Yesterday, in response to the events in Washington D.C., there was one phrase I heard over and over again. “This is not who we are.” Going to these six words is such an automatic reaction when faced with events that are wrong or scary. Hate speech is spray painted on a local synagogue. “This is not who we are.” Someone demeans a Jew of color in our congregation by telling them that they do not look Jewish. “This is not who we are.” A discussion devolves into cursing and personal insults. “This is not who we are.” Insurrectionists attack Capitol Police with pepper spray and break into our nation’s Capitol. “This is not who we are.”
The harder reality is that these moments and actions are part of who we are. Every person, every community, and every nation has good and bad within it. We are capable of harm and hurt and hatred and we are capable of heroism and greatness. We cannot simply discard all that is bad or uncomfortable by saying “This is not who we are.” We can ascribe to be better and make the important declarative statement “This is not who we want to be.”
In thinking about building more inclusive communities in 2021, I think relying on these six words can be dangerous. It is easy to look at the best of humanity and declare “This is who we are.” We want to be King and Heschel, marching side-by-side. But we are also the slum lords that took advantage of impoverished communities and redlining. We want to be the hero of the story, but sometimes we are the bystander and sometimes we are the villain. We want to hold up the best of America, but if we want to grow, we must also grapple with the worst of our nation and acknowledge that this is also who we are.
In thinking about this new year, let us not be afraid to wrestle with pain and tragedy. Instead, let us seek to understand both that which is great and that which is abhorrent within human nature. Let us refuse to excuse the horrid by declaring “This is not who we are” but instead face the worse within us and state for all to hear “This is not who we want to be.”