Facing What We Need to Face

Shabbat Service in Honor of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Jan. 18, 2016


Rabbi Julie Greenberg

Congregation Leyv Ha-Ir~Heart of the City


            Once again, I stand with you here on this potent Shabbat of MLK weekend. I’ve thought a lot about what reflections I wanted to share with you on the sixteenth MLK Friday we are spending together. I’m thinking about what it means to be called into our full humanity.

One of the ways we are called into our full humanity is to face whatever we have to face in life with courage, compassion and grace. Life throws all of us challenges that aren’t so easy to face.



Stressful relationships.

Financial worries.

One of the families I am walking with pastorally has a saying, “It is what it is.” To tell you the truth, that is a slogan I have also used personally through the ups and downs of my life. We don’t always choose what we’re going to have to face, sometimes it just is what it is and we still have to face it. The part we get to choose is How we face what we have to face.

Each of us has our own internal world of coping with what is real. But we are also woven into a web that is bigger than our own selves. We are members of a community, we hold multiple different identities: skin color; able bodied-ness ; level of financial privilege; etc. and we are members of a nation.

One of the things this nation has had a very hard time facing is the gaping wound of racial violence in our history. We wish it wasn’t true. We did not individually create it. And so we have had trouble owning the truth of what is real.

It’s very painful to open our eyes to our own brutal history that is still reverberating today. Literally, in this city, in one building George Washington and Thomas Jefferson signed amazing documents of liberation, while in the building next door their slaves were imprisoned. The very land we built this city on belonged to the Lenape Indians. It’s hard to face the brutality and treachery and harm that our government inflicted or tolerated.

On the other hand, we probably have each had experiences of being deeply moved when an individual or a country can own its painful truth. It matters to me that Germany educates its school children today about the Holocaust so that it won’t happen again; it matters to me that Germany pays reparations for its horrific actions. It matters that after Apartheid ended in South Africa, it wasn’t business as usual. There was a process of Truth and Reconciliation so that people could tell their stories and people were held accountable.

Facing what needs to be faced is not easy and yet that is why this MLK weekend matters. You all know, the point is not to have a fun long weekend, or to white wash the memory of a leader who was not popular in his day. He was jailed and beaten and persecuted and bombed. And eventually assassinated. He was not the darling of the establishment. But he called on America to face what needed to be faced and to make the changes that needed to be made.

He understood, the teaching of the great theologian Reinhold Niebuhr. "Love is the motive, but justice is the instrument." This is a very Jewish idea as well, that only the union of chesed --- huge eye-opening, heart opening compassionate engagement --- balanced with gevurah or din, the force of institutions and law and text books and fair police enforcement can make a good world. Love and Justice.

Taking the title of his book from this quote about Love and Justice, Bryan Stevenson wrote the book Just Mercy which I highly recommend. Bryan Stevenson was a young African American graduate of Harvard Law School when he went to Alabama to work with death row prisoners. Here is the context, as he describes it,

"When I first went to death row in December 1983, America was in the early stages of a radical transformation that would turn us into an unprecedentedly harsh and punitive nation and result in mass imprisonment that has no historical parallel. Today we have the highest rate of incarceration in the world. The prison population has increased from 300,000 people in the early 1970s to 2.3 million people today. There are nearly six million people on probation or on parole. One in every fifteen people born in the United States in 2001 is expected to go to jail or prison; one in every three black male babies born in this century is expected to be incarcerated."

Many of the prisoners he worked with had never had legal defense, they sometimes entered death row when they were still juveniles and many of them had been tried by all white juries for which every black citizen in the jury pool had been struck by the prosecution. Many of the prisoners had come from unbelievably tragic backgrounds such as placement in 19 different foster homes, many of which were found to be abusive. Poverty, racism, sometimes intellectual or mental health challenges, histories of abuse or addiction often all mixed up with bad choices, got people to death row. In some cases, prisoners were found to be innocent and were released after decades in prison and on death row.

Stevenson writes, "Proximity has taught me some basic and humbling truths, including this vital lesson: Each of us is more than the worst thing we've ever done. My work with the poor and the incarcerated has persuaded me that the opposite of poverty is not wealth; the opposite of poverty is justice." 

This has been a year of waking up to racial injustice in ways that haven’t happened in a long time. Here in our congregation we’ve been involved in this awakening. Many of us have learned about our own white privilege, some of us have engaged in our study-action reading group helping white people become anti-racisit allies, and our community belongs to POWER. POWER is turning hope into action and in this way is calling all of us into our full humanity, calling us to face what needs to be faced and to do something about it.

On MLK Monday, the POWER Leadership Assembly will meet at Arch St. United Methodist Church. I encourage you to get there at 3:30 for great gospel and civil rights music. I am happy to say that POWER has built enough POWER to invite the mayor to our events and expect that he will attend. We did invite him and he has committed to showing up. We’ll end the Assembly by blessing him for his new term of office and we’ll count on him to move the city forward towards racial, economic and educational justice.

         A final quote from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., “We are tied together in the single garment of destiny, caught in an inescapable network of mutuality. And whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly.” So next time you feel isolated or hurting or hopeless, remember that you are part of the garment of destiny, being called into your full humanity.

Love is the motivation, Justice is the instrument. And we are the people growing into our potential to face what is real.