we knew it would happen.

We Americans live remarkably unrestrained lives.  We live in the immediacy of our own narrative bubbles.  The unalienable rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness are the God of Individuality we worship to such an alarmingly perverse degree that we have lost the ability to collectively recognize the danger and the evil of the unleashed anger among us.

"Sure Obama's a citizen, but I won't tell others what to think" is a statement of the greatest political cowardice we have heard spoken by a national leader in quite some time.  And he said it this week, on national television.  More concerned with victory than with justice; more focused on winning than on helping the lives of others; this empathic shedder of crocodile tears should have said that though he came to power on a wave of anger that he himself is responsible for, we ought to realign our national values around shared ideas, cooperation, patriotism, freedom and justice for all.  Frankly, news that House Democrats plan to unleash their own partisan attacks should not cheer us up, unless, at the very least, they are continually vetted for reasonableness, historical accuracy, decency, and aspirational values.  Don't hold your breath.

We're a mess.   And we knew it would come to this.

We teach in the synagogue a truism of Judaism that has bound our people for generations--and in practice, I can tell you from first-hand experience, it's not easy to realize:  "Each Jew is responsible for one another."

At this stage in our history, with our country's democracy under threat of violence, can we say the same thing?  Do Americans feel a sense of responsibility to one another or has our devolution begun?

My girls and I read the news account and then we pulled the books off the shelves--battles over the Constitution at ratification; violent outbursts during the Civil War.  I wanted to convey that we fight these battles as a nation and the good and truth, so far, have prevailed.

Today, however, I masked my fear.  And reminded myself as we learned, that the recitation of the facts of history and the engagement with our sacred texts and sacred narratives would win out in the end.

Truth and Justice are the American way.  Right?


Mark Twain wrote a word that helps us understand the dehumanization inherent in a document that only claimed a man was not in fact a man but said that the one who was a man had the right to own a gun.  And amendment that made 3/5 a man was raised this week by Justice Scalia in the outlandish claim that the Constitution doesn't inherently protect the rights of women, gays, and lesbians.  And on the day of rest, a lunatic with a semi-automatic weapon that he had the "right" to possess, took aim at the sacred ideas embedded in the Constitution.

Originalists be damned.  We have an argument on our hands.  And the future of our nation lies in the balance.  Let's save ourselves from ourselves because whether we like it or not, we're all responsible for each other.


Jack Kaufman said...

I agree with the sentiment and direction of this piece.
I also think accuracy is important. The Constitution did not define African-Americans as 3/5 a person. It said that the slave population should be counted that way to determine population upon which representation in Congress would be based. It actually was a compromise that deprived the slave states of their wish that slaves be counted a full persons in order to give them even more control of the House of Representatives. If we go back to 1789, it was a victory for liberals.

Alex said...

And in addition, there is another dead child in America tonight, the loss of a nine year old child who was presumably brought there by his/her parents to be taught, to witness, democracy in action. My husband came home and I told him "they" shot a congresswomen in Tucson today, and he asked, "they?" Yes, I said, they, because although they would never dream themselves responsible in their cozy beds tonight with their children close and safe, people of power have fomented and enabled this tragedy. The NRA has enabled this tragedy. Why is it that mentally unstable leftists don't ever shoot politicians? Is it because they don't have guns? I have kissed my child at least 100 times since I heard this news. As I look out at the sun setting over the pristine mountains of my wild wilderness home, I feel lucky. Lucky to be safe from the lunatics, but unlucky to feel so powerless in the face of so much ignorant hate. I am sick. It's times like these when even the unobservant look to their rabbi to make sense of it.

Rich said...

Andy - what a perfect word to capture just what our society has lost, "reasonableness". We've lost our way and people need to keep sounding the alarm bells about this as you have done if we are to find our way back. Our children deserve better than what we are on a path to leave them. From the international space station today, the congresswoman's brother-in-law said, "We're better than this. We must do better."

So true.