Congress returns to work this week for the first time since blood was shed in Charlottesville. In the ensuing weeks, our country has been roiled by historic storms and deadly floods, rank dehumanization and pointed bigotry, deepening fears of yet more violence. We are battered. We are exhausted. We are grieving.
We have taken heart in the kindness of neighbors and generosity of strangers; even in a time of polarization, Americans still find hope in one another. This was evident when many mosques, synagogues, and churches opened their doors to neighbors seeking refuge as the rains came down and Harvey’s floodwaters rose.
Since the Charlottesville violence, there has been a reckoning and much public reflection about race in America. The result: The sense that business as usual cannot continue.
Many municipalities have expressed a sudden willingness to remove celebrations of the Confederacy from our public spaces. The impetus to tear down statues, rename highways, and put flags away is a blessed one, long overdue, a welcome effort to atone for national sins of omission and commission against African American citizens. It is not now, nor will it ever be, remotely enough.
As they return to work, our elected representatives need to understand that ultimately the anger they are seeing is far less about statues than it is about policies and action. We prefer concrete action to heartfelt statements, no matter how profound. Matthew 7:5 instructs us to be wary of our own hypocrisy, and to “first cast out the log out of your own eye; and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your neighbor’s.”
The war launched to preserve the enslavement and plundering of black lives was lost and the Union preserved more than 150 years ago – but in the intervening 15 decades, African Americans have continuously faced structural oppression, institutional bias, abuse and brutality. If we are to build a more perfect union, we must do much more than grapple, however honestly, with the symbols of white supremacy. We must undo its legacy, root and branch, and build justice in its place.
It is true that leaders from both parties have condemned the white nationalists who gathered in Charlottesville last month, and have called on the president to unequivocally condemn white supremacy and neo-Nazism. CEOs and leaders of business and arts organizations have resigned from government task forces in response to the president’s ongoing coddling of white supremacists.
But unless and until we act to dismantle policies that allow white supremacy to flourish, unless and until we enact policies that promote justice and equality, thoughts and prayers will be little more than hypocrisy.
As clergy, we refuse to be silent as people in our communities continue to face threats based on the color of their skin or the manner in which they pray. Micah 6:8 teaches us “to do justice. To love mercy. And to walk humbly with your God” – these are active, not passive, pursuits. We are enjoined to seek and create the change that our world so desperately needs.
For Americans, this means the protection and promotion of voting rights; it means an honest reckoning with the school-to-prison pipeline and a reversal of the choices that have led to unprecedented mass incarceration; it means deconstructing the structural inequities that create educational disadvantages, early mortality, and generational poverty.
Will our country’s political leaders rise to meet these challenges? Will they confront our past and work to uproot bigoted policies that embolden hate, allow the dehumanization of neighbors, and undermine our democratic foundations? Will they repent for their silence in the past and in the present? If they fail to do so, they will be complicit in the damage that American bigotry wreaks.
What comes next? We the people must hold those elected to represent us accountable for their actions and inaction. We must hold ourselves to a higher moral bar as well.
Our message to Congress is clear. Do not wait until hate comes to your town to condemn it or root it out. Words alone are insufficient. A new agenda, based on inclusion, empowerment, and opportunity for all is required. To condemn white supremacy but perpetuate policies that entrench inequality is unacceptable.
Rabbi Jonah Pesner is the director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism and Senior Vice President of the Union for Reform Judaism. The Rev. William J. Barber II is the National President and Senior Lecturer of Repairers of the Breach and co-chair of the Poor Peoples Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival.