A well taught midrash (Bereshit Rabbah 39:1) tells us that, as Abraham was journeying, he came across a burning palace. “Is it possible that this palace has no master?” asked Abraham. Whereupon God looks out from the palace and says, “I am the master of this palace.”
Today we look across our country and we see our palace, our country on fire. I have spent the day searching for the right words, yet I fear they may never come. Our country is on fire and some are trying to put it out with shot glasses, while others throw kerosene on the flames. We need to realize that we are all responsible, and we all have a stake in making it better.
For me this is personal. On April 4, 1968, Rev Martin Luther King was assassinated in Memphis. My grandparents (my fathers parents) owned a number of liquor stores in downtown DC, and in the days following Dr. King’s assassination my grandparents would lose their stores to looting and rioting. The liquor business is an interesting one. You used to buy goods on consignment, the merchandise was yours to sell at a profit, and then – at the end of the month — you paid the bill, but you didn’t own the product. When the stores got looted, money was owed and insurance did not cover it all. My grandparents had to pay the bills. It changed their lives in an instant. The DC riots altered the way my grandparents looked at and saw the black community. They were not hateful people, but they had been hurt. They took that hurt to their graves.
Years later, my uncle (my mothers brother) would go on to serve with distinction as a police officer for most of his adult life. I remember hearing stories of him calling my grandparents when he finished a shift, no matter how late. He saw his job to protect the public good, nothing more, nothing less. I remember him taking me on tours of the police station, letting me sit in his squad car, wear his helmet and turn on the sirens. He, along with his fellow officers, kept and continue to keep Montgomery County, MD a safe place. I believe being a police officer is one of the most honorable professions.
I am not indifferent or apathetic to either side of this conversation. Yet, what I am is white. And while that is nothing to apologize for, I must realize the privilege I enjoy that my black friends and neighbors do not. I’ll never need to explain to my children “the rules” of being pulled over while driving black, or warn them not to wear a hoodie too late at night after buying some candy. The one time I got pulled over in Omaha for running a red light, as I got my license and registration out I explained to my daughter that I’d made a mistake. Meanwhile, as the officers approached the car, they waved at her and let me go with just a warning. I always wondered, had I been a black pastor in North Omaha would I have received the same deference and understanding.
Friends, our palace is on fire and so we must be courageous. The sad truth is the palace was already on fire, we just couldn’t see the flames because we didn’t want to look. We must for once and for all combine prayer and action, because one without the other has proved to be foolish and fruitless. The flames are now in our backyard. Will we shrink or rise to the occasion? Will we look to others to fix the problems we face or finally look inside ourselves? We must acknowledge that each of us have biases, but the time for vigils and gatherings is behind us. The work that must be done is inside each of our own souls.
The journey is far from over. The owner of the palace is home and we must do the work of putting out the fire together.