Remembering MLK, Jr. and His Optimism

FDR's grandson at 4 Freedoms rally

FDR’s grandson at 4 Freedoms rally

4Freedoms March

4 Freedoms March

The last week and a half has been filled with action, art, learning, and prayer in response to the impending Hrumph presidency and the social ills it will undoubtedly exacerbate.

On a frigid cold Shabbat afternoon on January 7, I attended the Four Freedoms March and rally in Pittsfield, MA, ending in speeches (including one particularly inspiring one by FDR’s grandson!) about FDR’s commitment to freedom from want, freedom from fear, freedom of speech, and freedom of worship, and how we must continue to guard those freedoms vigilantly as they come under threat.

The next day, Chaim and I visited the massive Nick Cave exhibit at Mass MOCA. Part of it is a response to the collision of gun violence and racism.

Nick Cave exhibit on racism and gun violence. See the gun?

Nick Cave exhibit on racism and gun violence. See the gun?

Two days later I was in Albany for a day of action with Jews for Racial and Economic Justice and scores of other progressive organizations to speak out on behalf of issues ranging from the Dream Act to Medicare cuts to police accountability. It was not a traditional day of lobbying (which I will be doing on January 30 specifically on reproductive rights issues), but more a day of disruption to call attention to a broad range of threats. Our action at state Senator Serino’s office was a “kitchen table conversation,” complete with a fold-up kitchen table (a big piece of cardboard) and hot cocoa on the topic of health care and potential budget cuts.

The kitchen table conversation

The kitchen table conversation

End-of-day rally in Albany

End-of-day rally in Albany

Albany, NY -- children's art honoring Dr. King

Albany, NY — children’s art honoring Dr. King

The rest of the week was filled with calling US senators in opposition to repeal of the Affordable Care Act and nominations such as those of Jeff Sessions as US attorney general and Betsy deVos as education secretary. But it takes so long to get through — I hope that means that hundreds, maybe thousands, of others are calling, as well. If so, keep it up!

On Thursday evening I heard Howard Dean address Williams College students and express great optimism about this generation’s ability to see past color, gender, sexual orientation and create a truly diverse society.

Howard Dean speaking at Williams College

Howard Dean speaking at Williams College

On Shabbat, I led the community in a service in MLK’s own words, matching some of his quotes to our traditional prayers. His last public speech (the mountaintop speech)  was a remarkably optimistic statement about the time in which he lived and how, if God could place him in any place and age, he would choose the country and era in which he already lived:

Strangely enough, I would turn to the Almighty, and say, “If you allow me to live just a few years in the second half of the 20th century, I will be happy.” Now that’s a strange statement to make, because the world is all messed up. The nation is sick. Trouble is in the land; confusion all around. That’s a strange statement. But I know, somehow, that only when it is dark enough can you see the stars. And I see God working in this period of the twentieth century in a way that men, in some strange way, are responding… And another reason that I’m happy to live in this period is that we have been forced to a point where we are going to have to grapple with the problems that men have been trying to grapple with through history, but the demands didn’t force them to do it. Survival demands that we grapple with them. Men, for years now, have been talking about war and peace. But now, no longer can they just talk about it. It is no longer a choice between violence and nonviolence in this world; it’s nonviolence or nonexistence. That is where we are today…

I hear him lifting us up today as we face this specter of Hrumph’s presidency and reminding us that it is an opportunity to grapple and an imperative step on the road to ultimate survival.

Sadly, this was also a week in which Congressman John Lewis, MLK compatriot and civil rights hero in his own right, was attacked by Hrumph. We are compelled, like Lewis, to rise up against this demagogue and his self-serving and treacherous agenda.

Today I saw the film Hidden Figures, a great way to honor MLK Day and the evolution of civil rights for African-Americans and women in this country. See it!

For more on MLK and my visit to Atlanta to visit landmark sites associated with him, see my previous posts “MLK’s Atlanta” and “Fish and Human Rights.”

“I Can’t Breathe” — IMO Eric Garner

BREATH

noun

1. the air inhaled and exhaled in respiration.
2. respiration, especially as necessary to life.
3. life; vitality.
4. the ability to breathe easily and normally.
5. time to breathe; pause or respite.
6. a single inhalation or respiration.
7. the brief time required for a single respiration; a moment or instant.

***

Most of us take breathing for granted most of the time. It enters us and departs as a matter of course, no thought or effort required.

Those of us who have ever practiced mindfulness meditation know what it means to consciously watch the breath in and out, in and out, to keep that as a purposeful focus, letting go of other intrusive thoughts. As a secondary gain of this spiritual practice, we may attain a heightened awareness of the miracle of breath.

There are, of course, those for whom breathing is compromised due to illness or disease, who are regularly attuned to the miracle and vicissitudes of breath. My client Linda Moss, of blessed memory, fell into this category. Her fear and panic about whether she could take in enough air and whether she could catch her breath taught me to stand in awe for each unencumbered breath I am privileged to take. Her courage despite her suffering remains an inspiration — how she lived in that fear, yet continued to take as many breaths as she could for as long as she could.

We worked a lot with the Hebrew understandings of the interconnection between breath/n’shima and soul/n’shama, how God breathed life into the first man (adam), how breathing is therefore symbolic of the God-breath, the vital stuff of life, in all of us. Breath is a manifestation of grace in action, the greatest gift.

If we understand breath to be synonymous with life, the police officer’s callous non-responsiveness to Eric Garner’s “I can’t breathe,” is already a first step toward homicide, long before the coroner ruled it one.

“I can’t breathe” is a terrifying thought. “I can’t breathe” is an even more terrifying feeling.

Undoubtedly, an injustice was perpetrated by the police officer. A further injustice was perpetrated by the grand jury that refused to indict him. So I marched tonight with a few hundred Jews, candles, and signs, to protest, under the auspices of Jews for Racial and Economic Justice (JFREJ) and T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights. We chanted “No justice, no peace” and “Black Lives Matter!”, and shouted the names of Eric Garner and Michael Brown. We recited the Mourner’s Kaddish and sang “Oseh Shalom/May the One who makes peace in the high heavens, make peace for us…” Those who were willing to be arrested sat down in the middle of Broadway at the corner of 96th Street, shutting down traffic moving southbound on Broadway. Twenty-five of our fellow protestors, some of them my friends and colleagues were, indeed, arrested and driven in two police vans downtown to Police Plaza.

This is the sign that I carried tonight, a quote from Proverbs 20:27, "The breath of the human being is the lamp of God," followed by "I can't breathe."

This is the sign that I carried tonight, a quote from Proverbs 20:27, “The breath of the human being is the lamp of God,” followed by “I can’t breathe.”

Sit-in on Broadway

Sit-in on Broadway

Tzedek, tzedek tirdof (Justice, justice shall you pursue) - Deuteronomy 16:20

Tzedek, tzedek tirdof (Justice, justice shall you pursue) – Deuteronomy 16:20

I was shocked and outraged by the failure of the grand jury in Missouri to indict Ferguson police  officer Darren Wilson in the death of Michael Brown just two weeks ago. But New York is MY city, and my shock and outrage is somehow even greater now, because the pain is closer and deeper. As a result,  the injustice seems even less comprehensible to me than that perpetrated in Ferguson.

This is a paradox — if something is already unfathomable, how can it ever be even more unfathomable? and yet, it is. It just is, like the Zen koan that my UU colleague Reverend Meredith Garmon shared with me this morning:

Once I saw mountains as mountains, and rivers as rivers. Then I came to the point where I saw that mountains are not mountains, and rivers are not rivers. But now I am at rest, for once again I see mountains as mountains, and rivers as rivers.

The difference is, I laughed at that paradox. It tickled me.

I am not laughing now. Injustice piles on injustice. I will never be at rest.

 

(see Truah’s statement about Eric Garner’s death by going to http://www.truah.org/who-we-are-general/634-justice-for-eric-garner-a-statement-from-t-ruah.html. You can also see more pictures of tonight’s march and rally by going to the JFREJ Twitter feed at https://twitter.com/jfrejnyc.)