Teshuva: A Letter from Charlotte

Black Lives Matter Black FridayIt is a day before S’lichot. I live in a country that has done no teshuva, that avoids the consequences of four centuries of white privilege and white power.

On Tuesday, my husband, Ralf, and I left the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, where we both teach.  We walked to our car wondering why a helicopter was circling overhead.

On Thursday morning, after two nights of mostly peaceful protest (yes, really), I listened to a well-known, local, liberal white journalist insist to Charlotte’s mayor on the radio that videos of the killing of Keith Scott should be released. Why? Because, he suggested, protesters would then see why Scott was shot. If there were “reasons” for the police shooting, protestors would realize they were reacting on the basis of hyped stories, and everything in Charlotte would calm down.

Convenient, isn’t it? Convenient not to face the fact that in North Carolina, as in the entire United States, the disenfranchisement and oppression of black America is a daily reality. White and privileged conservatives have made national news by their every effort to gerrymander districts, to limit and restrict black votes. White liberals have, mostly, responded by not responding to the stink of this reality, a stink sadly measured in statistics: Who is being arrested, who is being stopped, who is being killed? Black people. Here and across this nation.

White America should be surprised how little protest it has witnessed. It’s nothing. It cannot compare to the violent oppression black America knows every day.

Thursday, on campus, I heard students and faculty decry violent protest. It shouldn’t be done that way. Violence only leads to violence, they said. Even black students said this – as if they had to reassure their white colleagues that they knew that there should be well-mannered attempts to be heard by a system that has been, for centuries, deaf and dumb. Black people need to whisper, and politely, too.

It is convenient for white people to insist that black people behave themselves. Frequently this takes the form of referring to Martin Luther King as the ideal role model and depicting the Civil Rights Movement as the appropriate way for a tormented people to clearly, kindly convince white people to be nice.

But to insist that black people make sure not to act too angry, not to reach for rocks or trash cans is the privilege of the powerful. The powerful can and do use the police and the national guard and curfews and the law to make sure that black people are controlled. To make sure their movements are confined. To make sure they can’t vote. To make sure…. Shall we count the ways?

This is violence, too. It is widespread, endemic and pernicious. It is a violence inherent in the political, social and economic systems built by a white elite.

My black students tell stories of that violence. Your car breaks down and when the police approach you make sure to move very, very slowly when you get out of the car. Be careful not to drive in late night or early morning hours at all – stay inside and at home lest your actual appearance in the world be regarded as a danger. Make sure to give white people all the space they need to be anxious. Be understanding about their fears, be able to explain why they don’t need to fear who you are or what you want from them.

White America has done enough to convince itself that they’ve done enough. But what has been done is nothing, really.

There has been no teshuva. There has been no constant, clear, precise acknowledgment of this country’s past. White people have owned black people. White people have controlled black people. White people do not need for black people to explain why racism is still “a problem.” They need a teshuva that will have actual consequences, that will offer genuine reparation, that is widespread, systemic, and institutionalized.

Yesterday I sat with five students in an advanced class on the history of European antisemitism. One white student spoke about the inevitability of Martin Luther King’s name coming up in white conversations about black protest, and added, “and they killed him.”

Even during that raw, open conversation, I wondered: Were we white people in the room approaching the teshuva we are responsible for wholeheartedly embracing?

Did we even make a start?

Learning is Healing

Genesis 4:1-8 Now the man knew his wife Eve, and she conceived and bore Cain, saying, “I have gained a male child with the help of the LORD.” She then bore his brother Abel. Abel became a keeper of sheep, and Cain became a tiller of the soil. In the course of time, Cain brought an offering to the LORD from the fruit of the soil; and Abel, for his part, brought the choicest of the firstlings of his flock. The LORD paid heed to Abel and his offering, but to Cain and his offering He paid no heed. Cain was much distressed and his face fell. And the LORD said to Cain, “Why are you distressed, And why is your face fallen? Surely, if you do right, There is uplift. But if you do not do right Sin couches at the door; Its urge is toward you, Yet you can be its master.” Cain said to his brother Abel … and when they were in the field, Cain set upon his brother Abel and killed him.

Learning heals in mysterious ways. It’s a reason to teach.

Take Genesis 4: Eve has just gotten a child with the help of YHVH. Said child is Cain, whose name means “acquisition.” Abel follows; his name can be translated as “vapor.”

Like a vapor, Abel is here… and gone.

We all know the story. Or we think we know it. Cain offers YHVH a sacrifice of fruits; Abel offers the firstlings of his flock. YHVH accepts the latter and doesn’t much care for the former.

Last week, my college students and I discussed various midrashim about these few verses. We explored the interpretations suggesting that Cain and Abel fought over an unnamed sister. We read from Targum Pseudo Jonathan (Gen. 4:1), which insisted that Cain was the devil’s child.

No wonder God had a divine hissy fit.

Biblical literature is cryptic, mysterious. There are plentiful gaps between the lines. What did Cain actually say to Abel? Why does YHVH seem to be overreacting to Cain’s disappointment by delivering an overbearing and sententious lecture?

We came back to the sacrifice issue. Some of the midrashim suggest that Abel’s offerings were better than Cain’s – meat, after all, in ancient Israel, was to be prized. Shake out the sheep’s value and you would likely trump the tangerine, after all. By a bunch.

“So,” one student says, “if God wants a blood sacrifice, is it possible that Cain just misunderstood? He didn’t have any flocks. Was Abel the only blood sacrifice he could offer?”

There was a tad bit of gentle mayhem for a few minutes.

Here is what’s important, though: I want my students to ask questions of the text – even if they seem outlandish or bizarre. I want them to approach these texts as if they had never known a thing about them, never been told how to interpret them, never heard that they were supposed to take an explanation on faith.

I want them in the wide open space a classroom is supposed to provide. In such a place, my students will ask about Cain’s grief and sorrow when he anguishes over a future defined by wandering, marked by banishment from God, Godself. They will acknowledge that rejection and dismissal – in their world, too – can be a thing of a moment that can scar lifelong.

They see that the texts are real.

Last semester, a student of mine noticed the way Ruth appeared to be manipulated by Naomi.  Naomi instructed Ruth; she was to venture down to the threshing place in the dark of night, entirely alone. She was to enter treacherous territory. She was to seduce an older man.

This student was thinking about Ruth’s vulnerability, the danger she endured. Maybe she was also, in a way, thinking about herself. This student walks in a hazardous world herself. She moves from one classroom to another but avoids ever going to the bathrooms on campus.

“I don’t want to face a confrontation,” she says.

Once, she and I spoke about her upbringing, about the way her classes in biblical literature were allowing her, finally, to ask questions in a safe environment. She joked with me once, claiming that after learning what was going on in our classrooms, it was possible that her parents were finding it easier to acknowledge that she was trans than to talk bible with her.

Will this student ask amazing questions, write revelatory and astonishing texts, find, in a way, that her learning can be healing?

I think so. I hope so.

transgender-symbolNote: The student in question was given a copy of this post before it was published and asked for her permission to do so.

For those of us who write about worlds not our own, a prayer: May we write respectfully, carefully, and with the safety of those we write about in mind.