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Posts Tagged ‘good and evil’

            Last week was framed by two events unconnected on the surface, but rather connected in my mind.  First was my presentation at a commemoration of the 75th anniversary of Krystallnact.  I shared stories learned this summer from interviewing my surviving family – in Germany and across the US.  Krystallnact was the tipping point for many German Jews regarding their fate in Germany.  Since 1933 there had been a steady worsening of the oppression of Jews in Germany, the passing of more anti-Semitic laws, more arrests, more Jews sent to concentration camps.  On November 9,10 1938 it all exploded with thousands of Jews arrested, Jewish businesses destroyed, Jewish homes invaded.  This night of terror forced many Jews to finally concede that the Nazis were not just some passing phase, but a persistent reality that would not soon fade away.

The Nazi party excelled in demonizing those it determined to be the “other.”  Jews, Gypsies, homosexuals, people with physical handicaps were all singled out as not fully “Aryan,” meaning not worthy of citizenship in the Reich.  Those not conforming to Nazi party ideology were labeled disloyal Germans.  Anyone daring to voice political opposition to the Nazi party was arrested or worse.  Indeed, one of my great uncles was beaten to death in 1937 because of his leadership in the Social Democratic party.

The Nazis inculcated a culture in which German businesses stopped dealing with those deemed “undesirable” – blaming the victims for the reason they no longer deserved access to goods and services.  A great example is a letter sent to my great uncle Karl Romberg dated December 29, 1938, from LAB, a health insurance provider to small businesses.  The opening paragraph of the letter says:

“We have cause to point out to you, a Jewish member of the LAB, that your membership is most unwelcome due to your racial affiliation.  On the one hand, our Aryan members cannot be expected to be in a risk-bearing community with Jews and perhaps give up their own assets whenever the latter fall ill.  On the other hand, our employees cannot be induced after the events of November 9th and 10th  (italics added by me) to deal with the affairs of Jewish members”

The hypocrisy of the letter is obvious but still worth emphasizing.  Jewish members paid into the LAB the same as non-Jews.  So the risks are proportionately distributed.  This is a simple casting out of the “other” from a business relationship, and using the Nazi spurred oppression of Krystallnacht as an excuse – in effect blaming the victim.

But what framed all of these lessons from Krystallnact in a new light was participating in a panel discussion through our ongoing “Faith, Food, and Friday” series on racism in America in a post Trayvon Martin atmosphere.  Joining me were 3 other clergy as well as Ahmad Abuznaid, a founder and leader of the Dream Defenders – the political action group that occupied the Florida state capital after the verdict in the Martin case came down.  We discussed many aspects of race  issues in America – the changing demographics of the country, the persistence of prejudice, the need to form relationships across ethnic and ideological barriers – but there was one aspect of the discussion that has haunted me, that just refuses to go away.

Our justice system has a serious problem.  As a percentage of our population, we have the largest prison population among all modern industrialized nations.  Along with this, one in 3 African American males has spent, is spending or will spend time in prison.  We have created a system in which imprisoning people is a cottage industry.  Instead of working to rehabilitate, we simply incarcerate.  I do not deny that there are some crimes for which incarceration is very appropriate, but there exists a pipeline in our schools that identifies and categorizes children from very early ages and steers them into the prison system.  The details of this business, how and why it must be drastically reformed are a subject for future discussion.  For now I want to contemplate why America allows a system in which prison is the default remedy for so many infractions of the law.

On the practical level the answer is simple – an industry needs customers to thrive.  The 2008 “kids for cash” scandal illustrates how this system can run amok.  Two judges were convicted of sentencing children to private institutions in exchange for payoffs.  While this is a strong argument against the privatization of prisons, one cannot escape the fact that state run prisons also become self justifying entities that demand a flow of prisoners.

But I think there is an ideological reason for the American obsession with incarceration.  Too many of us judge people as “evil” or “undesirable” as opposed to understanding that it is behavior that is most times evil or undesirable.  Incarceration presumes the person is unredeemable and must be isolated from society.  There are certainly cases where that is likely true, but the huge numbers of minorities placed in the prison system, especially for lesser crimes, indicates a different motive.  In this dominantly Christian country we too often dived people into good and evil camps.  Indeed there is a Christian theology that confines people to an eternity in prison – separating them as unredeemable from those who will enter heaven.

This is not the Jewish way.  We begin from a point that sees evil as in an action, not inherent in an individual.  Ergo, most people have the potential for redemption.  There is a wonderful story in the Talmud illustrating this tension.

“There were certain boors in Rabbi Meir’s neighborhood causing him considerable distress.  He prayed for mercy for them that they would die (by killing them before they committed too many sins, their place in the next world would at least be assured).  His wife, Beruriah said to him, ‘Why are you praying thus?’ He answered, ‘Because it is written, Let sinners cease fro the earth(Psalms 104:35).  To which Beruriah answered, ‘It is not written as sinners but sins.  Further, go to the end of the verse which reads that wicked will be no more.  Rather you should pray that these boors repent of their wickedness then wicked will be no more.’” (Berachot 10a)

Dividing people into groups of good and evil justifies removal and separation.  Far harder, but more powerful is to look for the redeemable and to work to bring those who do wrong back into the mainstream of our society.  Racism/prejudice is the surface evaluation of someone as “evil” and a refusal to search for the good.

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