Inextricably Entangled: White Supremacism and Gun Violence: Buffalo, Uvalde and Beyond

The shootings seem to be coming quicker now. Buffalo, Laguna Woods, Uvalde. During that time there was also a shooting on the New York Subway. During that time twenty one people were shot by police. Three of them were unarmed. Of those who were allegedly armed, one was armed with a toy gun, one with a garden tool and one with an unknown weapon. 

So far this year 17, 237 people have died from a firearm. 

660 of those people were under 17. 

554 were killed by police. 

Young Black men are 14 times more likely to die of a firearm homicide than white men.

As of this writing, since Uvalde there have been eight more mass shootings.

We have an interconnected web of problems. A tangle that cannot be undone because its roots are foundational. Our country was founded with a toxic brew of violence and racism – one  which celebrated guns, and valorized military power while purporting liberty. 

There are more guns in private hands in the United States than there are people. These are handguns, long guns, combat style weapons, even 105mm Howitzers. Every person in the United States could be shot by a different weapon, and there would still be weapons yet to discharge bullets. These are the guns in private hands. We don’t publicly worry about the guns in police hands, even though police have used their guns to kill 554 people this year… so far.  In addition their guns end up on the secondary market and then in private hands. 

There are people in this country who are evil and hateful, and to rationalize their evil hatred construct fantastical theories about how Black people and Jews and feminists, and brown and Asian people, and trans people, and lesbian, gay, and bi people, are all coming to threaten them and take away their god given right to run this country or their family or the rotary club or whatnot. They have now typed it all up nicely and called it The Great Replacement Theory. Jews are supposedly orchestrating a conspiracy to import brown people to replace the white people. Jews manipulated the media and the Congress and the banks to pass the Civil Rights and the Voting Rights Acts. And on and on. 

This is all, of course, bullshit. It is just a patina of words on top of old fashioned antisemitism, racism, xenophobia, Islamophobia, homophobia, and generalized fear and hatred of the Other. 

In the 1930s, Nazi Germany proclaimed: the Jews are our misfortune. That is, the Jews were considered a disease and therefore needed to be killed. The Jews also supposedly caused the Germans to lose World War I and therefore needed to be killed. Also the Jews undermined the Aryan blood stock and therefore needed to be killed. You get the idea. So the Nazis invented mechanized mass murder. 

After killing off Native Peoples and stealing their land, and then kidnapping Africans and building the economic power of this country on their backs, white enslavers made up a story about how God had intended the land for White Christians and Africans were only worthy of being enslaved. They edited the Bibles their preachers preached from so it didn’t have the Exodus stories. They made up nightmarish tales about Black people raping white women, inspired by the numerous actual rapes of Black women by enslavers. 

And so all these evil hatreds are not new. It is old wine, old putrid, toxic wine in new bottles. This latest bottle is being peddled not only by folks in sheets, but also with a slight domestication by the likes of Tucker Carlson, who tells his stories about the Democrats bringing in illegal immigrants to vote white people or “legacy Americans” out of power. 

Now, here is where the seemingly inextricable entanglement comes in. Gun violence is behind the genocide of Native Americans. It is mythologized in the story of the colonization of the West. The gunslinger was the hero of this mythology. The gunslinger who in real life actually got his acreage as a handout from the government who had the army steal it from Indigenous people. 

Armed slave patrols and their license to kill anyone they suspected of being a fugitive ultimately evolved into our police forces. 

Kidnapped Africans, who from the beginning attempted to gain their freedom by all possible means, were brutally suppressed by gun, whip, and chain.

From the founding of this country American identity was bound up with the violent use of guns. There was at times a gentlemanly flair that hid the brutality, but as we now all know Alexander Hamilton was killed by Aaron Burr in a duel over a perceived insult, over honor. 

This notion of honor has also been incorporated in the police framing of law and order. Disrespecting a police officer can be deadly. “Contempt of cop” is what cops call behavior by people toward law enforcement officers that the officers perceive as disrespectful or insufficiently deferential to their authority. Think about that. America’s police forces have become (perhaps they always were) armed militias who think that their mission is to occupy rather than protect the most vulnerable populations. 

And also, and equally as important, from the beginning by law and custom, Black people were not allowed to own guns. This changed during Reconstruction and then reverted back during Jim Crow. Martin Luther King’s application, early in his career, for a gun permit was turned down. When the Black Panther Party began openly carrying guns and shadowing the Oakland police force, Ronald Regan became a strong advocate of gun control. Philando Castile was a licensed Black gun owner who was shot by a cop for having a gun, (he had informed the officer about the gun because he was afraid of getting shot by that officer). Gun ownership is part of American identity, which is understood as white American identity.

So we have a violent white supremacist problem because we have a gun problem. We have a gun problem because we have a violent white supremacist problem. 

To be an American today in many parts of the country means to own one or many guns. As we saw in Texas, this American white supremacist ideology is so much part of the DNA of our country that it managed to assimilate a Mexican American kid who bought two Rambo style weapons two days apart, a day after he turned 18, and slaughtered 19 children, and 2 adults. 

We are broken. As a country we are broken. Our hearts are not broken in a way that humbles us so that love, or God, or the light can come in through the crack; our institutions are broken; our polity is broken. 

So how do we move forward? 

A problem that took four hundred years to create will not be solved in a day. There are steps that we can take, and that we can pressure our lawmakers to take. We, in our communities can move to decenter weaponry in our understanding of what it means to feel safe, what it means to “be a man”. This means getting police out of schools. They are ineffective in stopping school shootings, and too effective in the school to prison pipeline. 

It means moving away from militarized and police based security at our synagogues and churches and mosques. There is no good data that shows that guns are especially effective. In addition, having guns, gates, and guards undermines solidarity between communities. This is, in the end, where we have to go. We have to build solidarity with each other. Inside communities and between communities. We have to radically love each other, we have to see the image of God in each other. 

We also have to start getting rid of the weapons and the culture of weapons. It might have to begin slowly. Perhaps universal background checks. Perhaps banning automatic military style weapons.  As many police as possible should be disarmed. The armed forces should not be allowed to transfer weapons to police forces. Ultimately we should aim for a complete ban on the private purchase of firearms, but this will take time. 

“For this command which I charge you today is not too wondrous for you nor is it distant. It is not in the heavens, to say, ‘Who will go up for us to the heavens and take it for us and let us hear, that we may do it?’ And it is not beyond the sea to say, ‘Who will cross over for us beyond the sea and take it for us and let us hear it, that we may do it?’ But the word is very close to you, in your mouth and in your heart, to do it. See, I have set before you today life and good and death and evil, … Life and death I set before you, the blessing and the curse, and you shall choose life so that you may live, you and your seed” (Deuteronomy 30:11-19). 

The sword and the Book are antithetical. 

Choose life. 

Why are we so mean?

On Thursday April 23, U.S. District Judge Terry Hatter granted a motion brought by the ACLU representing several detainees at the Adelanto Detention Center. The judge ordered that Adelanto not accept any new detainees; that they immediately reduce the immigrant population so that detainees can practice social distancing; that the facility complete the reduction in immigrant detainees within a week. This is, of course, happening in the context of the novel Coronavirus and the fear that any infection in the facility would sweep through the whole institution like a wildfire.

The judge in a prior ruling recognizing the detainees as a class, said that the detainees were being held in conditions that are ‘inconsistent with contemporary standards of human decency.’ He found that there is neither enough soap nor cleaning products, and it is impossible for detainees to maintain the recommended distance of six feet with another person. 

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Purim, Proximity, and Radical Love

Purim is hard. The way we usually deal with that is by making it into a children’s holiday and then a frat party for the adults. That way we don’t have to deal with the Purim story and its implications.

If we don’t want to go the children’s party/frat party route there are two adult choices.

On the one hand, the Purim story itself is a dark tale of dubious redemption. As the story ends, Mordecai and Esther have gained the upper hand and slaughtered all their enemies. However, they have only done this at the pleasure of the manipulative and manipulated King Aheuserus. While at the beginning of the story the king gave his ring to Haman with permission to wipe out the Jews, the story ends with the king giving the ring to Mordecai and Esther with permission to wipe out those who might harm the Jews. The rub is that the ring still belongs to the king. It is obvious that sometime in the not too distant future, a new Haman will arise who will seek to destroy the Jews and the king will give him the ring.

The rabbis of the Talmud characterized the Purim story as happening just after the Jews were supposed to be redeemed. Purim is the reckoning with the lack of redemption. For this reason the fourth century Babylonian Rabbi Rava says that one of the obligations of Purim is to get drunk to the point of being unable to distinguish between Mordechai and Haman. In the long arc of history there is no difference as long as Ahaseurus is in charge. We all dance to the same fiddler. We are all caught up in the same system of oppression.

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Getting rid of the culture of the Pharaoh (on MLK and moderation)

Some thoughts that I offered this morning at the SCLC-SC annual Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Interfaith Breakfast. 

One of the two central prayers in the Jewish liturgy, seven days a week, 52 weeks a year, is the declaration from Deuteronomy 6: Hear O Israel, God is our God, God is one. In its Biblical context, this is part of Moses’ long parting speech to the Israelites. After recounting the moment at Sinai, the moment of God’s revelation, Moses reminds the Israelites of their loyalty to God.IMG_1735

The Rabbis embraced this statement as a theological pledge of allegiance. I believe in the one God. However, they also told a story about how this statement, Hear O Israel, originated in a more intimate moment. At the end of Genesis, when Jacob who is also called Israel, is dying, he summons all his children to his bedside. According to the Rabbis, he is worried that they will be swayed by the blandishments of Egypt, that they will be tempted by the power and riches of the Pharaoh, that they will be seduced into the culture of oppression and idolatry. Jacobs children turn to him as one and say: “Hear O Israel, God is our God, God is one.” We will not be seduced into the culture of oppression and idolatry, despite our access to power and riches. Continue reading

A Kavanah [Intention] for the Fifth Night of Hanukah

I was asked to speak tonight at an interfaith gathering which was a memorial for the fourteen people who were killed in the San Bernardino attack, and a chance to come together as a broad and diverse community to reject Islamophobia. IMG_1564This is what I said:

One aspect of the traditional Jewish way of mourning is to recite the so-called Jewish prayer for the dead, the Kaddish. The Kaddish, however, is not actually a prayer for the dead. It is a prayer that glorifies God.

yitgadal ve-yitkadash shmay rabbah. May the name of God be glorified and sanctified. Our tradition tells us that when we say the kaddish, God mourns saying: “They are praising Me, and yet look at my ravaged world.” (Bavli Berachot 3a) God’s tears mingle with our tears. We mourn together. Tonight we mourn the fourteen beautiful souls who were killed in San Bernardino in a horrific act of terrorism. An act that blasphemed the name of God, as all acts of murder do. Unfortunately, we are coming together more and more often to mourn the consequences of terrorist mass killings in the United States. In Charleston, in Colorado, and now in San Bernardino. Continue reading

On Power and Violence (Baltimore, for example)

Watching, reading, and thinking about Baltimore, the killing of Freddie Gray by Baltimore police, and the current nonviolent and violent reactions to that killing, I keep going back to Hannah Arendt. Arendt, in her essay on violence, draws an important distinction between violence and power.

Politically speaking, it is not enough to say that power and violence are not the same. Power and violence are opposites; where the one rules absolutely, the other is absent. Violence appears where power is in jeopardy, but left to its own course its end is the disappearance of power. This implies that it is not correct to say that the opposite of violence is nonviolence: to speak of nonviolent power is actually redundant. Violence can destroy power; it is utterly incapable of creating it.  (Reflections on Violence)

The power that concerns Arendt is the power of political communities. Power is the result of people coming together for political ends. Or as Arendt says: “Power needs no justification as it is inherent in the very existence of political communities…”. However, Arendt here adds a supremely important caveat: “…what, however, it does need is legitimacy.” Power is dependent on legitimacy. This is why violence is the opposite of power. When the power of a political community is legitimate, when it is recognized as legitimate by those who form the community, then there is no need for the violence of domination. It is only when legitimacy disappears that violence takes center stage. Continue reading

Are we still marching with King?

Speaking@SCLCThese are remarks I made at the annual Southern Christian Leadership Conference of Southern California Interfaith Breakfast in honor of the birthday of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

I want to open this reflection with a quote from the sixth century Babylonian Talmud: “Any Sage who is not vengeful or does not hold a grudge is not a Sage.” (Yoma 22b-23a)

Celebrating the birth of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., one might think that I could have found a more appropriate quote than this one. Yet, this is the statement that comes to mind and I think it appropriate. “But wait!” you might object, “Doesn’t Torah say ‘You shall not take vengeance, and you shall not harbor a grudge?!’” This is true. However, the Talmud is teaching us that there is an obligation and a place for righteous rage. The mishnaic Hebrew word for righteous rage is tar‘omet, which has the same root as thunder. The Rabbi who witnesses an injustice and does not burn with righteous rage is not a Rabbi. The Rabbi who does not carry the memory of unjust treatment, and does not rage against it is not a Rabbi. Continue reading

Pursuing Justice (Yes On Proposition 47)

Proposition 47, (which is being called Safe Neighborhoods and Schools), is personal for me. This is not because I will directly and personally benefit from either the reclassification of some felonies as misdemeanors, nor will I gain from the redirection of monies saved to schools and rehabilitation projects. Proposition 47 is personal because California’s judicial system in which I and all Californians are implicated is broken. In our name and by our (in)action the penal system is perpetrating injustices on a daily basis. Continue reading

A Time for Righteous Rage (on Martin Luther King Day)

(Here is my latest post published on Zeek.)

Any Sage who is not vengeful or does not hold a grudge is not a Sage. –Yoma 22b-23a

On the official anniversary of the birth of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr, one might think that I could have found a more appropriate epigram than the one that graces this essay. Yet, this is the statement that comes to mind, and I think it appropriate.

“But wait!” you might object along with the anonymous editorial voice of the Babylonian Talmud, “Doesn’t Torah say ‘You shall not take vengeance, and you shall not harbor a grudge?!’” “This is true,” that same anonymous sage answers, “but it only applies to monetary matters or business dealings or interpersonal relations around material things.” If I ask to borrow your shovel and you refuse, I may not tomorrow refuse to lend you my hose saying: “You did not lend me your shovel.” Nor may I lend you my hose and say: “I am not like you. I lent you my hose even though you refused to lend me your shovel.” In these instances, vengeance is forbidden and grudge-holding is prohibited.

However, there is an obligation and a place for righteous rage. The mishnaic Hebrew word for it istar‘omet, which has the same root as thunder. The Sage who witnesses an injustice and does not burn with righteous rage is not a Sage. The Sage who does not carry the memory of unjust treatment, and does not rage against it is not a Sage.

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