On Not Being Silent

justice scalesI 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.

Our personal investments in people and issues affect our perspectives in dramatic ways, and race certainly shapes our personal investments. According to an article in The Atlantic

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.

36 thoughts on “On Not Being Silent

  1. The quote below is from http://www.umc.org/what-we-believe/political-community. If we believe all human life is sacred and created by God then we should be outraged at any life taken by violence no matter they “whys” or “rationalization” given by others (mostly our media – how many of us have spoken directly with the police officers or families of these who lost their lives?). Our system is not perfect but we have the freedom here to express our displeasure with it and to try and do something to better the “system”. Whether we agree with what the media has reported or not, life was lost and families are grieving. They are crying out their “Why?” just like you or I would. ALL life matters to God and we need to represent that as best as finite beings can. What can we offer? Christ! What does that look like? Love, sharing in the grief of others, acting on behalf of those lives lost (or those who cannot speak for themselves) so more are not lost. It does not involve name calling or “he said; she said” tactics or more violence.

    “We believe the death penalty denies the power of Christ to redeem, restore and transform all human beings. The United Methodist Church is deeply concerned about crime throughout the world and the value of any life taken by a murder or homicide. We believe all human life is sacred and created by God and therefore, we must see all human life as significant and valuable. When governments implement the death penalty (capital punishment), then the life of the convicted person is devalued and all possibility of change in that person’s life ends. We believe in the resurrection of Jesus Christ and that the possibility of reconciliation with Christ comes through repentance. This gift of reconciliation is offered to all individuals without exception and gives all life new dignity and sacredness. For this reason, we oppose the death penalty (capital punishment) and urge its elimination from all criminal codes.”

  2. view from a mother who has a very white son in police academy because he feels with every fiber of his being that this is what he needs to do: I do not deny we have a problem. But if there is one thing I have learned from listening to my son is that no matter how much training there is, in the end a police officer is no less a sinner in need of God’s amazing grace than the next person.

    I have respected many of your posts, but this one has me absolutely bumfuzzled because my question has become, why should individual police officers be held accountable for and the scapegoat for the ills of society? Do you really believe police officers are out looking to kill a black man? Was that Darren Wilson’s hope when he went on patrol that day in Ferguson? And what about his life in the aftermath of what happened? Does he not deserve mercy? Do you really want police officers to become less human? And just for the record, their humanness can not only result in another’s death but also their own!

    I do not know what else to say, except you have absolutely no clue what it is like from the perspective of a police officer and his family. What went down in Ferguson was a complete and total disaster for TWO mothers’ sons and their families! In the aftermath of Ferguson I wish with every fiber of my being law enforcement was not my sons calling because I do not see how he could survive being made the scapegoat for a broken society. One of the first things he learned in academy was that compared to other careers, police officers have a higher level of divorce, alcohol abuse and suicide than other professions. It has become very clear to me why that is!

    • Betsy, thank you for sharing your perspective in this conversation. We need to hear voices like yours. You’re right: I don’t know what life is like from the perspective of a police officer and his or her family.

      To clarify, my intention is not to make police or any other group a scapegoat. As I said in the article, I know that there are many law enforcement officers who are good and honorable people who go about their work with great integrity. I have nothing but respect for these folks. Having said that, I also don’t think we can ignore the patterns within a cluster of recent events, patterns that point to a problem closely tied to matters of race. I don’t want to vilify any particular person or group, but neither do I want to ignore the patterns and problems that I see in these events.

      I thought this article that came out after the Ferguson decision was very insightful, and it helps to show how complicated this matter really is: http://www.cnn.com/2014/11/25/opinion/simmons-ferguson-grand-jury-complicated/

    • Where I am coming from. It took me a while to get over my maternal reactions and get a grasp of my bigger picture. It has been a mixed bag for me ever since my son switched his major to criminal justice and I can not deny that that is when things started falling in place for him. He was so excited when he got to participate in an active shooter drill on campus. It was a very mixed moment the day he came home from academy proudly wearing his duty belt and bullet proof vest.

      This is not my first rodeo when it comes to the race issue. I was old enough during the race riots/civil rights movements of the 1960’s to fully understand the problems besetting African Americans. My mother was the Head Start Director for 6 years in a mid-sized town in East Texas, aka the Deep South. Unfortunately. FIFTY years later, I am hearing the same verbiage after government efforts to mitigate the problem with
      Affirmative Action, Head Start, welfare and the such–and here we are at round 2. In between I have witnessed several things:

      1. A single black mother of 2 clean houses and babysit–we were fortunate enough to be one of her clients on both fronts–and push both her children through college. She later went on to get herself through college and get a Master’s degree and find employment with the school system.

      2. I worked 13 years at a medical school and heard first hand how hard it was for a white male to get into medical school.

      3. In my neck of the woods, the designated minority are the Hispanic–except in reality they are not the minority but they continually throw down the race card to influence decisions.

      4. When my children graduated high school, the running “joke” was “Maybe if I went to Mexico I could get a scholarship.”

      5. Last May I sat in the classroom of a long time friend who I know for a fact is genuinely color-blind and had spent more than 10 years teaching in alternative school trying to force students who had no interest in learning to learn–most of her students were black or Hispanic. She had had enough and was retiring. After witnessing the attitude of the students I told her she was doing the right thing. The other day she told me that her former school system now has a civil rights officer to review all referrals to alternative school because too many blacks were being referred. The teachers no longer feel they can refer blacks to alternative school and my friend point blank said that blacks are the ones causing trouble.

      6. When my younger daughter was in public school kindergarten, her teacher apologized for the fact that she was in such a disruptive class; the teacher’s hands were tied when it came to disciplining most her minority students because the level of discipline she was allowed to dole out was nothing compared to what they were receiving at home.

      7. When New Orleans flooded, I saw an interview with a frazzled young black woman who was upset because “no one came and got me”.

      8. We had a friend who was a detective with the local PD in our town of 20,000. After doing a stint of undercover work locally, and it got to him. His exact words were “I feel like if I pull back one more layer, I will come face to face with the devil himself.”

      I don’t know what is going on with the African American community, but I do not believe their problems are totally the result of the big bad whites–the African Americans have skin in this game beyond feeling sorry for themselves. I am to the point of thinking all the Civil Right movement accomplished was to confirm the victim mentality. My 29 year old daughter makes the statement, I did not make them slaves. And she has a point.

      Then I think about John Wesley and how “he transformed society”:

      Step 1. He had no desire to change anything all he was after was to live a holy life centered in God. That quest lead him into unlikely places.

      Step 2: He encountered the triune God of holy love.

      Step 3. He told others about the triune God of holy love.

      Step 4. He then enabled and supported the people who responded to his message to live a holy life centered in God DESPITE their circumstances.

      Step 5. God was then able to transform whole communities one person at a time. Within Wesley’s lifetime, the economic status of Methodists had greatly improved; to the point they became more spiritually complacent.

      I do not intend to completely whitewash law enforcement. There are problems. But while you were watching the take down of a black man that resulted in his death, my son was watching the dash cam video of a state trooper being shot by a man he pulled over for a routine traffic stop who had made it known that he was going to kill the next police officer who pulled him over. My son said the hardest part of the video was listening to the trooper die.

      It took one state 15 years to understand why their troopers were dying in the field holding their empty shell casings; turns out a habit developed on the target range proved deadly in the field.

      And the list goes on…

      Every morning a police officer wakes up, he puts his pants on one leg at a time, he buttons his shirt one button at a time, he puts on his shoes one at a time. And he does not want to die any more than the next person and neither does his mother.

      Today, my son will be receiving some t-shirts to be worn during their physical training. One of the things incorporated into it is a thin blue line which is representative of the thin line a police officer walks when it comes to enforcing the law and breaking it.

      I have become an avid fan of the TV show “Blue Bloods”. Within the parameters of fictional drama, it does a very good job of showing both sides of the coin when it comes to police work–it is messy and there is never a satisfactory answer/solution and when a police officer makes a mistake, the results can be deadly–that is the level they work at and I do not doubt that like anybody else, they do not want to be forever known for what they did wrong.

      • The biggest problem is, as Christians, I never see this type of discussion starting with an acknowledgment that we are a broken people trying to live in a broken world that will remain broken until Christ comes again. As hard as we try, this world will never be perfect for anybody.

        In my previous response, I should have stopped with my summation of how Wesley “really changed the world”. Christians are barking up the wrong tree when they think they need.to get in bed with the government to tackle social justice issues. I think 50 years down the road has proven that. Want to revitalize the UMC? Then enable God to change the world the way Wesley did!

      • To think that American society has not improved during the last 50 years regarding minorities (including women) is wilful blindness. To think that whites are held back by the advancement of other races or that men are held back by the advancement of women isn’t worthy of comment.

        It’s easy to dismiss a person by lumping them together in a faceless black group and saying, “I didn’t make them slaves,” i.e. “It’s not my fault so I’m not getting involved.” Was that the perspective of the Samaritan?

        Regarding social justice, “the government” is nothing more and nothing less than citizens coming together to solve problems. Does God not want us to address issues of justice, and if not via our government then how?

        As for a victim mentality, I hear that mentality in complaints about how tough whites have it nowadays. Sometimes I also hear a victim mentality from minorities, women, and white males. I even hear a victim mentality from billionares when they protest their tax rate being raised 3%. I personally could spend an hour telling you how I’m a victim. No group has a monopoly on claiming to be a victim.

        What I hear underlying all of your statements is a lot of fear and some anger. Fear for your son’s safety, which is understandable. Anger, perhaps, at your son for wanting to become a policeman and maybe placing himself in danger? That’s understandable, too.

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