I don’t normally write on race, but I don’t think I can or should be quiet about this matter anymore. Our country is quickly reaching a state of emergency. We are seeing again and again a great travesty–the killing of African-American men without consequence. If we as Christians don’t call this out and commit ourselves to doing something about it, then we are not living into our high calling as people who claim the name of Jesus.
Eric Garner, MIchael Brown, and Trayvon Martin: they were all African-American, all unarmed, and they’re all dead, and in not one of these cases was anyone finally held accountable for their deaths. In the first two cases their killers were white. In the third case, that of Trayvon Martin, the killer was mixed-race, white and hispanic. Two of these shootings occurred at the hands of people who have taken an oath to protect and serve, casting a pall over the reputations of many good and honorable law enforcement officers.
In the cases of Garner and Brown, not only was no one held accountable, there was not even a trial to judge whether or not wrongdoing had occurred. No, we should not convict people before they receive a fair trial, but in these cases there was not even the opportunity for a fair trial. The police officers who killed these two men were never indicted. Now the opportunity for an extended examination of the facts and circumstances of these killings is lost to us.
I believe that most Christians, regardless of their race, know this is wrong. And yet, what’s going to change so that this doesn’t happen again? How are we going to make this, at the very least, less likely in the future? What’s going to be different? The problem may seem so great that we feel we can’t help, but the truth is that we can all do something. Some of us have more influence than others, but each of us can contribute in a variety of ways to the creation of a society in which these kinds of tragic events don’t happen. Over time, small drops of water can destroy a large rock.
If you read this blog very often, you know that I often write about issues related to people with disabilities. This is in part because my youngest son, Sean, lives with a disability. He has Down syndrome. When he was diagnosed a few hours after his birth, the lives of my wife and me, along with our oldest son, Luke, were changed forever. My perspective began to change. The direction of my research began to change. I began to realize how important advocacy for people with disabilities can be.
In 2013, an adult man with DS was killed by police in a movie theater. According to the medical examiner, the cause of death was asphyxiation by homicide. None of the police officers involved was ever indicted.
The incident, in and of itself, was tragic. But all the more tragic was that very few people even seemed to care that it happened. It splashed on the news for a few days, and then it was gone. We all moved on with our lives, thinking and acting no differently than before. But our cultural indifference doesn’t change the facts: this young man–representing one of the most vulnerable population groups in our society–is dead, and his death was completely avoidable. For disabilities advocates, the collective shrug of the wider culture was heartbreaking.
Polls since the incident [the shooting of Michael Brown] demonstrate that black and white Americans see this incident very differently. A Huffington Post/YouGov poll finds that while Americans overall are divided over whether Brown’s shooting was an isolated incident (35 percent) or part of a broader pattern in the way police treat black men (39 percent), this balance of opinion dissipates when broken down by race. More than three-quarters (76 percent) of black respondents say that the shooting is part of a broader pattern, nearly double the number of whites who agree (40 percent). Similarly, a Pew Research Center poll found that overall the country is divided over whether Brown’s shooting “raises important issues about race that need to be discussed” (44 percent) or whether “the issue of race is getting more attention than it deserves” (40 percent). However, black Americans favor the former statement by a four-to-one margin (80 percent vs. 18 percent) and at more than twice the level of whites (37 percent); among whites, nearly half (47 percent) believe the issue of race is getting more attention than it deserves.
My perspective on disabilities was changed because of my ongoing personal relationship with a child with a disability. Personal relationships give us insight into the lives and viewpoints of other people. Yet, according to an article in the Washington Post, “the average black person’s friend network is eight percent white, but the average white person’s network is only one percent black.” Until this changes, we are likely to persist in misunderstanding.
I don’t know what it’s like to be black in America. I do know, however, what it’s like to care about something so deeply you can feel it in your bones, while much of the world seems oblivious, silent, and hardhearted. It is a sick feeling. It can lead to desperation. When I see the images of people protesting around the deaths of Eric Garner and Michael Brown, I see that same sick feeling, a desperate cry growing louder and louder: “SOMEBODY LISTEN TO ME!!!” Martin Luther King Jr. said that riots are the voice of the unheard.
I’ve seen the #blacklivesmatter hashtags, and I’ve seen the #alllivesmatter hashtags. I get the “all lives matter” thing. All lives do matter. But not all lives face the same set of circumstances, and there are times when we have to call attention to the lives of particular groups of people to help right societal wrongs. In the face of goings-on particularly related to race, simply to say “all lives matter” is to ignore the specific problem of racism, to act as if it doesn’t exist. Racism, however, does exist. It’s a real problem, both on personal and social levels. People desperately want to be heard on this matter, and when people want to be heard, it’s a good idea to listen.
As Christians, we can’t simply attend to our own favorite causes. I make noise about people with disabilities. Another person writes about issues of gender. Others write about race, and still others write about human sexuality. And while we won’t always agree with one another on these issues, we will never make progress on any of them if we simply stay in our echo chambers, never listening to one another, never allowing our minds to be changed, never allowing the words and perspectives of other groups to sink in at a deep level and affect our actions and attitudes. We have to care for one another, and that means caring about what others care about most passionately.
So, to my African-American brothers and sisters in Christ: I know I am only a bit player in God’s work of justice and righteousness, but I’m committed to doing what I can to stand alongside you. I don’t claim to be more enlightened than or morally superior to anyone else, nor am I saying anything particularly innovative. As a recent article from RNS states, “With back-to-back grand jury decisions that white police officers will not face charges in the deaths of unarmed black men, white Christians, including evangelicals, have grown more vocal in urging predominantly white churches to no longer turn a blind eye to injustice and to bridge the country’s racial divides.” Christians have done great things in the past by working together across historical lines of division, and with God’s help we can do it again.