But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”
I’m willing to bet that this isn’t the first time anyone here has heard this story. And that’s both good and bad. Good, because it’s part of our shared ethos as a congregation, as God’s people, but bad, perhaps, because we might not listen as carefully to it, thinking we already know what it’s about.
At this point, I feel the need to address the text from the perspective of what has been a very difficult week and a half, which is particularly challenging right now, as we’ve heard news reports about and seen video recordings of two more black men shot dead by police officers, and of protests that, thank God, have been mostly peaceful, and of the killing of 5 police officers in Dallas at the hands of a single shooter who wounded several other police and protesters.
I spent a lot of time in the last week plus, including this morning, watching videos, reading articles, listening to the radio, having deep and sometimes difficult conversations, trying to gain some perspective on, some understanding of what went down in these incidents and how the responses from various perspectives could be so very different.
Now, laying my cards on the table from jump here, I will say that I have posted the hashtag #blacklivesmatter, and, with our Bishop, Tracie Bartholomew, I have stated clearly, for all to see and hear, that “Black Lives Matter!” And I don’t want there to be any doubt about that, or about the fact that I understand my position as a white male in this society, and especially as a middle-aged white male with a master’s degree, as a position of great privilege, by which some of the things I’ve heard and read are very difficult for me to get a grip on, because they’re so far from my experience.
But, you see, that’s the point. To the #blacklivesmatter movement, some have responded with things like #bluelivesmatter, or #alllivesmatter, and, while it’s true, of course, that all lives matter, and while I absolutely want to give honor to those who, in the public service, place their lives in danger in order to provide order in our society, the fact of the matter is that, like a pendulum that has to swing between extremes in order to find its center, in this society that is still so marked and so marred by racial injustice and racism, we must state clearly and intentionally, particularly at times like these, that Black Lives Matter, because, according to the evidence, that’s not an easily demonstrable fact.
I heard an analogy on Monday that made a lot of sense to me. Someone having a problem with those who say, clearly and intentionally at this time: “Black lives matter” is like someone saying: “I support the save the whales movement.” And someone else responding: “But what about manatees? They’re endangered, too.” Just because I am putting my attention and efforts toward one thing at a particular point and time doesn’t mean that other things don’t matter. It just means that I’m attending to this important thing right now…
Sadly, of course, these problems are nothing new. There have always been good officers and bad officers, and thanks be to God that the good have far outnumbered the bad, but I don’t struggle to believe that some of the good officers have, for whatever reason, helped to cover up the actions of the bad ones.
And to be clear, I’ll share something that a friend of mine shared on Facebook last week.
- Not all clergy molest children, but some do. And all good clergy must serve under that cloud of suspicion.
- Not all police abuse their positions of power, but some do. And all police must serve under that cloud of suspicion.
There are certain positions in our culture, the nature of which means that those who serve in those positions are held to a higher standard, and when people in those positions abuse others with the power of that position, the society feels particularly taken advantage of.
Now, one thing that has changed of late is that, in this age of cell phone videos and instant interconnectedness, we now have the ability to witness things that would have never been seen before, except by those who were on the scene. Cell phone videos and the ability to broadcast livestream video for any and all to see on Facebook and elsewhere, as things happen in real time, allows us access to things that, previously, went unseen. And all we had was the word of those involved, if those involved happened to survive. Of course, police now have dash cams, and body cams, and everyone feels the need to document things as they unfold, in order to protect themselves, or to (quote, end quote) get the truth out. But those in the social sciences proved long ago that the presence of a camera changes reality in ways – People do not act the same, they do not make the same choices, when they know a camera is rolling. So it’s hard to tell what the truth is, even when there’s video. Not to mention the perspective of the one holding the camera will always be reflected in the footage that’s captured.
We do not live in a single dimensional world. We just don’t…
The first time I was really introduced to the reality that what I faced in interacting with the police was different from what others faced was in the book “Little Lamb, Who Made Thee?” a book of essays by Lutheran Pastor and ValPo English Professor, Walter Wangerine Jr, as, in an essay called: “No More Fields of Yellow Flowers” Wangerine described how his adopted son, Matthew, who is black, had to learn to go slack, to not question, to not make eye contact, to not in any way provoke police with whom he might come into contact. This book was published 23 years ago, before there were cameras everywhere, when all we had was “he said, she said.” And though I had been regularly harassed as a young man, because my hair was long and frizzy, I could always cut my hair, but Matthew Wangerine, and anyone else whose skin was not white, has no such way of avoiding such negative attention.
So, then, I was shocked to be listening to a favorite radio call-in program the morning after the livestream was broadcast by the woman whose boyfriend was shot and killed in her car, right in front of her, with her 4 year old daughter also right there in the car, to hear a caller say: “This isn’t about race. It’s just that black people have more interaction with police.”
Now, get this. Black people account for just under 14% of our population. (http://www.census.gov/prod/cen2010/briefs/c2010br-06.pdf) So why do they have more interactions with police? And how is that not indicative of continued racism in our society? I mean, come on! Consider this brief portion from our ELCA Social Statement, “The Church and Criminal Justice: Hearing the Cries”
The criminal justice system encounters citizens in a long sequence. It
begins with contact with law enforcement officers and moves through
many stages. These include release on bond, assignment of counsel,
arraignment, adjudication of the offense, sentencing and punishment —
including sometimes incarceration — probation, or intermediate sanctions.
While racial disparities at any one particular point in the sequence
may be small, and intentional discrimination may even be absent, the
cumulative effects of bias in the system as a whole have led to intolerably
destructive and long-term effects on minority communities.
Examples are many. People of color experience statistically higher
rates of contact with police, a disproportion that persists even when
other factors like age and economic status are taken into account.
For instance, African American drivers are more likely than others to
have their vehicles searched and to be arrested. Since people of color are
disproportionately likely to live in poverty, they also are less likely to
be released on bail. Compared to those who are released before trial,
detained individuals are statistically more likely to be convicted and to
be incarcerated. People of color are thus more likely to have a prior criminal
record, which means they will receive harsher punishments for future
offenses. Likewise, people of color are more likely than Caucasians to be
sentenced to prison even after offense severity and the defendant’s criminal
record are taken into account. The cumulative effects of racial bias result
in gross over-incarceration and punishment of racial minorities…
The full story of race in the criminal justice system is undoubtedly complex,
but one test of the justice of any system is its results. The ELCA believes that
present criminal justice practices and legislation have produced blatantly unacceptable
results with respect to race.
When Jesus told the Parable of the Good Samaritan, he shocked his hearers by making the Samaritan, a half-Jewish person the Jews would have considered sub-human, and certainly not worthy of God’s love or attention, the hero of the story. And there are plenty of people, on all sides of issues, like the issue of racism in our church and society, who want to take situations like the killing of Michael Brown, or Erik Garner, or the Charleston 9, or Alton Sterling, or Philado Castile, or Police Officers Wenjian Liu and Rafael Ramos who were ambushed in their patrol car last year in New York City, or Lorne Ahrens, Michael Smith, Patrick Zamarripa, Michael Krol, and Brent Thompson who died in the ambush in Dallas last week, and all the others, police and civilian, who were wounded, and make them opportunities to advance further division.
But what I want to suggest tonight is that we take opportunities like this, not as further cause or justification for division, but as cause and motivation for doing the hard work of reconciliation, including being willing to look at ourselves, and to not jump right away to the conclusion that we’re the good guys. To consider the possibility that we’re the uncaring religious folks who think that, because we belong to a faith community, and maybe we pray, or read the Bible, or come to Church, or participate in charitable service opportunities, that that’s enough to impress God. Maybe we can use such sad situations to learn more about injustice, and about inequality, and about how we participate in ways, both willingly and unwillingly, wittingly and unwittingly, by our actions and choices and by our inaction at points, and to come to realize how we all play a part in perpetuating systems of oppression and injustice that lead to unfortunate situations like the many we have seen unfold in the past week and a half. And then, confessing the sin of our participation, we can begin to ask God to change our hearts, to make us more compassionate, more merciful, more forgiving, more open, more loving, more Christ-like, so that we might begin to play a role in the change that must surely come, bearing good fruit in every good work in the name of the One who has rescued and redeemed us, Jesus Christ, the crucified and risen Lord. Amen.