Coronavirus task force, Do not just stand around, Do not stand aloof, George Floyd, Leviticus 19:16, Moral Failing, Obadiah 1:11, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, Some are guilty all are responsible, Survivors guilt, Take a stand, What does it mean to take a stand?
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.
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?
On another forum, I wrote about our postmodern neglect of the ‘Minor Prophets,’ who are in fact anything but ‘minor!’ Thanks for the Obadiah quote, I need to re-read that little Book. I shall never regret my student days exegeting, from the original, books like Amos, etc. Amos, though uncomfortable in its message, has remained special and relevant for me all these years. But let me not dwell on the past, but rather resolve, the Lord helping me, to take my stand on whichever issue I’m faced with TODAY!
Thanks for keeping me on my toes, Rusty, and blessings to you for telling it ‘as it is’ when so many churches and institutions are compromising and like salt without saltiness.
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R.H. (Rusty) Foerger said:
What a gift to have been with the (so called) minor Prophets so thoroughly. When I saw the link between the three stories, the Obadiah passage came to memory (one of the times that I’ve read through the Bible I dedicated myself to memorizing at least one passage from each book of the Bible; this was the passage from Obadiah). The notion of becoming like an offender by apathetic by-standing still gets to me. I can’t remember the source that “there are no innocent by-standers” – I am sure there is a context to this, but I think it rings true – especially in these three stories. Well my friend – let us be found faithful.
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Rosaliene Bacchus said:
Rusty, thanks for sharing my post. Taking a stand requires courage. With neutrality we can remain secure in the shadows.
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As usual I appreciate the sensitivity of your writing on all things of spiritual importance. I’d like to make three short points, one of agreement, one of disagreement, and one of expanding your thought.
First, I agree, those who stood by as Floyd slowly had the life drained out of him will need to find redemption and healing. I think most of us would have froze in a time like this, especially when those who are deemed authorities in society are already on the scene, and are participating themselves in an evil (this includes the other officers who were there). I especially felt horrible for the young man who called the police after Floyd passed the fake $20. He thought he was doing the right thing. How could he have known what was to happen? I am sure this will haunt him for many years, poor child. I hope someone close can help him.
Second, however, I have come to reject the notion of systemic racism in the police force. I think this is not a helpful narrative, because the facts simply do not bear it out, and, it also leads to yet another kind of demonization of a group of people. If blacks have been demonized in our society, the answer is not to turn around a demonize another group, even if in the past there were legitimate problems of injustice within that group. I also would want Christians to remain sensitive to the difficulties of law enforcement (or military life) that are very real and incredibly complex. We want to make sure never to generalize too quickly, lest we lose sight of the individuals in a group. Finally, many grafters and opportunists use narratives like “systemic racism in the police force” as a means to personal gain: they too are complicit in injustice, and should be called to task. Charles Taylor in his book “A Secular Age” (pg. 683-684) speaks incisively about how Bolsheveik-style ideologues use victimhood as a weapon to create an enemy that they can label as purely evil, while they claim pure innocent. But that is a tactic, not reality.
Third, and in part due to point two, I would suggest that not only must we take on some of the responsibility for evil in our society (as Ezra does in Ezra chapter 9), but we must also see that we could, if put in those same situations, be the one who does the evil. The only thing that keeps us from being a Derek Chauvin, or better said from doing what he did, is our allegiance and loyalty to Christ and our continued pursuit of sanctification. We would all like to believe we would do better in situation x,y, or z, but I think you and I would agree that that is by no means certain. My hope then would be that as we see injustices in the world, the first thing we would do is double down on our efforts to live Christ-like in our most immediate circles of influence: our family, our friends, and our neighbors. That we would live fruitfully where we can really have a concrete influence and impact seems the right road to fixing what we can, while also leaving that which we cannot fix in God’s providence.
Thanks Rusty, God bless you.
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R.H. (Rusty) Foerger said:
Thanks Anthony – I really appreciate your thorough response and insights. Let me respond in kind:
One: I agree that if I was there – it is likely that I may have been in disbelief about what was happening – wondering what could I do in that situation. I read that the young man working the till expressed remorse for having called the Police on the counterfeit bill. He said he could’ve prevented the death had he not called: https://www.startribune.com/testimony-at-derek-chauvin-trial-triggers-talk-of-expectations-for-retail-workers-to-stopping-theft/600040852/.
Two: Though I didn’t explicitly suggest “systematic racism in the police force” – I do agree with the quote by my friend Rosaliene Bacchus who questions our communal complicity “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.” I take this as a perspective given from 30,000 ft, as it were, to look at trends re: policing as it relates to racialized groups. In Canada where I live, our “Truth and Reconciliation” process exposed the trends of over-incarcerating Indigenous peoples, and we are trying to have our police services do their important jobs differently. I think that is fair and needed. https://moreenigma.com/2015/06/13/truth-and-reconciliation-the-long-work-of-doing-and-undoing/.
I agree with you: I am not interested in demonizing any group, let alone the police (in which I have friends and relatives). In the very next breath though, I would want to have us take responsibility for shaping a service (not a “force”) meant for public peace and good order. My friends and relatives in police services may be the harshest critics from the inside who may not feel as free as I do to openly comment on the “inside” work cultures. But I get your point, and I suspect nuance is lost in my “rant” to have us take responsibility. I cringe at the notion of “defund the police” (for example) – for if policing is costly – one must imagine how much more costly no policing would be. Thanks for your reference to the ever insightful and quotable Charles Taylor.
Three: Of course you are right: we need to walk more humbly so that we would “also see that we could, if put in those same situations, be the one who does the evil” (it rather speaks to the banality of evil, and our communal potential to do it). This is sort of what I was getting at with the Rabbi Heschel’s quote: “some are guilty, but all are responsible”, and echoed in the ending with the passage from Obadiah. The three cases I highlighted point to “others” – but I take your point seriously – that this would be said whilst looking in a mirror. Again, thanks for your comments; I appreciate them.
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One might want to consider atrocities as having ‘happened long ago’ and believe that, or therefore, humanity could/would not permit them to happen again, in much more modern times. I, however, doubt that is the way large-scale societies — let alone border-segregated, independent nations — necessarily behave as wholes.
After 34 years of news consumption, I’ve noticed that a disturbingly large number of categorized people, however precious their souls, can be considered thus treated as though disposable, even to an otherwise democratic nation. When the young children of those people take notice of this, tragically, they’re vulnerable to begin perceiving themselves as beings without value. When I say this, I primarily have in mind Black and indigenous-nation Canadians and Americans. But I know it happens worldwide.
While their inhumane devaluation as people is basically based on race, it still somewhat reminds me of an external devaluation, albeit a subconscious one, of the daily civilian lives lost in protractedly devastating war zones and heavily armed sieges. They can eventually receive meagre column inches on the back page in the First World’s daily news. (To the newspaper owners/editors, of course, it’s ‘just the news business and nothing personal’.)
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