As I write these words the reverberations of two events that occurred nine days apart in June continue to be felt in our nation.
On June 17, nine members of a Bible-study group at AME Emanuel Methodist Church in Charleston, SC were brutally murdered in an act of unvarnished racial hatred. Just yesterday, after mounting public pressure and heated debate, the state legislature of South Carolina voted to finally take down the Confederate battle flag, that divisive and offensive reminder of slavery, that stood on the ground of the state-house for fifty-two years and which was perceived as a special affront to the memory of the victims in the Charleston shooting.
On June 26, the Supreme Court of the United States recognized a constitutional right to equal marriage, clearing the way in all fifty states for consenting adults to marry, regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity. Meanwhile, couples seeking marriage licenses in a number of southern localities are being turned away by clerks who are intent on defying the Supreme Court’s decision.
What an extraordinary time it has been for our nation. On one hand, we have witnessed a massive sea-change in attitudes towards equal marriage that culminated in the Supreme Court decision, notwithstanding the mean-spirited and, at times ugly, dissent of four justices.
On the other hand, we witnessed in Charleston a chilling eruption of gun-violence motivated by blind hatred and prejudice, putting to rest the oft-heard assertion that we live in a “post-racial” society.
How disorienting it is to feel oneself swept back and forth between polarities of grief and joy; what a sobering challenge it is to try to make sense of the larger implications of the expansion of liberty, as manifest in the Supreme Court’s ruling, and the bitter reality that a racial divide runs through our society which too many simply refuse to acknowledge.
While it might seem that these issues are only tangentially connected, I believe otherwise.
The issue of equal marriage and the enduring and insidious legacy of slavery and racism both speak to the manner in which we Americans choose to perceive, or misperceive, one another.
I found it especially moving to hear veteran civil rights leaders like Julian Bond tell the African-American community that it should feel justifiable pride in having paved the way for the expansion of civil rights that equal marriage represents. I was equally moved by an essay written by Orthodox Rabbi Avi Weiss about the Bible study class he attended at AME Emanuel Church and how--and why--the Charleston Nine were included in his recitation of kaddish for his late father.
I frequently have occasion to remind fellow Jews that Judaism forbids us to despair of the world. Alas, that advice is decidedly easier to give than it is to take to heart. But my belief in the perfectibility of our world is one of the foundation stones of my Jewish identity; and so I look for the essays, listen for the voices (often expressed in song), sign the petitions, and seek ways to motivate others...all in the service of buttressing my will to do my part to move our vexing, phenomenal, heartbreaking, uplifting world incrementally closer to the world we so desire.