Here we are again. Again we have dead men of color, in our country, at the hands of our cops, while too many Christians sit silent or stand saying the wrong things. Tuesday morning in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, Alton P. Sterling was confronted by cops and that confrontation ended with cops on top of him and four bullets inside of him. Before we could fully get our minds around the incident, in Falcon Heights MN, Philando Castile was stopped for a broken tail light, and ended up with multiple gun shots to his body, dying in front of his girlfriend and her four year old daughter. And now as I write this missive, Micah Xavier Johnson has been identified as the individual who shot 12 innocent Dallas police officers and killed 5 in retaliation to the latest killings of innocent black men.
The narrative of black people dying at the hands of police in America is becoming more staggering. Unfortunately the list of un-charged and un-convicted police officers is just as long, if not longer, than the litany of black people killed at the hands and in the hands of police. Just as troublesome as the acts of unearned violence, are the responses or lack thereof by so many in our country.
We have a police problem in our country and whether or not police officers want to hear it, the shooters, bad apples, or racist trigger men are not the only problem. The “good” police become part of the problem too, if they do not speak up and speak out about the “bad” ones. Today, I heard a police pundit plead for people to realize (and sympathize with) the 98% of good police officers out there who do their jobs the right way. That would be so much easier if those 98% would give vehement and vociferous voice against the 2% when black people end up dead. However, when cops refuse to speak out against other cops and give rationalizations that lead many to believe that killer cops have no other choice but to shoot, then good cops create a safe culture for bad cops. Yes, I believe most cops are good people. Yes, cops have a hard job. Yes, cops are in danger of dying by the demands of their profession and YES, when good cops wrongly respond to the bad actions of their comrades, they too become a part of the atmosphere that sanctions the killing of black people by police.
However, if I am going to be fair to the cops whom I am asking to be self critical, then I have to acknowledge how Christians contribute to the problem of police initiated black death in America. We contribute to the problem whenever we skate around the reality of white supremacy in America and refuse to speak out against racial disparities and inequalities. We contribute to the problem whenever all we have to offer in these moments are prayers after people die. Prayers for the injustice of the dead, mean little when we offer no proclamations, policies, or practices for the justice of the living.
Christians also contribute whenever we put more weight on the options of the victims than the options of the police. As so many have done before, people will spend time laying out how compliance, acquiescence, and obedience could have avoided this tragedy. This lays the burden of responsibility on the shot and not the shooter, the dead and not the living. Both the police and the victim “could” have acted differently, yet many of us are trained to focus on the actions of the victim. There is a problem when we want to give compassion to the shooter, and criticism to the shot. There is a problem when we want to give sympathy to the person who “feared” for their life, and scrutiny to the person who lost theirs. There is a problem when we ignore the options of police who have been trained, given a partner, provided multiple weapons, and who have the back up of an entire police force, but we highlight the options of the person who took the bullets. However, this is the problem many people face when brought up in systems that raise us to Love power and the powerful. Power teaches people to side with the powerful.
This is a Christianity issue because any Christian that takes the life of Jesus seriously, knows that Christ was about the business of retraining us on how to Love, who to Love, and how not to be driven and brainwashed by power and the powerful. Jesus models the life of one who makes the hard decision to Love those we may otherwise not be inclined to offer our sympathy and give our empathy. Just like Jesus refused to be convinced by religious people that a woman deserved death because she had broken the law, Christians in this moment ought to be declaring that there is nothing about Alton Sterling’s rap sheet that meant he deserved death either. In a moment that gives us to a perfect opportunity to follow Jesus, many preachers, pastors, and pundits are hiding behind prayer to avoid calling out racism and demanding that we Love and stand up for profiled, brutalized and murdered black people.
Jesus teaches us to side with the oppressed, connect with the culturally ostracized, and Love the least, the lost, and the last. Yet it is easier to connect with professional police officers, than it is to side with a “big black man” with gold teeth. It is easier to connect with uniformed cops, than it is to side with a black man with dread locks down to his shoulders. To be clear, siding with anyone is never to excuse their wrong. But when people are falling dead, Love does stand up and say that their humanity and right to live ought to trump fatal overreactions, death dealing desires at domination, and a criminal justice system that will cover its own at any cost. The Love that Jesus models is not easy; it is hard. However, when we do not promote the Christ that calls us to do the hard work of Love, we contribute to a culture where police are too quick to kill and a country that is too quick to divest itself of the value of black people.
We will not change these tragedies without an honest look at how institutions that we are a part of, contribute to them. I am afraid that too many cops and Christians will be too self righteous to be self critical in these turbulent times. As a pastor, I have to admit that I belong to a Christian institution that often finds itself impotent in helping these matters, and in part to blame in causing them. My brothers and sisters who are in law enforcement are going to have to be honest as well. If not, police will keep profiling, cops will keep shooting, blacks will keep dying, and protests will keep turning violent.
Humbly in Christ’s Love,
Pastor B.A. Jackson