“Parents shall not be put to death for their children, nor shall children be put to death for their parents; only for one’s own crime shall a person be put to death.”  — Deuteronomy 24:16 

This injunction in the Book of Deuteronomy is a reversal of the ancient belief that God (or gods for polytheists) operated in the realm of punishing groups more than individuals. This important verse from the Old Testament, expanded by later prophetic writings, has been important in Western Civilization, and now around the world, to develop justice systems that render justice to individuals and not to groups for the actions of individuals.

Rev. Michael Hendrickson

Some of the most shameful acts of our nation’s history have been due to violating this principle. An example still in the memory of some in South County is the 1942 forced relocation of Japanese-Americans in the early days of World War Two.

This moral principle is not just applicable to the government and judicial systems. It applies to individuals and society as well. In his important two-volume series of books, Democracy in America, published in 1835 and 1840 respectively, the Frenchman Alexis de Tocqueville observed this insight about American society:

“A king, moreover, has only a physical power that acts on deeds and cannot reach wills; but the majority is vested with a strength simultaneously physical and moral, which acts on the will as well as on actions and which at the same time prevents the deed and the desire to do it. I know of no country where, in general, there reigns less independence of mind and true freedom of discussion than in America.”

I would argue that mass media, whether it represents a literal majority or not, enjoys a similar power in our day to suppress freedom of speech and thought.

In South County there exist many minorities. In fact, Santa Clara County is a majority-minority locality where no ethnic majority exists. Yet we have in our midst minorities who feel vulnerability and fear. I will name two: Jews and Muslims. I have the privilege of having acquaintances from both these faith groups and can share with you that both groups are fearful of coming forward in the public sphere to voice their opinions on the Israeli-Hamas War and other topics in the current atmosphere.  

I’m not speaking of major cities and universities where conflicts over differing ways of thinking are to be expected. I’m speaking here of placid South County.

What can be done? First, if we ourselves are guilty of blanket judgments, we should repent of this attitude. Second, we should be vociferous supporters of the rights guaranteed by the First Amendment. Third, if we are blessed to have friends and acquaintances of those who feel silenced, we should be encouraging their presence here in South County and our willingness to defend their rights.  

We can do better than have the curses of anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, and the suppression of free speech in our South County communities.

Father Michael Hendrickson is the Pastor of St. Mary Parish in Gilroy and an active participant in the Interfaith Clergy Alliance of South County. He can be contacted at [email protected].

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