From Italy, I Pray: Don't Get Distracted by Religion

06/18/2015 02:18 pm ET | Updated Jun 18, 2016

The racism in the United States has come to be shocking, to many of us who have perhaps over years closed our eyes to how violent a thing it is. That, of course, is easier to do for white people because as many point out, white people, knowingly or not, tend to benefit from the institution and its practice. We also tend to compartmentalize so that one event becomes an issue about guns and another about something else, when often the issues are all too connected.

I am still very distraught over a New Yorker piece I read on June 7th, by Jennifer Gonnerman, entitled "Kalief Browder, 1993-2015." Browder was--obviously from the title-- young, and he had spent three years in Riker's Island without a trial. There he was beaten, by guards and by inmates; he was traumatized to be sure. He came out damaged, harmed -- diminished as a human being. He had hospital stays, and hallucinations, suicide attempts and bouts of despair. And then he killed himself, by hanging himself out of a window in the apartment where he lived with his mother.

I am distraught because this is the kind of pain that so should not be. It shows how much we as a nation can tolerate incarcerating some people who seem to us like lesser, perhaps like nothing, because they aren't white like us, and they are not fancy in their ways or rich in their capacity to hire fancy lawyers. From Italy, not in any way an ideal nation with pervasively effective ways of dealing with complex problems, still looking at the Riker's Island brutality in general and the story of Kalief Browder would be very disturbing, if it hit the headlines. That is not the case as of yet at least. What is the case is that people are discussing the racial divide in America, made plainer by the list of instances in which police have been found to be especially violent and punitive when it comes to black people.

Racism is to be sure a big issue in the States, and yesterday I became also further upset, but also further interested, by the issues involved in American slavery, having just finished "The Invention of Wings," by Sue Monk Kidd, most of which takes place perhaps ironically in the city of Charleston. Today it was reported that nine people were killed as they sat in a black church worshiping. The suspected killer has been found and there is a great deal of intensity in the overall national reactions.

It is a heinous crime, to be sure, really horrific and scary. It could happen to anyone at any time. As a Jew, I have been aware of how hard it has been for me over the years to see the thread or violence that has been there in American slavery, for one, as deserving of the same attention and urgency of understanding, as the Holocaust, as one example. I am part of it too, putting one thing on the top of a list and having tunnel vision when it involves caring as much about something that looks different but has a lot in common.

My fear is that this will happen as regards today's massacre. In other words, there are already statements coming out about how grotesque it is to shoot people who are doing the most holy act, that of worshiping. And yet, Kalief Browder, for me was doing something as holy, in that he was trying to live the best he could. In his way he was even praying, as he told people he couldn't take it, he couldn't take the pain.

I am in Italy at this time, and I am talking about praying in a most agnostic way, though the sentiment perhaps is close. It has to do, not with worship but with a kind of meditation, a sense of caring and worry and of hope, and of a need to communicate.

Religion can be used for good and for evil, as when most white churches in America praised and for the most part defended slavery, and told their black parishioners to be ever better at obedience. Religion can be used for inquisitions and for terrorism and for hatred and predictions of genocide in years to come (you know, as in burning in hell). It is not above the rest of life as far as I'm concerned. And our habit of holding one massacre as of a different species than another seems a habit it may be time to break.

When John Legend spoke at the Oscars, as winner for the song in the film "Selma" (co-written with Common) "Glory," he spoke about the work that still needed to be done, the US having the largest incarceration rate in the world, and how much higher the rate was for black men. He alienated some people who asked why he had to be divisive at that moment. Well, he wasn't being divisive; he was just being honest. And honestly, not only is there inequality in the prison rate, but also we are too distant and cold from the problem when it's someone not in our economic class or the color of our skin.

Truly, I don't like prayer meetings all that much, or preaching in the sense that I feel we need to concentrate on figuring out why there is such an empathy vacuum, and why it is so hard to stay concerned with solving problems together, rather than with who will get (or buy) the most votes in the next election. But some moments strike the chords of passion, and looking at the news from South Carolina, I am impassioned. I am also anticipating the people around me who will be asking about what the matter is with the US. I think when they read about Kalief Browder, if they do, they would be equally horrified.

This is not about religion but about human dignity.