Monday, September 19, 2016
My faith, My city, and My black son.
It happened. Part of me knew it would. But part of me was optimistic that the city I call home would somehow escape it or be above it.
Tyre King, a thirteen year old young man was shot and killed by a Columbus Police Officer in an altercation this past week. That ought to be enough of a narrative to grab our attention and our hearts. But it's not.
Instead, as has been the case across the country, the reality that there is still a massive undercurrent of racial unrest has once again reared it's ugly head.
Here are the two narratives available to us.
Narrative one is that a teenager made a bad judgment, pulled a BB gun that looked eerily similar to an actual gun and the white officer had no alternative but to react on instincts and neutralize the young man who had fled the scene and then brandished a weapon when the police caught up to him. It's sad, but the kid had put himself in that position and the consequences of his actions led to his death. It's less about race and more about poor judgment, wrong place wrong time, and perhaps the parents are to blame.
Narrative two is that Tyre King is yet another black victim of a predominantly white police force...a police force that entered into a situation and rather than diffusing it, escalated it and the police officer who had shot and killed in the past reacted aggressively and with an underlying racial tension and shot the (barely) teenager excessively, (3 times, once in the head, while the young man appeared to be running away, per the independent medical examiner). This narrative admits Tyre probably shouldn't have pulled out the BB gun, but also asks, can you blame him based on all the other recent incidents between police and African-Americans? As a black person, you assume that the line of questioning and general treatment from the police will be a very different experience than a white person in the same situation.
Narrative one: Race has little to nothing to do with this. Instead its bad judgment, potentially a bad kid, and perhaps bad parenting.
Narrative two: Race has everything to do with it and the bad judgment was unloading a clip into a 13 year old.
Those two narratives are polarizing, black and white views that do nothing to foster dialogue and reconciliation. They simply perpetuate the fear and distrust.
If you identify with narrative one, you fail to hear and empathize with a very long road of brutality and hardship for an entire group of Americans. You fail to hear the outcry that the incarceration rates and the poverty rates and the violent arrest rates and the deaths by police force are crippling an entire community in our country. You miss the cyclical story of economic, social, educational, political and familial imbalance has got to be heard and rectified. If you embrace narrative one, then police are deemed heroic frontline contributors to justice and peace. And apart from a few occasional bad apples, they are a part of the solution, not a part of the problem.
If you identify with narrative two, you deem the establishment as often times equally or more oppressive than it has been in the past. Police can't be trusted. They are a major cog in the cyclical injustices that are undergirded by white privilege and other systemic horrors. And the outrage felt by folks in this narrative blinds them to the complicated role of the police. In real time, they have to try to piece together an entire story, assessing the situation and getting the lay of the land. If inquiry leads to potential suspects running from the police and then brandishing a weapon, what is the quick course of action as the adrenaline of a chase turns into an apparent threat to your own life. And if you've watched other comrades who did not react quickly by pulling the trigger and were the ones shot instead of doing the shooting, how does that factor in? What if you have a family at home? Vilifying all police seems exaggerated and unfair.
Here's my point: These two narratives are sabotaging what really must happen. If you can't at least sympathize with the notion that race and a distrust of police authority are a continuing theme in our country that has haunted generations of African-Americans, then you're obtuse. I'm a white guy who grew up in a predominantly white, rural town and now pastor a predominantly white church in Columbus. But my faith pulls me into a third narrative. One that is a tight rope between two sides that keep seeking to vilify the other side. My task as a pastor and agent of the gospel is to pull people from the alienating and polarizing ends of the spectrum into a dialogue that allows each side to HEAR. The answer lies not in the black and white but instead in the gray. Where grief and lament and the outcry of my brothers and sisters to be heard and for repeated tragedies to be examined by the masses to, at the very least evaluate how this keeps happening and why black children keep dying in escalating altercations. AND where compassion and grace be extended to the police officers involved, who in the heat of the moment had to make impossible decisions. Neither Tyre or the police officers involved are villains. The need to blame and vilify will not lead to reconciliation and trust. MY FAITH points me to the third way, which is the messiest and most complicated. It's the way of the towel, where even in the midst of denial and betrayal, we serve each other, empty ourselves and our agenda out for each other and grab a towel for each other. The third way is the only way for MY CITY to move toward redemption and forgiveness. If we don't seek to listen to hear rather than to listen to respond, we will continue the cycle of disunity and vilification. If we can't grieve and lament and support both sides we fail to be a genuine expression of Jesus who constantly pulled the people who sought to live the polarizing ways of black and white into the people of the third way.
My faith requires me to engage My city. And so does my son. A few months ago we had a two year old African-American placed with us through foster care. He quickly was moved into permanent custody of children services and is heading toward adoption to become a part of our family. And my wife and I feel the immense tension of what it will be like raising him. On a hot day this summer we busted out a bunch of water guns in the backyard with some neighbors. It was a great deal of fun and a good way to cool off. But there was a tension in us as we saw this two year old little boy having fun shooting everyone with the squirters. There is a different standard and approach to raising a black son than we have with our white daughter. In any interaction with the police, he will likely have a different experience than our daughter will have. We have a significant task before us in helping him experience and identify with his culture and heritage, but have a very real tension that there is a double standard in our parenting. There is a legitimate angst in my heart. On one hand we see the police officers in our neighborhood who take the time to stop as we are walking and interact with the kids (both kids) and flash their lights to make the kids laugh. On the other hand what happens if M is in the wrong place at the wrong time 10 years from now. Is he going to have fears and distrust because of his skin color or will he feel safe and protected?
This has rapidly gone from a national issue to being about MY FAITH, MY CITY, and MY SON. And it's about yours too. The third way of listening and lamenting and reconciling is the more complicated, more messy, more exhausting way. And it is the Gospel way. And undoubtedly the better way.
Here's to living gray.