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11/26/2014 08:47 am ET Updated Jan 26, 2015

Making Thanksgiving Real: Rejoice in Our Ability to Challenge the Pervasive Injustice in American Society

"You may be 38 years old as I happen to be, and one day some great opportunity stands before you and calls upon you to stand up for some great principle, some great issue, some great cause--and you refuse to do it because you are afraid; you refuse to do it because you want to live longer; you're afraid that you will lose your job, or you're afraid that you will be criticized or that you will lose your popularity or you're afraid that somebody will stab you or shoot at you or bomb your house, and so you refuse to take the stand. Well you may go on and live until you are 90, but you're just as dead at 38 as you would be at 90! And the cessation of breathing in your life is but the belated announcement of an earlier death of the spirit. You died when you refused to stand up for right, you died when you refused to stand up for truth, you died when you refused to stand up for justice." ~ Martin Luther King, Jr., November 1967

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This Thanksgiving most of us who read Huffington Post can rejoice in our ability to stand up against the craziness in our society and the global injustice that surround us. As we sit around our holiday table, we can celebrate the manifold opportunities to take Martin Luther King Jr.'s challenge seriously, and teach our parents, children, grandchildren and guests that it would be a terrible waste of life if all we focused on was our own personal blessings without simultaneously raising to consciousness all that needs 'tikkun' (the healing and transformation of our world).

Taking time to give thanks for all that we have--our lives, our health, the incredibly awesome universe in which we live, the love that we have in our lives--all this deserves genuine thanks. Yet celebrating our many blessings should not preclude us from addressing the pressing need for healing and transforming the world. So, if people tell you that it's a bummer or bringing them down from their joy if you talk about the injustices that surround us, tell them that our very ability to do so is another one of our blessings.

It's hard to know where to start, because once we wake up from whatever trance we use to drown out the cries of the oppressed and the suffering that pervades the planet, the pain can be overwhelming. Shall we talk about the horrible verdict in Ferguson, Missouri where America's system of racist injustice once again confirmed what most young African Americans already have learned hundreds of times in their lives: that their lives are not valued, that any policeman can create whatever stories they want to justify shooting young blacks. In spite of the fact that it happens so frequently, we can rejoice that so many African Americans are standing up in protest and anger. They did so the past two nights in a collective cry of anguish and outrage. Would that our week-kneed president Obama had been able to give voice to that pain instead of focusing attention on why he is opposed to violence (so are we, but the violent are a tiny group, while the outrage and fear extends to tens of millions of minorities and the poor who are frequently facing police violence or wildly unfair treatment in the "criminal justice" system. But so much of what Obama faces in the way of irrational criticism is itself a barely covered manifestation of the racism with which he has been greeted through much of his presidency that it's sometimes hard to tell the difference between the legitimate upset with the way he has capitulated to the status quo and the interests of the 1% and the upset directed at him no matter what he does simply because he is African American. I only wish that Democratic Party politicians would call out this racism explicitly, but they too tend to capitulate rather than articulate when it comes to the racism that has shaped this country for the past hundreds of years. Yet on Thanksgiving, we should be able to raise this with our families and friends even if doing so makes some people uncomfortable, even as we simultaneously affirm the very good things in our life.

This was a year when 400,000 Americans marched in NYC to protest the inaction of elected leaders to seriously deal with climate change and the environmental crisis that is deepening every day. Now a Republican Congress will seek to defund the Environmental Protection Agency so that it cannot move against carbon whose excessive release by corporate America and other industrial states has been a primary factor in the accelerating rise in temperature on planet earth. Most of the American public declined to vote, many out of disgust that the Democrats were unable to articulate any coherent alternative to the Right. But in the coming two years many of us will be able to exercise our American right to protest, and to use our electoral system to do that. Nothing could be more effective than to get your local city council and state legislature to endorse the ESRA--Environmental and Social Responsibility Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Read it at www.tikkun.org/esra. We have much to do to protest climate injustice. If we don't, many of us may find our lives totally transformed by the coming environmental disaster. Even now, though, the worst impact of climate destructiveness is felt by the weakest, poorest, and least able to defend themselves parts of our world's population. Environmental justice must demand that we share equally in the damage our advanced industrial society has brought to the whole world. If even China can "get it," and agree to dramatic reductions in climate pollution in the coming years, why shouldn't we be taking our outrage at the climate deniers directly to their constituencies. And give thanks that we are free to do that -- if we choose to use the actual power that ordinary citizens have.

The greatest injustice to recall on Thanksgiving is the genocide perpetrated by European settlers against the Native Americans, successfully wiping out most of them over the course of some 200 years of ruthless expropriation of their lands, their means of livelihood and food, and their self-respect. At the Thanksgiving dinner it is particularly appropriate to invoke the memory of those natives, and recommit ourselves to doing all we can to ensure that no other people gets similarly treated.

Sadly, the Palestinian people may be facing a similar expropriation as Israeli settler daily expand their settlements on Arab lands. Those of us who have championed a two state solution for Israel/Palestine now find ourselves increasingly doubting if there will ever be a stop to Israeli expansionism before so much land has been taken away from Palestinians that the notion of two states living in peace will seem so implausible and the land available not adequate to create an economically and political viable state for Palestinians. The injustice of Occupation cannot wipe out from our memory the tragic murders of 3 Israeli teens last summer and 5 Israelis in a synagogue just days ago, nor can those tragic events wipe from our memory the burning alive by Israeli settlers of a Palestinian teenager or the killing of over 2,100 Palestinians by the Israeli army this past summer. And yet, voices of sanity are still around, protesting even today the decision by the inner cabinet of the Israeli government to pass legislation that will establish Israel as "a Jewish state" rather than a state of all its citizens equally. These are protests that are getting more and more dangerous for peaceniks, particularly after gangs roamed the streets of Israeli cities this past summer beating up random young men suspected of being Palestinian (perhaps thereby expressing their own outrage at having to duck into air raid shelters several times a day to escape the possibility that one of Hamas' attempts to bomb Israeli civilians would work). The voices of protest have dimmed but they still exist, not least in the pages of Tikkun magazine www.tikkun.org.

When our Network of Spiritual Progressives was seeking to educate Congress on the importance of putting pressure on Israel to end the Occupation of the West Bank, many of them told us that it was only the "support-Israel-regardless-of-whether-you-agree-with-its treatment-of-Palestinians" crowd that pushed them hard. I asked "what is pushing hard mean" and over and over again I was told "if we get twenty to thirty phone calls on an issue that isn't about self-interest that feels huge, because most people don't call and don't write letters to us--only standardized emails or faxes and hidden in ways that we can't tell if these are really our constituents or not. Any cause that gets thirty people calling--we think they really represent something real!!!" So don't underestimate what you could do in that arena. And there are other things outside Congress that may be even more important, like getting your city council and state legislature to endorse a constitutional convention to put the Global Marshall Plan and the Environmental and Social Responsibility Amendment into the revised constitution. And it would be great if readers of this statement were to call the White House and your Congressperson and 2 Senators to demand a federal intervention to make it a federal crime for a police officer to shoot an unarmed civilian. Just saying ... be creative!

Ok, this is the place for your creativity in your own Thanksgiving celebration. Ask friends and others to contribute to the calling out of all the aspects of our society and our world where justice is whimpering but about which we can tell the stories of those who managed to stand up against injustice, even at great personal risk. Tell stories from your own lives or from the lives of others whom you've known about all these years--stories of how you stood up for justice and lived to tell the tale!! You'll find it a useful spiritual practice this Thanksgiving, not as replacement for more personal things you are grateful for, but as a supplement to that way of thanking the universe for all the good in our lives.

And when you are finished doing so, write up your stories and send them to me: RabbiLerner.tikkun@gmail.com for possible use on the Tikkun website at www.tikkun.org..

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Rabbi Michael Lerner is editor of the Jewish and Interfaith magazine Tikkun and co-chair of the Network of Spiritual Progressives. He is the author of eleven books, including The Left Hand of God: Taking Back our Country From the Religious Right and with Cornel West Jews and Blacks: Let the Healing Begin. He welcomes hearing from you directly at RabbiLerner.tikkun@gmail.com--particularly if you have joined the interfaith and secular-humanist-welcoming Network of Spiritual Progressives.