Good Teams, Bad Teams and What We Can Do About Orlando (Part One)

Oasis Songs: Musings from Rav D
June 24, 2016 / 18 Sivvan, 5776

Gay Pride Festival and Parade are this Saturday and Sunday. CNS participates through our affiliation with the Community of Welcoming Congregations. Unfortunately, the parade only caught my attention earlier this morning, and my family and I leave town right after Shabbat for a short vacation on the coast. Here is a link more info for CNS members to participate along with the Community of Welcoming Congregations by visiting the booth and by marching in the parade. If you would like to march with CNS, please rsvp to JoAnn Bezodis. I hope many folks from our kehillah will be able to attend.

I snuck a couple of hours to watch the game with my kids last night. That’s what I really want to write about–the Cleveland Cavaliers game last night. How the Cavs hung in there against the Warriors, fighting their way back to an even series. Of LeBron James, never the most elegant of players, yet a persistent and often unstoppable force of nature. About the hope my friends in Cleveland are feeling, and of a formerly wealthy rust belt city that is doing all in its power to make a second run of it. No team has ever won the NBA final after being down 1-3. And now it’s tied up. Come-back town? It could happen. Hey, I’d even be happy to share my prayers for a Blazers-Cavs series next year (or the year after)–there’s a solid Ohio crew residing in Oregon who call it home. Makes you wonder, who’d they root for if their two towns clashed?

But then there is Orlando. Most of us who were in shul during Shavuot only heard the sketchiest of details on Sunday morning. I woke early on Monday knowing I’d need to read the papers and generate a new Yizkor sermon without the benefit of notes. Clergy in the pulpit have a different relationship to the news cycle than most.

What most plagues me about the massacre at the Pulse dance club is that in all likelihood, it will indeed be just that–another part of our twenty four hour news cycle. News is a product, our attention spans are limited and before too long, chances are that this too will recede in memory and importance. The next big story will supplant it.

If the Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings in which twenty children were killed didn’t mobilize our society, it seems unlikely that this will either. After all, the adult world tends to lionize children’s suffering above the pain of adults. Maybe that is proper, as children have fewer protections of their own. Or maybe all suffering deserves a compassionate response. Regardless, in the days after Sandy Hook, the public consensus was that “this one was different.” “This is the mass shooting where we will finally say, ‘enough.'” In the end, as we all know too well, Sandy Hook was not different.

I think there’s a good reason that we’ll soon forget the atrocities that went down at the Pulse. Two good reasons actually. First, we’ve already turned it into another game of good teams versus bad teams. Second, our dreams are far too small, and as a consequence, we can’t see beyond symptoms.

Good Teams and Bad Teams

Our national tragedies and traumatic events are too large to ever mean one thing. They quickly become symbols, calling forth our tribal responses. Everyone wants to own the piece that confirms their world view. Anyone following this news cycle ought to pick up on this.

For some, Pulse cogently reminds us that our gun control laws need drastic updating. It is a case study on why we need to limit access to high capacity weapons. Pulse highlights, for these individuals, the shame of America. It illuminates the dangers inherent in the second amendment right to bear arms. Many of these individuals would like to read the second amendment so that it only permits the army (a militia) to have access to guns. People of this mindset have already begun to mobilize, and will work tirelessly to reform these laws.

 But that’s not what the shootings at Pulse are about for me.

For others, the Pulse is a vivid example of our country’s rampant homophobia, or toxic masculinity or fear of anything queer. If that’s your team, the 49 men and women who were ruthlessly mowed down become martyrs to the worthwhile cause of gay rights. Their deaths will mobilize many to fight for equal rights for gays, lesbians, bisexual, transgender and queer individuals. Let me be clear. I fully support that cause. I’ve proudly been signed up on Keshet for close to a decade. Here at Neveh, we are working hard to highlight that Neveh Shalom welcomes LGBTQ folks into our doors, and has done so for many years. I’m not sure this fact of our kehillah is yet well known in the  larger community.

 But that’s not what the shootings at Pulse are about for me.

Still another camp sees in Orlando a trenchant call to resist “Islamofascism” in any way possible. They believe this is an all-out war. Bill O’Reilly of Fox news recently appeared on the Colbert show, and argued for just that as a way to reduce, but not eliminate, horrific events such as this most recent event. We need to declare war against ISIS so that along with NATO’s help, we can take out Islamic State’s command and control structures. There is evil in the world, and we need to confront it head on, this point of view argues.

But that’s not what the shootings at Pulse are about for me.

In my mind, I hear the screams and terror that filled the night club. I smell the blood as it pours from injured bodies, and the adrenaline that accompanies the panic. I feel the manic energy that takes over a crowd trying to escape, as a herd-like desperation pushes people to the nearest exits. I know all this, because I was in a crowded place when the bomb detonated that killed my friends, and I am intimately aware of how ancient structures in our brains take over as they try to protect us. I ran. I ran with the herd.

For me, the deepest, most significant and enduring lesson of our latest massacre is that we must reduce human hatred. All of the other lenses by which people view these events seem like bandaids to me, addressing symptoms and not root causes. When we address symptoms, the disease will simply mutate and appear again.

That’s the limitation of the small team approach we’ve been taking for most of human history. We feel good about having a team. We are wired to want to be on a team, to know that there’s a place where we are part. We’ve even had a great deal of success using this small teams approach to address civil rights issues, workers’ protections and minority empowerment. The small team approach isn’t going away. But the limitation to this is that the root problem never goes away, it simply becomes dormant or finds a new avenue of expression.

Bad Teams

There’s a greater danger as well. It’s the one we see in our current society. Small teams often exacerbate the underlying problem. They polarize us into camps. They highlight our deep fear that there’s not enough to go around, so we better fight for what’s ours and make sure others don’t get any of the pie, because if they do, there will be less for us. They create gridlock and hostility. Too often, the small team approach to social change and progress actually increases the underlying problems. The small team approach also empowers radicals across the political spectrum and allows fear to color how we see the world. I believe the human species is at a tipping point. What allows sports teams to operate effectively is when they don’t forget that they are part of a league with common goals. When they forget this, as with Deflategate, or the incessant violence in hockey a couple of decades back, they endanger the entire sport, and thus their own interests. Thinking small creates real perils.

What We Can Do About Orlando–Dreaming Big to Reduce Hatred

Teams aren’t going away any time soon. Judaism has managed to address our need for a team–the Jewish people, while not relenting on its universal message. There have been times where we’ve been a bit too parochial and insular. Equally true, in more times, our emphasis on the universal has sometimes weakened the team, and thus our ability to contribute in large and significant ways. At its heart, though, Judaism offers an expansive view of human potential and tools to help reduce human hatred.

I think one of the reasons that our species hasn’t devoted significant resources to address the scourge of hatred is because we imagine that hatred is a fixed feature of our nature, and is thus unchangeable. Or that combatting hatred can only be approached tangentially, via a particular issue. That is not a perspective I hold. We don’t need to change our natures, but to train ourselves and create institutional structures that reduce the likelihood of hatred rooting itself in our behaviors.

We’ve already begun to do that important work here at Neveh Shalom in many arenas. It is my intention to share with you in another column how our focus on encounter, relationships and dialogue provides a robust and ongoing answer to the persistent problem of hatred and its root causes.

Because in life, one can never dream too big, only too small. And we are all in it together.


Rav D


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