Thursday, January 22, 2015

Selma (Rabbi Jonathan Miller, Temple Emanu-El, Birmingham, AL, Jan. 16, 2015)

I shared with the congregation that tonight I was going to share my personal reflections on the movie,
Selma, which Judi and I watched last weekend as part of my sermon.  It was excellent and profoundly
moving for both of us and for everyone in the theater.  I confess that I am a Yankee, but I have lived in Alabama for a quarter of a century.  I raised my children here and made this place my home.  This movie was personal to me and to everyone in this state.  When the rest of the world watches this movie, it is about "them", a long time ago.  For us, in Alabama, the movie is about us and, it is not only about us 50 years ago, but it is about us today.

Before I begin my reflections, let me set a few things straight for the record.  I am a rabbi.  I do not
review movies.  You would not welcome the late film critic, Roger Ebert, were he alive and, well, to offer a spiritual message on this bima and you should not trust my opinion of a film as bearing any authority.   Also, as would be expected, there has been some discussion about the historical accuracy of the events and personalities depicted in the film.  That is fair game.  If we lived someplace else, we wouldn't care very much.  We would judge the movie by how it made us feel and what we experienced watching it.

But we live in Alabama and this ugly time is a permanent stain on the character of our state and region.   Whether Governor Wallace or President Johnson or Sheriff Clark actually said and did what was depicted in the movie matters to us because the story is about us.  But, let me point out the obvious:   this movie was not a documentary.  It was a dramatic retelling of a dramatic turning point in American history that happened 50 years ago in a small and otherwise irrelevant Southern cotton town.   In so doing, it took dramatic license in a compelling way to condense the story of several months of planning and execution into a two‐hour storytelling experience.

For me, this was a personal story.  In March 1965, I was ten years old.  My sister had just turned seven.   We were used to our father, Rabbi Judea Miller leaving home for two weeks to make his way to Mississippi and Louisiana and Alabama to engage in non‐violent desegregation drives to integrate lunch counters and public facilities and register African‐American voters.  He did this in 1963 and 1964.  His congregation in Wichita, Kansas had a bail fund for him.    My father actually spent a night in the Hattiesburg Jail.    He was thrilled to be there because he thought that if he were on the street in Hattiesburg, he would have been killed.    In our town in Wichita, he was involved in racial justice, reconciliation, and fair housing for black people.

He was a marvelous rabbi, but I assume that a fair section of his congregation deeply resented his
activities on behalf of others, especially black folks.  Why on earth should this have been a concern to
this young rabbi from the Bronx, then 33 years old with two children and a stay‐at‐home wife?  "Take
care of the congregation" must have been a buzz about town.  "You don't have to be doing this.  This is not what we pay you for and, with little children, what on earth are we going to do if you get hurt or killed?  Who is going to take care of them?"  I have been involved in congregational life as a son of a rabbi, as a rabbi myself, and as a father of a rabbi, and I know the way congregations think.  Temple Emanu‐El in Wichita, Kansas was so proud of my dad and they were so annoyed with him too.  He had to live with that and it couldn't have been easy.

I remember, vividly, the discussions around the dinner table, and when I lay in bed at night and could hear my parents "discussing" my dad's activities.  Let me put it like this:  they were not whispering.  I
remember my mother's tears and her anger, that my dad was willing to abandon her and us in Wichita, Kansas, far away from any family without any means of financial support.  I remember the yellow brick that was hurled through our living room picture window on 6311 East Tenth Street with the attached note accusing my dad of being a "N" lover.  I know that, more than once, the phone would ring at our home in Wichita with a threatening voice.  "We know where you live and we know how your children walk to school."  I cannot imagine how my mother could have lived with this for two to three years and this was in Wichita, Kansas, not Selma, Alabama.

I also cannot imagine how my father could have stayed away from Mississippi, Alabama, and Louisiana.   The specter of the acquiescing Christians in Europe just two decades earlier, whose quiet made it possible for the evil people to murder his family, his brothers, and cousins, was more than he could bear.  After such an injustice, he could not be quiet and he could not be still.  So, for me, the dinner scenes in the movie around the Formica table in the King's family kitchen was personal.  Dr. King was just two years older than my dad.  His eldest child was a year younger than me.  That was me at the table and that tension between Martin and Coretta, without the infidelity, was not all that different from the tension between Judea and Anita in those days.  I felt it.  I was aware of it.  It stung.

I was moved by the strength and the dignity, and the anger and the rage, of the black people from the
city of Selma who put their bodies up as collateral for their belief in their own dignity and their fervent hope that their white oppressors could change.  I was moved by the white progressives from the North and the South, let me add, who answered King's call to March in Selma.  I was especially moved by the rabbis and pastors and priests who came to march with Dr. King and the suffering people of Selma.  When I saw them get murdered, which actually happened, I wept for them, and for my dad and for my mom and for me.  It could have been him.  It could have been me.

Living in Alabama means that the conversation has no end for me or for us.  When we first moved here in 1991, my parents came to Birmingham for the first time.  My dad had to make his pilgrimage to the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church to see the basement where our city's four precious girls, in their pretty white church dresses, were robbed of any future by the hatred of the bombers.  We went to the Church and we walked around Kelly Ingram Park.    There was a silence that I remember.    I shared with my children some of what their grandfather did when I was just a bit older than they were then.  For the first time that I could remember, my mother spoke words of reconciliation.  "Aaron and Alana, Grandpa Judea did what he did so your Mommy and Daddy could live here in Alabama with you."

I called my mother after the movie and I asked her if Dad ever thought of going to Selma to join Dr. King, which would have been his third trip down South.  Her voice changed.  "He wanted to go, but I couldn't let him.    I couldn't do it again."    And that was the end of the conversation in my family, but it is a conversation that really has no end.

The movie, Selma, is really another layer of conversation with history that has no end.    So often, as
Americans or as modern people, we feel that we have to get over the pain of the past.  Painful moments are, well, painful and none of us happily invite pain into our lives.  Too often, this is what we try to do.   We bury our pain.  We walk around it.  We look straight ahead and, maybe, only now and then do we make a sideways or furtive glance into the painful moments that echo in our hearts and souls.  I suppose that is normal and the way it should be most of the time.  Even the day after the apocalypse, life goes on and we wouldn't have it any other way.  So, we move on towards the future, attempting to shed the pain along the way.

But, my friends, the pain is still there.   It must be.   You cannot empty it from your soul the way you
empty the dust from the cuffs of your pants.  The sadness is not only a part of us, it is in us.  We are
more than the pain and the burdens we bear, let me assure you.  We have many parts of happiness and joy too.    But they do not wash away the pain and the burdens and the disappointments.    So we
accumulate both pain and happiness and fill our hearts and souls with these blessings and burdens until we finally die and God takes them all from us.

That is what it is like to live in Alabama, even 50 years after Bloody Sunday, after the voting rights march in Selma over the Edmund Pettus Bridge and along Route 80 to Montgomery.  We move forward and, sometimes, as much as we complain today‐‐and we have a lot to complain about‐‐we have a lot of injustice and cruelty that we, as a society, still have to overcome‐‐we still visit our pain because it is still there.  It will always be there and we can hope to be better.  We can hope to have learned from the pain we carry and, maybe, with the grace of God, we might transform it into a blessing for others.

Now that I am done with my review of Selma, let me share with you my sermon for tonight.
Selma was not only about the rising up of the oppressed black men and women who demanded their
rights, it was also about the transformation of the South.  It was about George Wallace and Sheriff Clark and Albert Lingo and the white State Troopers and the hate filled bullies waving the Confederate Flag on Highway 80, and the poor ignorant white people who wielded their violence against the defiant black people in spasms of hatred and fear.  It was about them too.  We live in the South.  We have seen some of these people and we know that, blessedly, most of them have changed.

This is Shabbat Va‐eira from the Book of Exodus.  The drama begins.  God reveals himself to Moses and tells him to go to Pharaoh and demand that Pharaoh let God's people go.  I assume that you know the story.    Blood‐‐no.    Frogs‐‐no.    Lice‐‐no.    Wild beasts‐‐no.    Cattle disease‐‐no.    Boils‐‐no.    Hail‐‐no.   Locusts‐‐no.  Darkness‐‐no.  Death of the firstborn‐‐get the hell out, you and every one of you.  After every plague, the Torah speaks about Pharaoh's heart.    The text utilizes the verb, hazek, meaning strong—literally, that Pharaoh has strengthened his heart.

To be honest, I find this an odd term.  Usually, we associate the word strong with positive attributes.  A strong heart?  What could be better than that?
But, the strong heart was precisely Pharaoh's undoing and Egypt's undoing.  To be strong in one's heart is usually a good thing unless, of course, we are talking about Pharaoh and Egypt.    Sometimes, it is better to have a soft heart.  Sometimes, it is better to feel the pain that the strong‐hearted impose upon the soft‐hearted.  Sometimes, it is better to have our resolve melt away in a sea of compassion.

Because of his strong‐heartedness, his determination and resolve, Pharaoh could not see the suffering of the Israelite slaves.    Because of his strong‐heartedness, Pharaoh could not feel the anguish of those he hopelessly oppressed.   Because of his strong‐heartedness, Pharaoh could not hear the cries of those who were hurting in their lives.  His heart was too strong to feel the stirrings of compassion that a good leader owes his people.

The story of the Book of Exodus is, ultimately, about bearing witness to the might and the blessings of a gentle heart, of a bending heart.  It is the blessing of compassion which leads to change, which leads to understanding, which leads to tears, which leads to the march of the Israelites through the Sea into the desert and onwards towards the Promised Land.  When we tell that story in Alabama, it is also the story of those who marched across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma 50 years ago.    It is the story of Birmingham.  It is the story of all those whose strong‐heartedness brought about such hatred and pain that 50 years later, none of us could imagine ever going back to that place in time, that sense of Egypt in the South.  It is the story, too, of those who cast away their strength of heart to gain a heart of wisdom, compassion, and love.

So it was then in Egypt.  So it was 50 years ago in Selma.  So it should be in our own lives today.  Be
strong.  Be of good courage.  Gain for yourselves a soft and kind heart.

Shabbat Shalom