Jeremiah 7:3-7; 8:11
Say what you will about the deadly coronavirus pandemic that is still taking lives here and all around the world and still shaping our lives, but the choices it has presented to us are, for the most part clear and stark:
Shut down, stay home, wash your hands, keep your distance, wear a mask.
Granted, there has been lots of uncertainty along the way—Will we have a graduation ceremony? Can we have our wedding? Is it safe to see our grandchildren?—and there will be plenty of hard decision-making as we go forward: When will we be able to resume in-person worship? When can businesses re-open? When can we hug each other again? How long do we have to keep wearing masks? And much more.
But the basic forces and values at play are well-defined and clearly understood:
Health: good. Virus: bad.
Not getting exposed: good. Not having enough PPE or coronavirus tests or health insurance or toilet paper: bad.
Working from home: well, okay, if we have to. Losing a job and not being able to pay the bills: horrible.
Sure there are arguments about mask-wearing and church-going and re-opening slowly and carefully vs. going back exactly to the way things were before the pandemic, but the basic values and goals are pretty clear.
But the massive and decentralized discussions, actions, and reactions we are having to a renewed examination of black lives, white supremacy, police brutality, and racial justice? Not so much. The many layers and untold suffering of racism are not so easily understood in binary good-and-bad terms; how to address them is not always clear-cut. Racism, unlike a virus, is not something outside of us that we bear no responsibility for; it is not something we can consider apart from our own histories and personal contexts, race, and class.
Oh sure, I think most all reasonable people can agree that George Floyd was cruelly murdered by Officer Derek Chauvin, who kept his knee on Floyd’s neck for almost nine minutes. But whether Chauvin was just a bad cop or is, rather, emblematic of racist and militarized policing systems all over the country—well, that depends on one’s point of view and, more to the point, the color of our skin and the range of our experience.
But whether George Floyd’s murder and the pain, anger, protests, reactions, and conversation it has unleashed will begin, finally, to change some of our nation’s racist policies, institutions, and systems—well, that it up to us.
And that will depend on whether we are willing to do the hard work of examining not only what is outside of us but also what is within us. Whether we begin moving away from racial injustice and toward racial equality and justice will require us to listen to people of color. Whether we can truly hear their pain and their lived realities will sometimes require us to get over our attachments to order and property and politeness. Whether the protests ever end, whether true peace will ever come, will depend on, among other things, whether we take the time to understand the countless ways white supremacy is expressed and institutionalized and the impact it has on black lives, whether we repent of our part in it, whether we can surrender at least some of our love of clarity and binary choices and, instead, choose to live with more discomfort and complexity.
Whether our black neighbors will ever feel that their lives matter, that they are safe and respected and valued in this country, will depend in part on we progressive white folks getting over our white fragility and coming to terms with some pretty horrible realities.
There are the unconscionable disparities and yawning gaps, of course: in education and income and home ownership, in health insurance and illness and life expectancy, in school discipline and arrest rates and police use of force and in mass incarceration.
And then there is the inconvenient truth that has gone unacknowledged, covered up, and disbelieved for decades, until the ubiquity of cell phones made it impossible to ignore, and that is police corruption and brutality. Not just belligerence and beatings, trumped-up charges and manufactured evidence, but also violence and killing and cover-ups.
In North Carolina, a politically conservative attorney began tweeting videos of police brutality against people protesting the murder of George Floyd. Greg Doucette started with a compilation of 10 separate videos, and then people across the country started sending him their own videos of police misconduct against protesters, and he now has posted more than 350 of them. According to Doucette and the Los Angeles Times, the videos show police “shoving, kicking, pepper-spraying and otherwise using force against peaceful protesters.”
As you may have heard, police in Buffalo shoved and knocked over a 75-year-old protester who had approached them; the man fell backwards, hit his head, and blood came out his ear, landing him in the hospital. In the police report, officers said the man tripped and fell. But a public radio reporter filmed the incident, and once police authorities saw the video, the two officers involved were suspended without pay and then charged with assault. What you may not know is that the officers involved were greeted by fellow officers cheering them on when they left the courthouse, and the city’s entire emergency response team—more than 50 officers—has resigned in protest of how the officers were treated.
Now, we may say that officers who mistreat protesters and other people who drive or sleep or sell cigarettes or CDs while black are just bad apples. We may say that cops who kill a 12-year-old playing in a park or an 19-year-old walking down the street or a 46-year-old who might have used a counterfeit 20-dollar bill should be fired and prosecuted. We may forget that on the rare occasions when officers are prosecuted, they are almost always acquitted. We may fail to see that after-the-fact punishment has not changed deadly police behavior.
Hear the word of the Lord as spoken by the prophet Jeremiah:
Do not trust in these deceptive words: “This is the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord.” Do not say, but the police are good people, the protestors sometimes get out of hand, there are looters and some people have guns and the cops are just doing their job.
Hear the word of the Lord:
They have treated the wound of my people carelessly, saying, “Peace, peace, when there is no peace.” They have ignored the pain of my people, saying things are fine when they are not.
Now, maybe you, like me until recently, have heard nothing but good things about our local police—the forces in Amherst, Hadley, and Northampton. Maybe your naive white heart, like mine until recently, thinks they do an excellent job. But how would we white people know? If we listened to our neighbors of color, we might learn otherwise, as I learned last week that one of our church members, a person of color, has been stopped by Amherst police numerous times for no reason.
If we and our country are going to begin to address fundamental, if complex, issues of white supremacy and racial injustice, I have come to believe that we are going to have to come to terms with the current state of over-funded, over-militarized, over-zealous police forces. We are going to have to confront the consequences of our choosing top-down, unjust law, violent order, and controlled respectability over listening and learning, equal education and opportunity, strong social services, supported community, and bottom-up empowerment.
And every once in a while, we may have to follow Jesus’ example and actually confront the unjust systems that abuse power and oppress God’s beloved children—often in God’s name.
It is not enough to have an anti-racism ministry and hang a “Black Lives Matter” banner from the front of the church. It is not enough to attend the occasional vigil or protest or march. It is not enough to post all the politically correct things on Facebook and Instagram. It is not enough to work for peace and justice without confronting the systems of violence, oppression, and injustice.
Our hearts must be broken open by the pain and injustice suffered by our neighbors of color. Our minds must be changed by intentional efforts to listen and learn and grow. Our privileged lives must be humbled. Our capacity to listen to the experience and wisdom of the oppressed must explode. Our tolerance for discomfort and complexity must increase, and our willingness to work for systemic change must be nurtured and supported and appreciated. We must re-imagine the role of police.
Pandemic love, which requires little more of us than to change our habits and stop doing certain things, at least for a while, is relatively simple and straightforward. We tend to think that anti-racist love—any kind of love that challenges us to see differently, to change our thinking, to acknowledge our sins and to repent—is hard and humbling and unpleasant.
But that does not make the road ahead any less clear. The status quo in which black lives are less valued than white lives, in which black lives are sometimes less valued than property, in which black lives are less valued than violent and corrupt systems, in which white lives refuse to change, cannot and must not stand.
Beloveds, this is on us.
Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of all: Amend your ways and your doings, and let me dwell with you. Do not trust in deceptive words. Do not say, “Peace, peace, where there is no peace. If you truly amend your ways and your doings, if you truly act justly with one another, if you do not oppress the alien, the orphan, and the poor, or shed innocent blood, and if you do not go after other gods, then I will dwell with you in this place.
May it be so.