I had a conversation this week with a friend who is a rabbi in a reformed Jewish tradition. We think alike about many things, while at the same time we have disagreements that reach to the core of our identities if we were willing to let such thoughts escape. But we don’t. We talk of things we hold dear, things we hold in common, things that unite rather than divide us. It’s better that way. There is a gentle grace when civility and respect become the ground rules of conversations and relationships. We joke. We laugh. We speak of critically important matters.
I asked him about the weight of oppression and prejudice that are leveled at him because of his faith and heritage. He admitted that he has always felt the burden of hatred that is shouldered by those who live in a minority. The fact that it is a “way of life” doesn’t make the matter any easier to bear. He told me that he often chooses to suffer in silence rather than burden others with the angry hatred that comes his way. When I asked, “How often do you get hate mail?” His response was poignantly brief… “every day.” He told me that his silence is one of the ways that he protects his wife and family from the brutality of misguided and harmful thought.
Why does anyone have to live like that? Why does anyone have to feel the constant sting of hatred? Why do we let oppression still rage in our land? Why are most of us not engaged in efforts of reconciliation and justice? I have to believe that until the “pronouns” get changed, nothing gets changed. As long as we talk of those whose faith, race, gender, or ethnicity is different from ours as being “them” and not “us,” we remain stuck in a dangerous place. Until we begin to affirm the inescapable and powerful links of our common humanity, we will never feel that “we” are suffering. It will still be “them.”
There is only one planet to share and only one destiny toward which we are drawn. The plight of every man must become my plight. The suffering of every woman must become my suffering. The oppression of every minority must become my oppression. For until I join myself to the pain, I will never ceaselessly strive to make it better. I cannot afford the luxury of a privileged posture which keeps me from addressing the problems of “my” world. None of us can fully enjoy the euphoria of freedom until we help bear the responsibility of lifting oppression from the shoulders of others.
My mind remembers the words spoken in 1968 by Edward Kennedy in praise of his recently-slain brother Robert … “My brother need not be idealized, or enlarged in death beyond what he was in life; to be remembered simply as a good and decent man, who saw wrong and tried to right it, saw suffering and tried to heal it, saw war and tried to stop it.” (Memorial Service for Robert F Kennedy — June 8, 1968 at St. Patrick’s Cathedral, New York).
Would that such words could be spoken of us … that we saw darkness and tried to illumine it, saw hatred and tried to reconcile it, saw oppression and tried to lift it, saw injustice and tried to solve it. It is long past time for us to begin talking and living in better ways. It is one thing to pray, “Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” It is quite another to give expression to that prayer. For those of us who live in the grace of freedom, may we be willing to become shackled to the responsibility of working to set free those who remain the prisoners of oppression.
Dr. Jon R. Roebuck is executive director of the Institute for Innovative Faith-Based Leadership at Belmont University in Nashville, Tenn.