Tag Archives: Gun Control

That Which Plagues Us

Last week, I watched the CNN Town Hall conversation with President Obama on gun violence in America. More so than by any executive action that Obama made a reality, and more so than by any statement the President made, I was impacted by the stories of two members of the audience. Their realities were heart-wrenching. For these two individuals gun violence wasn’t about mass shootings in schools or cinemas or office buildings. Gun violence was everyday life.

The first was Father Michael Pfleger, a white, Roman Catholic priest, whose parrish is on the south side of Chicago, where he said he has buried hundreds of congregants, hundreds of victims of gun violence. He reminded the President – and the country – about the dangers that his congregants, so many young black men and women in the inner city of Chicago, face every day, and the reality of inequality that still exists that is the root cause of such violence. The second person was Tre Bosley, a young black teenager from Chicago, who spoke about his brother Terrell who was murdered in Chicago ten years ago at the age of 18 while in a church parking lot. Tre challenged the President to understand what he and his peers face daily, surrounded by gun violence and poverty. He said that he cannot look into the future and imagine what his life will be like. His peers don’t know if they’ll be alive years from now. They live week to week, day to day.

And the statistics support his fears. The Chicago Tribune keeps a running list of how many people were shot in the city. And since January 1st of this year, in seventeen days, 148 people have been shot in Chicago. 148! In two weeks. That is approximately nine shootings a day! In our own backyard, there are similar fears. While there has been a decline in state-wide violence, the opposite is true in Newark. Shootings surged in Newark in 2015, up almost 20% from the prior year. For too many young children this fear is a reality.

Too many young children fear that Hadiya Pendleton’s fate will be their fate. Hadiya Pendleton, a 15-year-old girl, who was murdered on a playground in Chicago in 2013. She and her friends were walking home from school and it started pouring rain. They took over under the slides and swing sets. She was shot and killed by two men who thought that she and her friends, gathering together, looking for shelter and safety in the rain were a rival gang. A week earlier, she performed at the President’s second inauguration. And then she was murdered by a bullet.

This past Shabbat, we read the most disturbing part of the Exodus narrative. While frogs, cattle disease, lice, and hail, were inconveniences, the tenth and final plague sent an entire nation into mourning.

God said:

Toward midnight I will go forth among the Egyptians and every first born in the land of Egypt shall die, from the first born of Pharaoh who sits on his throne to the first-born of the slave girl who is behind the millstones; and all the first-born of the cattle. And there shall be a loud cry in all the land of Egypt, such as has never been or will ever be again. (Ex. 11:4-6)

A mournful cry was heard among all of Egypt. What was it about the tenth plague that did it? Why was that the straw that broke the camel’s back? One could argue that Pharaoh deserved to be punished for his actions, as did his taskmasters, courtiers, and government officials. And while they may’ve suffered from grief, they survived. It was the firstborns, their children, so young and innocent, that were killed. Seeing them taken from the world, with their full lives ahead of them is what did it. That is what finally caused Pharaoh to realize something needed to change.

This society, where young boys and girls in inner cities don’t feel safe, and may be shot on a playground is on us. We are experiencing Makat Bechorot, that plague of the death of our innocent children. We must acknowledge the root cause of such violence: the systemic racist reality that still exists in our culture, that we caused with white flight, the creation of urban ghettoes, not to mention a broken windows policy of policing, and a criminal justice system to is harsher on minorities and the impoverished. We could spend years talking about the reality that exists – and the cause of that reality. Regardless of the root cause, we must acknowledge that our hearts remain hardened like Pharaoh’s heart. Or better said, our hearts remain apathetic. Our hearts remain complacent. Our hearts have come to accept this reality.

Dr. King often spoke about the fierce urgency of now. To rid ourselves of our hardened hearts, of our apathetic souls, and change society. Now is the time to end this plague of gun violence that effects so many innocent children.

What I find so troubling about Parashat Bo, is that while all the Egyptians, including the innocent bystanders, suffered and watched the bloodshed, witnessed the angel of death murdering their firstborns, the Israelites were protected. The Israelites were safe.

God said:

When I see the blood on the doorpost I will protect you so that no plague destroy you. (Ex. 12:13)

The Israelites tucked their children in at night and knew that they would wake up the next morning safe and sound. They knew that they their neighbors were suffering, but they were fine. And so it continues. This plague continues. Death. Loss. Too many innocent victims. And we – distant and removed from it all – allow the plague to passover us.

Rabbi Daniel Burg serves as rabbi of Beth Am in the Reservoir Hill neighborhood of Baltimore, one of the few synagogues to remain in the city of Baltimore, instead of moving to the suburbs like much of the Jewish community did decades ago. He speaks of two neighborhoods in the city: Sandtown-Winchester, where Freddie Gray lived, and Roland Park, the first planned suburb in North America. Beth Am is between these two neighborhoods, these two neighborhoods which are roughly three miles apart. He asked his community if they knew the difference between the life expectancy in Roland Park and Sandtown-Winchester. The answer: fifteen years. Statistically speaking, one who lives in the suburbs of Roland Park with the fine supermarkets and superb schools will live for fifteen more years than those who live in the poverty stricken neighborhood of Sandtown-Winchester. These two neighborhoods are right down the street from each other, but one is plagued be the angel of death and the other is protected by the sacrifical lamb. The society that we live in allows this plague to pass over some of us and attack others.

But no more. What will it take for us to end this plague? What will it take for us to create and build a safer society for all of God’s children? We must put an end to this plague. We must metaphorically spread the blood of the pascal lamb upon all of our doorposts, so that poverty, injustice, and inequality, and the fear and violence that is often the result, will pass over all of us. May it be so.

-Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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It’s Time for Less Prayer and More Action

I was disappointed with myself last week. It took me several hours to even reflect and realize my own apathy. Flipping through channels last Thursday, I saw the news report of the latest mass shooting in our country, when gunman John Russel Houser opened fire last week at The Grand Movie Theater in Lafayette, during a screening of Trainwreck. Two victims were murdered. An additional nine victims were injured, and the gunman eventually took his own life. I watched reports of this terrible tragedy for a few moments and then changed the channel to see what else was on. Hours later I was so angry with myself — and with what society has become — that mass shootings have become so commonplace, have become the norm, that such an event is a nightly headline. I was so disappointed with myself that instead of this massacre leading to action, I just flipped the channel to watch something funny, lighthearted, and fiction instead.

The reality is that mass shootings are all too common in this country. It was less than two weeks ago that Muhammad Youssef Abdulazeez opened fire on a military base in Chattanooga, Tennessee, killing four U.S. Marines and himself. It was barely a month ago that Dylann Roof shot up Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina, with the racist intentions of murdering African-American parishioners. He murdered nine people, included the church’s senior pastor. And of course, these are only the mass shootings that we hear about, that are covered on television, in newspapers, and on blogs. According to Business Insider, Mass Shootings are so common in America that we don’t even hear about most of them.

Lafayette shootingI was angry at my own apathy because we cannot let apathy become our reality. We cannot let our minds, hearts, and souls become numb to our country’s gun violence epidemic. Gun violence in America is much worse than in other developed countries. We need to start doing a lot more, and simply praying is not the answer. Governor Bobby Jindal of Louisiana called for prayers following an ‘awful night in Louisiana,’ referring to last week’s movie theater shooting in Lafayette. As a rabbi who prays three times daily, I strongly encourage prayer. I believe pray helps us connect to something greater than ourselves and balances us when life feels chaotic and we feel helpless. But prayer alone cannot be the answer.

Last Shabbat, the Shabbat prior to the mournful day of Tisha B’Av on the Jewish calendar, was referred to as Shabbat Chazon, the Sabbath of Vision, named for the prophetic warnings found in the special Haftarah reading. While Tisha B’av is a day on the Jewish calendar that allows us to mourn the societal tragedies of history caused by humanity’s hateful actions, the Sabbath prior is meant to warn us of the tragedy on the horizon if we do not change our ways. In this Haftarah, taken from chapter one of the book of Isaiah, the prophet urges the Israelites to change their ways and finally, speaking for God, essentially says, “enough with the worship. It is time to act!”

We read in Isaiah 1:11-12 —

‘What need have I of all your sacrifices?’ says the Lord. ‘I am sated with burnet offerings of rams,

And suet of fatlings, And blood of bulls; And I have no delight In lambs and he-goats. That you come to appear before Me –Who asked that of you?’

God is saying that there is no point in worship if people will not change their ways, if society is unwilling to change. Such sacrificial ritual, and such modern-day prayer, is almost offensive if the prayerful words are meaningless, if the promise to change is a false promise. God goes as far as to say in Isaiah 1:15 —

And when you lift up your hands, I will turn My eyes away from you; Though you pray at length, I will not listen.

Instead God wants us to seek justice and change our ways as a people and as society. Isaiah continues in 1:15-17 –

Your hands are stained with crime – Wash yourselves clean; put your evil doings away from My sight. Cease to do evil; learn to do good. Devote yourselves to justice; Aid the wronged.

It’s time for less prayer and more action. We must take Isaiah’s words – God’s words – to heart. I am sorry Governor Jindal, but I disagree with you. We cannot simply pray. We need to act. I do not pretend to have all the answers, but I am tired of a country that cannot pass any true gun control legislation because the gun lobby has more control over our elected officials than we, the voters, residents, and citizens of this country, do. I am tired of a country where a true conversation about level-headed gun control gets shut down automatically and becomes partisan debate. I am tired of a country which understands every other part of the U.S. constitution to be up for interpretation except for our reading of the Second Amendment. And I am tired of a country that permits me to become apathetic, even for a moment, when hearing about bloodshed caused by a bullet.

Those who disagree with me challenge how I can guarantee that guns will be kept out of the hands of criminals. I cannot. Legislative changes cannot. However, I do know this: I know that it is easier to legally buy a gun than it is to register to vote. Furthermore, the restrictions on driving and receiving a driver’s license because of mental illness, medical conditions, or previous illegal driving activity make it far more difficult to legally drive a car than to legally buy a gun. I also know this: Muhammed Abdulazeez had a history of drug abuse and depression and was able to legally buy the gun that he used to murder four U.S. Marines. Dylann Roof had pending felony charge. Federal law prohibits people with pending felony charges from obtaining firearms. Yet, a legal loophole allowed Roof to obtain a gun, because South Carolina is one of many states that does not require background checks for private gun transactions. John Houser was mentally unstable and told by judges on two separate occasions that his cognitive well-being needed to be evaluated by a specialist. But because he was never involuntarily committed to a mental hospital, he was still able to legally buy a gun, which he did from a pawn shop in Alabama, before using it to shoot up a movie theater in Louisiana.

I know that we as a nation can do better. We must do better. We must pass commonsense gun control reform to prevent those who shouldn’t be able to, from legally obtaining a firearm. We will not be able to fully solve the gun violence epidemic in our country. However, doing nothing only allows it to continue, and as long as we do nothing, we are just as responsible for the bloodshed of our parents, our spouses, our children, and our loved ones. How many people need to be murdered by a firearm in a movie theater or house of worship, on a military base or in a hospital, in a shopping mall or school, before we finally come to our senses and pass commonsense gun control?

In Isaiah’s prophecy, God requires that we devote ourselves to justice. To fail to act and to allow our elected officials to not act is an injustice! We need to stop our calls for prayer and begin our calls for action. God requires that of us, and the fragility of life requires that of us as well.

-Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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