Open Letter to My Students 6: “Protest and Change, and Doing What We Do”

I didn’t travel to New York to join the protests this week; I wish I had; I couldn’t. And I wonder how many other people feel that way.

I’m 77 years old with an underlying heart condition. My wife has cancer and is on chemo. Were I to contract Covid-19, I stand a pretty good chance of dying. Were I to infect my wife, she would almost certainly not survive. So I stayed home. Call it white privilege, if you like — I could afford to do it. But there it is.

I am also, I admit, just not the marching type. I don’t do well in crowds, am inherently non-confrontational, and have an irrational fear of violence. I loathed the rough-and-tumble boy-

culture of my childhood; and the only semi-contact sport I ever played was intramural high-school basketball, which I dropped when its aggressive nature so rattled me that the first time I got the ball, I headed in the wrong direction and scored against my own team. No doubt all of that played a role in my decision.

So what does someone like me do, as the early summer swelters with the stench our country’s rotten underbelly, in the form of George Floyd’s murder?

If I don’t habitually march, I do obsessively think, so I have been thinking. If I play no role in the today’s street, mIght I find my proper place in tomorrow’s aftermath? And might you, dear students, friends, and colleagues join me?

Begin with what we want to prevent: a real-life rerun of Les Miserables, Victor Hugo’s reflection on Europe’s abortive 1830 and 1848 revolutions. The operative word is “abortive.” People marched and were killed and nothing changed. Nor do we want another French-style revolution with a bloody “reign of terror” (already there are calls to disband the police, as if the police per se are the root of our problem). But we dare not return to where we were with some social band-aids here and there, until someone else is murdered and we start all over again.

How do we get peaceful revolution: an evocation of the national conscience that finally ends racism; that invests seriously and heavily in reversing past injustices; that uproots obscene discrepancies in education, wealth and opportunity; that resurrects respect for decency; and guarantees the simple joys of work and of play and of safety, food, and shelter?

Such change may begin in the streets, but it doesn’t end there. If my place lies not in the streets, then it may lie somewhere else.

According to the classic study of revolution (Crane Brinton, The Anatomy of Revolution, 1956), societal change begins when conditions of injustice are sufficiently transparent for more than just the underclass to say, “No more!” There must also be a catalytic crisis to ignite the moment, usually a series of them, with one culminating blow that is just too much to bear. That’s where we are today: a president who encourages white supremacy and spews hatred enough for even our military leaders to express their horror; America hovering on the brink of fascism; the Covid crisis, that reveals how sick society is, how unprepared and undefended we all are – and this latest and culminating ignominy, one more black man murdered in cold blood and the president teargassing protesters so he can hold aloft a Bible in front a church.

The underclass and middle class joined in common cause? Check.

A catalytic crisis beyond our wildest fears? Check.

That’s what makes these protests different. That’s why we harbor hope that they will not be in vain.

But protests alone have insufficient staying power. Eventually – in a week, a month or a year — they exhaust themselves; people necessarily return to jobs, families and school. As frustration builds, the leaders who remain become increasingly radicalized, frightening off yet more of the coalition, until the powers that be intervene with force or buy off the revolutionaries with promises that never materialize.

Hence, the necessary next step: spreading the moral urgency beyond the streets into the very fabric of society, where those with power, means, and opportunity can carry the torch of reform. And that is where we clergy come in.  We are the bridge beyond the protests in the streets. Religion through time has been rightly criticized for using the bridge to hold change back — part of the problem, not the solution. No wonder those who dream of a better age have nothing good to say about organized religion and those who represent it,

But clergy can equally be the moral force that sears the cause of the street into the conscience of the nation. We hold bully pulpits, and are trusted to tell truths that no one else will. We are the last best bet to keep the hope of change alive when the street dies down.

So what do we do, if you, like me, cannot or do not see the streets as your sole or major contribution? The answer is, we do what we were called to do: we speak, and sing, and argue the moral truths of our tradition. We hammer home the reality of America’s ethical decay; we condemn fascism in the making; we say that black lives matter, that immigrant lives matter, that the life of our planet matters, that education matters, that science matters, that children matter; that hate-filled alt-right evil is dangerously afoot in our land, aided and abetted by knowing winks from the White House and by partisan elected officials who are cowed into compliance; we insist on ethical and compassionate leadership, in league with America’s sacred best not its unholiest worst.

I spent yesterday listening to sermons by colleagues who are rising to the occasion and telling these truths, sometimes at risk to themselves. I join my voice to theirs. We may not hold the power to effect deep change ourselves, but we are the bridge from the street toß the people who do.



3 responses to “Open Letter to My Students 6: “Protest and Change, and Doing What We Do”

  1. Steve Weinberg

    Rabbi Hoffman, may I courteously recommend that you begin listening to the marvelous young people of all colors and ethnic and educational and class backgrounds who are intelligently speaking up on social media about facing and acting against racism in American society and use this window to your followers to expose them to these important emerging voices. There are literally thousands to choose from. Hope you and your wife and family remain safe from the virus.

  2. Larry, Thank you for reminding us that it is OK to not protest when this COVID-19 pandemic remains in our midst. Like you, we are of a certain age and health status that shouts…be careful and think twice. So, though I am not a clergy person, I will continue to educate myself, speak out, call my elected representatives, participate when I can, and engage my children and grandchildren in conversations about racism and biases. I am an optimist who sees promise in them and their future…and I hope I can lay some of the moral groundwork for that. Rosanne Selfon

  3. Deanna Douglas

    Yes, Crane Brinton said that the French Revolution was not the uprising of the poorest classes, but of the middle class who saw their lives negatively affected by the “system,” so to speak. We can only hope that that holds true for today. Brinton’s work (when I was in high school) was a total original look at that revolution and has transformed people’s minds of how change takes place. Note the Vietnam protests, for example

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