A single glance at America today can throw me into a rage and my rage prompts me to write.
When a piece is born of wrath, I set it out in the windowsill and let it cool. Like a pie. Like rhubarb pie — the kind of pie I detest but must eat anyway because I give even the pies I hate a second chance. All pie is good in principium, even if rhubarb is not true to form.
I wrote this piece on Christmas Eve last year and reread it this month. Having cut some hurtful words from the text, I find myself still in agreement with the rest of what follows. Maybe even more so after things have gotten worse, rather than better, this year:
When I came out of the D train below Washington Square, for a moment I thought I had entered a World Series game. There was a silence in there like the silence of a beehive mid-plunge towards the ground. Thousands of peacemakers were pouring out of every single car on both sides of the subway platform and three officers were begging people to take the other exit as one might beg a pack of rats to stop running away from a rising flood. We came from the north, south, east, west – from Bronx and Brooklyn and Queens and Jersey. Two o’clock hit and the chanting masses were still flooding into the square right beneath the Washington arch, which reads:
“Let us raise a standard to which the wise and the honest can repair, the event is in the hand of God.”
The quote comes from George Washington’s advice for preserving freedom and liberty. Washington, who was inaugurated in New York City, advocated for resisting political pressures that would make us compromise our principles or favor one group over another.
Granted, at twelve Washington inherited ten slaves and grew that number to three-hundred-and-sixteen that worked Mount Vernon by his death. But though he may not share the same principles, the context of the quote on the arch seemed to inspire the protesters gathered in the square named after the first president:
“If to please the people, we offer what we ourselves disapprove, how can we afterwards defend our work? Let us raise a standard to which the wise and honest can repair; the event is in the hand of God.”
If in hopes of pleasing people we deliver over to them everything we hate, when the dust settles we will have nothing left to defend our work.
Still timely today.
At one point when the mass of humanity hung a left near Union Square, an NBC correspondent (who will remain nameless) shoved a microphone in my face and asked if I had any comments to make on the march.
“No,” I said.
And then I pointed to my black and Hispanic and Asian brothers and leaders all around me. They’re the ones to interview. I’m following their lead. I’m here by invitation to support the cause. I’m not in charge.
My silence was a silence meant to be filled by the voices of the unheard. My silence was meant to draw a bigger attention to the silence of those who have gone on unheard. But as Jon Stewart recently illustrated, white people who don’t have black friends will only listen to other white people. My audience here is still predominately white Americans, despite the growing international presence.
You and I are still refusing to listen, so let us further expose our egregious silences ::
The Millions March chose Washington Square on purpose. It was 20,000 workers who marched there in 1912 to commemorate the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire. It was 25,000 peacemakers who marched there in 1915 on behalf of women’s suffrage. And in 2014, it was 50,000 peacemakers who gathered to protest the brutalities that span everything from the Texan policeman who murdered the six-year-old Aubrey Hardcastle using shoves and shakes to the Alaskan policeman who shot and killed the twenty-five-year-old Carl Bowie.
Yes, fifty-thousand. CNN reported 25,000 and other national news sources similarly downplayed the statistics, but there were 49,000 confirmed for the event on Facebook alone and the NYPD counted over 60,000. Just check out the time lapse video which is, appropriately, silent ::
Yet another reason to source your information from somewhere other than national news, but that’s another article for another day.
I was there in the crowd. I can tell you that the people were peaceful. I can tell you I saw infants in strollers, old women in crutches, quadriplegics in motorized wheelchairs, and people of every color marching for justice using peaceful means. I was there walking beside weeping young black highschoolers. I was there watching the old hippies get in one more protest for the road.
Yes, two violent people were arrested in the unofficial protests that followed the march, but let’s do some quick math, shall we?
Even if you add in the six people with outstanding warrants who separated the officer and the two violent people, that stat grows from .004% to a whopping .016% of gathered protesters. That means at least 99.984% of the 50,000 gathered protesters were peacemakers — peaceful protestors.
See how far they’ve skewed our cause?
When the 50,000 ended their march and 20,000 peeled off for home, that left 30,000 to break off into two separate marches, the largest of those two shut down the Brooklyn Bridge and pushed forward toward Flatbush. I had to break to get some of my writing work done at the Brooklyn Roasting Company and planned to rejoin my pastor friends on the other side of the bridge. Another silence greeted me then, like the silence of an approaching low-pressure stormwall, the police cars flickering like cheap Christmas lights on the bridge in the distance. Another was parked on the curb there at the intersection of Middagh and Cadman Plaza West. As I stood facing upwards and onwards into the north, I watched cops return, open this trunk not five feet from me near the base of the bridge, and load up on cuffs. Preparing for what? For war? According to the New York Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association, yes. Yes, for war and worse.
Despite the heavy artillery of police, the march passed the blockade with no other confrontations than those two outliers and moved east into Brooklyn.
That’s where I caught the group again, right where the Brooklyn Bridge tickles Tillary Street. The officers had erected a makeshift net to corral us down Jay Street and away from Fulton – the main road for the Downtown Brooklyn shopping district. As we passed, protestors said, “Have a good evening officers. Thanks for staying out late with us.”
Granted, there were some bad eggs peppering their chants with the f-word and hate speech and slander involving the word “pig,” but that was nowhere near the majority. That night as we peacemakers worked around the net like a breech in a dam, we made our way into the nervous center of Brooklyn after having already shut down Manhattan’s 6th avenue and Broadway simultaneously and peacefully that afternoon.
Not a one of us held a weapon. I had some Dawn dish soap on me in case of tear gas – does dish soap count as a weapon? I mean, I know I take out my stress on our pots and pans, but…
As we progressed down the streets, bus drivers, cab drivers, commuters all honked horns to the beat of our chants — not one of them looked angry. Where else can you say that and not exaggerate? Not a one — I didn’t see one angry face. Every driver and common man was either sympathetic or sad, some of them even shouting “if we don’t get it, shut it down” along with us and many of them smiling and laughing like little children. It was the first time I felt like I understood what the song “Joy to the World” might have meant to first-century Palestinians living under the violent occupation of Roman legions. This was one of Leonard Cohen’s “holy places where the races meet.” We moved on to shut down the whole area around Barclay’s Center and Atlantic Avenue.
Before the Millions March, I followed African American leaders who shut down Times Square on Black Friday and the leaders constantly shouted, “No running. We do this peacefully. Peaceful marches.” There are marches every day doing the same things. My phone’s never received more text updates than now — and that includes those annoying package delivery updates.
For the record, I am not removed from personal involvement in these issues on any level. My wife is from Ferguson and white flight has plagued North St. Louis for decades now — just listen to the way the government intentionally created ghettos through redlining. It affects my black friends from the area. Many of my pastor friends from places like Love the LOU and The Lotus House have been doing work right alongside peacemakers like alderman Antonio French for years in St. Louis. Additionally, I have high school friends in the police force, college friends in the military, wonderful family members that (despite my ever-present concerns) persist in gobbling up Fox News like they would Thanksgiving Turkey from factory farms and liberal friends who do the same with Anderson Cooper. I also have a close friend here in New York was friends with Rafael Ramos (one of the police officers murdered by that lunatic), and another works at the big-name maximum security prison down the road. The church I served last year focuses on diversity, so many of the young men and women from the minority groups have been crying a lot during worship, praying alongside their white brothers and sisters for justice and peace, asking me about Ferguson – of which my wife and I know more than national news, but not enough more.
I also happen to benefit from a white privilege that was built on the backs of slaves. Some even argue that America would never have become a world power without the free labor used to harvest then-precious cotton and the exponential interest garnered by the slave trade. That said, I refuse to feel guilt for something I had no say in — my birth — but I also refuse to hoard this privilege, to revel in it, to rejoice over the mourning of others.
So no, I don’t think I’m objective. But seeing as we’re talking about subjects – about an unarmed black man named Eric Garner who was strangled to death and about dozens of black women who have been murdered right in their homes for answering the door too quickly – I don’t know that objectivity alone will help.
Here’s the truth: the assassination of two seated police officers by a madman is a brutal tragedy. It’s a tragedy every single time a life is lost. I’m that much a fan of life. On average, 55 police officers have been feloniously killed every year since 2000. That’s 770 armed officers killed by armed felons.
That’s awful – God save us from our violence.
Here’s another truth: the systemic brutality of American police forces exacerbate this problem. Since 2000, we know that over 1,600 human beings were killed or murdered by well-armed police (that number is far higher since I originally wrote this Christmas Eve 2014). Many of these people were unarmed and several of these cases involve absurdly unthreatening human beings like the six-year-old girl who was shoved to death or the 18-year-old unarmed and naked college student who was shot to death.
That’s awful – God save us from our violence.
There’s also the hidden statistics: at least 75% of police deaths (police killed by armed criminals) are reported to the FBI, but police departments nationwide report only around 15% of fatal encounters (civilians killed by armed police). Some say it’s even less, but we don’t really know.
That’s the worst part – God save us from our silences.
Fatal Encounters has circumvented both the government’s silence and the silence of the mainstream media by assembling the available data, but there’s only so much you can do without a mandated audit of the system. Still, when they assemble the data of the FBI and the families of the deceased, it paints a stark picture ::
Suffice to say, there are two things that need noted. The first is that last year when two police officers were assasinated in Bed Stuy not a 15 minute drive from my house, that tragedy still involves three armed men as opposed to armed policemen shooting or strangling unarmed civilians. The difference between a madman assassinating two policemen and two policemen assassinating unarmed civilians is a difference not of degree, but category; a difference not of quantity, but quality. It’s not the difference between two guns and three, but of no guns and one — as different as the guilty and the innocent, those who thing they are above the law and those who are burdened by its oppressive weight.
The second is that that assassination — though awful — is clearly irrelevant to the marches since it does not match the spirit of the peacemakers.
When an unstable man assassinates two unknowing police officers (peace be upon their souls) and then claims to side with the movement, it all the more implicates not the movement but the man. This act of violence has been denounced by everyone from Occupy Wall Street to the Millions March to the pastors I marched alongside in the Millions March. When everyone on every side of the issue denounced his actions, the madman — not the movement — was found all the more guilty of this crime. To quote Martin Luther King Jr:
“Nonviolence is the answer to the crucial moral and political questions of our time. To respond to violence and oppression without resorting to violence and oppression itself.”
That’s the stance the movement takes, has taken, and will continue to take. A man who quotes the book of Acts as justification for stabbing his ward nurse and slitting his wrists does not malign the Jesus movement any more than these assassinations – or the .004% of protestors – malign ours.
A well-respected former pastor of a five-figure-attended megachurch denounced the movement in a recent blog post around the time I originally wrote this. He’s white. He’s from the south. He’s vocally Republican. He’s well-off. His retirement is secure. He has a whole enterprise built around his name. I will not link to his blog, it’s best to keep this relatively vague and so make it applicable to us all, but he denounced the movement using (surprise, surprise) scripture. His argument started with his familial connection to a police officer and ended by quoting Romans 13 and urging us to “submit to the governing authorities.”
By which he meant “stop protesting.”
By which he implied “passively wait until it gets better.”
From which a poor minority readership stumbling across this god-awful post will extract the message “suck it up — having your loved ones murdered by the police isn’t that big of a deal.”
I will deal with his argument in three parts: the implications if he’s wrong, the inconsistency of his ethics, and the scripture itself.
If he’s wrong, the implications of his claim place him in one of two camps.
At best, he is an ignorant coward like the rest of us privileged white pastors who take to the streets far too late (I’m constantly surprised by how many white pastors are just now losing their protest virginity this year), like the rest of us privileged white pastors who follow and submit to black leadership far too seldom. This pastor’s comfort — like all Americans — sings her seductive siren call until he is forced to defend his relative who has refused our basic Christian commitment to never take up arms against fellow brothers in Christ.
At worse, this pastor is an active oppressor fully aware of the implications of twisting scripture to serve his position of power – a propagandist for tyranny.
I will give him the benefit of the doubt and assume he’s a coward like me. The difference, of course, being that I and my fellow white pastors who protest are at the back of the flock, at the back of the march, trying to repent of our craven choices and follow minority leadership whereas this pastor — and others like him — refuses to join the fold. Even a coward may have courage if he faces his many fears. But a coward who insists upon remaining cowed is a primed for a good tipping.
Of course, that’s dealing with the implications if he’s wrong. Let’s deal with the inconsistency of his proposed ethics.
This same pastor applauds when persecuted Christians distribute Bibles in countries that prohibit free speech and religion. Where is his submission to governing authorities then and there?
This same pastor led his church to donate to ministries that rescue women out of prostitution in countries where prostitution is legal and, in some cases, informally backed by government funds. Where is his submission to governing authorities then?
This same pastor leads his church in trying to change the government every year through voting on the “right” candidate. Where is his submission to governing authorities then?
I could go on beating this, but the horse is long dead. His point does not ride. It doesn’t even make it into the saddle. When we are at our best, we overcome evil with good by subverting the governing authorities (distributing bibles where it’s illegal).
But that’s simply the inconsistencies that follow the implications of his wrongness.
Let’s take the exegetical approach.
If we read Romans mindful of the sentences and paragraphs that compose it rather these massive numbers that divided it into chapters and verses, the immediate context to the phrase “obey state authorities” whom we must “fear because they have power to punish” is this:
“Do not let evil defeat you; instead, conquer evil with good.”
The whole chunk before 13:1 commands us to refuse to repay evil with another wrong, to do what’s good, to make peace with everybody, to leave God to the judgment, to feed hungry enemies and offer drink to thirsty enemies. Before that, it’s to ask God to bless those who persecute us (Paul’s talking about Roman violence), to hate evil, to cling to good, and in order to live in harmony with one another we are called to rejoice with those who rejoice and mourn with those who mourn.
And after the Romans 13:1 section about submission, we have this whole bit about how we don’t owe anyone anything except love – not even the government.
Romans chapters twelve and thirteen taken together read like a manifesto of nonviolence for those caught under the oppression of a violent empire – to overcome evil, particularly violent evil, with good. This means submission is a thing we wield rather than something to which we resign. Part of this even includes our own personal purging as the end of chapter 13 shows. Our call is always to overcome and I’d recommend listening to some of Shane Wood’s sermons from Revelation concerning the idea of overcomers.
So the chapter doesn’t support this pastor’s argument, his and his church’s and our movement’s example doesn’t support this pastor’s argument, and the implications of both mean that he’s either a coward comfortable with his cowardice or worse: that he’s on the side of systemic evil itself.
All that without getting into the book of Exodus where… you know… a minority group like leaves the yoke of oppression in mass numbers.
Or the minor prophets who apply said Exodus to all people, particularly in places like Amos 9.
Or Jesus’ tenure – the guy who overcame not only sin and Satan, but statehood with a cross. Never forget that the rock who makes men stumble lowers his shoulder into the government.
As in the case of the police, so too with this pastor – our war is not against flesh and blood. I fight not the man but the demon in the man.
We can plainly see what is the case. The call to action was sounded and the above pastor led plenty of white Christians in a reverse charge to refuse the call, also known as a “retreat.” Dr. King spoke to this exact breed of pastors, explaining to them why we can’t wait from inside his Birmingham Jail. Oh Martin, I know you’re looking down from the great cloud of witnesses and I’m sorry. I cannot speak from prison yet, I can only relay back the view from the second highest barrow in this Brooklyn borough. From where I’m standing, it ain’t pretty, Martin, and we still can’t wait. We cannot wait.
Why can we not wait?
Well since many who will read this still get their news from the television rather than from the many, many crowd-sourced news outlets available online, I will assemble some of the most sobering full-length videos that are finally exposing the kind of police violence that has been happening for decades. Declare war only upon your own ignorance and silence.
In New York, Eric Garner was strangled to death using an illegal chokehold ::
In Texas, children were abused, traumatized, and harassed by a Rambo-style hothead white cop simply for attending a pool party in a white neighborhood ::
In South Carolina, ignoring the mandated rules of engagement, a police officer shot a black man repeatedly in the back ::
Oh sure, these are the ones that got national attention, but I could keep this up for days — just go to YouTube and search “Police Brutality 2015.” I think it became most blatantly apparent to me when I watched police tackle a third-trimester-pregnant, hispanic woman on my street.
That liquor store in the background is two blocks from my front door. Tara and I walk my dog past those bus stops and bodegas every night. We don’t have time for NIMBY — not in my backyard — apathy. This is happening in every backyard across America. This is a very basic love-your-neighbor issue.
Martin was right and is right today: we cannot wait.
White people? You have little room to speak on this issue. Some could argue you’ve held the stage and the microphone in this country for the last four-hundred years, which is precisely what Dr. King alluded to when he both denounced the riots and said, “A riot is the language of the unheard.” White people? What little room you have in the years ahead, you earn through action – good deeds, remember those? — loving your neighbor and your enemy alongside the black pastors who march in peace.
Problem is: you, like this ignorant pastor before you, have bought into the lie that voting will change the game, ignorant that the vote itself is part of the system sustaining these injustices. Never in all of American history has the entire contingency been well-represented by registered voters, let alone the poor and oppressed. Next election year, I may finally speak my piece on Why I Refuse to Register to Vote over at RLC, but a quote from Thoreau will serve our purposes here:
“All voting is a sort of gaming, like checkers or backgammon, with a slight moral tinge to it, a playing with right and wrong, with moral questions; and betting naturally accompanies it. The character of the voters is not staked. I cast my vote, perchance, as I think right; but I am not vitally concerned that this right should prevail. I am willing to leave it to the majority. Its obligation, therefore, never exceeds that of expediency. Even voting for the right is doing nothing for it. It is only expressing to men feebly your desire that it should prevail. A wise man will not leave the right to the mercy of chance nor wish it to prevail to the power of the majority. When the majority shall at length vote for the abolition of slavery, it will be because they are indifferent to slavery or because there is but little slavery left to be abolished by their vote. They will then be the only slaves. Only his vote can hasten the abolition of slavery who asserts his own freedom by his vote.”
Votes change nothing. Actions do. Direct, immediate actions speak louder than the words “I choose you.” This isn’t some Pokemon battle. Lives are at stake. That’s why King wrote an entire book titled Why We Can’t Wait, most of the time aiming his rebuke at the pastors just like in his letter.
My wife’s good friend recently went shopping with a bunch of women who call pacifism (for the last time the word means “peacemaking” like Pacific Ocean, not “weak” like passive) ineffective, many of whom have married men who say the same or who even conceal to carry. These are friends of mine, colleagues, family members, brothers in Christ. They are not one or two people removed from my emotions – these are people I love and they come from communities that honestly believe that by willfully murdering an evil man I may save him. Again, their primary argument is that pacifism is ineffective. Set aside the statistics for a moment and hear what these ladies said during Black Friday:
“Why do [the protestors] have to shut down the malls?”
“Or the Macy’s Day Parade?”
For one, these women refuse to realize that the discomfort and inconvenience they feel is the very efficaciousness of our pacifism at work. Yes, ladies, your trip to the mall was inconvenienced and made uncomfortable, but not so inconvenienced and uncomfortable as the 663 known lives that were cut short from police violence in the last two years alone. I say “known lives,” again, because only 15% or less of all fatal encounters with police are reported. This kind of ignorance – the ignorance that refuses to associate their inconvenienced status quo as the direct effect of the nonviolent action they call ineffective – makes you wander if the claim “You can have my gun when you pry it from my cold, dead fingers” is actually less about self-defense and more about stinginess. After all, most arguments against nonviolence devolve into little more than whining children unwilling to share the toys they’ve hoarded inside their castles. And I choose “castle” deliberately, for in Missouri and elsewhere it is called the “Castle Law.”
According to gun-carrying, police-brutality-tolerating (or -encouraging) white American Christians, we may well revolt with those against the government that enslave little girls or that prohibit Bible distribution. We may well rise up against North Korea or Saudi with house church movements and Christian pirate radio stations. We may well send church planters to Amsterdam that critique the red light district by turning them into confession booths.
But God forbid we call for systemic change in the “great” state of Kentucky.
(For the record, the quotes around “great” are meant as moral, rather than cultural, sarcasm. Surely the world would be less wonderful without Ale 8, bluegrass, and bourbon — though each of those industries may find themselves in need of their own moral reform).
How do we call for systemic change with integrity? As Martin said in his Letter to a Birmingham Jail, in any nonviolent campaign there are four basic steps:
- Collection of the facts to determine whether injustices are alive;
- Self-purification; and
- Direct action.
That is the anatomy of a peacemaker.
Well here we go:
- The facts are out – police are growing more brutal and better-armed from the equipment left over from the Iraq War, a war that inaugurated the modern security state by building on the fears of over-protective Americans.
- My friends have tried andd tried to negotiate for justice. As the megachurch pastor above demonstrated – no one is listening. The silences grow.
- These are, as I said, peaceful people who have not committed violent crimes and who have not instigated these abuses. The anomalies are acting inconsistently with the spirit and mission and vision of the leaders of the group and the mass of the group itself.
- So they march to force a crisis that will bring about a negotiation for justice.
Ghandi made some poignant remarks during his nonviolent revolution against the British Empire (which was, in the end, a much more effective revolution than its cousin – that violent American revolution against the very same empire). At one point, Ghandi said, “First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they attack you, then you win.”
Well they ignored the brutality.
Then they laughed at us for trying to create change.
Now they’re attacking us with everything they have – slander, libel, twisting the narrative so that a peaceful movement is blamed for an unrelated assassination.
To my black and Hispanic and Asian pastor friends: we’ve almost won. We’re almost there. Change is coming and I’m humbled to follow your lead.
I say all of this not from a high horse but from my own desperate scramble away from weeping and gnashing and into a place where I can hear “well done” at the end of my life because Jesus was shot and I bandaged him, Jesus was choked and I helped him breathe, Jesus was unjustly sent to prison and I … well to borrow from Thoreau for a second time:
“In an unjust society, the only proper place for a just man is prison.”
This position is no different than the martyrs who have advanced the cause of Christ into the world at the end of a spear. They, as I wrote in a recent song for Advent, wield their death as an armament (the song’s embedded below in case you’re curious) ::
It is the armament of nonviolence – the willingness to be beaten, to be falsely accused, to be killed, teargased, shot, bitten by German shepherds in full view of the public to lovingly draw our enemy toward repentance, to become peacemakers all – that will bring about the conversations that lead to negotiations and reform.
This particular pastor and others like him are quite content to protest overseas injustices with money and words so that they can mine the overseas scenarios for sermon illustrations that will bring yet more people to raise more money for more causes oceans away, causes that allow stateside nonprofits to keep a percentage of the donations. But when, quite literally, there’s local skin in the game these men are cowed. To tweak a word from Shane Claiborne – the problem is not that we don’t love our black brothers and sisters. The problem is that we don’t know our black brothers and sisters. If we knew our black brothers, we would know their plight. And if we knew their plight, we would know that we cannot wait. We must end the silence and join hands and sing once more, “We shall overcome.”
Wittgenstein said that we pass over in silence those parts of existance for which we have no words, the unspeakable metaphysical realities, from the birth of God through the womb of woman to the murder of man by the steel of The State. But sometimes we are silent when the time has come to speak and in our silence, sin. To shamelessly steal imagery from Patrick Rothfuss, I would call our landscape of sinful passivity, our omission, our apathy, our NIMBY ambivalence a silence of three parts:
For here we have first the hollow, echoing silence of the apathetic – the silence of the participation they lack and the wind that sighs through their cowardice.
And we also find ourselves amidst the silence of the oppressors – the small, sullen silence that avoids serious discussions of troubling news, a counterpoint to that first apathetic silence, a quiet hope to suppress whispers of revolution with bread, the circus, the vote.
panem et circenses et Americani, suffragium
But the third silence is no easy thing to notice. This silence is made possible by oppressors who stomp it down and tell it to “Hush” as it bleeds out underfoot into our loamy American soil. It’s the silence ignored by the apathetic, especially apathetic Christians who stay planted in their pews like the weight of a black stone hearth barely holding heat from a long dead fire. I’m reminded of the Methodist cross that’s wreathed in a flame, a flame that is now all but extinguished.
This third silence mirrors Gethsemane’s Garden and the brown man within it who weeps blood as religiously-funded police come to find him praying, as religiously-funded police cower beside his prayers with their swords and their clubs and their riot gear. This third silence waits for us with a metaphysical weight as did both the birth of God and the death of a man for whom the state came to claim. It’s the greatest silence of the three, wrapping the others inside itself, deep and wide as autumn’s ending, heavy as a great river-smooth stone.
It is the patient, cut-flower sound of a colored man waiting to die.
cover image by Phil Roeder entitled
“Millions March NYC”
FOLLOW THE BEST
...this side of the Internet.