Black Lives Matter

A white officer was shot in cold blood by a mentally ill black man in Texas. Given the context, some interpret this as an example of how #blacklivesmatter is anti-white. Charles Blow responds beautifully.

Countless amounts of ink will be poured and video shot misdirecting this outrage. I don’t have much to add. But when a policeman gets shot the might of the state will be behind him. It’s always illegal to murder someone, but when it’s a policeman, the consequences are justifiably severe.

But when a black man gets shot by the state, the presumption is guilt. So when someone says #bluelivesmatter I think, yes, we know that. All our public institutions will now be defending the legacy and family of the dead officer. As they should. They are fundamentally public servants.

But black people, however, don’t get that luxury. The default position is blame.

At its core, black lives matter asks for one simple thing: fairness. It’s not fair when any person shoots any other person and gets a free pass – even when they are policemen. And although nobody denies justified shootings – thats the implicit contract with the state, the public deserves to know when and how such shootings are justified. And police, like every other citizen in the country, must be held accountable. Nobody should be above the law – especially its enforcers.

Given the amount of video footage of cops performing poorly, it’s now even more apparent we must find ways to prevent the shooting of innocent people. This is the claim that so many white people refuse to recognize: the shooting of an unarmed innocent person is always morally repugnant, no matter what the intention of the policeman is.

I’m incredulous when I hear people implicitly defend the shooting of an innocent. Because no matter how any person interacts with a cop, when they are not threatening him, they don’t deserve to die. Just because a cop is afraid doesn’t give him the justification to kill someone else. Nobody has that right. When you choose to be a cop you must learn other criteria: for example, you are afraid, and the person has a gun.

I have not touched on racism. But it’s racism that permits this blind spot. We call it “institutional” in part because it’s not about any single racist person, but a series of practices that circumscribe black life.

A friend of mine who’s father was a cop said that what’s discouraging to him was that cops know that some of them are unfit. But instead of creating a process to correct the institution, they create a wall of silence. This disserves the police who try to do their work with integrity.

The police refuse to recognize the arms race that the #NRA has forced them into. Of course they’re afraid of the public. Because guns are everywhere. And they’ve bought into the myth that it’s impossible to keep guns out of the hands of criminals. Further, if the policemen believe they are at war with the citizenry, that means there’s a serious problem with our public life. They must not be defensive, but seek to be a part of the solution, taking ownership for their mistakes.

People often say that if a criminal wants a gun, they can get a gun. But that’s not true. Making owning a gun risky drives the price up. Trying to get a gun on the black market for $150 is going to be a lot different when the penalties are higher. As the comedian Jim Jeffries jokes, the black market for a gun in Australia now is $30,000. Criminals generally don’t have that kind of money.

Unless they’re on Wall Street.

#Blacklivesmatter

In Our Outrage is Our Hope: a Sermon after Eric Garner

In the desert today, we hear about John crying out in the wilderness. He’s angry; he’s outraged. He’s making demands on the people. He’s calling them to get their act together.

I can imagine him shouting to us. He’s yelling at us about our conspicuous consumption; about the Keystone Pipeline; about the Middle East and ISIS.

I can hear him saying, “black lives matter” across the generations.

As I see people raising their hands saying “hands up, don’t shoot,” I recollect Jesus on the cross, arms outstretched imploring that they don’t know what they are about to do.

When I hear the phrase, “I can’t breathe,” I remember when Jesus said, “I thirst.”

I can hear the outrage in the voice of John. It’s because I’m outraged also.

I sympathized with a pastor I heard recently: “Saddened, but not surprised.” Nobody who has been paying attention for the last 35 years can really say they’re surprised.

We’ve sent 4 million young men to prison in an expensive effort to avoid investing in black communities. After a while, it’s hard to be outraged because this sort of violence keeps happening all the time.

All. The. Time.

Perhaps our outrage is pointless. Despair is an alternative. Or even a kind of enlightened cynicism. I can afford it, however. Others can’t.

Let’s go back about fifty years. There was a time when any white person could do pretty much anything to a black person without any impunity. Any white person could withhold wages, sell at a higher price, or commit an act of aggression without any worry about the consequences. And if you were a white person who sought to befriend someone of a different color, you could also be subject to aggression.

Think about that. Not only did black people have to regularly negotiate a system where at any moment they could be fearful for their lives, anyone who wanted to be an ally was also at risk. Diversity was not considered a positive; multiculturalism was a problem to be solved while immigrants became Americanized. Blacks, an inconvenience.

That changed, somewhat. What happened? We outsourced the violence. Yes, our formal public spaces, our commercial context, is freer than it once was. And even though our society remains segregated, the everyday habits of violence have been relocated, although not eliminated, to an extent that the violence we do see is that much more outrageous.

But within the fountain of outrage itself, is the wellspring of hope.

Why hope? Just as John expressed his outrage, our tradition teaches that in the mess, in the conflict, is how the possibility for hope pours in. It becomes a part of the mess, working and responding within the outrage. I sense this because I see more people who have begun to understand the cruelty and the precarity within which many black people live.

And this awakening might be a clue for how we understand “repentance.” The changing of the mind, this turn, is revealed in the realization by many people what the cost of white privilege is, and why the constant barrage of black deaths have become, now, even more outrageous to the public mind.

Let me admit, I can’t stand the term “white privilege.” Yes, it’s real. I can’t stand the term mainly because it’s an emotion one can’t actually have. That’s the point. It’s a position. Having privilege is the ability NOT to feel something. So people who do have this privilege are usually completely unaware. And when it is referenced by people who have it, it’s confused with the mild inconveniences one has throughout the day, like traffic stops, a bad boss, or everyday disappointments, which makes it easy for us to plausibly deny the privilege we do have. It demonstrates the truth one philosopher noted: the slave must always think of what the master thinks, but the master need not ever think about the slave at all.

The video of Eric Garner changed, forced, and magnified the issue; what was known by black people suddenly became impossible to deny. Even people who instinctively side with police officers found themselves at a loss.

Certainly discussions about privilege are remarkably clumsy to make, because it’s trying to make someone feel in a fashion that’s really difficult to have. But I take hope that there are more people who realize that this non-feeling, this privilege of inattention, blinds us to making effective political and institutional changes that will make our republic a better place, and prevent the cost of innocents being discarded.

Let’s recollect: we have tools in our toolbox so that can deepen our understanding of these relationships.

Two related parts of the Benedictine tradition, prayer and listening, strengthen our sense of empathy with other human beings. A prayer life is, in part, about exploring the minds of others, as God does. We fit ourselves into the scriptural story; and we can do this as we hear the stories around us. What is it like to life as someone differently bodied? Are there openings where I can experience it?

We might develop a sense of humility, that underrated virtue, about the stories we hear and tell. It’s alright to enter into a conversation without a sense of what the answers are, to be a little uncomfortable. John’s making a lot of people uncomfortable. He’s also uncomfortable. He’s wearing camel hair and eating locusts.

And as the church we are called, fundamentally, to be a trust building organization. We do not demonize our police forces; we commend them when the need be commended. But holding them accountable is the best way to reestablish trust. I hope one day the police will see how the blind loyalty to each other undermines their work. While there is no single solution, if you carefully look throughout the country, there are valuable experiments, from LA to Utah that are worth testing elsewhere and replicating. Even now in NYC, there’s been a drop in arrests because the government has changed its priorities. There are ways God is working; but it will require our institutions to diminish their own fear of change within their ranks.

What’s happened is along a few other cultural shifts. The institutions that held authority have demonstrated their limits, how they easily succumb to human pride and fear. Who can trust the government since the Gulf of Tonkin led us into war and Watergate covered Nixon’s treason? Who trusts priests after the pedophilia scandals? Can you trust a corporation after Enron? But this is also a source of hope; for as this dissolution continues, we may find places for grace to enter. We must find new ways to organize ourselves when the older institutions fail us. This is, in part, our modern challenge.

But let us hold the outrage as a gift. For the outrage itself is evidence that there is a world worth hoping for.

John’s outrage was, a herald, a call, a warning, a proclamation – for once he had see the world for what it was, once he could see what had not been seen, once understood that a new world awaits, and the prince of peace would soon enter the world. Without that understanding, would he have even been in the desert, telling us of things to come?

On this side of Easter, we say that through our outrage we trust in the world to come; we say that we have not given up on the world, and anticipate God’s entrance. Let His work be unveiled. Come Emmanuel.