How do I pray when #ICantBreathe?: Theology in the Shadow of Mike Brown and Eric Garner

chokeThe events of the last few weeks have left me emotionally raw. In rapid succession (a span of a just a few months) three grand juries (Ohio, Missouri, and New York) have returned “no true bills” on three police-involved killings of unarmed Black men. The merits and details of each case can be debated by those far more qualified to debate the idiosyncrasies of jurisprudence than I, but what I can do is feel.

It seems to me that in the past few months, the American criminal injustice system  has proven incapable of applying the law equally to all American citizens, with citizens of color too often receiving the short end of the legal stick. Furthermore, it appears to me that too often the country is too busy, or too privileged, to care.

Too often the Church has also proven too busy, or too privileged, to care. Like the Levite and the Priest in the Parable of the Good Samaritan, the Church too often turns a blind eye to the suffering of the “other.” To be fair, I don’t think it’s done from a malicious place. I think the inaction of the Church comes from a different place. Either people don’t know what to do, or they don’t know how to do it, or they just have a different set of priorities. Maybe the one suffering by the roadside isn’t as important as what lies ahead on the journey. Whatever the reason, there seems to be a fear or an apprehension that prevents people from stopping by the roadside and being present with those who have been beaten and left for dead, those people and those communities suffocating under the weight of injustice and oppression, those crying out “I can’t breathe.”

How are people of faith called to engage faith in the wake of an outbreak of state-sanctioned executions of Black and Brown people? I’ve struggled with this answer. I have struggled with people asking for the protesters and demonstrators to remain “peaceful” while not placing an equal burden on a system to provide the justice that makes peace possible in the first place. I have struggled with what it means to have a prophetic voice in a faith community who represent a different narrative than my own. I have struggled in my own devotional life with “how do I pray when I can’t breathe?”

I could talk ad nauseum about the need for the breakdown of empire and the loosening of the shackles of the oppressed. I could wax eloquent about the fact that these situations didn’t happen in isolation, but are couched within the context of hundreds of years of racial inequality and state-sanctioned terror and oppression. I could employ the “by any means necessary” language that others more free that I have employed. I could, but none of that seemed true for me in this moment. I have truly been wrestling with what it means to be a pastor in the wake of such grievous injustice. What do I tell my congregation? What do I tell my youth and young people? How do I remain authentic in this Black skin and speak a prophetic message that the people need to hear?

As I was wrestling with the question, I decided to re-read a few chapters (sermons) from a collection of Dr. Martin Luther King’s sermons entitled Strength to Love. One of them “On Being a Good Neighbor” expounds upon the story of the Good Samaritan who was “defined by a love ethic by which he journeyed life’s highway.” That “love ethic” caused him to be moved to compassion when he saw the wounded traveler on the roadside, compassion that was a complete giving of himself for the sake of someone else. Theology in the shadow of Mike Brown and Eric Garner (and, unfortunately, countless others) hinges upon the simplest, yet most complex, law – love. Not the wishy-washy, fluffy, formless, sappy kind of love that avoids conflict and eschews justice, but rather a love that empowers, strengthens, heals, speaks truth, and builds community and relationship.

“Thuggification,” “demonization,” and “criminalization” are all attempts at ultimately dehumanization, because if we can prove that someone is less than human, then we justify killing them. The Parable of the Good Samaritan undoes our attempts of dehumanizing others by asking us to see the other as just as human and worthy of love as anyone else, as ourselves. Theology in the shadow of Mike Brown and Eric Garner has to intentionally build bridges between communities of different narratives and provide space for more than mere tolerance, but space for love. The time has come for the dividing walls that separate and segregate to go the way of the “Walls of Jericho,” and for us to be willing to step outside of our own narrative long enough to hear and truly listen to the story of another. Yes, this means that we all have to be willing to have difficult conversations – conversations that will challenge our assumptions and even our own closely held narratives. Healing and conciliation in this situation looks like coming together and sharing stories for no other reason than to build relationships with people who are different than we are so that we can learn to see one another as human, as sister and brother, as neighbor.

The curious thing about the Parable of the Good Samaritan is that everyone was a neighbor to everyone else. The thieves were neighbors to the traveler they attacked, the priest and the Levite who ignored the wounded traveler, the Samartian, and the innkeeper. The false divisions of race, religious, class, and even legal status were all overcome in this story by the clarion call to love one’s neighbor.

I don’t pretend to know or understand the difficult job that police officers encounter on a daily basis. I am aware that they often are forced to make major decisions in split-second time and under pressure that I can’t even begin to imagine. But I can’t help but wonder how these situations may have been different if the officers saw Eric Garner and Mike Brown as neighbor first, not a criminal, not a thug, and not a demon.

The call for neighborliness isn’t just on police officers, it’s on all of us. In Wounded Healer, Henri Nouwen suggests that “For a compassionate person nothing human is alien: no joy and no sorrow, no way of living and no way of dying.” Each of us is Eric Garner and Mike Brown, each of us is Darren Wilson and Daniel Panteleo. Each of these men are our neighbor. That’s what the Parable of the Good Samaritan teaches us. This doesn’t distract from the larger conversation about race and justice that needs to happen in our country. We need laws that protect citizens from over-policing and that hold police officers accountable for over-policing. We also need structures to support our officers as they engage in a very difficult vocation. We need a change of laws, but more importantly we need a change of heart. If peace is going to begin, it must begin in each of our hearts when we start by seeing and valuing the “neighbor” in people who may have drastically different experiences, narratives, and stories than our own.

Theology in the shadow of Mike Brown and Eric Garner has to begin in the temple of each of our hearts as we discern how we are called to be more like neighbors and less like enemies.

How do I pray when I can’t breathe? Eric Garner’s spirit leads us – we do what the oppressed have done for centuries, we cry out in resistance to oppression, pain, and death as long as we can defiantly holding on the life even as it is being taken from us. Like Rachel weeping for her children, we refuse to be placated and made to be quiet, but we continue to wail, weep, and mourn. We cry out because someone will hear us. We cry out because the One that made hearing does hear and the One who formed the eye does see. We cry out to disturb and interrupt the uneasy silence of those who are asleep in order to rouse them from their beds with the cry “Keep awake!”

Disturb us, O Lord

when we are too well-pleased with ourselves 
when our dreams have come true because we dreamed too little, 
because we sailed too close to the shore.

Disturb us, O Lord

when with the abundance of things we possess, 
we have lost our thirst for the water of life 
when, having fallen in love with time, 
we have ceased to dream of eternity 
and in our efforts to build a new earth, 
we have allowed our vision of Heaven to grow dim.

Stir us, O Lord

to dare more boldly, to venture into wider seas 
where storms show Thy mastery, 
where losing sight of land, we shall find the stars.

In the name of Him who pushed back the horizons of our hopes 
and invited the brave to follow.

Amen

(This prayer is attributed to Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu, adapted from an original prayer by Sir Francis Drake).

Keep the faith, and make it COLORFUL!
Marcus+

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