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In my childhood, I loved the movie An American Tail. It’s an animated movie, the main protagonist a young Jewish mouse celebrating Hanukah with his Mom, Dad, and sister. The dad tells the story of the American dream. Homes for all, food everywhere, and because they are all mice characters, he says the best thing of all is no cats! Its set in 1885 in Russia and then they leave to New York. Refugees coming to America during violent times. While the movie does not mention it, this was during the reign of Tzar Alexander III, known for his oppressive policy of censorship and restricted public spending; as well as many restrictions on the Jewish populations.
It gets me thinking now of immigrant experiences who for whatever reason come to America in search of the American dream. And in this time of year we can seek wisdom on this situation from the rich tradition of the Jewish high holy days. Rosh Hashanah, which celebrates the story of creation and happens to be the Jewish New Year, and Yom Kippur which is a day of atonement. Today in particular I would like to focus on Yom Kippur.
The story of Yom Kippur focuses on a particular moment in Exodus. After the escape from Egypt, in the wilderness, Moses goes to receive a holy covenant from God. He’s gone for 40 days. Some of the people, tell Moses’s second in command, Aaron to make a new God, as they are uncertain what happened to Moses. Aaron collects Golden earrings to then make a golden calf. To which they then the next morning dance around and worship it as their God. God… well God is furious. And sends Moses back, and Moses pleads that God does not wipe them off the face of the Earth. God agrees, Moses goes back, he gets angry and slams the original Ten Commandments, shattering them and bam. Moses and one tribe then go off to kill those three thousand who chose to worship the calf. The atonement, an annual ritual, asks God’s forgiveness for that breach of trust, love and devotion.
What can we Unitarian Universalists learn from this holiday, this sacred story, this annual communal ritual? In my quest for further understanding, I looked to some modern sages, Rabbis, Jewish theologians and biblical scholars. I learned much but two in particular I want to highlight.
Stephen A Geller- A Semitic language scholar, has a key point about how, the issue with the Golden Calf, was a matter of people having just been freed, then letting themselves be commanded, and losing their freedom. Going back to their traumatized relationship. This reminds me of something common in abusive relationships, Where the abused goes back to the person they were abused by. I once heard that sometimes the abused leave and go back seven times before leaving for good. Abusive people are manipulative. And on a societal level, many people of the right wing seem to yearn, nostalgically for a time past of peace, but in reality it was a time of abuse. While white supremacy and white privilege certainly harm and oppress people of color, from the time of pilgrims against Americans Indians; the time of legal slavery against black people and Jim Crow laws; and the whole time against immigrants who labored anywhere from infrastructure to farm over the past two hundred years; white supremacy also impacts white people. Harms the spirit, it harms relationships. People may yearn for a nostalgic time, but in reality it was a time of abuse.
Second, Dr David Carr, a biblical scholar talks about how the golden calf event was a breach of covenant, that this is an anti-covenant with God. Covenantal relationships, we Unitarian Universalists have certainly adopted a covenant with each other in this congregation, and others in the faith, as well as to the world.
There are several ways then to interpret this story of the Golden calf. But, especially in the context of young Fievel from the animation American Tail, which fantastically represents immigrants who came to America looking for a better life, especially the Dreamers, as he didn’t get a visa nor go through immigration. A representative of those who wanted peace, a good life. In this context I take the story of atonement to be more than just praying towards repairing relationships with the divine in ritual, but that action of solidarity speaks louder than words.
We have a highly individualistic culture in Unitarian Universalism but our seventh principle, recognizing the interconnected web of existence, as well as our sixth principle- the goal of world community- show that we must think outside of ourselves. I also firmly believe that individualism is a huge component of white privilege, which is a driving force of white supremacy. In many cases the needs of the one seem to supersede the needs of the many. It is something to atone for.
In our service today we have recited an antiphon or litany for atonement. I absolutely love it, it is near and dear to me as a sacred text. It says much but a few key points. We have sometimes left the sacred gates of righteousness in our hearts and minds closed, neglecting what is important. It says how we are children of one family, that we are not perfect, we have bitter resentments and old hatreds. That we sometimes think we know more than we know, and put too much value on material possessions. That we need humility. That we are children of the universe. We ask for peace in our hearts, refreshed spirits, and to rededicate ourselves to the tasks which remain before us to make the world a better place.
Today, as we together atone, for our individual and communal nourishment, as we strive to bring the beloved community into existence, let us remember the lessons of high holy days.
Do we in our fears panic and rush inward for safety? Have we seen it in others? Over the past year I certainly have. Some say that the fascism of the past year is new. Many found it heart breaking, and thought it surprising what has happened this year. Yet a Unitarian Minister James Luther Adams, born 1904, and died in 1994 can teach us much. I have a special reverence for him. In his essay “A Faith for the Free”, he recounts the few years he lived in Germany during the rise of fascism in the early 1930s. He was asked to teach his experience during World War II to U.S. Army Officers. They condemned the Nazis fervently, self-righteously. Yet he reminded them, America is the same. To paraphrase- How is American racism any different? I did a sermon recently, talking about Lewis Sinclair- who had 14 points to identifying fascism, and America (in my opinion) has actively been fascist since its inception, and has gotten worse over time, especially the last fifty years. It didn’t matter if we had a democrat, or republican in office for President or majority in the house of congress.
I think of my heritage as a Puerto Rican, we who are citizens because of World War I and the need for more drafted Soldiers. Because the colonization was maintained, we have not suffered like our latinX cousins. LatinX being a phrase used to include Transgender and Queer latinos, without the need for gender specific binary. We could just as easily have not been citizens, we still don’t have full statehood, nor full independence. We have citizenship privilege for certain. Yet some do not see us as citizens and think we invade America. Sure, hurricane relief may be sanctioned. Yet it is the poor who fight wars, and enforce American Imperialism at home and abroad. Whether it be poor whites, blacks, latinos, nine sectors of Asia, but especially Puerto Ricans. We would have to enforce, and have had to enforce American fascism. In the military, as police. And have been threatened because of mass incarceration.
It is evident in our treatment of people of color as a nation, immigrants especially. ICE raids are a form of mass incarceration of undocumented immigrants. American insecurity of job loss, of people abusing benefits, of immigrants not paying taxes, all are rooted in a misplaced fear. People are able to do so because of their white privilege, because people don’t want to address capitalism, because people don’t want to address patriarchy, heterosexism, and any number of things, but the biggest evidence certainly is in the question of economics and race enforced through ICE. Here we see what Martin Luther King calls the tripartite evils of racism, poverty and militarism.
It is a perversion of Jewish legacy. And the prophets of old would be ashamed of what is going on now in Israel towards Muslims, especially the Palestinians. Yet America does the same. Over the past year Governors denied Syrian Refugees, DACA is rescinded, ICE raids are up 150%. We see a societal sense of privilege and false individualism. Immigrants scapegoated to mask evil of systemic oppression against them, as well as white people.
This congregation I know agrees with me, I have seen it. Sure on the website, but I have seen it in action. Something simple like the Black Lives Matter sign, especially as it gets ripped down, which by the way happened again this past Friday evening or Saturday morning. The Immigration and refugee committee has done excellent work for years, I have heard the feelings of disgrace in people’s voices over the past three weeks. Even now they are very actively engaged in Immigration and refugee outreach. Anyone who would like to be on the team’s email list can sign up at the social justice table or see David Vita after the service. We have concrete actions that you can take that changes lives.
There is no shortage of work to be done. This includes talking with fellow people of conscience but also changing the hearts of stone in those entitled and privileged whites around the county, state and nation. It requires internal work, and it is a work in progress, as I hear beloved conversations have been an ongoing process. It takes time, and we must continue to stand in solidarity with those 11 million undocumented immigrants, especially those young dreamers out there today. 800,000 will be impacted by DACA. Those dreamers, and us, we are family. We stand in solidarity with them. We must continue the struggle, we must all be Moses, and in the struggle with immigration, we cannot co-opt the Dreamers, we must be servants and allies. We cannot rush to the front and be in cameras. When ICE comes, we harbor them like abolitionist underground railroad.
We must help our society atone and rebuild right relationships with our immigrant siblings in justice.
We must atone for Make America Great Again, America first, we must atone for all the hateful things said that immigrants are criminals. In this month’s theme of welcome, we must welcome immigrants. I know several of the Dreamers, they want to be treated like the diverse Americans they were raised to be. They assimilated. For good or ill, assimilation is its own form of racism.
What stigmas exist in American society, maybe even in our hearts? Do we welcome the poor and the oppressed? Liberation theology, from Christianity, talks about how God is on the side of the poor and the oppressed. Many of the various liberation theologies talk of the wilderness experience, that period of time between Egypt and Canaan. I would not begin to assume what a Jewish theology of liberation would look like, but I imagine it would include this exodus experience with the golden calf, it would include the memory of Rosh Hoshanah and honor creation, and I imagine it would also include atonement.
And these are troubled times. We need each other, need solidarity with the Dreamers. Only then can we find and live liberation. Their struggle, their fear of deportation, must become our fears of deportation, their fears of, i.e. paying out of state tuition, must become our fear. What will help us build relationships? Empathy. They lead the struggle, and we support them however they need. To me, the beloved community has room for many thigs, but privilege especially white privilege has no place in it. Dreams, and hopes may be crushed, but we hold a safe space with each other.
It is our responsibility that the Dreamers stay safe, and that we eradicate the system that perpetuated this injustice. After all Trump says all these things about immigrants, the walls and other disrespectful things to their inherent worth and dignity. Entitlement, and privilege creates a safe space to do this. I do feel we all need safe spaces. Individually, in various identities, in various communities. I truly do. But when some people create safe spaces at the expense, misery, and pain of others, it must be called out. It’s selfish and lacks compassion. America cannot just be a safe space for white people.
At the very minimum, we must atone for that white privilege as a community.
We can make the reality of the American nightmare into the dream that immigrants around the world for hundreds of years believed in. We can take it further to the Dream of the beloved community.
At the end Fievel, the mouse, the pigeon Henri and his family and friends, including a cat flew around the newly constructed Statue of Liberty.
When the beloved community becomes reality we can like young Fievel, and his friends, be proud of the statue of liberty as she beckons all travelers to this country. “Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she with silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”
But maybe we can do it without calling people wretched refuse. Dearly Beloved, May it be so.