January 06, 2023
Left: photograph by Leah Millis, part of this series.
Right: poster for today's Stand Out for Democracy.
Two years ago today an armed mob, fueled by lies of a stolen election, violated the United States Capitol. Some carried Confederate flags; others wore white supremacist insignia. The broken glass and splintered doors from their attack on the Capitol have long since been cleared away. The work of reconsecrating the sacred space of our democracy continues.
I don’t just mean the literal Capitol building, though anyplace where public servants gather to govern with integrity is a holy place in my eyes. Democracy flourishes most wholly when each of us is accorded a full measure of human rights and dignity – in Jewish language, when we honor the innate holiness of every soul.
Senator Raphael Warnock expressed it this way in his first speech to Congress in 2021: “Democracy is the political enactment of a spiritual idea: that we are all children of God and therefore we ought all to have a voice in the direction of our country and our destiny within it. Democracy honors the sacred worth of all human beings.”
As you probably know, in addition to being a public servant Senator Warnock is a pastor, so he frames that idea in religious language. I’m a rabbi, so I do too. But the inherent worth of every human being is a pillar of democracy whether or not the God-language resonates. And let’s be clear: this is an aspiration and a value that our nation is still growing into.
"We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal..."
That originally meant white property-owning men. Black people were considered ⅗ of a person. White women lost autonomy, property, and rights the moment we married (which we didn't really have a choice about doing). Thankfully human wisdom continues to evolve. Today we sanctify our democracy by equally valuing people of every race, creed, gender expression, and marital status.
We sanctify our democracy by repudiating the white Christian nationalism implicit in the Jan. 6 insurrection, and by rededicating ourselves to pluralism. White nationalists think that diversity is a weakness, but that limited and limiting worldview tarnishes the splendor of what humanity can be. Our diversity is an integral part of the America we want to call home.
We sanctify our democracy with every act of justice – with every act of truth-telling – with every act of integrity. We sanctify our democracy when we resist falsehood and demand accountability. We sanctify our democracy when we live up to our responsibilities to one another and our responsibilities to those who are most vulnerable.
Rep. John Lewis z”l taught that “Democracy is not a state. It’s an act.” Which is to say, an action. Democracy is something we do – and keep doing. Our nation’s highest ideals have yet to be realized, but that doesn’t mean we stop trying. As we learn in Pirkei Avot, “לֹא עָלֶיךָ הַמְּלָאכָה לִגְמֹר, וְלֹא אַתָּה בֶן חוֹרִין לִבָּטֵל מִמֶּנָּה / It is not incumbent on us to finish the task, but neither are we free to refrain from doing what we can.”
These are the words I shared at the Stand Out for Democracy at First Congregational Church in Williamstown on the second anniversary of the January 6 attack on the United States Capitol.