There are many people doing a victory lap today as the so-called confederate flag comes down in South Carolina after years of hard fighting against that symbol of bigotry and white supremacism and, most recently, the martyrdom of 9 individuals at the Mother Emmanuel AME church in Charleston only a few weeks ago, those 9 slain by a man who draped himself in such symbols.
There are many—progressive and conservative—who would argue that taking down the flag doesn’t solve the deep-rooted issues of race and privilege. And if the price for taking the flag down was the death of 9 innocent victims in their own church while at Bible Study, then we might argue that the price was too high.
There is truth in those objections. The removal of a symbol of hate does not excise the hate itself, or the oppression that goes with it. These issues, as writers like Ta-Nehisi Coates and Edward Baptist remind us, are baked into the very nature of the American experience. And we don’t have to go all the way down to Charleston to see this. Last week I received the final report of the Wilmington Education Advisory Committee, which makes clear that “thousands of Wilmington children, most of them poor, black or Latino, still do not have access to high-quality public education.” We have been down this road before.
And yet, we must not be dismissive of such moments or the work that leads up to them. They are what they are and, taken by themselves, incomplete. But when seen as part of a larger whole; that is, the movement toward racial justice in this country, this work should give us encouragement, should move us forward. The problem arises not in the moment and the accompanied victory lap, but in our seeing it as the completion of the work, not the continuation of it, and as Pirkei Avot reminds us, while we are not required to complete the work, nor are we permitted to shirk from it.
So we see as we begin our Torah portion. Pinchas, the son of Eleazar, great-nephew of Moses, has seen Israel rebel again and again, now culminating with taking up the gods—and women—of the Midianites. A plague is going through the community, killing Israel again, and Pinchas’ quick—albeit violent and zealous action—is all that stops it. For that reason, Pinchas receives God’s Brit Shalom, God’s covenant of peace.
But the rabbis draw an interesting conclusion. They note that the word ‘Shalom” is written defectively. It’s missing a letter in the Hebrew text. Which they understand to mean that Pinchas, in his zealotry, has earned only a partial reward. His peace is incomplete, his covenant imperfect and inadequate. The choice is given to Pinchas whether he will accept this covenant as-is, decide that it’s ‘good enough’, or will work to make it—and himself—better.
That is the same question before us. I do not doubt our intent, which is always for the good. But if we are willing to accept the status quo as ‘good enough’, or incremental, minor changes to the world around us as ‘good enough’, then our covenant, and our peace, will be as Pinchas’ is: defective.
So ask yourselves: what are you doing to challenge the status quo? What are you doing to resist this ‘good enough’ covenant? I don’t just mean at the ballot box, but in your daily lives? How are you making yourself aware of how incomplete our shalom really is? One thing I would ask you to do is read two books: The New JimCrow and The Half Has Never Been Told. Read those books and ask yourselves those questions—challenge your own self.
It is only a flag. Only a symbol. And if we leave it at that, then we will have done nothing. And if we take it as an invitation to do more, then we may not complete the work of brit shalom, of creating a covenant of peace, but we can at least say we made it a little more whole.