October 2, 2023
We have just completed the 10-day period on the Jewish calendar when we are called on to take stock of our past and set our course for the year ahead. My tradition asks us to recognize where we have fallen short, where we have done harm and to begin an effort to repair the damage we have caused.
Amidst all of the pomp of synagogue services and the joy of family gatherings and good food there is a deep seriousness to these days. Looking at where our actions do not live up to our intent and our words, and looking at the real-life pain we are responsible for is sobering. Trying to view what we need to do differently, and how we need to change our lives asks a lot of us. And those are not the most difficult steps, because recognition must be followed by the work of repair.
On a personal basis, this is difficult.
Year by year I have begun to recognize that the work of repair is not just about me and those I touch directly. It is about us. The communities, cities, states, and nation that we are a part of. More and more I have begun to recognize that the responsibility to repair goes well beyond those things I have directly touched.
But real repair is an impossible task unless we are willing to open our eyes, ears, and minds to see the damage and our individual and collective connection to it.
Actions are taken, harm is done, and we seem unaware even when it is there to be seen. We close our eyes and ears and keep our minds from having to grapple with our responsibility to heal the wounds.
In mid-September the US Census Bureau gave us a snapshot of “Income, Poverty and Health Insurance Coverage in the United States: 2022” We learned that the “Supplemental Poverty Measure (SPM) rate in 2022 was 12.4%, an increase of 4.6 percentage points from 2021… 37.9 million people in poverty…This is the first increase in the overall SPM poverty rate since 2010…25.9 million or 7.9% of people did not have health insurance at any point during 2022.”
And the Census Bureau was able to tell us why the number of people in economic danger had increased; it “can be attributed to key changes in federal tax policy, including the expiration of temporary expansions to the Child Tax Credit (CTC) and the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) as well as the end of pandemic-era stimulus payments.”
In his New York Times column written just days after the Census Bureau gave us this picture, Nobel Prize winning economist Paul Krugman pointed out one more disturbing detail, “It showed that child poverty more than doubled between 2021 and 2022. That’s 5.1 million children pushed into misery, for it really is miserable to be poor in America.”
Krugman also told us why this was happening. “Soaring child poverty wasn’t caused by inflation or other macroeconomic problems. It was instead a political choice. The story is in fact quite simple: Republicans and a handful of conservative Democrats blocked the extension of federal programs that had drastically reduced child poverty over the previous two years, and as a result just about all of the gains were lost…”
Yet, too many of us turn our heads away, or worse blame the victims of our actions for their struggle even when those victims are children.
This is happening today and it has been happening for years. We have refused as a nation, to accept the harm we have caused and allowed to fester, we can ignore the Institute for Policy Studies spotlighting that what is occurring now is just continuing an ongoing pattern of willful ignorance. “That 60 years after the famed March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, where Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., gave his landmark “I Have a Dream” speech, African Americans are on a path where it will take 500 more years to reach economic equality….In 1962,African Americans had 12 cents for every dollar of wealth of non-black Americans. By 2019, African Americans had 18 cents for every dollar of wealth of non-Black Americans. At this rate it would take 780 years for Black wealth to equal non-Black wealth…Black homeownership increased from 38% in 1960 to 44% in 2021, an increase of 6%. White homeownership has increased from 64% in 1960 to 74% in 2021, a 10% increase. In over 60 years, there has not been a bridging of the Black-white homeownership divide.”
The desire to not see how people are hurt because actions taken by me and IN MY NAME and FOR MY BENEFIT was driven home as I recently read Robert Jones’ “The History of White Supremacy and the Path to a Shared American Future.” In A chapter devoted to how people in Tulsa are confronting the history of the Tulsa Massacre he pointed to the words of Bishop Ed D. Mouzenthe preeminent religious leader in Tulsa at that time speaking about the Massacre.
“ Rev. Mouzon’s bold sermon title was “The Tulsa Race Riot and the Teachings of Jesus Christ.” The sermon was a master class in doublespeak. Rather than focusing on white violence, Mouzon’s sermon located the source of the troubles within Tulsa’s African American community. ‘if it is true that our wives and children and the people of Tulsa were threatened with being at the mercy of armed negroes, then the white man who got his gun and went out in defense with it did the only thing that a decent white man could have done.’… he pointed an accusing finger at the ‘bitterest race hatred’ of Black newspapers and a recent visit to Tulsa by W. E. B. Du Bois, whom he called ‘the most vicious negro man in this country.’1 He denounced the contemporary KKK but explicitly justified its nineteenth-century actions and raison d’être….
“’We Christian white people have not expected enough from the colored people who worked for us. We have allowed all sorts of pilfering to go on in our kitchens; and we have winked at immorality in our servants’ rooms. We would not have allowed white servants to do these things; but we put up with our colored people when they are openly guilty. And we have not expected the law to be enforced in such places as “Little Africa.” “Little Africa” had become one of the blackest spots in Oklahoma—and we all knew it…. In “Little Africa” were low dives where black and whites, men and women, mingled freely. I insist that we must have a higher standard of decency and morality for these colored people who live in our midst.”
Reading these words left me shaken but knowing how important learning about our past was critical because what happened then continues to shape today if we do not do the work of repair. But the discomfort of this process seems too hard for too many. In laws being proposed and passed across our nation, we see the effort to block any teaching that leaves us uncomfortable because that discomfort will shake the status quo.
The desire to prevent us from having to consider the sins we have committed, the sins we have benefitted from, is so strong that it is being cemented into our legal structure. In 2022, Florida enacted its infamous “Stop Woke” act under which cannot be taught about the past in a manner that causes them to “ feel guilt, anguish, or other forms of psychological distress because of actions, in which the individual played no part, committed in the past by other members of the same race, color, sex, or national origin.”
Without an unvarnished picture of the past, repair is an impossible task. None of us like to see ourselves that clearly, I cringe when I think I have caused someone harm. We excuse ourselves; we claim ignorance; we protest that we had no bad intention; we blame the victims and we absolve ourselves from responsibility. All this as a way of not having to take responsibility and thus without that responsibility not having to repair the harm we have caused. We are remiss and we are certainly responsible. I wonder if we, as a nation, are capable of rising to this challenge. Societally we seem increasingly unwilling to recognize our history and the wounds that remain open because of the harm that we have done. And those of us whose lives have been made better because of those harms too often refuse to recognize that, even if we personally did not directly hurt others, because we have benefitted, we are responsible..
This is a big ask. It will require us to grapple with the difficult issues of reparations and return. It will require us to understand that we may end up needing to give up some our comfort and security, our sense of ease because the assets that make thaose feelings possible are not really ours. But as big as this ask is if we fail to take it on seriously and not dismiss it out of hand because it makes us uncomfortable we have failed the moment.