My husband and I were guests at the recent Passover Seder at Temple Beth-el in Fort Worth. It was a lovely joyous evening, filled with thought-provoking reflections on liberation.
One of the readings was a quote from the Hassidic Rebbe of Gur: “The sigh, the groan and the crying out of the children of Israel from the slavery was the beginning of redemption. As long as they did not cry out against their exile they were neither worthy nor ready for redemption.”
Our host, Rabbi Ralph Mecklenburger explained that in quoting this, Menachem HaCohen is reminding people “that redemption begins when we recognize oppression.”
This is neither fun nor easy, especially in the midst of our affluent and comfortable lives. But unless we acknowledge that people are living in pain not only around the world, but possibly next door, redemption cannot happen.
Perhaps even more importantly, recognizing our own oppression is the key to liberating ourselves from whatever person, system, or cultural artifact keeping us from freedom. No one can move from resignation to resistance to redemption without this recognition.
Another reading at the Seder, Waitings, a poem by Stanley Chyet, dealt with this process:
The waitings which make up the life of a slave;
first he waits for a spokesman
and for plagues
to plead his cause,
then he waits for the waters
to open before him,
then he waits for the desert storms
to name themselves,
then (being a slave) he asks in his heart:
why did I wait for the parting of the waters?
why did I wait for all this uproar and these burnings?
then (being a slave) he waits for answers.
It is this process that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. understood so well as he shaped the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s. The Women’s Movement understood it and developed “consciousness raising” groups to help women work through the process. Lesbians, gays, bisexual and transgendered people have been dealing with it by “coming out of the closet.”
As these various liberation movements have matured, their adherents have come to realize that all oppressions are linked – racism, sexism, ageism, heterosexism -- all are linked. One cannot truly fight one without fighting the others.
But even though it defeats the purpose of any liberation movement to bog itself down in “my oppression is worse than yours’ kind of arguments, we see it every day. Most recently we’ve seen it in the reaction of some African Americans to the demonstrations by Hispanics against draconian immigration laws.
How dare they use the rhetoric of the Civil Rights Movement? And if you think resentment resides there, don’t even ask what many think of lesbians and gays comparing their struggle for full civil rights to that of African Americans.
I do not mean to pick on African Americans here. We all have been guilty of this lack of compassion for the struggles of other oppressed peoples, and white folks like me have offended most often. It is a way to distance ourselves from the pain of others.
Worst, it is a way to avoid taking responsibility for challenging injustices and working for change.
Until we “cry out,” until we stop the waiting for “rescue” and acknowledge our own oppression, we cannot have compassion for the sufferings of others. We dare not “see” them lest we see ourselves reflected there.
But once we have, there is no “unseeing” it. It changes one forever.
So do not be patient with oppression. Do not sit quietly and endure.
Cry out. Come out.