I’ve got a thing or two to say, as a pastor and as a human being. I realize I may be treading on dangerous waters and that I’m bound to make some folks angry. So be it. If I don’t speak, it makes me complicit in perpetuating injustice.
Racial tensions are at one of highest levels I think I’ve seen in YEARS. I stare at the images on the television screen and read articles in disbelief at how unjust systems are and how in too many places people are simply set up to fail – and fail miserably, even to losing their lives at the hand of the system that in theory is supposed to protect us all.
Much of what our society is facing can be traced to the long shadow that slavery still casts over our national psyche. We CANNOT deny the presence of that shadow. Hundreds of years seeing a race of people as less than human, and hundreds of years of being considered as less than human – do not just disappear with an emancipation proclamation or a Supreme Court decision on education or a voting rights act (part of which was recently dismantled). The legacy being a “non-person,” of families being ripped apart – husbands from wives, fathers and mothers from children – is still with us. As a white person I can’t even begin to understand what it feels like to stand in that shadow and be stymied at every effort I make to break out. That leads to frustration and anger, but also, perhaps more importantly, a loss of hope. Loss of hope for one person can lead to depression. Loss of hope for an entire community, race, or nation can lead to chaos.
People need to have hope that they can make a good life for themselves and their families. When they lose that hope, not only is protest inevitable, but violence becomes probable as well. Protesting is part of our history, it’s an act which we cherish because America was born from protest. I applaud those who plan and gather and protest for their rights and the rights of others. Violence is different. Some of these folks are SO angry, SO frustrated, SO hopeless, that they don’t care what happens to them, or anyone else – especially when they see themselves as victims of violence and murder by the system that pretends to protect them. When someone has no hope, when they feel like they have nothing left to lose, they become a danger to themselves AND to others. When hope is gone, the future is gone. When the future is gone… we are ALL in trouble. We all need to have hope. I have my own ideas about what hope is – I’m a religious person, so for me hope is intimately tied to faith. But hope is more than a theological concept. Apart from faith, hope comes from the expectation that we can make something for ourselves.
Yesterday was the first anniversary of Robin Williams’ suicide. Robin lost hope. He turned his hopelessness in on himself. Others, whose hopelessness is rooted in anger at injustice, may turn that hopelessness OUT. I believe this is true for some violent protesters. I believe it is also true for some in law enforcement. I’m not condoning violence, not by protesters, or by police – I’m just trying to understand. I think both the people on the streets and the people in uniform are suffering from a loss of hope. I think we all need to have a sense of what the other is facing so that we can fight against everyone’s hopelessness. MY hope commands me to do that. Jesus tells me to see himself in ALL my neighbors.
An important first step in healing the wounds that slavery has left us and to grow hope is to LISTEN. Listen to the voices of those who have been voiceless. Allow them to speak in their own voices – don’t put words in their mouths, don’t interrupt. Allow them to be angry. Listen to their pain, as uncomfortable as that may be. It’s amazing how hard it is to listen, but it’s also amazing the power that real listening has to give hope. Then, even as we’re listening, we need to make systemic changes in the practices that have stifled hope – that have left people stuck. I consider protesters AND law enforcement to be in this quagmire together.
When I hear about an unarmed person being shot dead by a cop or dying in police custody my blood boils. But I have a brother-in-law who is a police officer – I’ve heard terrible stories of what he faces constantly and he’s not even in a big city. Remember the Texas pool party incident in June when a police officer tackled a bikini clad teenage girl and drew his gun on the crowd around her? There was understandable outrage. But after he resigned from the police force, saying he just couldn’t do his job anymore, it came to light that before being dispatched to the pool incident, the officer had dealt with one uncompleted suicide attempt and another “unusually disturbing completed suicide.” Having this information put the incident in a whole new light for me. His actions were wrong, HE knew it and resigned, but I felt a lot of compassion for him. Why wasn’t this officer given TIME to process those previous calls, perhaps an hour or two (at LEAST) or being sent home for the remainder of the day to collect himself, before being thrown back out in the field to deal with rowdy teenagers? WHY? Not enough officers? No decent policy in place for what constitutes being sent to “mandatory” counseling? Stigma against seeking help? Tough guy attitude? I don’t know. All we do know is that it created an almost perfect storm. I’m sure this kind of “set up” for the cop and the young woman is NOT isolated.
Our cops need mandatory mental health screenings. Not AFTER an event, but BEFORE – to PREVENT many of them from happening. I believe that if we’re going to hand out guns to cops, and force them to see people who’ve blown their heads off, women beaten to a pulp by their lovers, young boys killed in gang violence, children raped for money – then we should give them support in processing all that horror. NO ONE can see what they see and not be effected. Police officers cannot foster hope in the places they serve if they’ve lost hope and become cynical and scarred from what they’ve seen. Don’t tell me we don’t have the money. We can’t afford NOT to have the money. Our police officers need to have hope, just as the people they serve need hope. We can’t send out loose cannons to maintain the peace. It sets everybody up for disaster.
The systems/politics in many of our police departments must also change, so that our officers can be more concerned with attending victims of a car accident instead of pulling over a car that has failed to signal; so that they’re focused on saving little girls from being raped in their own homes instead handing out warrants for the dilapidated car in someone’s front yard. These changes won’t completely stop bad cops, but it will make them much easier to spot and weed out. And systems/politics that keep people in hopeless poverty need to change. Our children need to grow with the hope that if they work hard and follow the rules, good things CAN happen for them. For too many of our children, this is NOT the reality. You can highlight a few shining examples – our president and first lady, many sports stars or entertainers – but they are not the norm.
I’d also be negligent as a pastor if I didn’t say a word or two about sin – or at least morality. This is another basic reason to foster hope – to combat the “nothing left to lose” attitude that leads people to disrespect each other. We need to respect our basic laws. Don’t rape women, or little girls (or boys or men). Don’t sell drugs. Don’t steal. Don’t shoot anyone. Don’t beat up anyone. The system may be flawed, it may be corrupt – but most laws are there to protect YOU and ME from harm. If you can say to yourself, “I do all these things so I’m good,” you’re not off the hook. If you’re a person who holds power in this world, it is your responsibility to grow power in others, not to hoard it for yourself. If you’re an employer, treat your employees the way you would want to be treated. If you’re a landlord, make your property the kind you would live in yourself. Look grocery store clerks, retail sales people, bank tellers and gas station attendants in the eye – acknowledge their existence instead of having your face in your phone. They are your EQUALS – treat them as such. If we respect each other’s humanity, it becomes VERY hard for us to hurt one another. SYSTEMS need to change. We need to speak up and protest until we are heard and until those changes happen. But change also needs to happen within us. Each one of us must resolve to see the humanity (the child of God-ness) in the other – to gift each other with HOPE. Either we do that, or we’ll all go down together.
When Cain asked God, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” God said, “YES.”***
***Actually God’s answer to that question was more eloquent. In Genesis 4:10-11 God said to Cain (who had killed his brother Abel): “What have you done? Listen; your brother’s blood is crying out to me from the ground! And now you are cursed from the ground, which has opened its mouth to receive your brother’s blood from your hand.” I think that qualifies as a “yes,” don’t you?