Before there was the internet, there was the spoken word, and then its offspring, the written word, which brought forth letters and petitions.

We rarely come across people accosting us outside shopping malls these days, clipboard or endless scrolled paper in hand, not letting us go about our business without hearing them out and getting our name on their petition for one worthy cause or another. It’s all on the ‘net these days. Just click and you’re member of a party, and the subject of endless appeals for cash.

It wasn’t always that way. There was a hierarchy of signatures, too. As I once heard it told, one hundred pounds of a signed petition was worth one vote, or in other words, was worthless. It was an effortless gesture, and this tells you something about online petitions as well.

One hundred copied and signed petitions, mailed by individuals, were worth one vote. A little more effort, but only just.

However, a letter composed by an individual, signed and stamped (remember those?) was worth 500 votes. This took effort, time and money, and it meant that the cause hit a lot of people. Politicians paid attention to these letters. They needed the votes, after all.

Even if you put your name on a bid calling for the impeachment or arrest of sitting members of government, you risk nothing. In modern Western societies, there are even cottage industries that occupy themselves with precisely that, and their books form whole sections of bookstores (both real and virtual).

Bravery of a different magnitude

Man faces down tanks in Tiananman Square

However, real change takes effort, real effort and real courage. When you oppose a totalitarian government, or one that places little or no value on your life, then that stance requires bravery of a different magnitude.

And it may happen yet.  They may come for a stranger. Or a neighbour. Or you. What then? The need would be dire and the foe daunting. What would you do then?

We hope that people would take a firm stand and not yield. Only offering prayers, with no action, is to forfeit human agency.

Turning the other cheek will work with an adversary who possesses similar values. The cruel and the merciless will react with glee. Brave people, or those who claim to be brave, have to stand together.

Like the brave people in Hong Kong, taking on the dug-in and vast powers of the state to protect their freedom. They’re risking their safety right now. Soon, it may be different, and the hazard increased.

Or, going back further, that man who faced down a column of tanks in Tiananmen Square, daring them and challenging the humanity of the operators. He was able to walk away. Others were physically crushed. But we still have that icon, that image of fearless resolve in the face of overwhelming force.

Go back further still, to Chiune Sugihara. He was Japan`s vice-consul to Lithuania at the start of the Second World War. His act of heroism was to defy direct orders from his government by aiding Jews who were desperate to flee the conquering Nazi troops. Sugihara provided visas, sometimes only in the form of a piece of paper bearing his signature, and these enabled the Jews to escape to Japan.

Transit visa issued by Chiune Sugihara

He paid with his job, but never regretted his acts, committed during anti-Semitic times and amid world powers who were indifferent to the slaughter. His courageous act saved 2,000 Jews—among them, a man who went on to found a yeshivah in Montreal, and who taught this writer throughout high school—a man named Rabbi Aryeh Leib Baron.

In the PBS documentary Conspiracy of Kindness, Sugihara stated that “I may have disobeyed my government, but if I didn’t, I would be disobeying God.” He had deeply held beliefs and acted upon them. *

Raoul Wallenberg took the same stand, using his office and his wits to save thousands of Hungarian Jews from the Nazis. He was swallowed up by the advancing Soviet forces and died in their custody. His death and the Soviets’ role in it was never officially recognized by the USSR. Both he and Sugihara appear in Israel’s book known as Righteous Among the Nations.

The hard edge of spiritualism

These acts, and others like it, are the hard edge of spiritualism.  Maybe the term is religion. They speak of times when a stand must be taken if you wish to call yourself one of God’s servants. Your act may not solve everything, and you yourself may suffer. But the Talmudic saying is, “You are not responsible to complete the work, but neither are you free to absolve yourself from it.” (Ethics of the Fathers, 2:21)

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image 1: Adam Jones; image 2: Brandon Carson