Hate Crime in the Neighborhood

We live in an increasingly polarized society. The hate speech in this presidential election season seems to have ginned up talking at and about one another, rather than talking with one another. It’s been said that prejudice comes when we ‘pre-judge’ without getting to know another’s story and perspective.

Here in Beverly, Massachusetts my friend Alison and I recently hosted an evening of conversation entitled: ‘A Rabbi and a Baptist Minister walk into a bar…’ It was intended as a light-hearted way to enter into the serious work of building bridges of understanding. Alison is the rabbi at Temple B’nai Abraham and I’m on the pastoral staff at First Baptist Church.

Over a glass of beer or wine we invited members of our congregations to write down questions that we’d both respond to and then open up for wider conversation. We gathered to understand and respect our differences. We also quickly found that we have much in common. After an hour or so we said, ‘let’s do this again’!

At the end of the evening it seemed like a modest step in the long journey of building understanding, respect and friendship.

A week later I saw on the news (myfoxboston.com) that Temple B’nai Abraham had been vandalized. A dollar sign and the words ‘Merry Christmas’ were spray-painted in large letters on the exterior walls near the back door of the temple.

Temple B'nai Abraham

“It’s probably a seven on the Richter scale of stupid,” said temple president Alan Pierce. “It’s hateful, it’s hurtful, and it’s something that needs to wake up the community as to why this happens.”

Rabbi Alison Adler said, with other recent incidents of anti-Semitism occurring locally and globally, she was not surprised by the incident.

“Even if it was a stupid decision by someone, I think what we want to talk about… are the underlying things it might cause,” Adler said. “I think the conversation isn’t just going to be about the vandalism, but really about what propels concerns or fears.”

The temple was targeted once before, in 1989, when a swastika was painted on the front of the building, Mr.Pierce said. “We made the decision to cover it over, but not cover it up. Acts of anti-Semitism or racial intolerance or bigotry or gay bashing are happening in the schools and happening in people’s homes and it’s affecting all of us.”

This is personal for Rabbi Alison and her community at Temple B’nai Abraham. It’s personal for me too.

Vandalism has defiled the walls of the beautiful temple just one block from my house. Hate speech has been inflicted upon friends with whom I broke bread and shared a beer just a week ago. It grieves me that Alison and her family who welcomed my wife and me into their home for Passover, are the victims of hate speech with a Christian subtext. This is personal.

passover with Rabbi Alison

What is the antidote to intolerance? I think it begins with moving outside our own circle and recognizing that there is no ‘them’, there is only ‘us’. The antidote to prejudice is getting to know someone from a different circle, with a different perspective.

The antidote is as simple as sharing a meal.

It’s not about building walls it’s about tearing them down. It’s about building friendships. It’s about coming together.  Who are you planning on getting to know?

Channeling Martin

Martin_Luther_King_press_conference_01269u_editWhat would Martin say if he were alive today? Maybe: ‘It’s deja vu all over again?’ On this the birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., we are mindful that as a nation we are in the midst of a curious political season. The leading contender for the Republican presidential nomination is Donald Trump a demagogue who plays upon the ignorance and fears of many. His almost exclusively white followers seem enamored by his ‘us against them’ mentality.

In addition, the great sin of racism continues to be at work. We see it in the prison system where 60 plus % of inmates are black, while comprising only 12% of the population. Thanks to camera phones, we have citizens capturing rogue cops using excessive force and even murder against young black males. While I have no doubt that most police officers conduct themselves admirably, it is hard to deny that the judicial system doesn’t have a bias against people of color, particularly young black men.

Ta-Nehisi Coates in his powerful book, ‘Between the World and Me’, writes to his fifteen year old son. As an African-American father he wants his son to understand that built into the psyche of the American story, is a bias against people of color. Coates believes that most white folk don’t understand it or see it. He wants his son to understand this dynamic and learn to navigate within in it. Those that don’t, points out Coates, ‘too often die young or find themselves in jail’.

What would Martin say if he were alive today? I think he’d call people of all races, religions and backgrounds to come together for the common good. I think he’d call us to stand with the Black Lives Matter movement, which will not let us forget that systemic inequality persists (in the judiciary, economically and politically).

He’d persist in his commitment to non-violent resistance against injustice. He’d challenge our government spending more on the military than the next eight nations collectively, while social services go under-funded. He’d say the answer to terrorism is understanding and addressing the root causes of terrorism, most often rooted in poverty and despair.

And, I think he’d call us to continue to believe in the restorative power of love. “We cannot solve our problems through retaliatory violence. We must meet violence with nonviolence. Remember the words of Jesus, “he who lives by the sword will die by the sword.” We must love those we fear no matter what they do to us. We must make them know that we love them. WE must meet hate with love.”

45 plus years since his assassination Dr. King’s words may seem hopelessly idealistic. But has violence, retaliation and demagoguery made things any better? No, the wisdom of Martin King remains. His Dream still inspires. It is a dream based in the wisdom of ancient sages, with names like Jesus, Amos, Isaiah, Micah, Ruth. Are we listening?