Becoming

God’s Call for Racial Justice — From Discernment to Bold Action: The Biblical Role of Fear and Courage

“At the first conference on religion and race, the main participants were Pharaoh and Moses… The outcome of that summit meeting has not come to an end. Pharaoh is not ready to capitulate. The exodus began, but is far from having been completed.”

This is how Rabbi Abraham J. Heschel began his speech on Religion and Race 1/14/1963.
He goes on to say:

“In fact, it was easier for the children of Israel to cross the Red Sea than for a Negro to cross certain university campuses. Let us dodge no issues. Let us yield no inch to bigotry, let us make no compromise with callousness.”

The work for racial justice done by Moses and his brother Aaron was perhaps the earliest example of going boldly in service to God. For them, like for many of us, the thought of walking the path of racial justice seemed scary. Before they actually took the incredibly bold action of making demands on the supreme leader of all their race’s slave masters, Pharaoh (a man who was thought to be a God,) Moses went through a lengthy discernment process beginning with his encounter with the burning bush. Here we see examples of fear, perhaps trembling as he finds all sorts of reasons to turn away. Moses asked God:

“Who am I that I should go?  What will I say or do?
What if they do not believe me or listen to me?
I’m not capable enough. Please send someone else.”

Fear was an essential part of this discernment process. It provided a stop, an opening for God to include Moses’ brother Aaron in the anticipated action as a partner and spokesperson. How often do we ask the same questions or feel alone; forgetting we have a brother or sister in the struggle?

Fear and trembling can be very important to feel and name. It can deter action by signaling a need to think more deeply, to wait until all the right people and pieces are in place. Until the calmness of light and peace is achieved, a stop could be necessary. How often do we need to turn away or argue with a leading before we begin?

Rabbi Heschel continues:

“Religion and race. How can the two be uttered together? To act in the spirit of religion is to unite what lies apart, to remember that humanity as a whole is God’s beloved child. To act in the spirit of race is to sunder, to slash, to dismember the flesh of living humanity….  A mere thought, {race} extends to become a way of thinking, a highway of insolence, as well as a standard of values, overriding truth, justice, beauty. As a standard of values and behavior, race operates as a comprehensive doctrine, as racism.”

Two of the most spiritually charged words in the Bible that clearly articulate this call and commitment to action are; “Ayeka” (where are you?)  and “Hineni” (Here I Am). Hineni does not mean “I’m here” in the roll call sort of way (that would be “Po ani”), rather it is specifically an answer to a spiritual call.

Each time hineni appears, it indicates a spiritually critical moment, a time to act or reject the call. The first hineni is said by Abraham responding to God’s call in the story of Abraham’s near-sacrifice of his son Isaac.  Later, when God calls to Moses from the burning bush, Moses also answered “hineni.” Samuel said it, Isaiah said it when God was searching for a leader and volunteered himself with the beautiful words: “Here I am. Send me.” It is as if in that one word, Isaiah and those before him were saying, “I am ready to go boldly in your [God’s] service.” What about us? Are we ready?

Rabbi Heschel called for a course of action in his June 16, 1963 telegram accepting President John F. Kennedy’s invitation to a gathering of religious leaders to discuss civil rights issues:

“Likelihood exists that Negro problem will be like the weather. Everybody talks about it but nobody does anything about it. Please demand of religious leaders personal involvement not just solemn declaration. We forfeit the right to worship God as long as we continue to humiliate Negroes. Church synagogue have failed. They must repent. Ask of religious leaders to call for national repentance and personal sacrifice. Let religious leaders donate one month’s salary toward fund for Negro housing and education. I propose that you Mr. President declare state of moral emergency. A Marshall plan for aid to Negroes is becoming a necessity. The hour calls for moral grandeur and spiritual audacity.”

Are we ready to answer hineni, here I am, and demand personal involvement, spiritual audacity, not just solemn declaration?

Sometimes hineni is preceded by “Ayeka”. In the book of Genesis, sensing God’s presence and feeling shame after eating the forbidden fruit, Adam and Eve hide. God calls out, “Ayeka, where are you”? (Genesis 3:9) This could be the 1st rhetorical question because of course God knows, but it is Adam and Eve’s challenge to figure out where they really are, their mental and spiritual intentions, which is what matters.  Adam and Eve could not break through their shame and fear to say hineni so instead of answering “Here we are,” Adam only gives a poor excuse for hiding.

Rabbi Heschel, in his January 14, 1963 speech, said:

“The way we act, the way we fail to act is a disgrace which must not go on forever. This is not a white man’s world. This is not a colored man’s world. It is God’s world. No man has a place in this world who tries to keep another man in his place. It is time for the white man to repent. We have failed to use the avenues open to us to educate the hearts and minds of men, to identify ourselves with those who are underprivileged. But repentance is more than contrition and remorse for sins, for harms done. Repentance means a new insight, a new spirit. It also means a course of action.”

How are we acting or failing to act to remedy racism?  How are feelings of shame and fear, the need for repentance, helpful and when do they get in the way?

God asks Adam and Eve “Where are you?” just as we are being asked.  Are we ready to come out on the other side of fear with the courage and faith to take bold action?

Rabbi Heschel: in God in Search of Man p. 137):

“When Adam and Eve hid from His presence, the Lord called: Where art Thou (Genesis 3:9). It is a call that goes out again and again. It is a still small echo of a still small voice, not uttered in words, not conveyed in categories of the mind, but ineffable and mysterious, as ineffable and mysterious as the glory that fills whole world. It is wrapped in silence; concealed and subdued; yet it is as if all things were the frozen echo of the question: Where art thou?”

How do we begin to have “a total mobilization of heart, intelligence, and wealth for the purpose of love and justice”?

Full text of Rabbi Abraham J. Heschel’s speech on Religion and Race 1/14/1963 may be found here 

Full text of Rabbi Heschel’s telegram to President Kennedy 6/16/1963 may be found here 

by Rachel Carey-Harper,
Barnstable Friends Meeting; a Preparative Meeting of Mattapoisett Monthly Meeting

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