What Would You Give Up for Justice?

Courtesy Emes Editions

By Dr. Betsy Stone

Each day for the past two weeks, we, as people of faith and social justice,  have been glued to the protests. We speak about them, we worry about COVID spread, we watch or we march. We are drawn to the very real needs for greater equality in our country, in policing, in health care, in education and in opportunity. Systemic racism, long enshrined in our culture, has captured our attention once again. We worry about our country and about the ways we unconsciously take advantage of our privilege. 

In a program I co-led last week on self-care for Jewish educators, one of the participants openly agonized about her white privilege. She spoke poignantly about the opportunities she accrues by the color of her skin, the choices that she has not earned, but still enjoys. We reflected on the very real fears and gross inequalities that we simply don’t have to face.

And I found myself wondering aloud, “What would you give up for equality?” I wish I believed that a rising tide lifts all boats, but I don’t. Not in the area of race in America. So I and other white people must begin to ask ourselves what we would be willing to LOSE for equality.

Others might argue that the goal must be to raise all of us to a reasonable level of societal benefit. I believe we have tried this before, through the Great Society and other social programs. But these programs have deepened the racial and class divide. They have not made us more understanding, more open. Real equality is not separate but equal. If people of color are to gain ground in America, white advantages necessarily will be curtailed. 

What we do in the short run – marching, writing, educating ourselves, praying – these are relatively easy. But real societal change is going to require personal change. And that’s a lot harder. As a psychologist, I know that change always involves loss.

Would you send your children to a lower performing school, or one with fewer resources? Would you live in a neighborhood that was a food desert? Or one with greater dangers, whether through violence or drugs? More homeless people on the streets? Would you face discrimination and disrespect? If you’re male, would you be willing to earn less so that women could earn more? Would you have pushed a racist cop off of George Floyd, Eric Garner, countless, nameless others, even at the risk of your freedom or your life?

And what if these weren’t choices? When I ask would you be willing, I imply choice. What if you simply had to endure losses for equality? Would you fight back against these losses?

We are taught, “Justice, justice you shall pursue.” We need to recognize that the pursuit of justice requires sacrifice, personal and communal sacrifice. I believe that each of us must begin to face the opportunities we have been given, by race, by skin tone, by educational opportunity, by gender and by gender norms. We must face the ways we allow ourselves to discriminate against those with disabilities; people who are overweight, or who otherwise fall short of our societal ideals.  In Parshat Emor, we see early evidence of discrimination, as we are told that imperfect men cannot bring sacrifices to the Temple. Other texts tell us to care for the stranger, to leave the corners of our fields and our gleanings. But even this implies that the stranger’s poverty is something we must accept. Help, but accept. 

What would it look like if we actively lived lives that refused the status quo? If we really saw all of us as made in God’s image? What would you be willing to lose in order to gain equality? Neither the educators nor I could answer these questions yet, but I believe they are essential questions for anyone who calls themselves an ally.

Betsy S. Stone, Ph.D., is a retired psychologist who currently teaches as an adjunct lecturer at HUC-JIR. Her classes include Human Development for Educators, The Spiritual Life-Cycle, Adolescent Development and Teens In and Out of Crisis.