USA PROTESTS: The sting of destruction and the beauty of unity
“Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.” Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
By Jeremiah Goddard (INcontext U.S. Director)
This inspiring quote calls us to action, but the problem is deciding what matters – and in our world of comfort – what matters enough to not be silent. In a time that has been mired with sickness, isolation, and national quarantine, the U.S is experiencing both the sting of destruction and chaos, and the beauty of unity and action.
HISTORY OF RACISM AND INEQUALITY IN THE USA
To understand the current situation in America one must understand the history of racism in the U.S., began with the arrival of the first slaves in Jamestown, Virginia in 1619. A few hundred years later, the Civil War abolished slavery in 1863. What did not end that day was racism and prejudice. It was another 100 years before segregation was outlawed and voting rights were upheld to a larger degree. All of this is still not enough to explain what is happening right now throughout the United States of America.
THE CURRENT SITUATION
Therein lies the issue. Yet again, America has become divided in extreme ways. There was a time when you could still be friends with someone who held different beliefs to yours. We live in a time where we tongue-lash each other behind the safety of our keyboards and screens. It is also a time where we care more about being right than we do about loving our neighbors the way that Christ would. The problem is that we no longer hear each other. When those who are treated unjustly cry out for help, or justice – and are met with deaf ears – violence often seems to be the only way to get attention. It is time we start to listen. One of the extreme divisions is the truth about ‘white privilege’. Some say it does not exist. It does. I heard a quote that goes: “If you don’t think ‘white privilege’ exists, congratulations, you’re enjoying the benefits of it.” We still live in an era where the average African American household earns one-tenth the income of the average Caucasian household. This is only one example of the systemic inequality that must be addressed. We can also look at the disparity in our legal system. We find that African Americans are incarcerated at a rate that is more than five times that of Caucasians, and when an African American has a criminal record, it reduces the likelihood of a ‘callback’ or job offer by a significant amount, compared to a white person with a criminal record.
If we look at recent events, they are symptoms of a much larger issue. The world may ask why the death of one man has sparked civil unrest and a return to civil rights-era protests and riots. However, the death of George Floyd is but a symptom of a much deeper issue. It did not begin with George Floyd. There are so many names that could be added to the list of innocent, and guilty, people who have been killed by police officers. We can go back to the police beating of Rodney King in 1991, and the resulting LA riots, or Sean Bell and his friends being shot outside a bar the night before his wedding, being fired at 50 times. Oscar Grant was a 22-year-old, shot while lying face down on a subway station. Eric Garner was choked to death for selling cigarettes. Michael Brown was an unarmed 18-year-old from Missouri. Charles Kinsey was shot while lying on the ground, with his hands in the air. If you have listened to the protesters, the message started as justice for George Floyd, but it has shifted to justice for all African Americans, a right that we can no longer deny them.
In recent years, with the ability for encounters with law enforcement to be captured and shared instantly, a fracture in the system has emerged. Now, I want to make this clear here and now, I do not believe all law enforcement officers are racist or prejudiced, and I will dive deeper into the facts to try to provide a clearer picture. The ‘fracture’ that has been brought to light is that African Americans are targeted by police officers at a much higher rate than Caucasians. One out of every thousand African American men or boys will be killed by police in their lifetime. By contrast, it is only 39 in 100,000 for Caucasian men. It is also important to note that 26% of deaths, that resulted from interactions with police, were African Americans. This seems low, but we must factor in that African Americans make up only 12% of the population. Also, crime is most often not a factor in deaths by police officers. Finally, Caucasians were five times more likely to have been armed when killed by police officers than African Americans. These are the cold hard facts of the situation.
It is not just in the interactions with officers that there is fear and frustration. It is also the standard to which the officers are held. Studies found that only 33% of officers were convicted of having committed a crime, and only 36% of those convicted were actually incarcerated. Studies found that in 2015, in the first 24 days of the year, 59 people were killed by police officers in America. Compare this to the UK, where police have killed 55 people in the last 24 years! It is also important to understand that while the United States only makes up 5% of the world’s population, Americans own about 45% of the world’s privately owned guns. This leads to increased use of force, including the response with guns.
To be fair to law enforcement, we have to look at the fact that there are on average 200+ citizens per police officer, throughout the U.S. When you compound this with the danger of drugs, intercity gangs, and preconceived fears on both sides, you can quickly see the situation that officers find themselves in as well. They must protect people and property, and usually put themselves last. There are of course officers – as there will be in any specific selection of a population group – that are afraid of African Americans or disproportionately target African Americans. However, the vast majority of officers do not. Fear of law enforcement goes back to the days of targeting and fighting during the civil rights movement, which started a perpetual cycle of fear and hatred, that recycles itself. Many police officers across the country have actually joined with the protesters, marching for justice for George Floyd. While they are stressed, overworked, and outnumbered, a vast majority of them do not respond with hate or racism. There are two sides to every issue, and in this instance, there are many factors driving this current course. Sometimes we have gone to the position of labeling them as officers. In doing this, we forget a foundational truth – they are people. They are people doing their best to bring peace AND protection in difficult situations.
RIGHTS AND RESPONSIBILITIES
So, as Christians, how do we respond in the current climate? What are our rights, and what are our responsibilities? With much prayer, I have landed on a few truths that I would like to share with you.
We don’t have the right to remain silent
The Bible tells us: “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 NIV). If we see our fellow man being treated unfairly, we don’t have the right to remain silent. This can be applied to either side of this argument. You don’t have to be pro-African American OR pro-law enforcement. We have to be pro-child of God. We have to use our privilege, position, and voice to stand alongside our fellow man and demand equal rights.
We don’t have the right to remain divided
I live in a suburb of Indianapolis and have seen the most interesting things the past few days. I have seen all-Caucasian groups protesting on city squares, calling for justice and equality, taking a stand against racism. What a beautiful picture of solidarity. We cannot, however, make the law enforcement officers the target of our disgust with an unfair system. The Bible tells us: “Live in harmony with one another. Do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly. Never be wise in your own sight. Repay no one evil for evil, but give thought to do what is honorable in the sight of all. If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.” (Romans 12:16-18 NIV) It also says: “So then let us pursue what makes for peace and for mutual upbuilding.” (Romans 14:19). If we want to see real change in this country, we have to stand together as a united force, one voice and demand the change that fell short in the 1960s.
We don’t have the right to be blind to or participate in, racism, prejudice, or discrimination
There is an interesting trend that has developed in the United States. As time has separated us from the Civil Rights Movement, we have been lulled into a sense that racism is dead in America. Some even pointed to the election of Barack Obama as the official end of racism. However, what has happened as time has moved on is that racism has become culturally inappropriate, so silent racism or silent prejudice has grown. We must search our hearts for these things and allow Christ to remove them.
We need to understand what these things are, to be able to recognize them in ourselves. Prejudice is an irrational or unjustifiable negative emotion towards persons from other social groups. Discrimination is acting upon that prejudice in the way we treat people from those social groups. Racism is both of those. If we read those definitions again, we realize that prejudice is a heart issue. We cannot always control negative emotions, especially if they have been taught to us by our parents and shown to us through our environment. What we can do, over time, is change those patterns and make different choices with our actions. Now prejudice works both ways. It also isn’t fair to have a prejudice against law enforcement, just because they are police officers, regardless of behaviors of a small subset of officers. Through our relationship with Christ, we can begin to change these patterns and allow our hearts to heal from any negative interaction in the past.
We have the responsibility to bring peace and reconciliation
In this time of upheaval, we have to be the voices of peace. Violent rioting only drowns a perfect message of peace. I have watched faith leaders in my area march with protesters and demand justice, demand equality, AND demand peace. Peace is not something that comes from tear gas, rubber bullets, and military might. It comes from crying out without the use of violence, no matter the reaction from any other side. I would like to point out here, the violence is in part the buildup of 400 years of oppression, inequality, and being muzzled, and ending these things isn’t always peaceful. However, as Christians, we have to be the light in these situations, march with our brothers and sisters, and shout for equality, but don’t let it be out of hatred towards our fellow man.
We have the responsibility to stop pretending
This is a huge issue that unfortunately won’t be solved today, or even in one single generation. Let’s stop pretending that there isn’t a problem, and work towards a real solution. Allowing Christ to change our hearts, unite as one voice, and be the ambassadors of Christ in EVERY arena.
In closing, it is worth recalling the words of Dr Martin Luther King Jr., spoken during the Nobel Lecture – 11 December 1964.
“Violence as a way of achieving racial justice is both impractical and immoral. I am not unmindful of the fact that violence often brings about momentary results. Nations have frequently won their independence in battle. But in spite of temporary victories, violence never brings permanent peace. It solves no social problem: it merely creates new and more complicated ones. Violence is impractical because it is a descending spiral ending in destruction for all. It is immoral because it seeks to humiliate the opponent rather than win his understanding: it seeks to annihilate rather than convert. Violence is immoral because it thrives on hatred rather than love. It destroys community and makes brotherhood impossible. It leaves society in monologue rather than dialogue. Violence ends up defeating itself. It creates bitterness in the survivors and brutality in the destroyers.
In a real sense, nonviolence seeks to redeem the spiritual and moral lag that I spoke of earlier as the chief dilemma of modern man. It seeks to secure moral ends through moral means. Nonviolence is a powerful and just weapon. Indeed, it is a weapon unique in history, which cuts without wounding and ennobles the man who wields it.
I believe in this method because I think it is the only way to reestablish a broken community. It is the method which seeks to implement the just law by appealing to the conscience of the great decent majority who through blindness, fear, pride, and irrationality have allowed their consciences to sleep.
Will you pray with us as we ask Christ to search our hearts and minds to find any prejudice, and help us deal with it?
Will you pray with us that real change will happen in our society?
Will you pray with us that the lives of the peaceful protesters and the police are both spared?
Criminal Justice Fact Sheet – NAACP.” https://www.naacp.org/criminal-justice-fact-sheet/ (Accessed 2 June 2020)
“Risk of being killed by police use of force in the United … – PNAS.” https://www.pnas.org/content/116/34/16793 (Accessed 2 June 2020)
“Mapping Police Violence.” https://mappingpoliceviolence.org/ (Accessed 2 June 2020)
“US police kill more in days than other countries do in years.” 9 Jun. 2015, https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2015/jun/09/the-counted-police-killings-us-vs-other-countries (Accessed 2 June 2020)
The quest for peace and justice. https://www.nobelprize.org/prizes/peace/1964/king/lecture/ (Accessed 3 June 2020)
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