Protesting in God’s Wake

American streets, long hushed by our ongoing pandemic, suddenly pulse with protest. There are chants and cries, grief, and rage, too. A new crisis is upon us.

As a society, we can absorb the blows of injustice for a long time. We might try to repair occasional wrongdoing, even accommodate standing inequities. But there comes a time when the corruption of our values, and the hobbling and fracturing of lives through racism and abuse of power, no longer seem a violation but are routine.

We are in crisis because George Floyd’s death – following close upon other horrors and the ongoing insult of the disproportionate suffering from the Coronavirus in communities of color – while shocking, follows an old pattern. Even as much is still unknown, George Floyd’s death demands a response. When a man wearing the uniform of service and a badge promising integrity, a person armed by the state to protect others, a police officer trained to leverage his power for calm and safety — when such a man presses the life out of another already cuffed with a knee upon his neck for nearly nine murderous minutes, toleration expires.

In the Bible, the prophet Amos indicts our people for gross injustice. He begins, “The Lord roars from Zion and screams in fury from Jerusalem…” With these words the prophet voices God’s protest when our ancestors debased the Torah’s exalted ideals. Amos speaks, too, to America today. Protests roiling Minneapolis, Milwaukee, and cities all over are a roar of righteous anger and a furious scream for justice. We know the world is marred – and always has been – by pitiless violence. Sadly, this is familiar, and God decries it all. But the promise of this country is too great, and our failure to uphold our ideals too glaring, to permit complacency. The new protests call on all of us to face America’s distinct brand of systemic bigotry and racial oppression, with police brutality only one of its common forms.

Democracy gives us tools to harness our heartbreak. We can bring dignity and security to all. By assuring legal accountability, by redrawing the bounds of what we will tolerate, by conquering fear, by rectifying inequities, by digging deep for compassion, we as Americans can make change. As Jews, we must trust the Torah’s vision of a just society and heed its command to realize it. As a community of faith, we must hear God’s roars of condemnation and screams of protest, whether they emanate from the Bible or the strained throats of our fellow citizens. We must protest. Some of us may take to the streets. More of us may advocate otherwise, working with government officials and community organizations. Still more of us may quietly seek to increase peace, cultivating soil long hardened by suspicion, hoping against hope for trust, love, and prosperity to flower. In these ways and more, we must protest.

Tragically, the present protests include property destruction and looting, though most are free of mayhem. I am torn between an awareness that rioting is a new violation that makes things worse, often bearing no honest relationship to protest, and a humble recognition that trauma and despair often play out in uncontained ways. The violence needs to stop, and we all must do our part.

Our goal is not to quell protest, but to allow it to continue. Protest is action and the action we need is nonviolent, principled, creative, and sustained. I pray that our congregation, together with our whole country, will join God’s insistent roar of dismay.

May we also emulate in every way we can the gorgeous acts of empathy, solidarity, and love between officers and protesters, circulating now in the media and on social networks. They are a model for us all. And for those who wish to support existing efforts, consider a donation of money, time, or expertise to organizations providing direct and grassroots support in your local community.

May this pandemic be remembered, of all things, as the dawn of a new era of fellowship and justice.

About the Author
Rabbi Joel Alter has served Milwaukee's Congregation Beth Israel Ner Tamid since 2018.
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