Rabbi Irwin Wiener, D.D.
A funny thing happened to me on the way to nowhere. I was confronted with the prospect of listening to a diatribe from a so-called Baptist preacher. I say so-called because I find it hard to understand how such venomous pronouncements could be delivered from the mouth of someone supposedly dedicated to the proposition that God is love.
The disturbing fact is that he lives in our midst – in Tempe – which to me indicates that we are still living in the wild west, where anything goes including words that can offend, or hurt, or cause harm. “How,” you ask? Simply put: If someone uses words to incite violence, then there is danger because there is always someone to listen and act accordingly.
As a spiritual leader, I can tell you firsthand that this is not a new phenomenon. Anti-Semitism has been around from the beginning of time. There are all sorts of reasons. I think that the primary reason is that some are different even if an attempt is made to meld. Some customs are different. Some values are different. Some traditions are different. Some faiths are different. There is no value in discussing the differences because no two people are alike.
I recently participated in a public forum to discuss the problem of hate speech, its negative aspects as well as any positive ones – such as the right to say what is on our mind accorded us by the Constitution of this great country. Some would argue that there is a distinction between free speech and the purposeful provocation resulting in anger and the need to carry it to the ultimate conclusion of mass hysteria.
This debate could go on forever with no conclusion satisfactory to all. I would propose that free speech is not only a right granted by law but also a God-given right. We were created with the ability to communicate and with that the capacity to express our inner most thoughts. This is a gift given to us by the Creator. And, like all gifts, we tend to abuse some and even develop excesses.
Seated at this forum, sponsored by Arizona Interfaith, were four individuals and a moderator. The four participants consisted of an Evangelical Baptist minister, a Church of Christ minister, yours truly and a member of the Sikh community. Seated in the audience were people from all walks of life and all persuasions. It was held at the Cutler-Plotkin Center of the Arizona Jewish Historical Society in Phoenix.
One by one, my colleagues professed to abhor hate speech from whatever source. One even announced that he would have no patience nor sympathy for free speech in that context. I am of the opinion that to stifle free speech is not the way to combat this cancer, because I believe that the only way to combat such hatred is to face it head-on. We have seen all too often that appeasement in any form just leads to more abuse until finally the ultimate is achieved which is human misery.
Each episode in the lists of disgrace and inhuman conduct is relegated to a footnote in history. We get excited for a moment, and when that moment is gone, so is our distaste for its utterances. In fact we respond meekly because of our fears and intimidations. There is no debate that could take place resulting in further understanding what people with closed minds and hate in their hearts are all about. We need to bring to this one-sided discussion the love and connection that is the fundamental ingredient in a normal society. We need to understand that connection is the hallmark of Scripture, not division. Perhaps we should remember that the development of human understanding and compatibility are the messages found in sound relationships with all people.
More than all that, we need to remind everyone that hatred for one leads to hatred for many. It is a disease that foments in radicals determined to destroy the very fabric of human existence. The essence of our goodness can be found in Moses, or Jesus, or Mohammed, or the Biblical Prophets, or the Disciples, or Gandhi, or Mother Teresa, or Martin Luther King, Jr., or Mandela. The list is endless, but nowhere on the list will you ever find the apostles of devastation. There are no holidays for ignorance or vileness.
These demons love to quote Scripture to embrace their contempt, but what they are doing is showing their contempt for God. When Scripture enjoins us to “Love thy neighbor as thyself,” it does not express preferences. There is no distinction. It is a declarative statement, not suggestive, and is universally understood by all people of goodwill as a sacrament.
We are led to believe that silence is golden, but silence is not the way to combat the calamity of intentional division and separation. It is our duty, our moral obligation, not to cower nor succumb to timidity. We need to join together to end these shameful and ignorant rantings of madmen for no other reason than to create sensationalism and notoriety that caters to the lowest level of human behavior. However, their ultimate goal is to survive on the backs and bodies of their victims.
I pray that we will have the courage and the fortitude, when called upon, to stand and declare, “Never again,” and mean it, not as a slogan but as a clarion call to remind everyone that, not now, not tomorrow, not ever! We cannot wait. There is no room for hate speech to succeed because we were cowards. This is not what America stands for. This is not what America represents. This is not how to be an American.