Jackson brings message of hope to religious leaders
"We cannot prevent the crucifixion. But they cannot prevent the resurrection."
With these stirring but challenging words, the Rev. Jesse Jackson, a warrior for civil rights for more than 50 years, answered questions about the chronic resurgence of hatred and divisiveness in Portland and the nation.
In town for a brief, previously arranged visit to attend meetings of the National Association of Black County Officials, Jackson gamely attempted a message of hope in the face of last week's killing of two men and serious assault on a third on a MAX train. The lethal attacks, apparently spurred by religious and racial animus, traumatized the Portland community, raised international awareness of the results of hate speech, and directed Jackson's attention and engagement to Portland's diverse religious community.
The Rev. Mark Knutson, pastor of Augustana Lutheran Church in Northeast Portland, hosted a private breakfast for dozens of leaders from many of Portland's religious denominations. That was followed by a news conference where Jackson, Knutson and Multnomah County Commissioner Loretta Smith took questions and suggested some optimistic responses to the increase in violence and hate in the past year.
Questions for Jackson had common themes: How could America have made such progress in the past decade, followed by such a sudden, recent and explosive deterioration in the decency of civic discourse? Do we engage "alt-right" demonstrations that raise the probability of violent confrontation in our city? What is the correct response to people who seemingly will not change the "hate in their hearts?"
Jackson linked some of the strains in contemporary society, the "sense of our turning on each other," to mechanisms that marginalize portions of communities. Increased obstacles to voting, concentration of economic power in fewer hands, and the failure to coordinate government responses to health care, AIDS and drug use, he said, all increase struggles in what is presented as a zero-sum game with "winners" and "losers." Instead, Jackson asked his followers to "fight for the best America," a Portland whose brand is the Blazers, not race-baiting and murder.
But his responses to immediate concerns of local hate speech and actions were more focused and striking. Addressing religious and racial bigots of the sort who may march in Portland, he challenged: "If you believe in hate, declare it. If you believe in oppression, declare it."
He challenged the code-words and "dog-whistles" of racists, which the alt-right uses, to make their message more palatable and hence more dangerous to mainstream discussion and engagement. Exposing the camouflages of violence, hate, and oppression makes them easier to confront, Jackson said.
But he also sounded a somber note: While he is not optimistic about changing the "hearts and minds" of those who support inequality or oppression, he bluntly said that we can and should make it illegal for them to behave in accordance with their beliefs.
What about possible responses to the rallies that bring in prominent white supremacists, anti-Semites, and anti-Muslim bigots? While he encouraged a massive and peaceful display of harmony from community religious leaders, his ultimate recommendation for confronting bigotry: If you cannot change the hate in the hearts of bigots, "Let them march alone." With this, guarded by plainclothes officers, he walked to his secured van and returned to his meetings.