Statement on America, Race, and the Police

I aim to tread into these waters carefully, and in some sense, I am filled with great reluctance to do so at all – not because I don’t want to talk about this subject.  I do.  But because it requires wading into a subject filled with immense pain, passion, and complexity – a hard thing to discuss.

At Church today, I heard a story from the Gospel of Luke with which many Americans are familiar – the one where an expert on the law asks Jesus about what must be done to reach Heaven, and Jesus confirms the man’s belief that the key is to love God and to love one’s neighbor.  The man then inquired as to the definition of one’s “neighbor.”  Jesus, in response, tells the parable of The Good Samaritan:

“A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, when he was attacked by robbers. They stripped him of his clothes, beat him and went away, leaving him half dead. A priest happened to be going down the same road, and when he saw the man, he passed by on the other side. So too, a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan, as he traveled, came where the man was; and when he saw him, he took pity on him. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he put the man on his own donkey, brought him to an inn and took care of him. The next day he took out two denarii and gave them to the innkeeper. ‘Look after him,’ he said, ‘and when I return, I will reimburse you for any extra expense you may have.’

“Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?”

I cannot possibly know the experience of being Black in America.  But to the Black Lives Matters protestors, and to every African-American in this state, and in this country, I say this:  I hear you.  I may be a Samaritan, but that doesn’t mean I’m not your neighbor – I hear you, and I want to do what I can.

I love reading about American History, and especially the Founding – an era where the American people set off a spark which would ultimately become a fire that would spread to Europe and beyond – the spark of Liberty, and the demand that the governed be treated as citizens, not subjects.  But one cannot study the Founding, or really any other time in our history, and not also stumble into the dark history of racism in this country.

For nearly one hundred years after leading Americans declared that all men are created equal, many leading Americans perpetuated an abominable and dehumanizing sin against individuals because of the color of their skin.  And thinking about the growing divisions in this country leads me to think about the man who watched over this country at its time of greatest division.  President Lincoln wondered whether the horrible carnage of the Civil War was God’s wrath against this nation for slavery.  I will not guess at Divine motivations, but what I do know is that the natural consequences of that great sin of slavery have never fully dissipated.  We remain but a half-century removed from Jim Crow laws.  Only one year ago did South Carolina stop flying the Confederate flag, under which marched armies seeking to maintain the horrible institution of slavery.  I will not make an attempt to catalogue all of the racial injustices in-between and thereafter, but there have been many and they still occur today.  And of absolutely pressing concern is the way the African-American community has reasonable fear of unequal treatment by law enforcement.  We have made huge, great strides as a nation on racial equality since our founding; there is more to be done.

I cannot possibly know what it is like to grow up as a racial minority.  Or to be the parent of one.  I don’t know what it’s like to get pulled over repeatedly and reasonably believe it was because of the color of my skin.  But I know I would be outraged.  It is especially painful to see bad actors where we grant immense trust.

Let us also recognize that we put our police officers in an impossible situation.  We ask a relatively small number of officers to enforce thousands and thousands of laws, and every interaction they have is a potentially life-threatening situation.  These police officers are by and large amazing persons.  As any of us who have family or friends who serve as police officers know, the overwhelming majority of officers are among the very best of us, and are people who are working for a better world.  Day in and day out, they put their own lives on the line in order that we may live our lives in the way that we choose.  Each day that they put on the badge, they know there is a possibility that they might not return home.  Each day, their sons and daughters, wives and husbands, know that they might not return home.  Any given traffic stop might result in a police officer’s last moment on this earth. 

The above does not excuse instances of unjustified force.  It does not excuse bias against communities of Americans, intentional or unintentional, which we must work to end.  But careless rhetoric painting all police officers as villains unjustly inflames an already-volatile situation.

Are there legislative solutions to all this?  Perhaps some.  Among what I find to be the most reasonable proposals I have heard are those calling for decriminalization of certain offenses, and those calling for certain offenses (e.g., having a broken taillight) to be remedied in some way other than a police interaction.  That said, I am not writing to pretend that I have thought of or considered all of the solutions.  But whether there are solutions that are legislative or otherwise, let all people of goodwill join in committing to seek them out in a spirit of peace and justice.

On Twitter, the last message left from Officer Patrick Zamarripa (also a veteran and a father), one of the officers murdered in Dallas, was dated from Independence Day: “Happy Birthday to the greatest country on the face of this planet. My beloved America!”

Officer Zamarripa gave up his life because he believed in America, and what it stands for.  We owe it to him and to those loved ones from whom he was unjustly taken to see to it that the wounds in this country are peacefully and justly addressed, and that we continue to strive to be a nation that works to put into practice the great and radical statement that we are all created equal, and endowed by God with the rights of Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

In seeking the way forward, I look again to President Lincoln.  He paid the ultimate price for his efforts to end the scourge of slavery while holding the fabric of this nation together, and so I think it is only fitting that we hear his plea from his Second Inaugural Address.  I urge that it be our guiding principle as we proceed together:

“With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation's wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.”

May God bless America, and may we be good neighbors to one another.  My prayers are with all Americans, and in particular, with those who have lost their lives in recent days, and with their loved ones.