Malachi 2:10; John 13:34
Watching the video of Alton Sterling being shot to death brought back the visceral emotions from my days as a chaplain at the Emergency Room at University Hospital in Louisville, Kentucky. You see a lot of violence in the ER of an urban hospital and you see how hard it is for people to contain themselves once violence and aggression are let loose. It is like you are one way almost all of the time, and then you get afraid enough to become aggressive and violent and this whole other monster within just takes over.
In aggression, we routinely make bad judgments. In aggression, we routinely over respond. I’ve seen people just keep punching. I’ve seen trained professional police just keep punching.
And right after it is over, the people doing it invariably mis-remember what actually just took place. They remember being more threatened than they were. They remember being forced into one option rather than having several options available.
They are reflexively afraid of their own subterranean power, surprised to the point of not just being embarrassed by it… but overwhelmed by it.
Aggression and violence are inherently dangerous.
There are a very few people that possess a skill set in these high tension moments that the rest of us do not have. When tensions escalate and violence is in the process of erupting, they seem to slow down- right when the rest of us are getting hyped with adrenalin.
They seem to be able to focus when the rest of us just reflexively respond in fear. They have control of themselves when the rest of us just let ourselves come unglued. They are extraordinary. And they are very, very few.
Violence is always dangerous. Aggression is always dangerous. We think we will be able to handle it. We think we will be able to respond to it well enough. But most of the time, we do not handle ourselves well. Most of the time, we do not respond well at all.
And our acts of violence cut others so deep. They open up new portals of fate and destiny as one tragic act morphs into a cascade of other tragic consequences. In an instant our lives are permanently and unalterably laden with a guilt and remorse that just unfolds over time in a way that we wish we could simply undo the violence we rashly committed…
Ordinary men replay these events over and over in their minds, wishing that they could turn back time to just before the violent event so that it could be somehow avoided. They turn back their character clock so that they could respond more creatively and wisely than they did in the heat of the moment.
They play it over and over in their mind until it becomes a genuine curse that they live with that mutes the ordinary joy of our living. We have a perpetually anxious conscience. The guilt from it causes us to doubt ourselves, causes us to live with a fracture in ourselves so that we doubt what grace there is around us and we cannot live out of grace or deeper love- because we are not forgiven.
Violence is spiritually dangerous. Don’t do it. Limit it by the public and by the police. De-escalate, diffuse. This is our spiritual mantra.
And I’m always surprised that our media think that ordinary police officers should be able to deploy aggression and violence selectively, ethically, that it shouldn’t be any big deal.
In the ER, when it is really happening, lots of people fail the test… Almost all of us would fail the test.
It is much more dangerous than you might think it would be if you have never been in a violent conflict. So it is very important that we have standards of police practice that deploy restraint, limitation of force and orderly due process. We have to avoid situations like those that happened last week with Alton Sterling or Philandro Castile from ever coming to pass. Because the tragic consequences are so great.
Their blood is spilled and they are gone. Their families are torn asunder. It is not just the sobbing of Alton Sterling’s fifteen year old son over his father’s death. It is also knowing all the rage and sadness that will impair him at critical junctures as he grows up.
And, then there is the distrust of the police force which is a huge issue that has become so much bigger now that these scenes are captured in their raw footage for the whole world to see.
The misuse of police power is nothing new. 50 years ago, I was still a child in the deep South and it was corrosive then and widespread. We gave the country the movie, “In the Heat of the Night”, Rod Steiger’s riveting portrait of small town racist Sherriff in rural Mississippi.
Back then, Malcolm X was considered a strident extremist, certainly by my people. In the early 60’s he said, “Today they have taken off the white sheet and put on the police uniform. They have traded in blood hounds for police dogs.” My relatives and neighbors were insulted and annoyed.
50 years later, the words of the extremist Malcolm X seem almost tame. Not nearly enough has changed.
We can presume that neither of the police officers this week have the overt racist attitudes exhibited routinely during my childhood by law enforcement in the South, by my neighbors, by my family, by my church.
But when you watch a traffic stop for a minor violation turn into a major confrontation, and then violent, ending in death- all raw footage live stream. Over and over…
It certainly feels like we are simply voyeurs on a practice that has been going on for quite some time, but we just didn’t have to watch it up close, intimate and
Even if our attitudes have evolved considerably, these unnecessary tragedies have continued with disturbing frequency, even over the past year. They are frequent enough that I’ve noticed that people have started confusing the names of the victims. There are just too many of them to remember their specific story, their particular life.
It is disturbing because spiritually their personal lives do matter. It is just heart breaking to read the tributes to Philandro Castile. He managed the cafeteria at the public school in St. Paul. Well liked, friendly, made good jokes, diffused the silly situations that arise in the Middle School lunch room from time to time. Remembered as a great guy.
Now dead after being pulled over for a broken tail light, then miscommunication, and then the tragic use of violence.
These tragic deaths are mangling the American Spirit, black and white.
Quite clearly, watching these videos re-traumatizes African-Americans, though our media pundits never quite articulate the obvious. These injustices tap into a deeper part of the psyche of African-Americans. It taps that deep-seated sense of inferiority and the low self-esteem that started way, way back in slavery, with overt subjugation and torture that was routine on the plantation.
At some deep subconscious level, the collective soul of former slaves remembers the nightmare all over again.
I know some white Americans think, “Well, that was a long time ago, they ought to be over it by now.” But we don’t ever really get over these things like that. And it wasn’t that long ago either.
Slavery was followed by 100 years of segregation, political disenfranchisement (so that blacks couldn’t vote). They were denied access to banking. And they lived poor, poorly educated, in their ghettos in the north and their shanty towns in the South- until the 60’s.
They lived in a parallel society, treated as a perpetual second-class people, routinely harassed by vigilantes in the South, without any recourse to the courts or the court of public opinion.
All of that spiritual negativity comes back, in a visceral instant, when unjust deaths like this happen.
And these injustices are killing the other citizens of our country because we will have revolutionary responses when a people have to live in revolting conditions.
It was so sad to read of Micah Johnson, the 25 year old, that killed 5 Dallas Police officers and wounded several others. He was a veteran of Afghanistan which made it more tragic. He could have been firing at guys he served with. But he was so full of rage, frustration, he did it anyway.
Rage routinely brings bad judgment. This time, tragically bad judgment…
For those of us of a certain age, you probably had the feeling I had, “we’ve seen this movie before” because we have.
Bobby Seale, the Black Panthers from the 60’s. When I was in middle school, we moved from the deep South to the suburbs of Chicago where Bobby Seale was on trial with the “Chicago 8” for their part in planning a riot at the Democratic National Convention in 1968.
The Black Panthers proposed taking over the policing of the ghettos where blacks lived. The level of distrust of the police and the general disrespect of the law as it was enforced in their communities led them to advocate taking over policing themselves. They were really advocating a kind of revolutionary withdrawal from white society. Never mind that this was not possible. Their frustration and cynicism about the police force actually led them to make this serious proposal.
It was a revolutionary moment in American history and it was not good.
For the next year, we had the worst riots in our country’s history. Watts in LA, Detroit, Chicago, Newark. We burned the neighborhood down. Real anarchy, real destruction. And very little genuine progress that came from those riots. We don’t want to go back to that kind of revolutionary situation again. It was socially expensive. It was not precise.
We have to re-establish a basic respect for the law and the institutions of justice in our land. If we don’t, it will kill us.
And we need to remember the higher way as well. Gandhi said, “An eye for an eye only ends up making the whole world blind”.
Dr. King said, “The ultimate weakness of violence is that it is a descending spiral, begetting the very thing it seeks to destroy. Instead of diminishing evil, it multiplies it. Through violence you may murder the liar, but you cannot murder the lie, nor establish the truth.
Through violence you may murder the hater, but you do not murder hate. In fact, violence merely increases hate.
So it goes.
Returning violence for violence multiplies violence, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.”
We have to come together because this is not a black problem. It is not a white problem. It is an American problem. John F. Kennedy said, “The rights of all people are diminished when the rights of one person are threatened.” Dr. King said, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere”.
We never directly addressed what we created with slavery in our country. After teaching on Affirmative Action for many years at Rutgers University, like a lot of scholars on the subject, I got to a point where I really wished we had just given the freed slaves “40 Acres and a Mule”- a serious proposal at the end of the Civil War. It wouldn’t have made up for what they went through but it had the virtue of trying to make some recompense at the very beginning of emancipation. It would have acknowledged our mistake. And it might have developed some economic independence.
But we didn’t do that.
And over the next 150 years, the consequences have gotten much more complicated. I came from an overtly racist culture and a racist family. Perhaps it was easier for my generation to own a problem my people so obviously created. It was easy for me to see the ghettos in Detroit, in Chicago, in Newark, Patterson, Camden and think, “we created these”. My people created these. And we own an obligation to fix what we broke.
But when I started teaching on race relations at Rutgers, the majority of my students didn’t feel that way. The majority said, “My people didn’t come to this country until 1920 or 1940 or 1990. We shouldn’t have to pay for a problem we didn’t create. That isn’t just.”
Figuring out how to redress a long historical problem with justice became much more complicated as our fluid immigrant society evolved over the generations.
It seems to be slowly dawning on us as a nation that we simply must address these racial issues, however difficult they may be, out of a practical necessity. We cannot have blacks in our country feeling so disenfranchised that they feel the police are a threat rather than a protection. We cannot have them feel that they get less justice than everyone else. As Americans, this is killing all of us.
Spiritually, we Christians gathered here this morning, know that mere toleration is not enough. We know that people only flourish when they are loved, when they are respected and valued and celebrated for who they are intrinsically.
We worship the Rainbow God, the God that promised Noah not to ever destroy things but to love us, the God who gave us a rainbow as a sign of that Covenant, that all people on the spectrum have their place in God’s house. All people have their place in the spiritual community.
God calls the spiritual community of the Church to be salt and leaven, the things that give our food its’ flavor and cause the dough to rise so that it is delightful to eat. We are called to be a kind of living parable where we celebrate rather than just tolerate, where we take our differences and blend them in such a way that something more beautiful is created.
We worship the God who is redeeming the ugly past through the Holy Spirit transforming pain into poetic hope, pulled by the future. So, we are called to become something of a living parable in real community through love. Especially in the midst of racial polarization, how important it is to have a place where a variety of different people can come together and turn towards one another as neighbors in support, compassion, respect.
The tragic events of this week will be more difficult for our nation as a whole, where the bonds aren’t so intimate, and the issues of race unfold in different ways down the generations. I stopped to pray for our country and I bet you did too.
In that moment, I remembered the words of the ancient Greek playwright Aeschylus on the painful lessons of tragedy.
“In our sleep, pain which cannot forget,
falls drop by drop upon the heart until,
in our own despair,
against our will,
comes wisdom through the awful grace of God.”
O God, we pray that our African-American sisters and brothers might experience the respect and love that they deserve. That we as a people might find common respect for the rule of law; that our beloved country might genuinely address race so that we might become healed. Sana, Domine Deus! God, save us from ourselves… Amen.