Books Social Justice

Moral Resistance and Spiritual Authority: When God’s Word Presses upon Your Heart

In anticipation of the release of CCAR Press’s forthcoming publication, Moral Resistance and Spiritual Authority: Our Jewish Obligation to Social Justice, we invited Reverend Cornell William Brooks, to share an excerpt of the Foreword that he wrote.

Generations of Americans are familiar with a black-and-white photograph taken in a long-ago time, a sepia-toned picture of several American prophets: Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel and the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. walking arm and arm, beside a Torah, on the blood-stained road from Selma to Montgomery, as well Rabbi Maurice Eisendrath. On that day shortly after Bloody Sunday, when marchers were beaten nearly to death, Heschel, as scholar and rabbi, joined Dr. King—representing not only Judaism’s spiritual authority but its moral resistance at the height of the civil rights movement. Amid what may be described as a Twitter-age civil rights movement, there is yet today an anguishing hunger for both spiritual resistance and moral authority. This spiritual resistance and moral authority is suggested in multicolored digital pictures of our time, multi-hued pixelated photographs of a multi-racial group of people walking in a prophetic tradition—today.

As a fourth-generation African Methodist minister, raised in and around the birthplace of the American Reform Movement, Charleston, South Carolina, I witnessed the spiritual resistance and moral authority of the Reform Jewish community a mere two years ago. As the then president and CEO of the NAACP, I called for a march from Selma, Alabama, to Washington, DC, to oppose widespread voter suppression and restore a Voting Rights Act, gutted by a constitutionally wrongheaded and morally wrong-hearted Supreme Court decision, Shelby v. Holder. Rabbis, their adult congregants, and even grade-schoolers and Jewish summer campers responded with a prophetic courage, moral exuberance, and organizational speed that was frankly stunning.

Even today, neither the magnitude nor moral profundity of that response can be fully measured. One out of every ten Reform rabbis in the United Stated marched on America’s Journey for Justice, a historic 1,002-mile march from Selma to DC. Not only did these rabbis march from Selma to DC, but they carried the Torah, and not only did they carry the Torah, but so did Baptists and Methodists, the faithful and the cynical, gentiles and Jews, African Americans and Latinos, seniors and their grandbabies, and many for whom the Torah was both an unexplained mystery and as yet unread tome. Beautiful digital images of these marchers circulated online, around the globe and into the hearts of those seeking justice in this time.

Leaders of the protest, holding flags, from left Bishop James Shannon, Rabbi Abraham Heschel, Dr. Martin Luther King and Rabbi Maurice Eisendrath. Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, Arlington Cemetery, February 6, 1968. Published February 7, 1968. (Photo by Charles Del Vecchio/Washington Post/Getty Images)

I and hundreds of non-Jews discovered that when you march carrying the Torah, with your right or left hand and the sacred scroll laying upon the opposite shoulder, the Scripture literally crosses and lays upon your heart. As I walked with the Torah, I came to understand that to truly “pray with your feet,”1 as Rabbi Heschel said of marching for justice, one must have God’s word pressing upon your heart.

More than anything, Jews (and this gentile with so many others) yet hunger for hope. While hope may lack an empirical basis, it surely has a moral foundation in the Torah and its timeless teachings as they are interpreted for this generation in this moment by these writers. It is a hope greater than dry poll-tested probabilities of the prospects for uninspired reform. It is a hope that gives us an often tested determination that compels us to co-labor with God for a “justice that rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream” (Amos 5:24). It is a hope that inspires us to “dream dreams” (Joel 3:1) and “see visions” (Joel 3:1) as well as to “write the vision . . . plain” (Habakkuk 2:2). It is a hope that compels us to pray—and to plan, strategize, study, mentor, teach, and partner as well as learn.

  1. Susannah Heschel, “Following in My Father’s Footsteps: Selma 40 Years Later,” Vox, April 4, 2005.

Reverend Cornell William Brooks is a Visiting professor of Ethics, Law, and Justice movements at Boston University School of Theology and Boston University School of Law; Senior Fellow at the Brennan Center of Justice at New York University Law School; Visiting Fellow and Director of the Campaigns and Advocacy Program at the Institute of Politics at Harvard Kennedy School; Visiting Research Scholar at Yale Law School; regular contributor to CNN; and former president and CEO of the NAACP.  Rev. Brooks also wrote the foreword for CCAR Press’s forthcoming publication, Moral Resistance and Spiritual Authority: Our Jewish Obligation to Social Justice, now available for pre-order.