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Thoughts on Ferguson and Michael Brown

Friday, November 28, 2014

Rabbi Mark Shapiro


This is what has occurred to me of late: We take a great deal for granted. I'm not referring here to the standard Thanksgiving mantra that reminds us how "thankful" we ought to be for the blessings of family, friendship, and the very simple fact that we almost never need to go hungry.


For us, stuffing isn't only the tasty mixture we devour on Thanksgiving. Stuffing is what we are able to do almost any day of the week. We ought not to take for granted how we are mostly able to stuff ourselves any day of any week. Everyone knows this, and, at our best, we know we should be thankful for the plenitude of America.


What has occurred to me of late about taking matters for granted, however, goes elsewhere.
The process began four weeks ago when we read the Torah portion Lech Lecha. This is the Torah reading in which Abraham hears his first words from God. God tells him... Lech Lecha... Get up and go from the place of your birth, the house of your father... and head out towards a place I will show you.
Of course, this new place will be Canaan, the Land of Israel, and we know Abraham's journey will be the journey that launches Judaism.


But here's what occurred to me as I thought twice about God's command to Abraham: Lech Lecha... Get up and go. Get up and travel. What did that really mean? In a world without Holiday Inns... in a world without MapQuest... in a world without highways... in a world without electric lights or restaurants... in the ancient world where most people probably didn't journey more than ten miles beyond their birthplace in their entire lives!
In such a world, what did the command to Abraham really mean? We take for granted that Abraham was born in one place and then moved to another.
In Abraham's lived world, however, that journey was astonishing! It required courage and faith that boggles the mind. Heading out the door the day Abraham left home was almost like walking off a cliff. It was like Christopher Columbus: heading off to a world truly, truly unknown.


We ought not to take this story for granted.
Nor should we take the opening story of this week's parasha for granted.


This time around it is Abraham's grandson, Jacob, who heads off on a journey. Having swindled his brother, Esau, out of their father's blessing, Jacob has to run away from home and Esau's anger. That is why, at the beginning of this week's Torah portion, Jacob finds himself alone in the desert as the sun sets.


Again... no GPS... no motels... no roadside diners... no electricity to light up the night. Jacob is alone... and it occurred to me of late... Jacob must be terrified. The Torah has already told us he is a homebody. In last week's Torah portion, we've learned that he rarely went out into the world. Now he is in the middle of nowhere, which means that if we read the story seriously, we need to imagine how uncertain and alone Jacob must truly feel.


In that circumstance, then, I read the promise he received from God in a dream with much greater sensitivity.


Suddenly, I realized how significant the words of God are for Jacob.
Sure, he is promised that he will continue the line of Abraham. He will be father to a great nation.
But that's not what Jacob really wants to hear underneath the great night sky in the wilderness.
Here are the words that must matter most: "Remember, I am with you. I will protect you... I will not leave you... "
I will protect you.
That is what Jacob wants and needs in the middle of the night: protection and security.
That is what most of us have both night and day.


That is what I realize this week of Ferguson, demonstrations, and memories of Michael Brown we take for granted.
As white people, we take for granted that we will almost always be safe... and protected.


African Americans do not have this luxury.


They do not hear Jacob's blessing about protection.
On the contrary, they walk through the night (and even the day) suspecting that violence can happen anywhere and anytime.
And they are not wrong.
It is dangerous in America to be black.
Even if Michael Brown created some of us his own trouble, even if he had robbed a convenience store just before his encounter with Office Wilson, even if he punched the officer, Michael Brown's odds of getting himself hurt were against him hours before the incident ever took place.
As a black man waking up on the morning of August 9, 2014 even before he got out of bed, Brown was a marked man. Statistically speaking, he and his African American friends were and are more likely to be stopped by the police, to be suspended from school, to be suspected of mischief when they enter a store, and to be arrested.


Members of the African American community know this.


That is why they don't speak about DWI... Driving While Intoxicated. They speak and laugh ironically about DWB... Driving While Black or WWB... Walking While Black.


This past Tuesday I participated in a conference call organized by the Reform movement's, Religious Action Center out of Washington DC. A representative of the NAACP spoke and explained how much we whites take for granted.


He told us about the difference between the messages received by white and black children.
He said the children of white parents are told: If you're on the street and something happens to frighten you, look for a policeman and run to him as fast as possible.
This is as opposed to what the children of black parents are taught.
Black parents caution: If you're on the street and something scares you, whatever you do - DON'T RUN.
The same African American told us what his father taught him when he gave him his first car. (His father, by the way, was a successful business person so he could afford to give his son a car.)
His dad said, "Whatever you do if a policeman stops you, keep your hands in plain sight at all times. Don't argue. Don't be sassy."
For those of you who remember the show, Leave it to Beaver, his father told him, "Play Eddy Haskell." That is to say, be as obsequious and flattering as you can be lest you get on the wrong side of the law.


Living like this and raising our children like this is, of course, contrary to what we do as white parents and white people. We take for granted how safe and how privileged and how white our world is.
Even if we don't imagine God protects us literally, we are fortunate to feel that we are essentially safe in our homes and on the streets. We live as if God or someone is promising, "I am with you. I will protect you...I will not leave you..."


And that's what I take away from this sad week of politics and grand jury decisions this week.


Regardless of the details in the Michael Brown case, there is something wrong in America. What we need to do is hope and pray and advocate so that our African American brothers and sisters can believe in fairness and safety.


The real Thanksgiving promise isn't that we can eat a lot.
The real Thanksgiving promise is that we in America are safe and protected.
That's a blessing that everyone ought to feel is their birthright.
That's the blessing which America needs to offer tonight and always.

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