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In 2020, Make Your New Year’s Resolution Getting Arrested

As a new year and new decade approaches, many people are partaking in the tradition of setting a new year’s resolution. My suggestion for this year? As a rabbi with a rap sheet decades old, it’s this: Get arrested.

After all, getting arrested is a profound spiritual practice. For proof, look no further than Mahatma Gandhi, or the United States civil rights movement.

But it’s not just on behalf of civil rights that you should seek to get arrested in 2020. The truth is, whoever wins the White House or controls the Senate, our society and our planet remain in peril.

Climate change is an existential threat; a tide of tens of millions of refugees is rising on a scale unseen since World War II; white nationalism and armed attacks on our synagogues, churches and mosques are escalating; the brutal gaps between rich and poor — of wealth and health — are growing; and our precious, fundamental democratic institutions are trembling in the balance. These are emergencies, dangers that demand action.

I don’t believe that democracy — government by and for the people — can or will survive if we limit our civic engagement to the ballot box. Yes, we have to vote. We have to debate, serve, and organize. But to keep democracy alive when the actions of our government are profoundly out of alignment with our own deeply held sense of justice, we have to be willing to withdraw our own consent. To calmly disobey. To get arrested.

This is a non-partisan resolution. I recommend the spiritual practice of getting arrested for Democrats and Republicans — for radicals and moderates. At the core of Gandhi’s philosophy stood satyagraha, a Sanskrit word which most directly translates as “holding on to truth,” though I prefer the translation embraced by the early civil rights movement: soulforce. Our political discourse and ability to address challenging problems would greatly benefit from more people across the political spectrum nonviolently using their bodies to dramatize their vision for the world through soulforce.

Why soulforce? We long to act in this world with perfect alignment of our heart and soul, our body and mind, our ethics and actions. Soulforce captures our spiritual balancing act between chesed and gevurah — love and strength: It is powerful loving action. Action aligned with what’s right and just, but with love always first, rooted in a sense of connection to the holy and to the community. Gandhi’s satyagraha is chesed and gevurah in balanced action. Soulforce.

I understand that getting arrested isn’t for everyone, that there are many other ways to act to align the righteous intention of the mind, body and soul without going to jail. I also understand that as a white, male rabbi, I enjoy a degree of safety that is simply not there during typical arrests, especially for people of color and unquestionably for undocumented immigrants. I believe that those like me, who face arrest with less peril, have an even greater obligation to get arrested in 2020.

There is a unique freedom that comes with the commitment and the choice that in a particular circumstance, or for a particular cause, we will not let the fear or threat of an arrest keep us from acting.

My first arrests were for protesting the production of first-strike nuclear missiles — weapons of mass destruction designed to be used preemptively. A major campus for Lockheed, the developer of these missiles, was just a few miles up the road from the University of California, Santa Cruz, where I was a student. In 1989, I was part of a small group planning a direct action to interrupt the production of these weapons.

More than 80 of us jumped the fence and found that our efforts were inadvertently supported by the county sheriff’s department. It had deputized all the employees of Lockheed who, instead of working, were waiting to help in our apprehension.

A Lockheed employee grabbed one of our group, and because we didn’t want to drag the Lockheed man along or break up our group, we formed a circle. With one of us taking his hand, he became a member of our group. We spoke about what brought us to Lockheed and to action that day, and we invited the deputized Lockheed engineer to speak, too.

Reluctantly at first, he shared some of his experiences fighting in World War II, and then, with feeling, he said he never wanted to see a war like that again, and spoke of his belief that nuclear weapons were preventing such a war.

When the county police came and began arresting us, I heard him chastising them as I was being thrown into the police wagon. “You don’t have to be so rough,” our new friend said. “He isn’t hurting anyone!”

Who knows what impact this small action 30 years ago might have had on the nuclear arms race, but I know my connection that morning with one Lockheed employee affected things. Our embrace of our supposed adversary led him to come to my defense.

Judaism’s central teaching that God is one points us to the equally profound truth that we, all humanity, all life, are one. Our souls are connected, even when we cannot see it. Even when we are facing arrest.

Rabbi Elliott Tepperman is the leader of Bnai Keshet, a Reconstructionist synagogue, in Montclair, N.J. Follow him on Twitter @RavElliott.

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