RABBI LUCY DINNER: Strength to love; Courage to act
Posted January 16, 2018 5:00 a.m. EST
EDITOR'S NOTE: Rabbi Lucy H. F. Dinner, Senior Rabbi at Raleigh's Temple Beth Or, delivered the keynote address at the 38th Annual MLK Jr. Triangle Interfaith Prayer Breakfast. Watch her speech here.
My message this morning centers on a tenet: So powerful that no baby can thrive without it; So strong that it creates the foundation for family, home and community; So enticing that people will move mountains for it; So integral that it metaphorically occupies that central organ whose functionality defines life – the heart.
Love, my friends, love is all we need.
A finicky thing, that thing called love. Too often, we allow fear of rejection to overshadow our propensity to reach out with love. Too often, we think we have to be stingy with love, to reserve it for the ultra-elite few we trust with our own heart and soul. Growing up I believed that love was supposed to be sequestered, that it was so special, so exclusive that it could only describe the most idealized of relationships. The love I envisioned as a child required borders that cordoned itself off from all others.
That love was not meant to be imparted beyond the walls of THE one who was to be the one and only. That brand of stingy love glorifies lust; it drains energy; deflects one from responsibilities; and excuses all kinds of neglect and abuses, in the name of “love.” That stingy love produces self-centered, cloistered, jealous, and greedy partnerships; love that suffocates.
The youthful vision of romantic love serves neither romance nor love well. True love nurtures. It builds the character of each loving partner. It reiterates the values that bind humanity to one another. Authentic, mature, love gives and forgives; and it propels us to treat each other with respect, kindness, and dignity.
While the Western World portrays love as that stingy love I idealized in my youth, a feeling buried deep within the heart, religious and cultural tradition describe love as an action demonstrating covenantal commitment.
Two sacred texts shared through multiple traditions reveal this underlying truth about love:
- “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Lev 19:20).
- “And Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your might” (Deut. 6:9).
These biblical verses frame the understanding of love well beyond a warm feeling in your heart. They demand relationship, connection, and most of all action. “Love your neighbor as yourself” requires more than thinking deep and gracious thoughts about your neighbor. Even a loving, “bless her soul,” does not rise to loving your neighbor if your neighbor does not hear that from you directly. If you never actually interact with your neighbors, then your love is like that tree falling in the forest with no one to hear its sound. Loving your neighbor means, interacting with your neighbor, standing up for your neighbor, whether the next door neighbor, or the stranger you pass on the street.
Similarly, loving with all your heart, soul, and might necessitates actual deeds of love and kindness. One cannot truly love with all your heart without combining those loving feelings, with honest intentions that emanate from your soul, and loving acts performed with all your might. Love is an active, all-in, verb. It blossoms from the lust of a fluttering heart, into full-on soulful living when we actualize it, bringing it to life with all our soul and might.
These iconic commandments depict a vision of love well beyond youthful love musings. They call on us to use the platform of authentic, mature, love, experienced in the most cherished relationships in one’s life, as a catalyst for bringing love into the world – as a philosophy for repairing the world.
True love fosters partnership with one’s beloved and beyond.
True love manifests itself in the way a couple grows into a family, and in the way a loving family plants seeds that nurture the community, and the world.
True love expands rather than contracts.
It feeds and energizes the soul. It exhilarates. Motivates, and propels action and interaction.
FEAR HIJACKING LOVE
In our current culture, promulgation of fear has hijacked that active, healing, expansive, role of love. Psychologist Abraham Maslow outlines the reasoning. In Maslow’s pyramid of the hierarchy of needs: security and safety outflank friendship and love. If you don’t feel safe, little else, including love, matters.
Dr. King reiterated the sensitive role that fear plays teaching:
“Fear is the elemental alarm system of the human organism which warns of approaching dangers and without which man could not have survived. … Fear, moreover, is a powerfully creative force. Every great invention and intellectual advance represents a desire to escape from some dreaded circumstance or condition” (A Gift of Love, p. 116-117).
Fear can be a great motivator and so too it can be twisted into a tool for mass manipulation. During election season, politicians hone in on fear as a primary tactic to secure votes. They stir up the populous through creating a false sense of insecurity and blaming their opponents for promulgating the threat to the state’s stability. In an online article, Time Magazine reporter Alex Altman shares the trajectory through modern presidents who have influenced the public through fearmongering. Altman goes back to the Richard Nixon years and offers this unapologetic quote from him: “People react to fear, not love,” reasoned Nixon ‘They don’t teach that in Sunday school. But it’s true,” [he quipped]. Attack ads work, because they invoke the fear that the monster portrayed by his/her opponent will demonically wreak havoc in our lives.
“Fear has always been an effective form of political rhetoric,” Altman says, “and one deployed to great effect by countless presidents. As George W. Bush rallied support for the war on terrorism, his administration introduced a color-coded threat matrix that never dropped below yellow. To push his crime bill, Bill Clinton warned that without a crackdown on violent juveniles, “our country is going to be living with chaos” (Ibid).
Our current president may be the chief fear inciter of all modern presidents. He cherishes the role of promulgating alarm and panic. Barry Glassner, a sociologist at Lewis & Clark College and the author of "The Culture of Fear," says: “(Our current president) is a master at (harnessing fear) to a degree that I haven’t seen,… (The president’s) formula is very clean and uncomplicated: “Be very, very afraid. And I am the cure” (Ibid).
The fear flows like waves from tweet to shining tweet.
On the eve before this weekend honoring Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. the President took fearmongering to a new low. Trump’s profanity in reference to those from Haiti and from African Nations, and his demand that America take in more immigrants from countries like Norway, display unbridled racism. His words divide and devalue humanity through skin color and the roulette of birth into a country of economic prosperity or poverty.
This fearmongering eats away at our willingness to love and receive love. It manifests itself in building walls that fortify hatred.
In King’s day: segregation in public facilities including schools and universities, neighborhoods, hospitals, and public restrooms; quotas; economic blackballing; and justice delayed and denied, defined the landscape of racist fearmongering. Though we have come a long way since King’s Civil Rights Movement, today’s racism oppresses with its own brand of domineering power and demands its own Civil Rights Movement in response. Beyond the political rhetoric and the blatant hate-speech that has made its way back into prominence there are real and deleterious effects of the perpetuation of racism in our society.
- The school to prison pipeline for young men of color
- The demonization of the immigrant and the lack of protection for the Dreamers
- The unbroken chain of generational poverty
- The broadening gap between rich and poor
These are but a few of the broad categories that barely touch the surface of the infinite number of individual egregious acts of oppression. The fearmongering of racism promulgates a culture that perpetuates discrimination generation to generation.
In 2015 upon accepting his Academy Award John Legend reminded the world in his speech that: "There are more black men under correctional control today than there were under slavery in 1850."
And at last week’s Golden Globes Oprah took us back to the roots of the current #MeToo campaign sharing Recy Taylor’s 1944 abduction and rape by six white men, who got off free in those Jim Crow days. This was despite the efforts that one Rosa Parks, who was at the time an advocate working for the NAACP, devoted to bringing justice for Taylor.
And then there is the #MeToo campaign itself started by an African American activist Tarana Burke, a Black woman, (who) began the crusade 10 years ago particularly for women of color, to shed light on sexual violence and unify those victimized by it.
Yet, until a white woman’s #Me Too post went viral, a decade of Black women shouting Me Too fell on deaf ears.
The prevalence of fear-inducing incitement paralyzes society. It feeds xenophobia and foments oppression. It sequesters, isolates, and insulates us from the greater reality around us. It falsely fortifies and feeds the excuses that perpetuate racist hatred, and abuse.
COURAGE TO ACT, STRENGTHEN LOVE
Dr. King taught us: “we can master fear through one of the supreme virtues known to man: courage.” (A Gift of Love: Sermons From Strength to Love, p. 118).
King challenged us to harness courage as “the power of the mind to overcome fear … the power of life to affirm itself in spite of life’s ambiguities.” He taught us that courage summons “the exercise of a creative will … (from which we can) hew out a stone of hope from a mountain of despair” (Ibid, pp. 118-119).
Love Yourself, Build Courage
Love is the most powerful tool in the toolbox of courage. The sages point out that “Love your neighbor as yourself,” begins with love of self. Under the threat of fear, we cower, doubt ourselves, and question our capacity to overcome. When we begin with love of self, we acknowledge our own gifts and realize that those God-given gifts contain within them the power to face our fears, to love ourselves, and to courageously rise and overcome them.
“Courageous self-affirmation,” our prophet Dr. King preaches, this love of self, “is not selfishness, for self-affirmation includes both a proper self-love and properly propositioned love of others” (A Gift, p. 119). Lived through the command to love your neighbor as yourself, love of self propels one to treat others lovingly as a way of life. It restores self-respect and extends dignity to humanity.
Love the hindrance
Courageously loving the self brings us to the field. Nonetheless, it does not address that neighbor who seemingly has no love for us. In the Bible we learn that if your enemies ox has fallen, you have to lift up the ox of your enemy (Ex. 23:4-5). Even for an enemy, one has to protect their welfare and livelihood. In our competitive, adversarial, economy we do not often encounter people lovingly lifting their enemy from peril. How does one love one’s enemy and why this command to help the one avowed against you?
Rabbi Jonathan Slater, Director of Programs at the Institute of Jewish Spirituality, addresses how to love ones adversary in a series addressing God’s love. He specifically confronts how one finds God’s love amidst the vicissitudes of life and suggests, counter-intuitively that the “hindrances” in life actually hold the key to love. He bases his premise on a teaching from an 18th Century Jewish scholar Reb Nachman who says: “God actually hides God’s self in the hindrance.” God who upholds both judgement and loving grace before humanity, implants a Godly presence within the hindrances – the roadblocks of our lives, the injustices that we perpetrate and those perpetrated against us. In order to find God’s love, counter intuitive to one’s first inclination, one approaches rather than avoids the obstacles. “Through the hindrances themselves, one draws closer to God because that is where God is hidden.” (Sefer Likutei MoHoRan, I, Section 115).
How can the hindrances draw one closer to God’s love? The broken teaches us as much if not more than the whole. We know this from the Ark of the Covenant that the Israelites carried through the desert for forty years. What rested inside the Ark? The Ten Commandments, of course. Not one but two sets of Ten Commandments: the whole tablets that Moses received the second time he ascended Mount Sinai; and the shards of the first tablets that Moses smashed into pieces upon seeing the Israelites worshipping the Golden Calf. Why carry the broken shards? The shards remind the Israelites of the hindrances that had led them astray. The broken pieces are part and parcel of how the Israelites came to understand the true value of The Ten Commandments on those tablets. Embracing the hindrance of those shards, the Israelites faced the fear that overwhelmed them the first time Moses had ascended Mt Sinai. That made that second set of tablets Moses brought down from Mt. Sinai mean so much more.
We learn from the way that the ancients carried the broken with the whole to love and draw closer to God through embracing the hindrances. We learn that the stumbling blocks offer an opening to cherish and love with greater intensity. Dr. King taught this same philosophy in his day saying:
“Hatred and bitterness can never cure the disease of fear; only love can do that”(A Gift of Love, p. 123).
“Hatred paralyzes, love releases
Hatred confuses, love harmonizes
Hatred darkens life, love illumines” (Ibid)
Loving your neighbor means responding to hatred, not with hatred but with love. Through the obstacles, we discover ways to show love to our enemy. Not passive acceptance but non-violent resistance. Active love, not accepting your enemy’s hatred, but acknowledging that your enemy is a human being created from God’s love.
Consider the transformation active love brought to Derek Black. Derek grew up the son of the creator of the internet’s first and largest white nationalist site. ... David Duke is Derek’s godfather. During high school, Derek opened his own white nationalist website for youth.
When the young Derek began attending the New College in Sarasota, a few students uncovered Derek’s racist associations and began their own posts exposing his hatred.
But, then, a remarkable thing happened: love. “Ostracizing Derek won’t accomplish anything,” one student wrote.
“We have a chance to be real activists and actually affect one of the leaders of white supremacy in America. …
“Who’s clever enough to think of something we can do to change this guy’s mind?”
One of Derek’s acquaintances (Matthew) … decided he might have an idea. … He sent Derek a text message.
“What are you doing Friday night?” he wrote.
He invited Derek to the weekly Friday night dinners he hosted at the small college. Matthew told his diverse group of friends to treat Derek like any other guest. In the beginning, no one asked Derek any hard questions. Over the course of weeks that turned into months and years of Friday dinners, Derek began to revise his views in light of the gracious acceptance by Matthew and his friends. Eventually, Derek published a public apology on the website of one of the largest anti-hate sites in the country.
King challenges us thusly: “The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy. The true neighbor will risk his position, his prestige, and even his life for the welfare of others. In dangerous valleys and hazardous pathways, he will lift some bruised and beaten brother to a higher and more noble life.” (Gift, pp. 27- 28).
Embracing hatred and transforming it with love is the essence of King’s non-violent, civil disobedience. It is working for the loving transformation of those like Derek Black on a systemic and institutional scale. To love the image of God planted in your neighbor who is your enemy takes all your heart, all your soul, and all your might.
The Time is Now to Bring Act with the Strength of Love
A commemoration of Dr. King cannot do justice to his great teachings without a loving call to action. An oppressed class urgently needs our assistance this week. It is the very class that President Trump disparaged in his profanity. The clock ticks now for the Dreamers, those who came to the US as children and received a path to documented status, during the Obama administration. An average of 122 Dreamers lose their status and protections every day Congress refuses to act. In March, the protections will be gone for all 800,000 Dreamers.
This week Congress must pass a continuing budget resolution or else the government will shut down. Many are pushing to pair the solution for the Dreamers to this bill. On Wednesday of this week the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism and the Central Conference of America Rabbis plan to march on Washington in an act of Civil Disobedience for the Dreamers. They will start at the very building where the Civil Rights laws were drafted, with the vision of Dr. King. They will be arrested because the world needs to know the plight of the Dreamers.
Our Senators and Members of Congress need to hear from each one of us every day this week. Call or visit your Senators and Representatives’ offices. Let them know that you care about the Dreamers and that they need to pass the continuing budget resolution paired with protection for the Dreamers. Tell them to bring the Dreamers justice in honor of the commemoration of The Dream of Dr. Martin Luther King.
We cannot afford for love to be a finicky, stingy, emotion. Love yourself to garner the courage to love your neighbor, even your enemy, with all your heart, soul, and might. Dr. King beckons us to let the love flow from our hearts, into actions, that transform the world.
And, then, we will extend the love of self to love for every man, woman and child in our country.
And, then, we will love the enemy, conquering antipathy and fear.
And then, we will expand love’s reach, courageously overtaking corrosive hate.
And, then, we will love our God with all our heart, all our soul and all our might.
Adorned in King’s Dream, we will march arm and arm, embracing the oppressors and replacing their enmity with love.
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