Justice Demands RISC

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On June 15, 2020, I was asked to give closing remarks at the (virtual) annual gathering for RISC — Richmonders Involved to Strengthen Our Communities — an organization of congregations from throughout the Richmond region working to solve critical community problems, of which Temple Beth-El is a member. Here’s what I said:

In Sabbath services this week, the Jewish community will be studying Numbers chapter 13 and 14, otherwise known as the story of the spies. The Children of Israel, following their dramatic exodus from enslavement in Egypt, arrive at the wilderness of Paran, at the border of the Promised Land. God instructs Moses to send forth scouts to reconnoiter the land of Canaan before the rest of the Israelites invade and conquer the territory. 

Through this story, Scripture teaches us that in order to get to whatever Promised Land we are headed towards, we have to know what it looks like — otherwise, how will we know when we’ve arrived? 

As we leave here tonight, let’s envision together what our Promised Land looks like. That way, we can know when we’ve gotten there. What is the Richmond we are striving to inherit and to bequeath to our children?

We envision a Richmond region in which every single person has access to adequate and affordable housing, in which no one ever has to face the threat of eviction, in which everyone has access to the resources necessary to fight eviction orders, and in which no one is ever, ever unjustly evicted from their home. That means the Richmond we are fighting for is one that invests significantly in affordable housing, so there is sufficient stock available for everyone who wants and needs it, at prices that folks at all income levels can afford. It means the Richmond we are fighting for is one in which no one needs to be unhoused, in which no one has to choose between whether to put food on the table or keep a roof over their heads, in which no parent has to worry “where will my child sleep tonight?”, in which no one will ever again have to worry about how they can shelter in place during a deadly global pandemic when they don’t have any shelter. 

You heard the testimonials tonight about our Egypt. We are coming from an Egypt of segregation, inequity, and the disproportionate destruction of black lives and communities of color — the very injustices that our brothers and sisters here and in every corner of this country have been protesting these past few weeks; an Egypt of high eviction rates; an Egypt of eviction maps that perfectly match maps of redlining; an Egypt where the very people who are inadequately housed or who live in constant fear of being evicted are the ones most likely to die from COVID-19. And our Promised Land is a city where housing is considered a fundamental and inalienable human right, and where every Richmonder has a home.

And we also envision a Richmond region in which no person lives under the threat of gun violence; a Richmond in which no parent has to worry whether her kids are going to make it home safely from school, in which the quiet of night is no longer interrupted by the noise of gunfire or the wailing of bereaved loved ones. That means the Richmond we are fighting for is one in which prevention prevails, in which deescalation, dialogue, and peaceful resolution are the common currency; in which zero people — zero people — are ever murdered or wounded by guns. 

We are coming from an Egypt of increasing numbers of shootings; where just last year there were 60 deaths as a result of gun violence, including the death of a nine year-old girl; and where the vast majority of the lives lost to gun violence in our city are black lives. You heard tonight from people still grieving those losses. Our Promised Land is a city where life matters, and in particular where black lives matter; and therefore our Promised Land is a city where we beat our swords into plowshares and our spears into pruning hooks, so that no Richmonder will ever lift up a weapon against another Richmonder, and we will not know gun violence anymore.

But the story of the spies doesn’t only ask us to behold our Promised Land. It also reminds us that we have to determine a plan of action for how we will conquer it. We have to know about its defenses; we have to know where to start the campaign and how to finish it; we have to know about who holds the power, and how to acquire that power. Without a plan of attack, without knowing the obstacles in our path, without identifying our enemies and our allies, how will we know how to take hold of our Promised Land?

Well — you have heard tonight about our path and our plan. You have heard tonight about the obstacles in our way and our designs for overcoming them; about the opponents who seek to derail our work or force us to compromise in our crusade for justice, and our plans for combatting them; about the allies who are striving to help us see our work through, and our commitment to partnering with them. 

The only question for us is: are we ready to get to work?

So let me ask you:

Are you ready to get to work?

Are you ready to enter the Promised Land?

Are you ready to fight for the Promised Land?

Are you ready to enter into and fight for the Promised Land of righteousness and justice?

Are you ready to enter into and fight for the Promised Land of affordable housing that is available to every Richmonder?

Are you ready to enter into and fight for the Promised Land of no more unjust evictions?

Are you ready to enter into and fight for the Promised Land of a city with zero — ZERO — gun homicides?

 

Now, I’m sorry to report that the biblical story of the spies didn’t turn out so well. Oh, the scouts saw the Promised Land. They saw that it was indeed a land flowing with milk and honey as God had described. But most of the scouts refused to believe that the Children of Israel could actually conquer it. “The enemies are too great, too big, and too powerful,” they argued. The Israelites, in their estimation, would be like grasshoppers trying to topple giants. The terrain was too treacherous even to try. The land itself would devour them. For these spies, the mission was just too risky.

But two of the scouts, Caleb and Joshua, argued that the Children of Israel could indeed conquer the land, for their cause was righteous and just, and the God of righteousness and justice — a God through whom all things are possible — was on their side. Caleb and Joshua didn’t dispute the other spies’ assertion that the mission was risky, that the obstacles were great and the odds not in their favor. They simply argued that, despite the risks, victory was possible, and that the cause was worth the fight. 

It is as though Caleb and Joshua were saying that justice demands and is worth the risk.

So I ask you tonight:

Is our cause righteous?

Is our cause just?

With faith and with conviction, is victory possible?

Is righteousness worth risk?

Is justice worth risk?

Well then, my friends, say it with me: JUSTICE DEMANDS RISC.

Forward together, my dear friends, toward the Promised Land. 

Forward Together. Not one. Step. Back.

 

Thank you.

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