Two years ago, August 9, 2014, was a day I will never forget.
I remember the shocking video on CNN of a dead, black male body lifeless in the middle of the street, left for hours like roadkill, while the neighbors watched in outrage.
That disturbing scene introduced me to the Mike Brown shooting in Ferguson, Missouri. As the protests and unrest grew in the weeks that followed, through my pain, I prepared to write.
But then, a grand jury decided not to indict the officers who we saw kill Eric Garner. I prayed, cried out, and planned to write. But then, I learned of Freddie Gray, killed in police custody which prompted more anger, disbelief, and reflection.
During the last 24 months, a disturbing trend of hashtags featuring black people slain by police officers emerged. That’s a tragedy we should lament, not a political football to be kicked around.
And the names kept coming:
- Ezell Ford.
- John Crawford.
- 12-year-old Tamir Rice.
- Sandra Bland.
- Christian Taylor.
And others were all part of this story.
That day 2 years ago, the nation was confronted with a conversation that started in the African American community during slavery. A conversation necessary because of the often adversarial and violent interaction between the community, the value of their lives, the laws of the land, and the criminal justice system.
Tragically, the conversation became a trending topic again last month after the deaths of Alton Sterling and Philando Castille. The raw videos that have emerged as well as the overwhelming grief expressed by their loved ones have moved many of us deeply. Unfortunately, the tragedy didn’t end there.
The brutal ambush of police officers in Dallas and Baton Rouge horrified us and only complicated the emotional context of the conversation.
A false dichotomy emerged to many: either you support law enforcement or you express disapproval of anything they’ve done. Addressing the problems of the criminal justice system (including police shooting deaths) has become unnecessarily polarizing for those like myself, who value the law enforcement community and yet oppose the historic abuses experienced by the black community.
There is another tragedy as well: too many people don’t see Mike Brown, Sandra Bland, Samuel Dubose, Freddie Grey, Eric Garner, Alton Sterling and Philando Castille as imago dei – made in the image of God.
They were people with infinite worth and value.
The rush to either attack or defend the police distracts from the point. It’s not only about the question of if the officers used excessive and criminal force, although that is an important issue. It’s a question: Why have these tragedies happened disproportionately to a specific demographic group – black people.
Ultimately: Do we have the collective compassion and will to help change it? When we create caricatures of “good guys and bad guys,” it prevents us from simply grieving with those who grieve and advocating on their behalf.
In the Good Samaritan story recorded in Luke 10:25-37, the Samaritan didn’t question if the beaten man was to blame for his brutal circumstance. He didn’t rationalize, “Well, he probably deserved it!” He didn’t hold back help because this was a high crime area. He didn’t reserve his compassion until ‘more facts’ came out to determine if the man was innocent enough to deserve his sympathy. He just helped the poor soul.
When we see these dead men and women as imago dei – made in the image of God – then we can agree that their untimely deaths are tragedies that continue to have ripple effects in their families and communities.
As a black man, the last 2 years have been a surreal and scary time for me. It’s also been a source of frustration and anger to constantly hear the immediate justifications that some of my white friends and colleagues respond with when these issues emerge.
Every time I’ve been stopped by a police officer, I feared for my life, and often (but not always) experienced unnecessary hostilities. When I see video of a dreadlocked Samuel DuBose shot and killed after being stopped for nothing, I see myself.
And regardless how your appearance compares to Samuel’s, we must remember how much his reflects the image of God. Jesus Christ reminds us in the Good Samaritan story that Samuel DuBose was our neighbor. And so was Mike Brown.
I recommend 3 steps to help us move toward healing and progress. This list may be especially helpful for those in the majority culture who may feel ambivalent about the facts of the cases.
- Lament the loss of life. Mike Brown had just graduated from high school. This month, instead of dropping him off for his junior year in college, his parents are visiting his grave site. Do we have the capacity to lament that reality? Jeremiah, in Lamentations, grieves over the destruction of his people and land, even though he knew it was as a result of divine judgment for their sin. He wrote:
“My eyes fail from weeping, I am in torment within; my heart is poured out on the ground because my people are destroyed, because children and infants faint in the streets of the city” – Lamentations 2:11.Jeremiah could weep for such destruction, but can we? We need to rediscover empathy.
- Understand the context. Structural inequalities cause blacks and poorer people to experience harsher consequences in the criminal justice system. Wealth affects outcomes in our justice system. Additionally, biases in a racialized society influence the justice system. Simply put, white privilege still exists. The system is broken and that is why the anger and frustration erupts when these deaths occur. The Bible has a lot to say about social justice, and how it should not be reserved for people who can afford it. The prophet Isaiah challenged Israel:
“Learn to do right; seek justice. Defend the oppressed. Take up the cause of the fatherless; plead the case of the widow” – Isaiah 1:17.Helpful books on this subject written by thoughtful Christian authors include Dr. Soon Cha Rah's Return to Justice and Michael Emerson and Christian Smith's Divided By Faith.
- Be an advocate. Once we learn about the relationship between poverty, race and crime, we can do something to change things. If we want to show the compassion and justice that Jesus expected in Matthew 25:31-46, we simply have to do something. Jesus said:
“The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me’” – Matthew 25:40.
All of these ideas are made possible when we have the hard conversations we need to gain understanding. I hope that in the next 2 years we will talk to each other, and those conversations will not be about another shooting death, about but what we are doing to prevent them from happening.
Rasool Berry, a pastor and Cru staff member serving in Brooklyn, is married to the love of his life, Tamica. They have one daughter, Ire’Ana. You can find him on Twitter @rasoolberry.