Dear Rep. Davis,
On Tuesday, May 9, when you held your "office hours" event in Champaign, I waited in line for nearly four hours to speak with you. I hoped to look you in the eye, and tell you, as a faith leader in this community, how I feel that your failure to respond to your constituents is not only an affront to the principles of representative democracy, but also a moral outrage. But it seems you were merely interested in playing a game, as you scheduled a woefully inadequate amount of time for your constituents to talk with you. Each of us, in practice, was allotted approximately 2 minutes (if we were lucky enough to actually make it into your presence). So I got frustrated, I got flustered, and I did not articulate my point as eloquently as I could have. More significantly, I let you get to me, and spoke more sharply than I might have liked, which might have diluted the important messages delivered by other constituents in the room.
I should note here, by the way, that I came on Tuesday during my day off and on my own time. I identified my title and position because they are part of my personal identity. But I came for myself as a concerned citizen. Though your friend Mr. Trump has sought to erode the provisions of the Johnson Amendment, which enshrine the important principle of the separation of Church and State, I still believe very strongly in keeping clear boundaries between these two important institutions. So I speak here only for myself, and not for my congregation.
On Wednesday, a mutual friend of ours texted you and mentioned that you and I had met. You replied to her something indicating that I didn't like you. Because texts lack nuance, I am not certain if you were upset, confused, or amused by this fact. But no matter. Both of our lines of work, Rep. Davis, require thick skins. I let you get under mine on Tuesday, and thus gave you the impression that I don't like you. But let me set you straight: I detest your voting record. I decry your grandstanding, and your refusal to have meaningful conversations with those whom you represent. I am eminently frustrated by your unwillingness to release call tallies, which would clearly indicate how your constituents feel about given issues. I am disgusted by your continued choice of party over country and over principle, and your refusal to ever repudiate any of the dangerous and offensive actions and statements that Donald Trump has put forward. Since the inauguration, you have voted with the GOP in support of Mr. Trump's actions time and again, supporting policies such as the travel ban and the AHCA that will do irreparable harm to people within your district, destroying families and maybe even causing people to die. Only today did I see your first statement remotely questioning Mr. Trump-- related to his dismissal of Mr. Comey as FBI director, and a statement expressing "surprise" is far from a condemnation. But while I may hate the way you choose to govern, and hate the things you believe and how you conduct yourself with every fiber of my being, I don't dislike you as a person. My faith cautions me against such an attitude.
Instead, I pity you. I don't know what initially inspired you to get into politics, but I'd like to imagine that it's the same thing that got me into the rabbinate: the desire to help people, and the belief that you could truly make a difference. In previous communication that I've received from your office, you've touted your bonafides in bipartisan work. I've seen zero evidence of such efforts since the inauguration. But I think somewhere along the path, you seriously lost your way. Maybe Mr. Trump has some dirt on you that keeps you from speaking out; maybe he's promised you some wealth or some position within the administration or the party if you pledge to be a good foot soldier for his platforms. But I think it's more likely that the position has gone to your head, and that you have simply decided that the political arc that you can ride by being unwaveringly faithful to the GOP party line is more significant than being responsive to your constituents.
How else to explain you ignoring the more than 500 Jewish households in your district who were concerned by the rise of anti-Semitism, while you took more than two weeks to issue a statement against the desecration of cemeteries and bomb threats against Jewish institutions? I still have seen no statement from you calling out white supremacists Steve Bannon and Sebastian Gorka, and declaring that there should be no place for them within the White House. You sent a letter obfuscating and stating that you have no standing in such matters, but that's not entirely true, Rep. Davis! You are a known figure in DC, and your repudiation of hate would not only send an important message to those setting policy in DC, but would also send reassurance to those of us living and working in IL-13.
How else to explain your embrace of the racist executive order promulgating a travel ban on individuals from Muslim countries, a policy that not only was deemed to be unconstitutional, but would have a devastating real-life social and economic impact on families and institutions (most notably, the University of Illinois) in your district? Even after analyses showed that this ban was unlikely to impact national security, even after it was noted that there were far more deadly attacks perpetrated in the United States by radicalized right-wing white males than by radicalized Muslims, even after it became clear that exempting Saudi Arabia from this ban ignored the breeding ground for most of the 9/11 attackers, you preferred to remain firm in your support of this decree, rather than working to assuage the fears of lawful citizens who are your own constituents.
How else to explain your vote in favor of the AHCA, one of the most wildly unpopular bills in recent memory, which you supported pushing through without scoring from the Congressional Budgetary Office (a previous version of the bill was scored, not the one brought to a vote) and negotiations behind closed doors? As an individual with a pre-existing condition, I rely on the provisions of the ACA to provide essential health coverage for my family and me, and I resent you and your cronies being so tone-deaf to the basic needs and rights of real families in this district. With a median income in the district of $50,211 and a poverty rate of over 10% (source: census.gov), you are consigning a significant portion of your constituents to having to make painful choices between food on their table, a roof over their heads, or essential health services and medication for themselves and their children. You and your party mates protest that the ACA was unaffordable, but you have made it more so. Go after the insurance companies and their relentless pursuit of profits; don't go after the hard working citizens of IL-13.
How else to explain your support of a treasonous regime that is clearly embroiled with Russia? As we met in your office on Tuesday, Donald Trump was firing James Comey as Director of the FBI. While I disagree with Comey and his recent handling of his job, to fire someone while they are in the midst of a federal investigation of your potential malfeasance is so nakedly inappropriate and has brought our country closer to a constitutional crisis. People-- real people, Rep. Davis, whom you have sworn to represent-- are angry and scared for the future of our republic. Real people, like the 240 or so of my fellow citizens who wanted to talk to you on Tuesday, not because we're paid protestors or provocateurs, not because we hate you, Rep. Davis, but because we want to be heard and we want to be hopeful about the future of our nation-- we all need assurance that you've really got our backs in DC. And when you continually fail to give us such reassurance, then we become ever more committed to securing your defeat in 2018.
I've barely scratched the surface, Rep. Davis, on the ways you've let the people of IL-13 down. There's also net neutrality. There's also the attempted dismantling of our national parks and other public lands. There's also the rollback of Dodd-Frank banking regulations designed to protect consumers. There's also environmentalism (by the way, I'm sorry that you got stung by a bee at Curtis Orchard, but I'm even more sorry that you found it more significant to focus on that sting than to focus on the real and painful concerns that your constituents were bringing before you).
So, Rep. Davis, I don't dislike you. When you return to Taylorsville on November 9, 2018, and fade from the public eye, I hope that you and your family will enjoy a lovely life together. I pray that whomever the voters of IL-13 choose to replace you will listen openly and compassionately to your needs and concerns and to mine and to those of all voters in the district, and behave in a manner that puts country above party and politics. I pray that we can be led back from the abyss that has arisen through the erosion of the public trust in government and from the repudiation of the American ideal that "all [people] are created equal [and] that they are endowed...with certain inalienable rights." May your leadership, your votes, and your behavior toward your constituents for the remainder of your term be informed by love for, and empathy with, ALL of the diverse backgrounds, faiths, and ethnicities that comprise the citizenry of IL-13.
With warmest regards,
Thursday, May 11, 2017
When Rodney Davis' office announced "office hours" for Champaign, to be held from 2 pm - 3:15 pm May 9, I had mixed reactions. While I was happy that he had finally decided to have conversations with his constituents, I did the math about what these meetings would actually look like. 75 minutes at ten minutes per meeting would allow for only 7.5 meetings. At 3 people per group (the original plan), that would mean that he would see about 21 people. Not exactly a means of listening to the public openly. Still, it was a minor improvement over hiding from his constituents as he had during previous recesses.
It was my day off, so I was operating on my own time (in spite of the Executive Order from DJT, I still believe in the Johnson Amendment, but that's another story). I arrived at 10:15 am and was told by Rep. Davis' staffer, Tyler, that they'd be signing up for appointments starting at 1 pm. This was different from what was advertised (why not just say in publicity, "appointments will be taken beginning at 1"?), but I settled in to wait. 2 other people were there by then.
By 12:30, the crowd had grown a bit. A female staffer from the office (I didn't catch her name) came out and asked us to get into groups of 4. Some of us protested that the event had advertised groups of 3; a larger group would mean less time for us each to address our concerns. Still, I found 3 others in line and we began to strategize how to use our time. At one point, a participant took the clipboards and tried to organize groups based on common interests...I think the staffer was pleased to see this temporary descent into chaos. The staffer also offered cookies to the crowd; when asked if they were purchased with taxpayer funds, she claimed that the staff had brought them from home.
As 2 pm approached, the staffer approached us and said she was adding another person to our group. We protested that this would further diminish our individual time as we had already planned what we would say. The staffer insisted it was the only way to ensure that a maximum number of voices would be heard (I have a suggestion for another way--it's called a town hall)!
We were group 2. About 5 minutes after group one went in, Tyler tried to have us enter the room where they were already meeting. I objected, stating that we were entitled to our own ten minutes.
We were then asked to wait until the first group was finished. During our waiting, a local politician whom I know from other settings entered the office, cutting in front of numerous others who had patiently been waiting in line-- some (like me) for nearly four hours! Another member of our group politely but firmly asked him not to attach himself to our group since our time with Rep. Davis would already be limited, but this gentleman ignored that concern, and the staff did not intervene at all.
When we entered the office, I (having been designated by our group to speak first), asked Rep. Davis to dispense with the pleasantries in the interest of time and to please avoid interrupting us, as we each had a great deal that we wanted to express in a limited time frame. I spoke first, briefly introducing myself, and expressing in particular how disappointed I was that Rep. Davis has failed to speak out against statements and policies from the administration that are harmful and worrisome to the diverse religious and ethnic groups that make up his constituency. I was fired up by the moment, and cognizant of my limited time, so I did not speak as eloquently as I would have liked (in retrospect, I personally believe that part of the design of these "office hours" was to create just such an environment).
The next speaker expressed that she was grateful for his concern for some environmental issues, noting an appearance he had made earlier in the day at Curtis Orchard. He interrupted to say that he had been stung by a bee there-- a further attempt to disarm us and throw us off message. The second speaker then continued to talk about her healthcare concerns for her son, who works in the restaurant industry for minimum wage.
The third speaker was probably the most eloquent of us. She spoke calmly but firmly about how she was new to town and thus had not voted for Rep. Davis, but that based on what she had seen of his record, she would do everything in her power to unseat him in 2018. She spoke passionately about his apparent lack of empathy for his constituents who are facing real fears about the direction of this country.
The fourth speaker continued on many of the points that had already been stated, and shifted the focus a bit to Rep. Davis' support of the AHCA. The fifth speaker then took over to speak about his mother's struggles with cancer, and how the provisions of the AHCA would be a death sentence for her.
At this point, Tyler walked into the room and tried to indicate that our time was up. But one of the participants in our group had been keeping time on her phone, and showed him that we had not received the 10 minutes allotted to us. After a brief exchange, Rep. Davis let us continue. But the opening had been provided...the aforementioned politician, who had entered the room with our group, now spoke up about his dismay that Rep. Davis has increasingly become a yes-man for the GOP, voting along strict party lines. He mentioned in particular the GOP pushing the AHCA without CBO scoring or open meetings.
Here, Rep. Davis began to respond, and unfortunately it turned into a bit of a shouting match. The people in the group (including the politician) began to challenge Rep. Davis on his contention that the bill was scored by the CBO and that there were plenty of meetings about it (both untrue with regard to the version of the bill that was actually voted upon). Rep. Davis then tried to wrap up by saying that politics of late had become very hateful and polarized. Speaker number three retorted, "Yes, there is hatefulness coming from the administration." Rep. Davis' body language in response to that remark made it clear that he objected to it, so she asked him openly: "Do you deny that the current administration is a hateful administration." He answered, "Yes, I do."
At that point we left the office (our time was pretty much up anyway). My blood was boiling and I was furious to think that my representative, my voice in congress, was so out of touch with my needs and my desires. Rep. Davis has written me letters asserting that our district is one of the few that is fairly evenly divided between Democrats and Republicans. If this is so, I would hope that he would strive for compromise and middle ground that might best serve the values of all his constituents.
In one of the news stories about Tuesday's event, Rep. Davis referred to Tuesday's office hours as "a continuation of the sort of events that we've held since my election." Baloney. This was orchestrated to fail his constituents while providing optics that would appear to show that he is responsive to the people. He still refuses to hold town halls (I read that he snapped at another participant in a different meeting, "If the people don't like it, let them show that in the 2018 election."), and I doubt we'll even see another circus like this during the remainder of his term.
In the words of Rodney's hero, DJT: SAD!
Wednesday, March 8, 2017
Think on These Things
Sermon delivered March 5, 2017
Peace and Justice Sabbath
Wesley United Methodist Church
Rabbi Alan S. Cook
Rabbi, Sinai Temple; Chair, Interfaith Alliance of Champaign County
It is truly an honor to be with you today and to share in worship as we think about peace and justice. The current climate in our country, exacerbated by an extremely contentious election and vitriolic rhetoric that has not diminished since, would have us believe that the sole safe course of action would be to isolate ourselves and only seek interactions with those who are exactly the same as we are. I am glad to have the opportunity to reach beyond the pulpit of my own congregation, for I believe that the key to peace in these troubled times is engagement with others. The educator Vivian Gussin Paley, one of the first people to teach in a racially integrated kindergarten class, wrote in her book White Teacher, “Homogeneity is fine in a bottle of milk, but it has no place in a classroom.” I would argue that it also has no place in a society that desires harmony, for only in celebrating diversity; by appreciating others who differ from us in race, religious expression, gender identity, socio-economic status, and so forth, can we achieve understanding.
It feels particularly good to be here on a Methodist pulpit today. I owe my education, in no small part, to the Methodist church, for it was in 1851 that John Evans and other Methodist leaders established the school that would become my alma mater, Northwestern University.
I have fond memories of my time at Northwestern. During my four years there, I am sure that I encountered the university logo and its motto hundreds of times. It was emblazoned on the pennant that hung on the wall of my dorm room, it graced t-shirts and sweatshirts, and could be found in some form on most university buildings. But because I never formally studied Latin, I managed to spend four years in Evanston without ever knowing the meaning of quaecumque sunt vera. I found out at graduation.
The citation, which we read as one of our scriptural recitations this morning, comes from the fourth chapter of Philippians, and, in full, proclaims: “whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are beautiful, whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things.”
The Epistle to the Philippians is ascribed to Paul (and Timothy) and is dated to around the year 60 of the Common Era. Paul sends encouragement to the Church at Philippi, one of the first churches established in Europe. So, in the context of the letter, those true, honest, just, and pure things that readers are asked to contemplate are undoubtedly meant to be those things that can be found if one embraces the teachings of Jesus and the early church. The founders of Northwestern University, good and devout Methodists, may have seized upon this motto precisely for its philo-Christian undertones. But I think that modern-day students, alumni, and faculty of the university learn to find truth and honesty and these other qualities in their intellectual pursuits. Moreover, I think that if any of us contemplate Paul’s language, we will discover that we have many reasons to “think on these things.”
What things are true and honest and just? I think we can find many. The Interfaith Alliance of Champaign County was founded on the true and honest idea that people were interested in a way to connect with their neighbors of other faiths and to build bridges of understanding. We begin each meeting with a relational component, seeking to learn from one another about our hopes and dreams, our fears and regrets. We discover that what we have in common far surpasses that which divides us.
Since the beginning of the year, bomb threats have been phoned in to more than 80 Jewish Community Centers, Day Schools, and other institutions throughout the country. Some of these organizations have been the recipients of repeated threats. More than 500 gravestones were toppled in acts of vandalism in historic Jewish cemeteries in St. Louis; Philadelphia; and Rochester, New York. Swastikas and other hateful symbols have been found on college campuses and other public buildings. Racial epithets were found at some historically black colleges. At least four mosques in the country have suffered arson and other vandalism. Srinivas Kuchibhotla was murdered in a hate crime in Kansas by a gunman who shouted, “Get out of my country.” A Sikh gentleman was shot in his own driveway in Kent, Washington by a gunman professing a similar ideology. And certainly there have been other incidents and microagressions unfolding throughout our nation. I am grateful for the beautiful messages of support that have been sent in recent days to the synagogue from members of Wesley. I am buoyed by my friendship with Imam Ousmane Sawadogo of CIMIC, who also sent a letter expressing solidarity between our local Muslim and Jewish communities.
We have witnessed upsetting and alarming acts of terrorism. They are designed to dampen our desire to engage with others out of fear for their motives. They could drive us to the sort of dystopian xenophobia that already prevails among a segment of our country’s population. But what is true and honest is that so many Americans are refusing to be cowed. We are standing up and embracing one another, for we understand all too clearly the ominous warnings of Pastor Martin Niemholler (which exists in numerous iterations): “First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out— Because I was not a Socialist. Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out— Because I was not a Trade Unionist. Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out— Because I was not a Jew. Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.”
We must stand together. We must speak out. We are all—regardless of religion, race, or gender—blessed and valued children of God and our lives can only live up to their true potential for holiness when we lend our hands, our hearts, and our being to holding up one another.
Now, what is pure and lovely? Certainly, love is- not only the intimate love that we share with a spouse or partner, but also the love that we extend to family and friends. In these dark times, we are nevertheless hearing incredible stories of strangers who are giving of themselves to one another, without anticipating any reciprocation: the Muslim veterans guarding Jewish cemeteries to prevent further vandalism; the congregations welcoming refugees and pledging to provide sanctuary if needed; the attorneys doing pro bono work at O’Hare and at airports across the country to help immigrants navigate the administration’s travel restrictions. Such acts are pure and lovely, and I believe they are helping to preserve the best of what America has to offer. More significantly, as a person of faith, I think it could fairly be said that the prophets of old—from Isaiah and Jeremiah to Jesus and Mohammed—all would have engaged in and encouraged similar acts as a way of ensuring that God’s love would prevail within our society.
For the Sabbath that just ended, the Jewish lectionary cycle prescribed the reading of the portion of scripture known as Terumah, corresponding to chapters 25-27 of the book of Exodus. It tells of the construction of the Tabernacle, which served as the focal point of worship as the Israelites made their way through the wilderness. Chapter 25, verse 8 reads, “Let them make me a sanctuary, so that I may dwell amongst them.” The Hebrew word for sanctuary, mikdash, is derived from a root meaning “holiness.” So, in a sense, God is saying, “When you create an environment of holiness, I shall dwell in your midst.”
When we do pure and beautiful acts for one another and with one another, we become worthy of having God dwell in our midst, and we begin to sense God in the hearts and hands of our neighbors. Then we help bring fulfillment to the words of Isaiah, “My house shall be called a house of prayer for ALL peoples.” In every place where faithful people commune—synagogues, churches, and mosques, yes…but also parks, grocery stores, public spaces and private homes—let us celebrate the prayer and spirit of every individual and build houses, physical and spiritual, for ALL peoples.
What is of good report? Well, Paul and Timothy clearly intended to refer to the Gospels’ testimony about the ministry of Jesus; the word “gospel,” of course, literally means “good news.” But I think that there is other good news to reflect upon today. I think we can celebrate the fact that two millennia after Paul and Timothy, Jews and Christians can sit here side by side, respectful of each others’ faith, and share in worship, song, and fellowship. I think that it is good news that we recognize that we have much to be thankful for, and that we lift our hearts and souls to the Creator of all, in gratitude for all of our blessings.
Sometime around 1875, Rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise had to select a slogan for his institution of higher education. The Hebrew Union College, my alma mater for my professional training, was established to ordain American rabbis who would appreciate the modern sensibilities of American Jewry. Of all of the inspirational texts in the Hebrew Bible, Rabbi Wise chose the phrase “Haboker Or”, from Genesis 44:3, to serve as the college’s motto.
I’ll let you in on a secret…Nobody is entirely sure what Rabbi Wise had in mind when he chose those two words. Some have suggested that he was not a skilled Hebraist, and so, under pressure, he selected the text at random. But others see beyond the apparent simplicity of these words to appreciate a deeper meaning.
Haboker Or means, “In the morning there was—or ‘there will be’—light.” In its original context in the Torah, it merely sets the scene: Joseph’s brothers, the eleven other sons of Jacob, have come to Egypt to procure food during a famine, not knowing that their brother has risen to a position of prominence. Now they prepare to take their leave as the next day has dawned.
Perhaps, however, Wise meant that a new light had dawned for religious expression. His Judaism would be an American Judaism, adaptive to the changing means of society. Adherents of this Reform Judaism would not reject God or the traditions of their ancestors, but simply confront them in a new—and, Wise hoped, enlightened—manner.
We, too, may proclaim, “Haboker Or.” Tomorrow there will be light. And if not tomorrow, then the next day. The road may be long, and during this Lenten season, the liturgy makes us particularly mindful that we may be met with temptations that would seek to divert us from meeting our intended goal. But let us continue to work toward the light, and greet that light revitalized by our shared sense of community, by our hope for the future, by the promise of what this world can become if we all continue to do our part, working in partnership with God for the betterment of our society. These are important ideas.
So if there be any virtue and if there be any praise, then, my friends, let us think on these things.