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There have been a number of stories that carry the same theme of taking responsibility, of not ignoring injustice, not standing aloof or being neutral in a time of distress.

One: Medical Professionals during a time of Covid

Rabbi John L. Rosove reflects on medical professionals like Dr. Deborah Birx who thought they could do good by staying on the “coronavirus task force” in an intellectual and moral environment that undermined the common good. In his article “Your moral failure is stunning” he writes:

“Listening to Dr. Deborah Birx and the other former officials of the CDC on CNN this past Sunday evening (March 28), their failure of leadership vis a vis the Coronavirus was stunning.”

Though Dr. Birx admitted that the first 100,000 American deaths were unavoidable, every one of the next 450,000 deaths was unnecessary had they taken the lead to advocate national emergency health standards, invoke a number of legislative actions to fund effective action, and to persuade the nation “to join together on behalf of everyone’s best interests and thereby limit the death, pain and suffering.”

Rabbi Rosove bluntly states that their “staying quiet, refusing to speak out, not rallying responsible parties in government and health-care to do what was right on behalf of the American people” was contrary to his understanding of the Judaeo-Christian moral tradition.

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel said famously:

…morally speaking, there is no limit to the concern one must feel for the suffering of human beings, that indifference to evil is worse than evil itself, that in a free society, some are guilty, but all are responsible.

Two: The Murder of George Floyd

This sense that some are guilty but all are responsible came up in the murder trial of Minneapolis Police constable Derek Chauvin. Eric Levenson reported that a number of witnesses expressed survivor’s guilt about what they did and didn’t do leading up to Floyd’s death. Survivor’s guilt lingers because of the possibility of what responsibility might each witness have had in relation to George Floyd’s death?

The high schooler who recorded and shared video of Chauvin kneeling on Floyd said she had lost sleep thinking of what else she could have done.

It’s been nights I’ve stayed up apologizing to George Floyd for not doing more and not physically interacting and not saving his life,” she said. “But it’s not what I should have done, it’s what he should have done.

What more could the high school witness have done without fear that she, as a black teenager, would most certainly have been assaulted, arrested, and perhaps kneed to death herself. Fear froze her, and yet as a survivor, she wonders what more she could have done.

“Darnella Frazier, now 18, was awarded the citation for her courage, the Pulitzer committee said. Her film spurred protests for racial justice around the world and was used as evidence in the trial that convicted police officer Derek Chauvin.”

Teen who filmed George Floyd’s murder given journalism award.

Our Complicity

Rosaliene Bacchus writes her own “Reflections on Our Collective Guilt” – where she states “it would be foolhardy to believe that Chauvin’s guilty verdict is any sign of progress towards police reform.” But it is her pointed questions that ought to make us squirm from any imagined neutrality:

How complicit and guilty are we as a nation in the training given to our police force that has no qualms in eliminating black and brown offenders, however trivial their alleged crime?

Our centuries old, racist, social-economic system extends way beyond policing. This entrenched system determines where we live, the schools our children attend, our access to a healthy diet, the health care we receive, our exposure to toxic air and water, and much more…

For how long can we continue to enjoy the benefits of an unjust and inequitable system and not share collective guilt?

Stanley Hauerwas speaks to this in his prayer “Acknowledging our Debt.”

Three: And then there’s Canada

That’s right: those in the know – who had the authority – did absolutely nothing with the reports by military women who brought forward accusations of abuse. And they “didn’t do anything” since in order to protect women in the military despite numerous investigations, reports, and recommendations. In the theme of not taking responsibility was the shameful and embarrassing excuse-making by the Prime Minister, his chief of staff, and the Minister of National Defence in response to the several years old accusations against the top general and the open secret of sexual abuse in the military. As John Ivison put it:

“It is with great sadness that Canada has announced the passing of the concept of ministerial responsibility.

The cornerstone of the country’s system of government for the past 154 years had been on life support for some time, but it was finally laid to rest at a House of Commons defence committee meeting on Friday, May 7, 2021.”

What does it means to take a Stand?

In the scriptures we are told that we should “not stand around when our neighbour bleeds” (Leviticus 19:16), nor are we to “stand aloof”, as Obadiah 1:11 puts it, for danger of becoming like the people who abuse.

On the day that you stood aloof,
    on the day that strangers carried off [the nation’s] wealth
and foreigners entered its gates
    and cast lots for Jerusalem,
    you were like one of them.

We don’t like to think of ourselves as “just like one of them” – in either of the two cases noted above. The stench of guilt sticks to our soul, and we try our best to rise above.

We know something is terribly wrong, don’t we? In some way we all share survivor’s guilt to the injustice around us. We might do a number of things to assuage this guilt – everything from getting more involved in justice, to escaping by letting ourselves be more distracted in a culture of fabricated outrage.

We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.

Elie Wiesel, Romanian born American Jewish writer, professor, political activist, Nobel laureate, and Holocaust survivor.

The Biblical references are simultaneously clear and open ended. That is to say, it is clear we are not to just stand around or stand aloof in the face of injustice – but how you take a stand is up to you.

How are you taking a stand?

For more on George Floyd’s asphyxiation death see: How many breaths are there in Nine Minutes?