I was inspired when I read about the Concert Across America to End Gun Violence. As a musician myself, I immediately began reaching out to fellow musicians and leaders in my faith community. Could we bring people together, raise our voices in song, and drown out the scourge of gun violence that has enveloped our country? It seemed like a no-brainer to me — but then again, I have been accused, more than once, of naivete and wishful thinking. I was immediately told that gun violence is a political issue that we shouldn’t get involved in. After all, we are a 501c3 and we can’t take political positions.
My first response was: “Really?! Bringing people together against gun violence is a political issue?” And then a trusted teacher responded: “It is political, but not partisan.”
It use to be that faith leaders and teachers could discuss and debate political issues when our sacred texts and traditions offered guidance as to how we should evaluate them. I remember some of my most valuable lessons as a child in Hebrew High School and in my Judaics classes in college focusing on how to understand modern political challenges through the lens of biblical and rabbinic teachings. But today, this has become taboo. Everything has become a partisan issue.
I’m not talking about endorsements or fundraising for a party or candidate, but issues about which Jewish wisdom and prophecy has something to say. Issues like: gun violence, human dignity, equality, fairness, welcoming the stranger, and honesty. Because of our fear of offending or being seen as “partisan” the voices of our prophets have been silenced.
But being political is not the same as being partisan. Politics is a system of governance that is intended to create systems by which we govern and better society. Partisanship is the process by which we build walls to protect our beliefs, our positions and ourselves from outside influence and threats.
When the last of the Judges were serving the nation of Israel the people lost confidence in them and feared that Samuel’s death would leave them without a leader. They looked to the surrounding nations for a system that would provide them the stability they needed. They were asking for political leadership but God warns them that politics often turns to partisanship:
“This will be the practice of the king who will rule over you: He will take your sons and appoint them as his charioteers and horsemen, and they will serve as outrunners for his chariots. He will appoint them as his chiefs of thousands and of fifties; or they will have to plow his fields, reap his harvest, and make his weapons and the equipment for his chariots. He will take your daughters as perfumers, cooks, and bakers. He will seize your choice fields, vineyards, and olive groves, and give them to his courtiers. He will take a tenth part of your grain and vintage and give it to his eunuchs and courtiers. He will take your male and female slaves, your choice young men, and your asses, and put them to work for him. He will take a tenth part of your flocks, and you shall become his slaves. The day will come when you cry out because of the king whom you yourselves have chosen; and the LORD will not answer you on that day.” (I Samuel 8:11-18)
Politics too often become partisan but it need not. We can engage in political activism, debate and discussion without devolving into partisan bickering. God warned the Israelites against a king because God knew that these kings, like so many of our leaders, create partisan divides for their own benefit. Politics, at its best, are when people from different perspectives debate and work together to solve problems. Partisanship is the process by which those problems are created in the first place.
Politics doesn’t have to be partisan. There is a gaping void where our prophetic and political voices use to be. The job of the king in antiquity and our elected leaders today may be prone to partisanship but it need not to rob us of our political will and our moral clarity. We must redouble our efforts to hear those prophetic voices that transcend partisanship and guide us through the ethical quandaries that we face. Jewish wisdom can teach us how to treat all people with dignity. Jewish texts can guide us as we work to reduce gun violence. Jewish sources can inspire us to redeem the captive, lift the fallen and support the widow and orphan. As leaders and members of Jewish and other religious nonprofit organizations we must be able to engage in the political work of building a more perfect union without being paralyzed by the fear that our work is too partisan.