Monday, January 19, 2015

Speech for Martin Luther King Day

Thank you, Senator Buckner-Webb, for your generous introduction, and to the Idaho Human Rights Commission, for the invitation to speak on this day, which I take as a deeply sacred occasion.  I am most grateful to all of you, and to Governor Otter, Lt. Governor Little, and the members of our state legislature for the opportunity to address you from beneath this Capitol dome, where you toil on behalf of all the citizens of our state.  My presence here testifies to the vitality of our democracy and your generosity, given that less than a year ago, I was arrested three times in this very space while demonstrating on behalf of Add the Four Words.  Thank you for welcoming me back here today as we turn now, toward dialogue, toward listening to and learning from one another in our shared desire to secure the full blessings of liberty for all Idahoans.

This afternoon, I would like to share a fundamental teaching of the Hebrew prophets:  

The pursuit of justice begins with truth.

We dare not speak of things as they should be until we first recognize the way they are, in all their imperfection.

As the Psalmist taught:
Emet me-aretz teetzmach v’tzedek mi-shamayyim neeshkaf—
Only when truth springs up from the earth, can justice shine back from the heavens.

The pursuit of justice begins with truth.

Which means that justice is as difficult as it is imperative, for the truth is often hard to hear.  It calls us to acknowledge our failings and make amends, and this is never easy, for any of us. 

But as we know, this is the only way for us to grow, as individuals and communities.

The pursuit of justice begins with truth.


No one understood this better than Martin Luther King.

Schooled in the teachings of the prophets, his conscience forged in the crucible of southern segregation, Dr. King knew with every bone in his body that the long, hard journey toward a more perfect union must commence with an honest reckoning of our current shortcomings. 

His clear-eyed vision of what is drove his dream of what might yet be.

That is why Dr. King’s most famous speech did not begin with his dream; it opens with truth telling, with a detailed and unflinching catalog of cruel injustices that his people faced under segregation: lynchings and violence, police brutality, disenfranchisement, and dire poverty.  Only after giving voice to this harsh and painful truth does Dr. King lay forth his dream of America redeemed, a land in which all of God’s children will be judged not by the color of their skin but the content of their character, as freedom rings forth from every mountaintop.

The pursuit of justice begins with truth.

In this spirit, I’d like to speak with you today about truth and justice—for we, too, cannot move toward justice without a shared commitment to honest self-examination.

So let us now consider: where are we today, half a century after Dr. King shared his vision for America?

We cannot celebrate this occasion with integrity until we acknowledge that much of his dream remains unfulfilled.  Racism, sexism, religious hatred, and prejudice of all sorts are, alas, alive and well. 

Even the quickest perusal of the headlines reminds us how unjust and even perilous it can still be to be black in America.

Women now make up half the work force but still earn 77 cents for every dollar made by men. 

And immigrants, who come to this nation, as they always have, in search of freedom and opportunity, are all too often met with bigotry and oppression.

And yet, in all of these areas, though much work remains to be done, there is a significant difference between the way things were in Dr. King’s time and where we stand today—due in large part to sea changes in the law.  For all of our contemporary shortcomings, let there be no mistaking this fact: If you are black or female or elderly or non-Christian, if you are an immigrant or a person with disabilities, thanks to civil rights laws passed over the last fifty years, you live in a more just nation than those who came before you. 

Here in our state, half a century after Dr. King shared his dream, it is illegal to discriminate in housing, employment, education or public accommodations on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, national origin, age, or disability—thanks to the Idaho Human Rights Act, carefully crafted by our legislature and authored by then-Republican law maker and later Governor Phil Batt.

Yes, there are often gaps between law and the reality on the ground, but at least today, when Idahoans suffer discrimination, the law provides a path for just recourse—unless you are transgender, lesbian or gay.

Which is why, as Governor Batt himself has noted, we need to add the four words, “sexual orientation” and “gender identity” to our Human Rights Act.


The pursuit of justice begins with truth—so let us be clear about what the LGBT community and their supporters are asking of our lawmakers.

What we seek is simple, straightforward, and very American: the opportunity to play on a level field—to work hard, to be safe, to raise our families, meet our obligations, and be judged not by whom we love but what we accomplish.   Such basic fairness would be roundly beneficial for Idaho businesses, as a guarantee of equitable treatment would help attract the best workers and strengthen our economy in the increasingly competitive  21st century market place.  That’s why nearly 70% of Idahoans believe it should be illegal to discriminate against our gay and transgender family, friends, neighbors and co-workers.  This strong majority of our citizens know that justice is a rising tide that lifts all ships.  I speak for them when I ask you to add the four words that would grant our LGBT brothers and sisters the legal protection that would let them earn a living, secure housing, and be served by public businesses free of prejudice, just like everyone else.   


So why has this proven so difficult?  Why has it taken nearly a decade just to get a hearing?

If the pursuit of justice begins with truth, then we do well to ponder the failures of truth that have delayed and denied justice for lesbian, gay, and transgender Idahoans.  I would like to point to three of those failures that we can and must overcome this year.

Our first failure of truth is our unfortunate human tendency to avert our gaze.  It is all too easy for good and decent people to slowly grow indifferent to the suffering of others. We set out together on the road to justice but sometimes, even with the best of intentions, we lose our way.

An ancient Jewish story teaches that as we journeyed toward freedom through the parted waters of the Red Sea, most of us celebrated the miracle of our liberation. 

But not everyone: 

Reuben and Shimon hurried along among the crowd without ever looking up.  All they noticed was the soggy ground beneath their feet.
“Yuck,” moaned Reuben, “there’s mud all over this place.” 
“Blech!” replied Shimon—I’m knee deep in the mire!” 
“What’s all this about freedom?” muttered Reuben—“We had mud in Egypt and now we have mud here!” 
“Yeah,” said Shimon—there’s no difference between slavery and redemption—either way, it’s just a bunch of mud!”

For Reuben and Shimon, there was no liberation—only mud.  Because they could not keep their eyes on the prize, they lost sight of freedom.

Dr. Martin Luther King implored us to face the truth with open eyes.  In a sermon he delivered shortly before his untimely death he taught:  “One of the great liabilities in life is that all too many people find themselves living amid a great period of social change, and yet they fail to develop the new attitudes, the new mental responses, that the new situation demands.  They end up sleeping through a revolution.”

The pursuit of justice begins with truth.

And truth demands that we wake up.

Woe to us if we sleep through this revolution.

Our second failure of truth is our failure to recognize that fear of being fired or denied housing or public services has compelled countless gay and transgender Idahoans to live a kind of lie.  The very real threat of discrimination forces far too many of our LGBT family, friends, and neighbors into dark closets. 

This is a moral travesty and a menace to the health of the body politic. Over the course of our long and often painful history as an oppressed minority, we Jews have learned that closets are toxic to human health—lethal to the soul and, all too often, to the body, too.  Just ask Add the Four Words demonstrators Julie Zicha and Carmen Stanger, whose beloved children, Ryan and Maddie, committed suicide after suffering relentless bullying for being gay.  Sadly, they are not alone.  I urge you all to listen to their stories—and to those of so many in this movement who have been driven to the brink of self-destruction because they were afraid to publicly affirm who they are and whom they love, because they feared our bigoted condemnation and its very real consequences.

The pursuit of justice begins with truth.

And truth demands that we affirm, for all Idahoans, the ethical imperative that God and Moses make of the ancient Israelites: Lo tuchal l’hitalem—You must  not hide yourselves! (Deuteronomy 22:3)

Our third and final failure of truth is the most difficult of all, for it deals with self-deception—the ways we lie to ourselves to rationalize our failures of justice. 

The prophet Isaiah warned of the dangers of this human weakness, proclaiming, “Woe to those who call evil good and good evil, who put darkness for light and light for darkness.” 

This is the most daunting obstacle on the road to justice.  Change is terribly difficult when we start to really believe our rationalizations of the unjust status quo—and it is even harder when those rationalizations are cloaked in the language of our most sacred values.

Alas, the resistance to Add the Words often invokes the cause of religious freedom.  I have heard talk of a “compromise” bill that would take the teeth out of the law by granting so-called “religious exemptions” to landlords, employers and service providers. 

The pursuit of justice begins with truth. 

So let us consider the true nature of religious freedom in America.

To those whose religious views are different from my own, let me reassure you: I will adamantly defend your right to pray, to argue in the public square, and to discriminate in keeping with your tradition when you hire folks to do God’s work within your church, mosque, temple or synagogue.  Although I proudly officiate at same sex weddings, I will always stand up for your right to refuse to do so. I have no desire to compel you to do anything that violates your religious principles in the realm of faith.  Neither did Governor Phil Batt, at whose insistence compromise and regard for religious institutions and beliefs were carefully crafted into the Idaho Human Rights Act from the start.

But as my colleague Rev Marci Glass reminds us:

Religious freedom doesn’t allow for one to enforce their views on anyone outside the doors of their house of worship.  Once they leave their church and interact in society, they need to check their judgment at the door and treat everyone they meet with fair and honest behavior.”

In most cases, we understand this.  Would we defend the traditional Muslim storekeeper who refuses to serve women that dress in a manner he considers immodest?  The Mormon hairdresser who rejects her clients that carry in mocha lattes?  The Jewish driver who sends the guy eating a ham sandwich to the back of the bus? In a civilized community, we all have dealings with others who behave in ways that we may deem sinful—and the social contract requires that we don’t get to single out one group of those supposed sinners as unworthy of our employment, housing, or services.

As a clergy person, I believe that it is precisely because our religious views are so sacrosanct—that we must never denigrate them by using our faith as a fig leaf for our intolerance, even with the best of intentions.

My friends, if the pursuit of justice begins with truth, then on this matter there can be no moral compromise, for if we waver here, we allow our fears and rationalizations to lead us astray.

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, who marched with Dr. King in Selma, reminds us that after each of the first seven plagues in Egypt, Pharaoh refused to free the Israelites.  But after the eighth plague, as locusts devour every last field and fruit tree, Pharaoh’s advisors urge him to relent, lest all Egypt suffer ruination.  Pharaoh’s response is to offer a “compromise”: he will allow the men to go out, but the women and children will be held as hostage to ensure that the men return.  To which Moses responds: “We will all go, young and old, with our sons and our daughters, our flocks and our herds.”
This passage is instructive, for Moses wisely recognizes that Pharaoh’s so-called compromise is, in fact, a political ploy.  Pharaoh is not offering freedom; he merely wishes to create a diversion—which Moses rejects out of hand, for in matters of justice, when human lives are on the line, we must never settle for half a loaf.
And thus, as Rabbi Heschel wrote fifty years ago in regard to civil rights, so, too, for us today with extending full legal protection to gay and transgender Idahoans: "Let us dodge no issues and make no compromise with callousness. On this subject, I do not wish to think, to speak, or to write with moderation. I am in earnest--I will not equivocate--I will not excuse--I will not retreat a single inch--and I will be heard.”
Or in the words of conservative Republican icon Barry Goldwater: "Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice. And moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue."

The pursuit of justice begins with truth.

And truth demands that we apply Idaho’s Human Rights Act to everyone, gay and straight and transgender, with no exceptions or exemptions. Justice requires that we add the four words, “sexual orientation” and  “gender identity”—nothing more, and nothing less.

The pursuit of justice begins with truth.

And so, my fellow citizens, I would like to leave you with the wail of the shofar, the ram’s horn that we Jews sound on special occasions to wake us up, to rouse us from our hiding places, to heed again the better angels of our nature.

The shofar calls to each of us on this sacred day, with what Dr. King eloquently described as the fierce urgency of now.  For if not now, when?

The pursuit of justice begins with truth.

So let us harken to its call, and go forth, now to do justice’s work.

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