Friday, December 12, 2014

Listening, Civil Order, and Grand Juries

Democracies characterized by freedom and order exist by voluntary compliance on the part of the citizenry.  It is a fragile arrangement, and this compliance must be continually monitored and maintained.  I lived in a country once where there was little reliance upon income taxes as a source of revenue for running the country.  Indeed, there were a myriad of laws on the books; but practically no one voluntarily obeyed them.   People did not trust the government, writing it off as corrupt and ineffectual.  Thus, many needs within the country went unmet in a way that undermined the quality of life in that place.

The widespread public outcry over two recent grand jury decisions concerning the death of two black men at the hands of the police has gotten me thinking about the importance of trust in a community.  Without overwhelming trust in our institutions and in those who serve on our behalf as public servants, we as a nation cannot be effectively governed and at the same time live as free people.  It is all really that fragile.

How do we as believers move ahead in a healthy way?  Jesus might provide for us a clue.  Jesus is going from Judea to Galilee, and he takes a shortcut through Samaria.  Most Jews would have gone around Samaria.  The Jews and the Samaritans did not like or trust one another and avoided each other.  The woman Jesus meets at the well inasmuch says that:  Jews do not associate with Samaritans (John 4:9).  Their isolated patterns of living led to antipathy and mistrust.  Jesus breaks through those barriers by actually spending some time with the woman.

Reforming the grand jury system when dealing with law enforcement and modifying policing policies is a bit beyond my area of expertise.  (But for the wellbeing of our national community, I think this needs to be quickly addressed.) I would, however, make a related observation.  At our Board of Mission meeting last Saturday, we had guided conversations about the recent deaths and grand jury decisions during our lunch.  Afterward we shared as a large group about our conversations.  I was sitting among a group of people who want good things for all Americans regardless of race.  They want America to be a place of fairness and opportunity, a place where everyone is valued and treated well.  As I sat there, I asked myself why then have issues of race been such a persistent struggle for us.  I think we are a bit like the Jews and the Samaritans; we live parallel but not mutually engaged lives.    

We are people of sympathy.  We acknowledge and care about the hardships of others.  We want to provide support and comfort, but we are untouched by the challenges faced by people who have been formed by a different set of experiences.  We need to work to become people of empathy. Empathy is born of exposure, of hearing the unmediated stories of others.  Empathy comes from living lives engaged with others, from being affected by what affects them.  Perhaps we stand at the threshold of empathy yet remain in the land of sympathy because the journey into empathy can be uncomfortable.

 I was recently at a meeting of ministerial leaders, and we were discussing racial diversity.  An African American man in his sixties told us of an experience he had as a 14 year old boy in St. Louis.  He was walking home one night, and a police officer stopped his car in the street and pulled his gun on the boy.  He took the young man to the police station and began to question him.  The officer demanded that the boy confess to something.  When he refused, the officer began to beat him with a rolled up phone book.  Still the young man refused.  So two officers drove him out to a vacant lot and told him to get out of the car.  He refused to get out; he thought to himself:  “If they shoot me, they will have to do it in the back of this cruiser and leave a bloody mess.”  He shared that, in that day, St. Louis police officers routinely shot young black men without any consequences; he knew he would likely not survive the night.  One officer pulled him out of the cruiser and onto the ground and told the other officer to drive away.  The officer pulled his gun and said “run.”  The young man knew if he ran he would be killed within a few steps.  So he confessed to everything he could think of and lived to tell this story.

When the man finished his story there was an awkward silence around the table, and then the prior conversation was resumed.  The man had just shared a harrowing story about nearly being killed before he was old enough to drive, and no one at the table seemed to acknowledge the gravity and terror of his experience.  He was pushing us from the land of sympathy into the land of empathy, but it was too uncomfortable a journey to make. The man who had nearly lost his life that night didn’t seem surprised that there was little interest in continuing the conversation.  When I read the news these days, I think of that man and the decades he has invested in building Christ’s church.  He hears the same news filtered through a different lens. 

The American Baptist Churches of New York State is a diverse family of churches.  We and our congregations have been shaped by a variety of experiences; we tell different stories around the table.  How can we create spaces where honest, and therefore sometimes uncomfortable, conversations can take place?  We need to be talking and listening and understanding and acting.  What I hear many of our fellow Americans saying through the public outcry these days is:  “We are finding it hard to breathe.”  We as Christians must hear that; we are caretakers of neighbors. Who is our neighbor?  Someone put that to Jesus and he told a story (Luke 10:30 to 37); it is for us at this moment a timely story.  Our obedience to the Gospel lies not with sympathy but with empathy, and empathy comes through casting our lots together in community.

We as a family of churches gathering each Sunday in the name of Christ are a great place to have those uncomfortable conversations that can lead to change in our nation.  Each and every one of us has the life-giving breath of God within us (Genesis 2:7).  When some of us are having are hard time breathing, the rest of us should start listening.


Jim Kelsey