Live the Questions

Words of Torah, funny anecdotes about my students, rants about education policy, and observations on politics, progressive Judaism, activism, and culture will all make appearances on this blog. Each post will end with a question for the reader; please respond if you feel moved.

Saturday, April 15, 2006

On Passover, William Sloane Coffin, and being an effective agent for social justice

On April 12, William Sloane Coffin died. May his memory be a blessing.

Born into privilege (a wealthy, elite New York family, education at exclusive prep schools and then at Yale), Coffin became a devotee of liberation theology and one of our country's strongest voices for justice. After becoming disenchantment with his work in the Army's military intelligence unit and the CIA, Coffin became a Protestant minister and discovered the theology of Reinhold Niebuhr. As a Presbyterian and UCC minister, he fought against the Vietnam War and opposed the draft, took part in the Freedom Rides and other actions to promote civil rights, worked towards nuclear disarmament, supported the creation of the Peace Corps, championed many antipoverty measures, and even advocated equal rights for gays and lesbians years before many other progressive religious leaders were comfortable doing so. A firm believer in the power of civil disobedience, he was imprisoned several times for participating in protests and actions; he risked his position as Chaplain of Yale University in the 1960s when he protected young men avoiding the draft and as senior minister of Riverside Church in New York City when he took bold and unpopular political stances. Coffin positioned social justice centrally in his theology and his life as a person of faith.

As I read various obituaries over the past few days, what surprised me most about Coffin is that he came from a blue-blooded, wealthy, elite New England family and followed a highly conventional path for most of his first 30 years of life. Yet, something in his experience or temperament led him to question the foundations of that path and to identify with the suffering and the oppressed. Coffin's activism was not grounded in paternalistic pity or "charity" but in an identification with other people and an understanding of the interconnectedness of everyone's well-being. Although he could have chosen to lead a comfortable life, insulated from much of the suffering in the world, Coffin instead realized "you can be more alive in pain than in complacency."

At the Passover seder, we re-enact the story of the Exodus from Egypt. The Haggadah tells us that "in every generation a man must see himself as if he [personally] had gone out from Egypt." As Rabbi David Stern taught this weekend, it is important to recognize that instead of selecting the 3rd-person account of the going out from Egypt from the book of Exodus for the Haggadah, the rabbis selected the 1st person recounting of the story from Deuteronomy 26. Why did the rabbis pick the less direct, less detailed version of the story, the version mediated by an additional narrator? The passage in Deuteronomy 26 is a story about identifying with the story, about retelling it in such as way as to reclaim not only the historical sense of the event but also the sense of being personally affected and personally involved.

The most frequently-cited motivation for "doing the right thing" in the Chumash is precisely this same type of identification with the oppressed and the suffering. "Do not (or do) X, Y, or Z because you were strangers in the land of Egypt." The text is not asking us to do some kind of Rawlsian thought experiment and rationally determine what the best policy would be; the text is demanding that we understand ourselves as slaves and strangers in order to be effective in protecting the rights of slaves and strangers. Only empathy and an understanding of one's own oppression (not compassion, not pity, not sympathy, not a detached sense of right and wrong) will allow us to create justice in our communities.

We are often very short-sighted when it comes to remembering this. Witness the trouble we (the people of the United States) are having deciding on immigration policy when we are, ourselves, nearly all immigrants.

Here's my question for my readers: How do we cultivate this identification? How do we help ourselves understand the depth of the connection between ourselves and other human beings?

And a final word from William Sloane Coffin:

"When you see uncaring people in high places, you should be mad as hell. "


  • At 11:32 AM, Anonymous ER said…

    Shkoyach on the new blog! We're all happy you've gone public. :) And thanks for starting with Coffin. He died minutes before Pesach started around here, so I missed almost all the news coverage.

  • At 10:00 PM, Anonymous dsquared said…

    The question you end with is an excellent one. What makes it all the harder is the fact that empathy is, by nature, very hard to demonstrate. Asserting "I understand" or "I sympathize" just isn't enough. One has to show it. How?

    Part of my inability to conceive of it has to do with my skepticism about the possibility of genuine identification with oppressed people as you describe it. How does one understand oneself as a slave if one is born into relative material comfort? Can the Haggadah's injunction equip a present-day Jew to experience, in any way, the hardships of the early Jews? Can a good history lesson, or a visit to Colonial Williamsburg, quip today's Americans to experience the hardships of life as a chattel slave in the early American South? We should certainly learn about the experiences of slaves. There are plenty of good reasons to do this, tops among them being the importance of assuring that slavery never happens again. But can I ever be in the shoes of a slave? Can I ever really know what it's like to be treated as property? And is it worthwhile even to attempt to really know what this is like? If so, what does this look like? Will such an attempt on my part be socially beneficial?

    Did Coffin imagine hismelf as a slave in order to do his good work? Maybe. But maybe not. Perhaps he exercised such unflinching compassion that the differences between him and the recipients of his compassion seemed to melt away, his compassion being so heartfelt and constant.

    I'm inclined to disagree that an understanding of one's own oppression is necessary for justice. If the lynchpin is that one needs to see oneself as oppressed in order to truly empathize, then it may be impossible unless one deliberately cultivates a self-idenitification as an oppressed person. And I'm inclined to think that such a self-image would be more of a detrement to society than a benefit. Might it not be better to identify the best, or the most socially useful, of our traits and cultivate those instead, so as to equip ourselves to form genuine connections in a way that best suits us?

    Compassion, I think, can go a long way toward improving the conditions around oneself. So, yes, genuine empathy should be sought--but the benefits of compassion, which acknowledges inherent differences between individuals while still admitting of an honest (and not necessarily patronizing) connection, shouldn't be overlooked.

    Ironically, I recently had a few conversations with good friends that led to the same punchline about the importance of genuine empathy over and above the sort of moral guidelines you mention. So, there's clearly something more to it than I've been acknowledging. Maybe you or someone else can help me see it.

    Thanks for starting this, M, and for living the important questions. May General Anna flourish!

  • At 1:09 AM, Blogger Brent Chaim Spodek said…

    hey there - as far as Coffin moving from privlege to outrage, something similar happened with Oscar Romero, the archbishop of El Salvador who was assisinated in the civil war. its too early to offer analysis, just the comparison.

  • At 12:54 PM, Anonymous NH3 - keeping it basic said…

    As one of the goyim, I beg your forgiveness if I seem to detract from the color of the General's perspective. I know a few generals myself, and my hope is that my words enrich the spectrum of our General blog.

    One of my favorite Jewish scholars is quoted rather frequently at weddings with the following (maybe you've seen it before),
    "Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs."

    While I whole-heartedly agree, I'm disappointed that much of the context of the passage is often left out.

    "If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal.
    "If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but have not love, I am nothing.
    "If I give all I possess to the poor and surrender my body to the flames, but have not love, I gain nothing.
    "Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud.
    "It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs.
    "Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth.
    "It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.
    "Love never fails. But where there are prophecies, they will cease; where there are tongues, they will be stilled; where there is knowledge, it will pass away.
    "For we know in part and we prophesy in part,
    "but when perfection comes, the imperfect disappears.
    "When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put childish ways behind me.
    "Now we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.
    "And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love."

    These words were written to a Grecian society who faced the challenges of and conflicts between the freedom to do anything that they wanted and the discipline to reject those things that eroded the moral and ethical foundation of their souls.

    We face the same conflict today in America, and in a growing sense as we Americans open the rest of the world to the capabilities of freedom.

    The enduring nature of faith, hope, and love make them the most important characteristics of our moral fiber, and indeed our lives.

    Science and Technology may make our expressions of faith, hope, and love easier for some, but my Jewish scholar would be quick to remind, as he did the Grecians,
    "Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up."

    The true challenge is to apply these concepts to all people: those with whom you are close and with whom you are not; those whom you enojy and whom you detest; those who can speak for themselves and those who cannot.

    I must admit, that I struggle with the latter. I think we all do. We are not wired that way. Pride, lust, greed, selfishness, and dishonesty are natural responses of our psyches which move to promote our our gain. A study of the stock market quickly reveals that when we gain, someone loses.

    Ultimately, the first step is to recognize that love cannot flourish without a relationship. A relationship cannot flourish without seeking, asking, and listening.
    If we could accept a positive-sum result from relationship building, we can easily see how to answer the General's question. Here goes... When I connect to someone else, I make a relationship. That relationship instantly connects me not only to the new person but also to all those whom this new person knows. As my new relationship deepens, so does my relation to this myriad of other faceless people such that when I meet them, I don't start from ground zero. I'm already a leg up on a newer relationship. More faith built, more hope cultivated, more love expressed

    Thus relationships are like plants. The more you have, the more you understand them.
    Which one's have you watered today?
    Which one's have you planted today?

  • At 9:57 PM, Blogger General Anna said…

    Thanks to all who posted comments! I love NH3's emphasis on personal relationship (that's the idea behind community organizing, one of the most powerful methods of cultivating empathy that I know of)and think NH3 is right about the near-impossibility of empathizing without the context of relationship. Martin Buber would be proud of us. (Read I and Thou if you haven't yet.)
    To dsquared, I think that my approach to your ideas is basically that we have to learn to see ourselves as identical with the oppressed but not with the oppression. I hope that's a real distinction and not just a semantic one. What I mean is that I think it's crucial to see ourselves as inextricably linked to the rest of humanity (or the planet) not just the circumstances in which other people live but the others themselves. Has anyone read The Brothers Karamazov? Perhaps I will post sometime on why the theodicy presented in that novel is the only one that's ever convinced me.

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