I was talking to a friend who’s getting ready to teach an Advanced Placement (AP) English class at a high school here in Alabama. She said that one of the themes she intends to explore with her students — through reading, cinema and writing — is power versus powerlessness.
She’s already identified transformative personalities who, though powerless at the start of their journeys, gained power over their oppressors through personal sacrifice, courage, loyalty to their beliefs and their moral authority. A devout Christian, she’ll be teaching at a Christian school so she is excited about framing Jesus’ life and ministry within this context.
Two others she plans to study with her students are Birmingham Civil Rights leader Fred Shuttlesworth, a pivotal figure during Alabama’s turbulent racial era 50 years ago, and South Africa’s legendary and indomitable leader Nelson Mandela. Horrible and oppressive things were done to both of these men and, my teacher friend believes, the confidence and made-of-steel determination that they derived from surviving these challenges are what propelled them to become transcendent leaders, fearless idealists of mythical stature.
In fact, she added, it’s kind of like the story of Israel and the Jewish people. Motivated by an insatiable desire for reading and learning, she has come to see that the entire Jewish journey, from biblical times until today, has been one of the Jewish people overcoming powerlessness to prevail against seemingly insurmountable odds.
The Jews — tested by adversity and tragedy, time and time again — collectively developed the same steel-like determination that great leaders have, she believes, and have been buoyed by a fierce determination to prevail and an enduring belief that we will.
One only has to look at the Jewish experience during the last century, she contends, from the Holocaust to the power and achievements of the Jewish people and Israel today, for one of history’s most dramatic and inspiring transformations.
My friend also remarked that she continues to be awestruck by the strength and unity of the Jewish people and our connection with and responsibility to one another, especially here in our small Jewish community in Birmingham, and our devotion to Israel’s well-being.
The saga of the Holocaust, and then the extraordinary Jewish achievements and attainment of power just a few decades later, will be things she’ll focus on in her class. Plus the “Jewish story” is something she wants her young Christian students to better understand and draw upon as a source of inspiration.
As Jews, we too often take our miraculous story for granted, losing sight of our collective achievements as we go about our day to day lives. That is why it was so nice and uplifting for me to hear our story proclaimed, celebrated and so movingly-framed by this Christian friend.
She, like many Christians here in Alabama, is wonderfully supportive of Israel and the Jewish people, have a deep admiration for all that we’ve accomplished, and have a reverence for our faith and traditions, based on their study of the Bible and being profoundly affected by the fact that Jesus was Jewish.
Shuttlesworth, Mandela and others have changed the world, and so have we, the Jewish people. The Jewish journey from powerlessness to power, cloaked by God’s presence and guidance, and then our using our power humanely and for the betterment of mankind, is a story that should be taught and studied — and in this case, here in Alabama, I am glad it will be.