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Thought Of The Week

Shabbat Works
Pursuing Justice

Pursuing justice, it turns out, is much harder than it sounds.

The shooting in Ferguson, MO, of an unarmed black teenager with his hands up by a white cop - wait, or was it a shooting of young man who had just feloniously assaulted a police officer, who fled arrest, and then charged at the police officer again? I have scoured news reports. It turns out that eyewitnesses are saying completely contradictory things, versions of what I just wrote, and many things in between. As I search news reports, nearly everything reported gets reported differently somewhere else. One report says that journalists were unjustly arrested and roughed up. Another tells that said journalists defied police orders to film and report only from a given assigned area, so that violent instigators could be singled out.

Do I think police are capable of unjust arrest and roughing people up? Unquestionably. I've seen it with my own eyes and been a hair's breadth from it happening to me. Do I think reporters are capable of defying legal police orders and provoking law enforcement? I think yes, here, too.

The truth is not somewhere in the middle. The truth does not hide in a safe, noncommittal place. The truth does not depend on your narrative. Your narrative definitely shapes what you see and remember, but things actually happen outside our pre-constructed narrative. Our narrative interprets what we see, hear and read, mostly in order to reaffirm its own biases. In this case, I have read broadly, and checked claim after claim, as vast incriminations have been leveled and, in my opinion, egregious analogies have been offered. As I say often to myself: I could be wrong. Let me check out what people are saying.

This is what I am hearing: pain, frustration and rage. In my counseling, I often witness pain, frustration and not a little rage, of one person toward another. And the pain, frustration and rage create some of the most hurtful accusations and incriminations imaginable. I am not shocked anymore. People looks for words, ideas, and even make up facts to match their emotions. I have often had the experience of listening to a person's detailed complaints; complaints that make the other person look like an ogre. Then the other person responds. I ask the first: is this response accurate? Oftentimes, the complainer agrees it is accurate, at least for the most part. The raging pain roiling in the ego self decided to leave that part out in their telling.

Rhetoric does not help. I have seen fine, smart people look for just the right phrase lambasting their spouse or child. They often get an A for composition and delivery, and an F for wisdom.

I have spent years trying to understand the often-dreadful experience of the descendants of African slaves in the United States, partly as a thoughtful citizen, but mostly, I think, from my personal life. Most of you have heard my stories of growing up white in Compton. I was the only white kid in a black and Hispanic band of elementary and junior high brothers. I remember wishing that I were black, or at least Hispanic (all lumped together as "Mexicans" in those days). You may recall my telling of my friend Daniel Lee who singly faced down a race riot, aimed at me. You have heard of my best buddy in the Marines, Tee Cooper, an angry and raging Black Muslim, who found a way for us to be friends ('since I am an Ishmaelite, and you are a son of Isaac, we are like cousins, descended from half brothers'; so went his rather Talmudic reasoning dictated by love for a buddy).

My friends watched with horror as the white people left were violently driven from Compton, and even greater horror as the newly arrived Crips and Bloods turned that violence against their own community. Years later, when I moved off base while stationed in Okinawa, my three roommates were African-American fellow Marines, much to the consternation of each of our racial fellows on base, who freely offered their less than flattering opinions of our selection of living partners. Racial tensions were high in those days, very high, and we often spoke into the night on what was happening. I saw how racially biased officers treated my roomies. I got it. I think I was the first white person they opened up to. My friends from Compton and my buddies in the Marines still live vividly in my heart. I identified with them.

The frustration and pain, and even rage, of my buddies back in those days were a microcosm of feelings that characterize large swaths of African-American culture today, and of many non-blacks, as well. The pain and frustration that leads to the rage is based in something real. Understanding that reality, pursuing truth, is, however, incredibly difficult. Understanding what has happened in our recent history, and what is happening now, and what to do about it defies facile understandings.

Understanding American social history, and especially the experience of African Americans, does not allow for the simplicity that often lies behind rage. I often hear the need for a "conversation"; this implies people talking -- and listening. I can't even imagine how a real conversation could take place. I would love to be a part of it. A civil, non-raging respectful conversation, rooted in facts and not rhetorical flourishes, in shared values, not vitriol.

Of the series of tragedies recently witnessed, here is one rather small but significant thing I have not seen noted. In all the governmental calls for justice for Michael Brown, for respect for first amendment rights of protestors and reporters, I don't recall any prominent government official saying an obvious and necessary word about another aspect of justice: that Officer Darren Wilson is presumed innocent until proven guilty.

Any person who is sincerely interested in justice, who sincerely wants a "conversation", would remind us of this, even if just in passing, in my opinion.

Pursuing an agenda, no matter how righteous and called for, is not the same as pursing justice. A conversation that purses an understanding of justice, what is fair and right and true, and not just an agenda, requires rationality, rectitude, and circumspection, an understanding of all relevant facts, clarification of values, and a willingness to break from our narratives, when truth requires it. This goes for a family, as well as a nation, in pain.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Mordecai Finley


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