Sermon for MLK Service

Sermon for MLK Service
January 14, 2011

If Rev. Reid was here, the first thing he would have done is look at his watch and say, “In the next three minutes and 45 seconds…” After generating a great laugh, he would then go on to deliver a brilliant and inspiring sermon in that relatively brief time. I am not Dr. Reid and cannot hope to deliver a brilliant sermon in three minutes and 45 seconds. I do hope, however, to impart a timeless message in ten to twelve minutes. So please indulge me for the next few minutes of this service.

This has been a very sad week for our country. A deranged young man went to a shopping center in Tucson where he murdered six people and wounded thirteen. We join tonight with millions as we pray for the recovery of critically wounded Congresswoman Gabrielle Gifford. The good news is, as President Obama has reported, she has now opened her eyes. There is some optimism that she will recover.

As the President recently said, “None of us can know exactly what triggered this vicious attack. None of us can know with any certainty what might have stopped these shots from being fired, or what thoughts lurked in the inner recesses of a violent man’s mind.” The President is correct. We can never really know what went through the mind of this very sick man. I am not so sure, however, that the political climate did not have an impact upon his actions. Of one thing I am certain. I know that hateful words lead to hurtful actions.

We recently visited Rabin Square in Tel Aviv and stood on the exact spot where a young, deranged, right wing Jewish assassin murdered Prime Minister Yitzchak Rabin in 1995 just as he finished his speech at a huge rally for peace. If you recall, Israel in those days was split between the left, those who endorsed the Oslo Accords, and the right, those who did not want to give up any settlements on the West Bank. The political right, including the Orthodox religious establishment, said the most hateful things about Prime Minister Rabin. They even went so far as to call him a Nazi. Right wing political cartoonists portrayed him as Adolf Hitler. The political atmosphere was filled with hate. The religious and political right made Prime Minister Rabin out to be their enemy. He was no longer a human being. For them, he was someone to be destroyed. In retrospect, it is not surprising that a young ideologue performed that perfidious deed. While he alone was responsible for that egregious crime, those whom he respected, his rabbis and leaders of the Settlement Movement, planted within him the seeds of hate.

By the way, the memorial to Prime Minister Rabin does not mention the murderer’s name. It simply refers to him as “the murderer.” In our Tradition, one who commits a heinous crime does not deserve to be acknowledged as a human being. In Judaism, we say, “Yemach Sh’mo,” may his name be erased. He is not deserving of recognition. So it is with the shooter in Tucson.

The political climate in our country is horribly divided between left and right, red state and blue state, Republican and Democrat. The best thing we can say today is that the racial divide that so concerned Dr. King is not nearly as noticeable as it used to be. The political rhetoric on both sides of the aisle has been hateful. Our airwaves have been poisoned by vile words. Of course, technology is driving much of this repulsive rhetoric. As Robert Wright recently wrote in the New York Times (January 11), “It isn’t just that people can now build a cocoon of cable channels and Web sites that insulates them from inconvenient facts. It’s also that this cocoon insulates them from other Americans — including the groups of Americans who, inside the cocoon, are being depicted as evil aliens. It’s easy to buy into the demonization of people you never communicate with, and whose views you never see depicted by anyone other than their adversaries.” We are making our political opponents into the enemy, the other whom we objectify. It is not a huge step to go from objectifying a person to eliminating them. After all, if they’re not really human, what difference does killing them make?

In our Torah portion for this week, God parts the Sea of Reeds so that our ancestors were able to escape from their Egyptian captors. After the Israelites had reached the other side, the sea closed upon their pursuers, drowning each and every one of them in the depths of the sea. Upon seeing this, the angels in God’s heavenly court began celebrating until God cried out, “How can you sing while my creation has been destroyed?” During our Passover Seder, we remove one drop from our wine cups for each of the Ten Plagues. How can we drink from a cup of joy when human beings, even our enemies, have died? After all, they are people, too.

We have forgotten that fact in this country. Our political opponents, no matter how much they differ from us, are people, too. They want the same things we do for our children and our families. Saying hateful things about them will only lead to harmful consequences.

I have read practically everything that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. has written. Nowhere did he utter even one hateful or disparaging word about his adversaries, those who persecuted African-Americans and upheld segregation. Dr. King and his supporters were set upon by dogs, beaten with whips and chains, and mercilessly abused by Southern whites. Not one word of derision passed through their lips. They understood that the key to victory, to the equality of African-Americans, was the recognition by White Americans of their shared humanity with Black Americans. Instead of hate, Dr. King espoused non-violence and love. I refer again to his “I have a Dream” speech, “But there is something that I must say to my people who stand on the warm threshold which leads into the palace of justice. In the process of gaining our rightful place we must not be guilty of wrongful deeds. Let us not seek to satisfy our thirst for freedom by drinking from the cup of bitterness and hatred. We must forever conduct our struggle on the high plane of dignity and discipline. We must not allow our creative protest to degenerate into physical violence. Again and again we must rise to the majestic heights of meeting physical force with soul force.”

We can learn from Dr. King. His words resonate among us yet today. May we learn from him that hateful speech leads to hurtful actions. May we remember that even those who politically oppose us are still human beings?

Amen and Shabbat shalom

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