The atmosphere in two of our island faith communities has been charged with challenge and hope and reconciliation and renewal. Two weeks ago, Christians and Jews, folks on a spectrum of color, gathered to share in a Freedom Seder on the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. It was an evening of recognizing a difficult and painful history, of recognizing how far we have come and how far we need to go in the journey toward wholeness in all our relationships across racial and faith boundaries. It was an evening of “learning in the presence of the other.”
During the following weekend many members of the predominantly white Christian congregation engaged in a “Seeking Racial Justice” workshop over the span of a day and a half, learning more about the internalized social constructs that provide the medium for the growth and nurture of racism - and how we unconsciously perpetuate them.
Over the weekend of April 13-14-15, an island delegation of white Jews and Christians, intent on building a stronger and healthier working relationship between our two congregations, journeyed together to Atlanta, Georgia, to share in Shabbat services at The Temple, to do community service together, planting a community garden, to worship together at Ebenezer Baptist Church, the home church of Martin Luther King Jr.
The trip emerged out of the deep friendship between the pastor of Ebenezer Baptist and our beloved pastor here on the island and out of the personal friendship between our rabbi and our pastor. These friendships have become like leaven in our island faith community as they seek to strengthen the bonds of relationship between congregations across racial and religious boundaries.
Meanwhile, back at home, in a service of worship in solidarity with the Jewish and Christian contingent in Atlanta, we were exposed to the problematic lectionary text in the Book of Acts 3 where Peter, the pre-eminent leader of the early Jesus movement accuses his fellow Jews of killing Jesus, holds them accountable for handing Jesus over to Pilate, and calls them to “turn toward God and repent...”
A careful examination of this part of our sacred text demands that Christians come to terms with the shadow that moves through our scriptures. It demands that Christians consciously work at recognizing the terrible suffering and damage that was set in motion by the texts as Peter’s words were transmitted down through the generations. Our 1st century faith ancestors used harsh, ugly, accusatory words against their cousins, brothers and sisters and friends. They set in motion a devastating legacy that would reach far into the future. They wrote their words down and the words were passed from generation to generation creating a poisoned soil not unlike the legacy of the poisoned soil of racism we have inherited over the last 400 years. Carried beyond the context of the 1st century struggles for religious identity under Roman oppression, Peter’s words would become texts of terror for later generations of Jews as the epithet of “Christ killer” became useful in rallying crusades, expulsions, forced conversions, property theft, pogroms - eventuating in the horror of the holocaust and in the up-tick of anti-semitism we are witnessing world wide today. It is very hard to come to terms with the shadow side of our own scriptures, but the words are there and cannot be denied. Relationships between Jews and Christians are still burdened by fear and suspicion, by guilt and lack of understanding. The terrible consequences of portions of our own sacred texts are still waiting to be fully healed. There is so much repair work still waiting to be done.
The great power of the last couple of weeks of focused concentration on the legacy of racism and antisemitism that burdens our life together has been that we are learning to be together through the pain of truth telling; learning how to consciously do the work required to move from the Egypt of mere tolerance and acceptance through the Wilderness of respect and affirmation into the Promised Land of solidarity and the ability to act and work together in a way that brings about genuine change.
In the midst of everything that threatens to undo us racially, politically, socially, and religiously, it is good to be reminded that the strenuous work of remembering our history, of taking up the burden of the brokenness and pain it has caused, is being done in pockets here and there around the country. Tikkun olam, the healing and repair of the world is in progress. We all have a role to play as the work continues, however small the increments. Perhaps the work will never be truly finished. However, we are blessed by the compassionate and challenging words from Pirkei Avot (The Wisdom of the Fathers): You are not obligated to finish the work, but neither are you free to desist from it. It is entirely possible that in working together across the boundaries of faith and color, enduring the unpleasant truths and the awkward moments and creating something new together is the way we enter into the Beloved Community.