Justice, Religion

Tshuvah and police accountability

Remarks by Rabbi Alana Alpert at Michigan United Justice Assembly: Police Accountability & Civilian Oversight.
Good evening.
It’s an honor to be sharing a few words with this powerful gathering
I was asked to speak on the theme of repentance.
Repentance is a concept which sounds a little foreign to Jewish ears…
The closest word we have for repentance is Tshuvah –
it means turning, or to return, or to go in the opposite direction
It operates on the assumption that the person doing t’shuva is GOOD,
good at their core;
that if they just turn around – RETURN,
then they will return to goodness and righteousness.
The word sin also does not translate easily to the Jewish faith.
it seems to assume intentionality.
Our word for sin, Chet, means “to miss the mark”
it assumes we meant to do right.
We aimed for goodness and we missed.
When I was in Ferguson in October,
clergy gathered outside the police station.
we stood eye to eye with police officers
offering to hear their confession,
and asking for their repentance.
The whole confession and repentance thing does not come very naturally to a rabbi, so i can’t say that the officer I spoke with was particularly moved by our interaction. But I looked around me and saw police officers and clergy holding hands,
and praying together.
And I wept.
Praying harder than I have ever prayed,
that each of those individual police officers in Ferguson would make Tshuvah,
would return to their core goodness and righteousness,
serving and protecting every child of God they come across.
But can I ask the same of the police as an institution?
When the first major law that the police were meant to enforce was the Fugitive Slave Act – an evil law that required that runaway slaves to be forcefully returned to their masters where-ever found –
Given these origins,
what would it mean for me to ask the police to repent,
to turn around, to return?
When the police have their roots in protecting the institution of slavery
and by extension, white supremacy,
how could I ask that institution to return, to make tshuvah?
And so I pray:
Not for the repentance or returning of law enforcement,
but that the police will become something they were never meant to be:
a force that carries out the will of the people
that defends the powerless from the powerful
and protects Black life, Black liberty, and the Black pursuit of happiness.
I pray for nothing short of a total transformation,
and that we have the strength and courage to do our part to help to bring that transformation about.
And let us say amen.

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