On a single day last week, we were stunned by news of the Charlie Helbo attack in Paris and a bomb going off at an NAACP office in Colorado. At the same time, this day was no different than any other: our media regularly saturates us with stories of death and violence. In her prophetic book All About Love, bell hooks describes this phenomena as a symptom of America’s death-obsessed culture. She says, “It may very well be that…the constant spectacles of dying we watch on television screens daily, is one way our culture tries to still that fear [of death], to conquer it, to make us comfortable.” Our culture’s efforts to comfort us and conquer our dread depict deaths that are sudden, faceless, and violent. This ultimately deepens our anxiety about death.
The day before, in my role as rabbi of the VNA-Hospice of Philadelphia, I gave a blessing to the social workers, nurses, administrators, and chaplains with whom I work. Words of blessing came easily as I beheld a roomful of people engaged in holy work. The hospice staff regularly facilitates family conversations about what is important to loved ones at the end of their lives, and does its best to care for the dying according to their desires. My coworkers and I often need to initiate these conversations because, as hooks writes, “The more we watch spectacles of meaningless death, of random violence and cruelty, the more afraid we become [of death] in our daily lives.”
We feed our anxiety when we only hear about death “out there” and deny it is also part of our story, and can even be a meaningful and peaceful part of our story. A 2013 survey says that 90 percent of Americans believe it is important to discuss the way we want to live at the end of our lives while we are able, but less than 30 percent of us actually have had this conversation: Parents don’t want their adult children to worry about them; children don’t want to think their parents will ever die. Locked into a mutual conspiracy of denial, families wish they had spoken only when it is too late. A recent Institute of Medicine report notes that most people nearing the end of life are not “physically, mentally, or cognitively able to make their own decisions about care.” According to many doctors, how we end our lives is the most important and costly conversation America is too afraid to have.
Fortunately, recent initiatives like The Conversation Project are shifting all of this. In collaboration with “Death Over Dinner”, adults of all ages have begun, over the last few years, to discuss their wishes for end of life care at a structured dinner party using guiding questions like, “How long do you want to receive medical care?”, “How involved do you want your loved ones to be?” and “What role do you want them to play?” Having these conversations over dinner, or tea – as long as we have them – improves our chances of receiving the type of care that we want, and helps decrease family discord should our families be called upon to make these difficult decisions for us. Perhaps, when we make the choice to confront our cultural anxiety and acknowledge the inevitability of our own death, we can give ourselves to love and to life more fully.
When I was a college student, I remember an image from a class that has stuck with me. It was a photo of a uniformed police officer in the UK chasing after a black man. What information did the image convey? What conclusions did we draw from this picture?
Then we were shown another photograph of the same scene, but the camera lens had pulled back to reveal a broader perspective. Now we saw a third man running in front of the black man. What, it became evident, we were looking at was a black man, who was a plain-clothed detective, and a white man who was a uniformed police officer, both chasing after a criminal.
These images, and our readings of them, revealed many things to us. It brought our awareness to how the camera lens, whether fixed image or moving image, has the power to interpret the unfolding of events to us in ways that may or may not align with a fuller, more complex and nuanced picture of those events. And it also highlighted the ways in which we read situations and images through the lens of our own stereotypes and assumptions that we are always superimposing on what we think we are seeing unfolding.
Today, I know that there are thousands of people who are angry and upset about the police shooting of a black man in Ferguson, Missouri, who are peacefully protesting and marching and conveying their pain not only at a particular verdict but at the larger set of societal patterns that it highlights. I know this because I’ve heard about the extensive community organizing and planning and the opportunities to march peacefully that one of our colleagues, Rabbi Susan Talve, has been directly engaged and involved with.
But if you based your knowledge of how the community in Ferguson is responding to the news solely on where the lenses of media cameras are focused, you would think that violent and angry protest is all that this community is capable of. And that would be untrue. As Rabbi Talve shared earlier today in a webinar organized by T’ruah: the Rabbinic Call for Human Rights: “That’s not the story here. We can’t let the media take over the narrative.” What is troubling is not only that the camera lens is hiding from those of us who are not physically present on the scene the larger picture of how the community is working toward change and calling for justice. In choosing to focus in on the violence of the minority, the media reinforces the images of black men being angry and violent. They contribute to the very stereotypes that lead to more black men being stopped on the street and the likelihood that they will be shot because a police officer sees them through a lens that leads them to believe that they are interacting with someone prone to violence and anger. The narrative reinforces and reproduces the very situation that the community is seeking to address.
Rabbi Talve explained that the demand for justice goes beyond the specifics of what happened when a police officer shot Michael Brown and whether or not this officer acted appropriately. Rather, this is one in a string of incidents that highlights how systemic racism leads to these kinds of outcomes. When we focus in closely to what Missouri police protocols permit an officer to do and under what circumstances they may draw and fire their gun at someone, it may be concluded that this particular officer acted within these protocols. But if we pull back the lens and look at the bigger picture we may ask different questions.
If we see clear signs, as I believe we do, that racism continues to play a significant role in how black men are seen and treated in public space, then these are some of the questions that we might ask:
- If we value the preservation of human life as the highest goal, and we truly mean that to apply to all lives, are there protocols and methods or tools that police officers could be retrained to use that, while enabling them to enforce law and remain safe, would minimize the need to resort to deadly force?
- Have we, in fact, put in place procedures to ensure that the use of deadly force is truly the last resort?
- Have we spent time and effort to ensure that our police officers, whether in small towns or large cities, have the training and education and the cultural competency that can help counter inbuilt systemic racism?
- Is this something that needs to be tackled at a national scale to ensure that all police forces have access to the same resources, training, and expectations?
I think that a great deal of the anger and frustration that we see goes beyond the rather unusual decision of a grand jury to prevent this case from going to trial. What is missing right now is any willingness, at least publicly, for those in positions of political, legal, and police authority to step forward and say, “let’s sit down together with members of the larger community and try to better understand what these larger concerns are. Let’s look at how we do our work and see if there are new rules, programs, or other steps that we could put in place to minimize the loss of life in these situations in the future.”
I could cite Jewish sources on the value of preserving life. But those sources won’t help us find a path forward in Ferguson until we are able to ask the difficult questions about what kinds of systemic or cultural biases lead to the taking of some lives more often than others. And before we all jump to conclusions and debate and analyze based on the very incomplete pictures that most of us have, let’s start by pulling back the lens and asking whether we truly know what is happening to the left and right of where the cameras are currently pointing. And if we don’t, let’s begin by listening more closely to the communities who are crying out to be heard.
As I sat in a Gurdwara, a Sikh Temple, this Sunday at a service to remember those who were killed and pray for those who were injured, I took a moment to be very present in the room. The room itself was a big hall with windows on either side, fans circulated air on the high ceiling and an alter on the floor in the front of the room was covered in a pink and gold material. A rug with different colors marking the walkways covered the floor. Everyone, men, women children sat on the floor together since a belief in the equality of every person is part of the Sikh philosophy. Men wore turbans, and woman had on colorful Indian clothes, pants and tunics with matching head scarves. Taking in the peaceful scene of people sitting together on the floor and children running in and out, I could only imagine the terror which pervaded the temple when the shooting started… unexpected, shocking, and life altering terror.
If the same thing had happened in a church, maybe even in a synagogue we will still be talking about it. The news would be giving us updates on the injured. A sacred space was violated and life has quickly gone on. The Temple I visited in Glen Rock, New Jersey had opened its doors to the community on Sunday to educate people about Sikhism as well as to remember the dead. In addition to being invited to the service, visitors were encouraged to attend a presentation about the tenants of Sikh religion and understand why Sikhs do not cut their hair and wear turbans. (Sikhs believe that people are created with long hair for a reason and they accept hair as a beautiful part of their bodies. When the religion was founded over 500 years ago, only wealthy men wore turbans as a sign of status and many kings wore turbans. Since Sikhs have believed in the equality of all people since the creation of their religion, all Sikhs wear the turban as a sign of equality. Source: http://www.sikhnextdoor.org/teachers/faq.html#h1 ) It is the turban that has attracted the attention of mainstream Americans, so several minutes of the presentation was devoted to talking about the turban, and a slide was shown distinguished between different types of turbans. Those worn by Sikhs and those worn by other groups like the Al Qaeda. The image of Osama bin Laden wearing a turban has caused many individuals to assume Sikhs are Muslim. The Sikh community is now working hard to change this perception.
I was very moved by the people I met at this Sikh community. Everyone was eager to help the visitors, directing them around the Gurdwara, explaining the customs, and encouraging us to eat. A meal is served in the social hall of the Temple while the service is going on and anyone can come and eat for free at any time. Other Jews I encounters there laughingly said that maybe if we served a free meal DURING the service more people would come. It is a lovely tradition and again speaks to the Sikh belief of equality and the need to honor and take care of fellow human beings. I felt incredibly well taken care of there.
One young woman who welcomed me to the Temple asked me why I came. I responded. “As a Jew, I am also a minority in this country. I understand what it feels like, and I wanted to show your community my support during this difficult time.” She smiled and thanked me. But I don’t think she fully understood the emotional weight my words held.
I grew up as a Jew with a kosher home in Texas. I always felt different, other. I have deep admiration for those Sikhs who do wear turbans. It is extremely difficult to be a minority in America. We may be a melting pot, but it can hurt to stand out and be different.
I wish more visitors had come to the Gurdwara on Sunday. I wish there was a way to do more education about religious and cultural differences in this country. It would, quite literally be lifesaving. Instead of moving on to the next story, the news media would do well to spend a moment educating Americans about Sikh beliefs and practices. In our world of streaming information, a few more minutes, even hours, spend talking about and honoring our differences would have a strong impact. We owe that to the six who died.
1) One Source
One God is the Creator of the Universe
All human beings are equal
People of all religions and races are welcome in Sikh Gurdwaras
Women have equal status with men in religious services and ceremonies
3) Human Life Precious Above Other Life
The human life is supreme and it is through this life that we can achieve oneness with God’s will.
Finding God in this life and living by his commands helps us to attain God’s mercy.
4) Defending Against Injustice
Sikhs are a peace loving people and stand for Truth and Justice
Guru Gobind Singh Ji said, “It is right to use force as a last resort when all other peaceful means fail.”