Peter Holden is a 92-year-old African American man who grew up in the Jim Crow South, raised in North Carolina. I saw a video recently on the New York Times where he talked about how in the time of the depression blacks and whites came together to help one another, regardless of race, because everyone was hungry.
"People were aware of one another, people took notice of one another, people cared," he said, "but once the hard times got better, once we recovered, we went back to not caring, to seeing race as a divider."
Sixty years later, living now in Harlem, Mr. Holden said he saw the same thing after 9/11, where New Yorkers were scared, they flocked to church, they flocked to be together, they craved community. But again, after the initial shock of the emergency wore off, that connection wore off. When our connection to community wears off, that in and of itself is an emergency worthy of attention. Peter Holden, in his 90s, understands this and is teaching it to his grandchildren.
If this was a regular year, I would stand up here and talk about gratitude and how we are so lucky to have what we have. But this is not a regular year. If this was a regular year, I might say that we are trying our hardest to heal our community, to do the best we can to make a difference, but this is not a regular year. No, this is not a year when most people are doing OK and we have to care for the few on the margins that Scripture tells us will always be there. The margins have grown and they include many more millions of our fellow citizens who never thought they would become marginalized. No, this is not a regular year when our country is stable and prosperous and healthy and we have the luxury of sitting at our Thanksgiving tables in peace, for our country is in serious danger, systems are breaking down, nobody seems to know what to do, most sadly our elected leaders, those whom we chose to lead and make decisions, are sitting by and watching as we sink further down. This is not a year when we can isolate ourselves in our cocoon; this is a year when we must be awakened, reminded and spurred into action. And in Deuteronomy, chapter 8, we find a text that is a clarion call for the time we are facing today.
Lest when you have eaten and are full, and have built goodly houses, and lived there. And when your herds and your flocks multiply, and your silver and your gold is multiplied, and all that you have is multiplied. Then your heart be lifted up, and you forget the Lord your God, which brought you out of the land of Egypt, from the house of slavery. And you say in your heart, My power and the might of my hand has gotten me this wealth. And you shall remember the Lord your God; for he is who gives you power to get wealth, that he may establish his covenant which he swore to your fathers, as it is this day. And it shall be, if you do forget the Lord your God, and walk after other gods, and serve them, and worship them, I warn you solemnly this day that you shall surely perish. Like the nations which the Lord destroys before your face, so shall you perish; because you would not be obedient to the voice of the Lord your God." (Deuteronomy 8:12-20)
This text is what I think we need this Thanksgiving for we are facing a crisis in our country not only of economic recession and deficits, not only of unemployment, not only of budget cuts, not only of home foreclosures, not only of hunger. We are facing a crisis of confidence in the ways of our founders. We are facing a crisis of greed and monopoly. We are facing a crisis of leadership and direction, for we know how to get ourselves out of this mess, a mess of the many created by the few. We are facing a crisis of community.
Deuteronomy is telling us what we need to do first: Remember that arrogance, greed, haughtiness lead us to despair and ultimately to destruction. God gives us the attributes to counter the negative forces that can lead us astray: humility, kindness, altruism. And God entrusts us with the powers that can make our world one created in the Divine image: equity, justice, fairness and the courage to fight for these powers to be enacted in halls of power. The key lines for me in this passage are about forgetting the source of our life, the source of our strength, the source of our wealth, when we say, "my own power and the might of my own hand have won this wealth for me..."
There is nothing wrong with prosperity and wealth according to Deuteronomy, for God wants us to succeed, wants us to prosper, wants us to increase. However, the Bible is reminding us about what happens when we lose sight of the bigger picture of life -- when our wealth and prosperity blinds us to the needs of others, to the call of justice and fairness, blinds us to the fact that we are all "renters" on this Earth, finite, limited creatures, that "to God belongs the entire Earth." We are reminded in this text that there are idols out there which will tempt us and lead us astray. In every generation, there are idols and today is no different. Today, they are not wooden statues or golden calves, but cut-throat competition, unfettered and heartless economic policies that have created the greatest wealth divide between rich and poor our world has ever known, speculation and betting on derivatives, home prices, gas prices, energy prices, using honest people's hard earned investments in a high-stakes game of Monopoly that crashed our economy and then rewarded the criminals with bailouts while punishing the people by bailing on them. This is not a regular year, my friends, not a regular Thanksgiving season. But there are signs of hope, signs that we can find a way out.
Many of our local clergy in Southern California, myself included, have been spending time at the Occupy LA site in downtown at City Hall. While this movement is quite complex and is still in its infancy, we have found good people, caring people, young and old, employed and unemployed, who are coming together for the common cause of taking back our country, taking back our government, taking back our economy from the uber-wealthy, from the corporations that our Supreme Court now deems are equal to human beings, calling for a return to sanity and fairness. Yes, there are many converging elements in these camps, and certainly camping in downtown is not the goal of the movement, but their spirit, their energy and their commitment is driven, in very large part, by the warnings of our text from Deuteronomy. They see greed and haughtiness robbing America of the middle class dream we fought hard to create; they see arrogance and lack of caring stripping us of our values; and, as Bill Moyers recently put it in an article about the Occupy movement, these folks are fighting to regain the dignity of America, where we take care of one another, provide for one another. Moyers sees this movement as fighting back against the notion that today's America is all about "every man, woman and child for themselves, rather than a sense of caring for the common welfare of all citizens."
Turning points in history, in the life of a nation, are created by those who show up. hether we like them or not, the people in these Occupy camps around the country, are showing up and asking for us to join them in fighting for the soul of our nation. I heard Bishop Gene Robinson comment on this movement and when asked what it was all about, he made a similar comment to what Peter Holden observed. Bishop Robinson said this movement is about a decaying of community, a deep loneliness of Americans who feel left out of the process, alone in fear for how they will make it, alone in the midst of 300 million Americans. Loneliness is such a powerful human emotion, one that religious communities have the chance to heal, for at our hearts, we are about creating community, holding each other up, lifting our spirits, rebuilding the brokenness that we find in our world. And, while there are many issues to work out, and while this Occupy movement is still developing, Moyers reminds us of what this is truly about. He closed his article, and I close mine, with the words of Arlo Guthrie from "The Patriots Dream."
Living now here but for fortune
Placed by fate's mysterious schemes
Who'd believe that we're the ones asked
To try and rekindle the patriot's dreams
Can you hear the words being whispered
All along the American stream
Tyrants freed, the just are imprisoned
Try to rekindle the patriot's dreams
Ah but perhaps too much is being asked of too few
You and your children with nothing to do
Hear us now for alone we can't seem
To try and rekindle the patriot's dreams.
May we each find ways to uplift one another, to reach out to others, to strengthen our resolve to rebuild our country, looking no further than to the foundations upon which we were built and to our neighbors, our friends, to do it together. As in times past, in hardships past, the words "we shall overcome" ring true today.
Follow Rabbi Joshua Levine Grater on Twitter: www.twitter.com/rabbijoshua