Yesterday I posted a photograph which reminded me that wrestling — in love — with scripture, tradition, and reason is what makes sense of things not only for me but also for millions of Christians in the Episcopal Church and throughout the Anglican Communion. That doesn’t mean, of course, that the craziness of the world is somehow brought into focus overnight, as though God automatically speaks to us in a dream at the snap of a finger. The Bible itself testifies to generations of deep reflection on the experience of exile in the Old Testament. The truth is that Jews and Christians alike are still pondering that sense of disorientation because, as a word without end, it speaks to our own times of feeling lost or even abandoned.
Most Americans are trying to make sense of lots of things this week as they watch media coverage of the tragic events that have unfolded in Ferguson, Missouri. Make no mistake about it, the tragedy is real, regardless of where you see — or, more accurately, think you see — the roots. Maybe you think you see them in the actions of Michael Brown, an 18-year-old black teenager who allegedly stole a $48 box of cigarillos from a convenience store and physically assaulted the store’s clerk. Maybe you think you see them in the actions of Darren Wilson, a 28-year-old white police officer who allegedly struggled with Brown, who was unarmed, and eventually fired his weapon at Brown a total of twelve times, hitting Brown at least six times. Maybe you think you see them in the statements or actions of Ferguson Chief of Police Thomas Jackson, St. Louis County Prosecutor Robert McCulloch, the grand jury that voted not to indict Wilson, or the protesters who turned violent after the grand jury’s decision and burned cars and businesses in Ferguson.
Regardless of the facts — of which I only have bits and pieces — that surround the death of Michael Brown, there is a much larger context that colors the passionate responses to it from different people. Yesterday that larger context was described well by Gary Fields, who refers to himself as “one of the few black male reporters at The [Wall Street] Journal” in an essay about a time when he was 17-years-old, carrying his bowling bag, and walking home from a bowling alley “on a beautiful Saturday afternoon” in Alexandria, Louisiana. Then he remembers the following:
I noticed police cars speeding around. Several passed before a Louisiana state trooper stopped. He told me to be careful: There had been a fatal shooting in my neighborhood, and the suspect—a 5-foot-6-inch black man—had escaped on a bicycle.
I walked on until I heard a screech of brakes and looked back. A Rapides Parish sheriff’s deputy—Louisiana has parishes, not counties—got out, crouched behind his car door and pointed his .357-Magnum at me over the top of the door. When you’re on the wrong end of it, the barrel of a .357 looks exactly like a tunnel to eternity.
I knew a few things instinctively: Don’t run, don’t move, don’t argue, and above all, don’t ask why I’d been stopped. Stay calm to live, I thought. The cop had the gun, but it was my responsibility not to do anything to push him to use lethal force against me.
“Turn around real slow,” he said. That’s just what I did. I asked if it was OK to put down the bowling bag, slowly. I knew I had to do everything I could not to create any fear in the officer. Dead but innocent is still dead.
I said little, even as the deputy pushed me down on the hood of his car and handcuffed me.
I was saved when the state trooper who had first stopped me drove back by. He ripped into the deputy, asking him questions, and I answered—which, in another situation, could have been a comedy routine. Does this kid look 5-6? I answered, I’m 6-3. Does this kid look 40? I’m 17. Does this kid look 150 pounds? I’m 230.
The trooper ran through several descriptors for the suspect. I matched just one of them. I asked, “Outside of the basic black, is there any part of the description I fit?”
“Don’t get smart, boy,” the deputy hollered. But the trooper, who also was white, ended the discussion. He was livid. I thank God for him.
Years later, there is still no doubt in my mind that if I had moved in any way that frightened or angered the deputy, he would have shot me, and a reason would have been found to justify it.
I know honest, dedicated, and hard-working individuals who serve either in law enforcement agencies or in the judicial system that defends and prosecutes alleged criminals. And I believe the stories that Gary Fields tells in his essay about his experiences of racism in American society. That’s something people of good will both inside and outside of law enforcement and the judicial system ought to take seriously. It’s also something that people of faith ought to pray about as they — as we — watch the news and reflect on what our response might be. So here are words from the Book of Common Prayer that can be your own words right now:
O God, you made us in your own image and redeemed us through Jesus your Son: Look with compassion on the whole human family; take away the arrogance and hatred which infect our hearts; break down the walls that separate us; unite us in bonds of love; and work through our struggle and confusion to accomplish your purposes on earth; that, in your good time, all nations and races may serve you in harmony around your heavenly throne; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.