The Whipping Man, by playwright Matthew Lopez, depicts an amazing historical convergence: the Civil War’s end, this nation’s long path of freedom and equality’s beginning, as well as the observance of Passover. And resting behind the curtain of promise for the things to come are the shackles of the past for the three characters of Lopez’s play: Caleb, the Jewish Confederate soldier returning home, and Simon and John, two newly-freed-men, once owned by Caleb’s family and still living in the family home.
The actors portraying these three men were at my seder experience last week, along with their director, Francine Thomas Reynolds, and two additional crew members. Francine had reached out to me and other members of the Jewish community of Jackson when New Stage Theatre announced that they would be presenting the play to the community. She was aware of the sensitivity of the play’s subject and wished to not only approach it with care but also to use it as an opportunity to engage in transformative conversations.
Some of those conversations started around our seder table at New Stage Theatre, as we interrupted the story of the Israelite’s freedom from Egypt to point out how the themes present back then were also present in the aftermath of the Civil War (depicted in the play), and – frankly – are still present with us today. These conversations, however, left us asking questions: “Who are our Pharaohs today? Who or what is holding us back from realizing our better selves? And, who is our Moses? Do we need a Moses?
These questions are some of the ones raised in this moving and thought-provoking play The Whipping Man. If you are in the Jackson area between now and March 9, I highly recommend that you come to partake of this unique, dramatic Passover experience. Certainly, you’ll leave inspired to address the challenges and answer the fundamental questions of our time!
“The Whipping Man” runs through this weekend. For more information about getting tickets, go to: www.newstagetheatre.com.
Today, as we reflect on the life and death of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., some of his greatest lessons are also front and center, and very evident in settings near and far: the power of place, and the even greater power of community.
We are here in Mississippi, the controversial heart-center of Freedom Summer, the end point for the freedom rides. Mississippi, whose work-cut-out-for-us reality was spelled out in Dr. King’s most famous of speeches, “I Have a Dream”:
From the prodigious hilltops of New Hampshire, let freedom ring. From the mighty mountains of New York, let freedom ring. From the heightening Alleghenies of Pennsylvania, let freedom ring. But not only that: Let freedom ring from every hill and molehill of Mississippi.
A few weeks ago, from our desks here in Mississippi, several ISJL staff members joined a great video conference hosted by Jewish Women’s Archive, to go over their fantastic Freedom Summer curriculum resources. A few days ago, the staff here all gathered to discuss a film about inequality and discuss how we, as individuals and as an institution, can be a part of positive change. We partner with a diverse group of organizations, working to that end – Jewish and Christian and those of many other faiths, Southern and Northern and international.
Today, we also wanted to share an excerpt from our friends at Jewish& in which African American Jews share their thoughts on Dr. King’s legacy. Here’s a brief excerpt, and we strongly encourage you to read the entire piece:
“I grew up in a pretty typical black family in the 1980’s. We had a picture of King on our wall and my parents had records of a few of his speeches. My parents were not activists. They grew up poor, as sharecroppers in the South, but they instilled in me a black pride that one could hear in the song from James Brown’s “Say it Loud! I’m Black and I’m Proud.” King helped my parents see a better future, not just for me and my brother but for themselves as well. As a rabbinical student, and a child of southern sharecroppers, I see King as one of the most prophetic voices ever and he reminds me of why I want to be a rabbi which is to help to make the world a better place for all.”
Wherever we are and whatever our background, we can play a role in, as Sandra Lawson says, making the world “a better place for all.” All people, in all places. Let freedom ring from every mountain and molehill of Mississippi!
Recently, the Governor of Mississippi, Phil Bryant, signed the Mississippi Student Religious Liberties Act. On Governor Bryant’s website, the student religious liberties bill is described as one that “protects students from being discriminated against in a public school for expressing their religious viewpoints or engaging in religious activities.”
The expressed desire is to ensure that students can express their religious viewpoints. However, when we look at this bill more closely, it seems to be protecting the privileges associated with being part of the dominant Christian faith. As someone who does not subscribe to the dominant religion in Mississippi, Christianity, I found myself wondering whether the state was acting as an entity with privilege and whether my personal response (along with many others) was consistent with the behavioral patters the attached document ascribes to people who are—in the broadest sense—being oppressed. Because essentially, what this bill does is protect SOME students from being discriminated against in public school for expressing their religion.
Last week, I wrote about privilege and oppression. While we might feel privileged in certain areas of our life, we may feel oppressed in other areas of our life. This dynamic is often found when there is a dominant group with power greater than that of a minority group without as much power.
It’s difficult to make the case that in a Mississippi public school, where a significant majority of the students and faculty members are Christian, that a student that is Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, Sikh, atheist, or any other minority faith (or no faith at all) will feel as though their expression of religion is being protected by this bill. If anything, the message is that to fit in with the other students, their religious expression ought to be diminished and more consistent with the dominant religion.
The tendency to pay most attention to the dominant culture is a phenomenon we see not only in public schools, but also in private institutions – including American synagogues. Ashkenazi, white, straight, able-bodied congregants are part of a dominant culture. They are dominant in numbers and in the power structures of many American synagogues. Is it a stretch to wonder whether people who don’t fit that very precise description are feeling oppressed in any way? In looking at the tendencies associated with people in oppressed positions, I’d like to suggest that there are similarities.
Again, this chart provides some insight into the behavioral tendencies of people in positions of privilege and how it feels to be in a position of oppression—in the broadest sense. My hope is that this insight can lead us to proactively aim to foster a community where everyone is part of the “we” and there isn’t an “us” and “them” that separates the dominant group from one that is less dominant. With this in mind, we can do the difficult work of creating more genuinely inclusive schools, houses of worship, and communities, where everyone is valued.