Dr. Simran Jeet Singh is a scholar, writer, and activist who writes a column for Religion News Service. He serves as Senior Fellow for the Sikh Coalition and a Visiting Professor at Union Theological Seminary. This August, he will release his first children’s book, Fauja Singh Keeps Going: The True Story of the Oldest Person to Ever Run a Marathon (Kokila—Penguin).
Before Covid-19 even hit New York City, our family began to self-quarantine. My wife is a physician at one of the larger hospitals in the city, and we knew our family was at high risk. What we didn’t anticipate was that the virus would spread through our community so quickly and be so devastating.
As a result of the pandemic, New Yorkers are working hard to maintain physical distance from one another in a way we could have never imagined just three months ago.
At the same time, the recent calls for racial justice are bringing large numbers of us closer together in ways most of us have never experienced before.
After the police murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, the Black Lives Matter movement has swept across the globe, igniting one of the most diverse racial justice efforts in history. In the midst of the most lethal global pandemic in generations, people the world over are still coming together daily to march through the streets calling for change.
Tragically, far too many law enforcement officials across the country have responded to these protests violently. I, myself, have witnessed police brutality during more than one non-violent demonstration in Manhattan.
It would be understandable for the untold numbers of non-violent protestors to back down in order to preserve their safety – either from the virus or from police violence. And yet, they refuse to cower, continuing to show up anyway. I pray that they remain healthy and strong, doing whatever they can to reduce the risk of spreading the virus.
What might we learn from all of these people taking to the streets crying out for equality and justice?
Psalm 133 offers us a powerful insight: “Life is sweetest when we live together as one,” in peace.
I read this psalm for the first time while marchers walked by my apartment building, shouting the same words that have been echoing throughout my city: “No Justice. No Peace.”
As I put these two together—the echoing chants and Psalm 133—I understood our human impulse for justice more deeply. We value justice and peace so much because together they give us a taste of life’s sweetness. Being denied these values-in-action is being denied the sweetness of life itself.
This is why so many protestors are willing to risk their health and safety for justice and peace – because without these virtues enacted, our lives are inevitably fractured and our communities left suffering from the age-old disease of racism.
The closing lines of Psalm 133 give us even more to think about: In peaceful societies, life flows one generation to the next, despite hardships and even calamities. What do we make of this? I understand the text to be saying that true peace—just peace—is life-giving, sustaining across lifespans.
As we watch the world crumble around us and reflect urgently on the social fracturing that comes through ongoing and systemic injustice, we can’t help but dream about a future where cohesion brings us more joy. A society that is rooted in, and organized around, inequity and repeatedly reproduces it will never find true peace—it is doomed to suffer, just like ours is today.
Psalm 133 gives us a vision of joy to which we can aspire. Life is good when we live together in peace, and societies that do so endure and thrive. The opposite is also true: societies that do not live in peace are destined to fall. As the protestors have been reminding us loudly and clearly, justice is a precursor to peace. If we truly want to taste the sweetness of life, and if we want to do so in a way that is sustainable and lasting, we must recommit ourselves to peace and justice.