When Words Are Hard to Find

After the murders of Alton Sterling, Philando Castile, and five police officers in Dallas within a three-day span earlier this month, our nation was left reeling in a storm of grief, rage, despair, and a sense of helplessness—all of which is intensified and compounded by devastating international attacks, including most recently the horrific massacre in Nice, France. In these times when words are hard to find, it can feel as if our divisions are deeper than ever, as if the forces of hatred and violence are unfathomably and irreversibly entrenched. Here, Dr. Keith Anderson, President of The Seattle School, reflects on the binaries that pit one individual or group against another, and the biblical call to justice, mercy, and humility.


I know the corner of Snelling and Larpenteur Avenue in St. Paul very well. I lived near that corner in Falcon Heights for twenty years. I know the streets of Dallas reasonably well from travel into the train station near the shooting scene a few blocks away. I’ve never been to Baton Rouge, but the painful grief for families of all victims over this past week—that grief is common to all who have suffered loss through death. None of us can know what personal loss, pain, grief, rage, and anguish are felt by each person in their individual grief this week, but we share common suffering, nonetheless.

I started the week with an email from a black friend whose grief for the danger to young black men in our city streets is personal, palpable, and runs deep. I ended the week with a plaintive cry from another who asked, “Do we ever grieve the brutal loss of five police officers?” The questions are honest, and the emotions felt in each setting is raw. President Obama said it before the Dallas murders, when he called the nation to acknowledge the role of race in many police actions and to also acknowledge the risk of those who stand in the places of risk to protect and serve.

My pastor in Minneapolis told me of the many times he was stopped as a young black man by white police officers. The most painful moment for him was the first time his young son walked home with him from programs at the church. Up against the squad car, legs spread, the patdown for weapons, a warning, and then he was free to go. Nothing like an apology or explanation. He was well known in the Park Avenue neighborhood north of downtown but that didn’t matter. He looked suspicious simply because he was black. I have spent time with one of the living saints in my world, John Perkins, who was mercilessly beaten nearly to death by Mississippi State Police because he was black. Again, on his way home from ministry with young people, he was stopped but also assaulted by white officers he would later forgive. It happens and it is tragic.

I grew up in a neighborhood in Chicago with an Irish cop next door. Bill McCabe spent every day walking his beat, driving his vehicle and eventually getting badly hurt in a high speed chase. Every day he put his life on the line. I loved him, admired him, and respected deeply the work he did. He kept us safe after all; he was a cop. Three of my nephews spent time in uniform, two in the Marines and one in the US Army. My son-in-law is a firefighter in Portland who does the same—he works in a job which can put his life at risk at any time, on any given day. In our church we pray each week for those who go into harm’s way—in the military, police, fire department, and anywhere else the job has high risk.

Seven people last week started the day as any other day but didn’t go home that night. Five of them knew they might be in harm’s way because that is their job as Dallas police; two did not. What is our response?

As followers of Jesus, we have a role to play, words to speak, and presence to bring. I think we would agree to that in the abstract. I took students to Chicago for many years for an urban immersion course in ministry and sociology. We made the case that biblical faith calls for a life committed to justice—on that everyone seemed to agree. The difficulty came when seemingly contested choices came into play: is it more just to tear down an old factory and build low cost housing, or to build a new factory which can provide jobs for the neighborhood? Is it more just to fight for civil rights for people of color or to build the case for religious freedom in our nation? Is justice better served by moving to the inner city, identifying with the poor and living in solidarity with those who are under-privileged, or to create good housing, good schools, and opportunities for our own children to grow in safe neighborhoods wherever they might be? Does Jesus care more about the two young black men killed last week or the five police officers?

As followers of Jesus, we have a role to play, words to speak, and presence to bring. tweet

What I can say with certainty is that each of these offer what are most likely false binary opposites, what G.K. Chesterton might have called “furious opposites.” He was speaking of competing doctrines but said, “Christianity got over the difficulty of combining furious opposites, by keeping them both, and keeping them both furious.”

I don’t think we are invited by our faith to choose one “side” over against another. Racial brutality is not only criminal; it is, I believe, an affront to the living God and to our common humanity. When black citizens near my old neighborhood in St. Paul are unjustly profiled and mistreated by white police officers, there ought to be a cry of outrage from all citizens. But to take up weapons against all police from a rooftop in Dallas or highway in Tennessee or wherever it will come next, ought to raise a cry of outrage from us, as well.

I do not know the pain of racial prejudice as do my friends of color. I do not know the fearful worry for the families of honest and faithful police either, who wait each night for their loved ones to return. I too have been stopped for traffic violations but never met with brutality. I have never been stopped by police in my neighborhood in inner city Pontiac, suburban St. Paul, rural Iowa, or Whidbey Island or small town South Dakota or Bainbridge.

The sin in common in all cases in this past week is the sin of accepting the opposites as somehow acceptable, just, and right. The sin is to declare our solidarity with one against another. Should I choose the young black man or choose the police? If I choose the way of violence against one perceived monster, do I not thus become party to the violence against others?

I have no adequate way to say what I believe today except this: When we choose to take up sides against another in ways that justify the violence, injustice, brutality, and murder of either, we have not taken the way of Jesus, who calls us to bring peace, to serve as reconcilers, and to pray for all—even those whom we might call enemy. When we declare our solidarity with victims against perpetrators, we must be careful that we don’t create solidarity with those who will become perpetrators against new victims. I don’t know what happened in the minds and hearts of police officers who killed two young black men in two different settings this week. I don’t know what happened in the mind and heart of the sniper who chose to kill five cops simply because they were white.

I know one thing with certainty: we all lost something precious in the last week of our common lives in this country. We lost some part of our common humanity. We lost our ability to trust each other. We lost our ability to see the other as one created in the image of the living God. We lost community with some who are different than we are. Every time there is violence against people, we lose something precious. Was there justice in the actions of the first two police? Was there justice in the revenge of the sniper? In my way of seeing the world, vengeance is a statement of failure because it is a declaration of total despair, not of hope. In my way of seeing the world, racial brutality is always a sign of failure because it dehumanizes another in unjustifiable violence.

We lost our ability to see the other as one created in the image of the living God. tweet

I know that it probably doesn’t matter a great deal what I think about all of the pain of these past weeks. I know that, as usual, some will disagree with meon one side or the other. But I know that silence is a sin of its own kind in a week when assault has been the language spoken in the streets of our country. One biblical language that seems most appropriate today is the language of lament, the cry of Israel that says most simply, “How long, O Lord, how long?”

And then these words of Rabbinic commentary on Micah 6:8: “Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world’s grief. Do justly, now. Love mercy, now. Walk humbly, now. You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it.”

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