Welcome to INTERFAITH REFLECTIONS. As a partner in Interfaith Solidarity Network, you are warmly invited to join in this interfaith dialogue. Whether you’re a member of the clergy or a lay member of a congregation, please send your Interfaith Reflections submission (of any length) to Andy Carmichael, Communications Chair at ISN.
Good Friday: End the Death Penalty
Let us on this Good Friday call attention to the urgency of ending racist, arbitrary, and immoral state-sanctioned killing. Let the word go out to the Biden-Harris administration to honor their commitment and bring an end to the federal death penalty.
Today we recall the state-sanctioned killing of Jesus Christ. In the trial narrative in the Gospel of John (17:1-16), it is Pilate’s very human behavior and political instincts that we are focused on. He knows he’s got nothing. After continually trying to release Jesus in the face of strenuous objections by the chief priests and police, it is political self-interest that Pilate finally responds to. He cannot allow negative news to reach Rome that might suggest that he’s appeasing a colonized troublemaker who may be setting himself up against the emperor, as ridiculous as that is in reality.
In a more recent context, how do we account for the acceleration in federal executions by the Trump administration in July 2020 if not political self- interest? He seizes an opportunity to demonstrate dominance, a perception of strength leading up to Election Day. It fits his profile.
Here is the list of federal executions that resumed in July 2020:
July 14, Daniel Lewis Lee
July 16, Wesley Ira Purkey
July 17, Dustin Lee Honken
August 26, Lezmond Charles Mitchell
August 28, Keith Dwayne Nelson
September 22, William Emmett LeCroy Jr.
September 24, Christopher Andre Vialva
November 19, Orlando Cordia Hall
December 10, Brandon Bernard
December 11, Alfred Bourgeois
January 13, Lisa Montgomery
January 14, Cory Johnson
January 15, Dustin John Higgs
These government killings represent more federal executions in the final months of the president’s term than in the previous 67 years combined. What heightens the cruelty of this extreme violence is that nearly half of them were carried out after Joe Biden, who professes opposition to the death penalty, won the November election.
Our country is still a long way from recovering from this kind of moral injury inflicted on us over the past four years. Our deep collective soul wound will need long time healing.
Support for death as punishment has been steadily losing ground.
In 1967, Lenny Bruce famously said, “If Jesus had been killed twenty years ago, Catholic school children would be wearing little electric chairs around their necks instead of crosses.”
Lenny Bruce, How to Talk Dirty and Influence People
Today, more and more, people have begun to accept that fundamental values and rule of law do not require that we kill people to punish them. There is no scientific evidence that supports its effectiveness. Wrongful convictions occur. According to Death Penalty Information Center, for every 8.3 people executed in the United States in the modern era of the death penalty, one person on death row has been exonerated.
Flaws exist in any system. Sometimes law enforcement overreaches. Sometimes prosecutors overreach. Sometimes jurors are dishonest, evidence is unstable, the quality of counsel varies and issues are missed or never raised.
If we look deeper into the historical context, we find a direct connection to slavery. Prosecutors overwhelmingly choose to pursue the death penalty in cases involving white people if a Black man is accused, especially if the case involves a white female.
In late 2019, a national Gallup Poll found only 36% of Americans supported death when the choice of life without parole was offered.
Outspoken leaders are changing the laws. On March 24, 2021, Governor Ralph Northam of Virginia, signed legislation to abolish the death penalty in that state. He is quoted as saying, “There is no place today for the death penalty in this commonwealth, in the South, or in this nation…Signing this new law is the right thing to do,” Northam said. “It is the moral thing to do.”
Attending the ceremony, Mike Mullin, a criminal prosecutor and sponsor of the abolition legislation, made this point, “We’ve carried out the death penalty in extraordinarily unfair fashion,” he said. “Only four times out of nearly 1400 [executions] was the defendant white and the victim Black.” Rev. LaKeisha Cook, justice reform organizer for the Virginia Interfaith Center for Public Policy, added “Today, we start a new chapter, embracing the possibility of a new, evidence-based approach to public safety: one that values the dignity of all human beings and is focused on transforming the justice system into one that is rooted in fairness, accountability, and redemption.”
And Robert Dunham, Executive Director of Death Penalty Information Center, noted, “The symbolic value of a legislature sitting in the former capital of the Confederacy dismantling this tool of racial oppression cannot be overstated.” Virginia is the 11th state in 16 years to abolish the death penalty.
Sister Helen Prejean, in a recent article in The Nation entitled “President Biden is Our Chance to End the Death Penalty” (02/08/21) found that a guideline for government killing that the Supreme Court set forth in 1976 in the Gregg v. Georgia decision when it reinstituted the death penalty is flawed. A provision of the decision is that it only be imposed on “the worst of the worst.” Sr. Helen reacted to the vagueness of that criterion in light of equal protection under the law. She writes that “over the last 45 years a profile of the ‘worst of the worst’ has clearly emerged: poor people who cannot afford an attorney to defend them; people who are mentally ill; those who were broken by neglect, abuse, and violence in their childhood; and the most glaring, pervasive characteristic of all, those who killed white people.”
Legislation has been introduced by Senator Richard Durbin (D-IL) and Representative Ayanna Pressley (D-MA) that would end capital punishment at the federal level and require the resentencing of all federal inmates on death row. Let us pray together in collective action and advocate to end this deeply flawed punishment once and for all.
Good Friday, April 2, 2021
Here is an important statement on racial justice from our friends at The Academy for Judaic, Christian, & Islamic Studies
We are in unprecedented times that have led us, as a country, to face the national crisis of racism. While systemic racism has existed since the inception of this country, the events of the past months have made it imperative that all who are against racism—all who are anti-racist—join together and stand up to racism once and for all. Against the backdrop of the devastating global pandemic of the coronavirus, our country learned of, and many witnessed on film, the tragic murder of George Floyd, and we learned of the tragic murders of Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and countless other people of color. Over the past year, there have been protests across the nation, and policies are changing to root out the evil that is racism at a governmental level and at organizations and institutions throughout the country. The Academy for Judaic, Christian, and Islamic Studies stands strongly in support of the fight against systemic racism, as we feel called to do by God and by the values and the sacred scriptures of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. We unequivocally affirm that Black lives matter.
The Jewish Perspective
One of the most foundational verses found in the Torah, The Five Books of Moses, that speaks to the essential question of what it means to be a human being, is found in the very first chapter of the very first book of the Torah. In Genesis chapter 1, verses 26 and 27, we learn that God made the first human in the image of God: betzelem Elohim. If we are to understand that we are all descendants of the first human, then it follows that all people are created in the image of God. It then follows that every single human being is worthy of love. Furthermore, in Leviticus chapter 19, verse 18, there is the following commandment: “You shall love your neighbor as you love yourself.”1 Contrastingly, racism operates best when there is a social agreement that some human beings are superior to others and that the “superior” human beings have every right to hatefully oppress the “inferior” human beings. This immediately breaks down when we look at and take on these two Jewish values. If we are all created in the image of God, and if we are to love all human beings as we love ourselves, then there is no room for racism in Judaism. Sadly, over the course of history, the Jewish people have missed the mark in a full commitment to these values, either through misinterpreting other areas of our sacred texts that people mistakenly believe could validate such an evil as racism, or through standing idly by when people were treated as anything other than being created in the image of God and with hatred rather than with love. Our sacred texts, properly understood, charge us not only to avoid racism on our own part, but also to actively take a stand against racism in society and fight for racial justice and racial equity. Jewish values and our sacred texts demand that we be anti-racist, and that we act accordingly.
The Christian Perspective
In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus instructs his followers how to pray. The “Lord’s Prayer,” as this teaching came to be known, is incorporated into nearly every Christian worship service today. It begins: “Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come. Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” Through this recitation, Christians reaffirm a commitment to the pursuit of a more equitable, just world, fully shaped by God’s abiding love. In our contemporary moment of racial reckoning, Christians again find guidance in scripture. The Gospel of Luke records the famous “Parable of the Good Samaritan,” in which Jesus selects a member of a detested ethnic minority to play the starring role as the rescuer of a man with gruesome injuries, facing death (Luke 10:25-37). By depicting an outsider Samaritan as the righteous example for the crowd to follow, Jesus challenges the racial prejudices of his time and asserts that all people are capable suppliers and deserving recipients of compassion and grace. Following the end of the parable, Jesus commands: “Go and do likewise.” That is, we are to be good neighbors for all other people, taking action when we observe injustice and pain. When Black Americans are disproportionately targeted, incarcerated, and—indeed—murdered by law enforcement, Christians have a clear directive to disrupt the systems of structural racism that perpetuate this injustice. Like the Samaritan, Christians are called to intervene.
The Epistle to the Galatians reiterates and amplifies this command. In this message, Paul urges the early Christian community to heed Jesus’s teachings of radical inclusion. Paul writes: “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28, NRSV). This letter was a condemnation of the social inequities of its time, and it demonstrates how demands for racial justice are not a contemporary fabrication or twist of the faith. Indeed, racial justice is a central, non-negotiable tenet of Christian ethics. (Please see the brief essay titled “How the Emperor Constantine Led Christianity Off the Rails and Into Violent Sin,” a reflection on the dangers of state-sponsored religion.)
The Muslim Perspective
The Islamic tradition contains guidance pertaining to justice, diversity, pluralism, and equality that is relevant to our modern challenges. Justice is a major recurring theme in the Qur’an and establishing justice is a direct command from God in the Qur’an; this is based on the verse, “You who believe, uphold justice and bear witness to God, even if it is against yourselves, your parents, or your close relatives. Whether the person is rich or poor, God can best take care of both. Refrain from following your own desire, so that you can act justly- if you distort or neglect justice, God is fully aware of what you do.” (Qur’an 4:135). While the Qur’an demands justice, it also highlights the inherent equality and dignity of human beings. This is established by the verses, “And We bestowed dignity on the children of Adam” (Qur’an 17:70) and “People, We created you all from a single man and a single woman, and made you into races and tribes so that you should recognize one another. In God’s eyes, the most honored of you are the ones most mindful of Him: God is all knowing, all aware.” (Qur’an 49:13). Therefore, all humans are endowed with dignity and no one race is superior to another. Some scholars have pointed out that Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) serves as one of the first examples of being anti-racist when he said, “All humanity is from Adam and Eve, an Arab has no superiority over a non-Arab nor does a non-Arab have any superiority over an Arab; also a white has no superiority over a black nor does a black have any superiority over a white except by piety and good action.” While we see messages of pluralism and anti-racism in the Qur’an and the sayings of the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him), Islam, like Judaism and Christianity, did not abolish slavery outright. However, Islam did restrict slavery, grant specific rights to slaves, and place major incentives to free slaves which ultimately could lay the groundwork for a total emancipation of human beings in a Muslim society. In our modern world, it is important to remember the goal of emancipation and to recalibrate our focus to the Qur’anic injunctions of standing for justice and defending the dignity of all humanity. Finally, some Muslim scholars have emphasized that racism cannot be legislated away because racism is connected to the sin of pride and arrogance due to its attachment to a sense of racial supremacy. All people regardless of their sins have the potential for redemption. Perhaps then communities of faith can serve as the vehicles for redeeming those drowning in the sin of racism.
Action Plan for the Academy
The clear message of our sacred scriptures for our time and place calls us to contribute to a just, multi-racial, pluralist society where the dignity of every person is honored, everyone’s contribution is equally valued, and diversity is celebrated as God’s gift. We therefore commit ourselves to work for racial justice, reconciliation, and the dismantling of systemic racism in our society by
- standing with our African-American sisters and brothers in affirming unequivocally that Black lives matter;
- opening our minds and our hearts to hear, see, and acknowledge the pain of the victims of racism in our society;
- increasing the racial diversity of the leadership of the Academy;
- acknowledging the truth that some people have interpreted and applied their religion to justify the oppression of Black people in this country;
- disavowing any religious justification of racism as incompatible with the teachings of our sacred scriptures;
- disseminating the liberating message of our three religious traditions through
○ conducting research based on honest scholarship
○ educational forums for colleges, universities, religious congregations, and the community at large
○ interpersonal encounters between people of different religious, ethnic, and cultural backgrounds
These commitments we make, trusting in God who loves justice and mercy.
Adopted November 17, 2020
Our first Interfaith Reflection comes from Rabbi Jim Kaufman, Emeritus Rabbi, Temple Beth Hillel and ISN Board member.
BUS BENCH BROADSIDE
(BROADSIDE definition: a strongly worded comment”)
Surely you have seen the pictured bus bench around the San Fernando Valley? You perhaps wondered: What is that scribbling? What does it mean? It is Hebrew. From the Torah, the first five books of Hebrew Scriptures. You’ll find it in the book of Leviticus, chapter 19, and verse 18. Translation: “…and you shall love your neighbor as you love yourself.” (V’ahavta l’rayacha kamocha”)
These words have been on scores of bus benches long before the pandemic, so the original intent of the “advertiser” (whose identity I do not know) was not to target the American who considers Covid 19 a hoax and therefore warrants no protective response. This message must have originally been intended to address the heightened disrespect for different political leanings and the resulting dysfunction that it prompted in the macro, our governmental process, and in the micro, in our filial ties and circle of friends. The political rancor that permeates American life is so toxic; it has driven one person to purchase advertising space on bus benches imploring people to “love your neighbor as you love yourself”. Implying of course that in the realm of “self-love” we do come to accept those aspects of ourselves that we do not like or do not understand. And if we can accept them for ourselves, we should surely do so for others.
But then Covid 19 strikes and this “bus bench broadside” makes the demand for love, or at least tolerance, of others more imperative, even life saving.
But let’s look for a moment at Leviticus 19:18 and notice a few things:
In Hebrew, it is in “command” form. Hardly a suggestion: “You shall love your neighbor as you love yourself!”
But can we command “love”?
The answer lies in the detail surrounding Leviticus 19:18:
Lev. 19:1 “You shall be holy”- you shall live an ethical, moral life
Lev. 19:10 “. . . and when you harvest your vineyard, . . . you shall leave the fallen fruit for the poor and the stranger who are in need.”
Lev. 19:11 “. . . you shall not lie to one another”.
Lev. 19:12 “. . . you shall not oppress our neighbor”.
Lev. 19:15 “You shall not favor the poor or the rich, but in righteousness shall you judge your neighbor.”
Lev. 19:16 “You shall not gossip, spread false tales . . .”
Lev. 19: 18 “You shall not bear a grudge nor wreak vengeance upon your neighbor, but you shall love your neighbor as you love yourself.”
No, you can’t “command” love but you can create that love with specific legislation that will lead to “love”. And that is what Leviticus 19 seeks to do. Personal and communal holiness is achieved when a set of behaviors as elucidated in this famous Biblical chapter (called “The Holiness Code”) is achieved. The path to “true love” is ethical behavior.
Imagine if everyone just adhered as best as humanly possible to the above commands, if would indeed obviate the necessity for commanding “love”. If you execute successfully on Leviticus 19, verses 1 through 17, you’ll achieve Leviticus 19:18. In these Covid times, Leviticus 19:18 and all of the injunctions surrounding it demand that we do NOT say:
“I am more “essential” than my neighbor”.
“I must be moved ahead of my neighbor in the “vaccine” queue”.
“I don’t need to wear a mask, its silly, its inconvenient, and its uncomfortable”.
“I know many have died, but not in my family and I still believe this is a hoax”
Leviticus 19 – all of it – simply reminds us that my life is equal to the life of another and my behavior, to be ethical (holy) must facilitate the “common good”. That’s why the injunction to “love your neighbor” is preceded by a set of commands that will create the matrix for love. Leviticus 19 in its totality, commands “circumspection”, underpinning the belief that your life is just as essential as mine. Contemplate your behavior before you act. Is it only for your own good or is it for the “common good” as well?
And so our “Bus Bench Broadside” is commanding some circumspection at this historic introspective period in American life. Yes, wear a mask, social distance and shelter whenever possible . . . all for yourself and for the common good. And yes, before you get in line for a shot, consider whether someone else is either equally in need or even more in need than you.
So I am offering this rewrite of Leviticus 19:18:
“Love your neighbor as you love yourself” – even if it requires some self-sacrifice.
Much to learn from a bus bench.