Spring is the season of freedom, when we observe the holidays of Passover and Easter. As religious leaders in Arizona, we cherish the freedom to worship, which has led many people around the world to flee tyranny and move to welcoming lands, including the United States. This freedom to worship has led to a diversity of religions and cultures that enriches our community and democracy. Greater Phoenix has congregations that are Catholic, Protestant, Jewish, and Muslim, among others. All these religious traditions teach that our freedoms come with responsibilities to treat each other as we would be treated, lift up the fallen and speak for the voiceless.
Jews are currently celebrating the holiday of Passover, which began Saturday night. It is a celebration of liberation from 400 years of enslavement under Pharaoh in Egypt. The story focuses on how the ancient Israelites went from being avdei Pharaoh — Pharaoh’s workers — to avdei Hashem, or God’s workers. This language shows how liberation comes with an obligation to serve and to form a more perfect society.
Christians have been preparing for Easter in a season called Lent, which offers an invitation to step out of broken relationships with God, neighbors, creation, and self, and into new lives of wholeness. The Resurrection Story calls Christians to build a world in which “Good is stronger than evil; love is stronger than hate; light is stronger than darkness; life is stronger than death,” as Archbishop Desmond Tutu proclaimed.
In both of these holidays, true freedom is not only the removal of oppression, it is about assuming responsibility — even seeking it out. Most of America’s great leaders who worked to end slavery in the 1800s drew on their religious faith. When at last the United States abolished slavery, after centuries of multiracial resistance, organizing, and finally the Civil War, we quickly passed the 15th amendment to protect formerly enslaved men’s voting rights. Emancipation went hand-in-hand with the right to have a vote in our democracy.
Yet even as formerly enslaved Black men registered to vote, and thousands were elected to local, state, and federal office, white leaders across the country — not just in the South — came up with strategies to deny and repress those rights.
Following the Civil War, many emancipated people moved north, including to the District of Columbia. With slavery behind them, they had reached a new land. As the Black population of the District flourished with formerly enslaved people, seeking out new opportunities and community, Black men began to exercise their new political power on the local level. Congress responded by replacing elected local leaders with Congressionally-appointed commissioners, and prevented everyone in D.C. from voting as a way to stifle Black political activity. District residents won the right to vote in presidential elections only in 1961, and have never gained the right to vote for Congress or full autonomy over local laws.
Something visceral tells us this is simply not right. There is no way for us to reconcile our biblical responsibilities to one another with disenfranchising our brethren in the nation’s capital . Passover and Easter both carry powerful messages that my liberation is bound to yours, and yours to mine.
Today, some members of our state legislature seem focused on advancing bills to curtail voting rights. These measures transgress the spirit of the season of freedom. We hope that pro-democracy views prevail in our state and in Congress to welcome all voices in our community. Our U.S. senators, Kyrsten Sinema and Mark Kelly, should draw on the biblical teachings of mutual respect and protecting the freedoms of all members of the community, whether they reside in Arizona or they are the 712,000 disenfranchised residents who call Washington, D.C., home.
The people of Washington, D.C., have been asking for equality since the 1800s. In their 2016 referendum, 86% supported statehood. But only Congress can grant statehood, and D.C. families have no one to speak for them in Congress. So we heed the words of Proverbs 31 to “speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves” and lift up their voices.
The Bible is replete with tales of communities’ struggles to improve themselves. As Americans, we can be proud of our country’s progress towards democracy. At our founding, only white men with property could vote. Women could not vote until 1920. The rights of many Black Americans to vote were not secure until 1965. When we look at American history — and current struggles — we see that freedom is hollow without the power, and responsibility, of the vote.
Today, we continue that work so all of us can share the dignity of participating in democracy, no matter where in America we live or our race or ethnicity. We pray that Senators Sinema and Kelly join us in embracing this most sacred right during this most holy season.