Monday, December 15, 2014

Advent, Michael Brown, and Eric Garner

In 1981 I had two season tickets to the Cleveland Browns home games.  Eight seats in the row just behind mine where also occupied by season ticket holders, but the two seats next to mine were not and, as a result, were filled by different fans each game.  On a cold, December day, two black men bought tickets to those seats.  The eight men behind me were white.  Just before halftime a confrontation erupted that nearly broke out into a fight.  The eight men had been kneeing the two black men and making racially provocative statements.  Fortunately, cooler heads prevailed and everyone settled down.  I don’t know what happened just after the beginning of the third quarter, but one of the black men had had enough.  He stood up, turned around, and swung his heavy metal thermos at a man seated behind him, knocking him upside the head.  With that, all hell broke loose.  Eventually security came and took away the two black men and three of the white men seated behind me.  Midway through the fourth quarter those three men reappeared and called for the cheers of many seated in our section.  As they sat down, one of their friends asked them what happened.  One of the three now released fans replied, “We showed them our badges and they believed us.”  I was twenty-one years old at the time and that is when I learned first-hand that off-duty, suburban police officers could and did instigate a violent confrontation for reasons grounded only in race.

In almost forty years of driving I have been ticketed by a police officer maybe five times.  I recognize these as times to be calm, respectful, and compliant.  One incident stays with me to this day.  I was on a date with a striking blond-haired young woman, when I was pulled over for going 39 MPH in a 35 MPH zone.  The officer, a man in his late 20’s, did his best to intimidate and embarrass me.  It occurred to me that the only reason he pulled me over and the only reason he was treating me this way was to humiliate me in front of my attractive passenger.  Every person of color I know has at least one story like this, the only difference being they were pulled over because of the color of their skin and the intimidation was much more severe than my tame experience. 

The season of Advent is a season of longing; longing for a healing of the ills that infect our world and our common life; longing for a Savior who will deliver us from sin and evil.  This morning we hear our God speak through the words of the prophet Isaiah:

For I the LORD love justice,
I hate robbery and wrongdoing.

Our nation is founded on the idea that all people are endowed by the Creator with certain inalienable rights and our history as a people is marked by the difficult struggle to make this a reality for all people.  We have made tremendous progress over the centuries to live more fully into the implications of the values we hold, but events in Ferguson, MO and Staten Island highlight the painful truth that we have more work to do.

I am sure we here this morning hold many different views on the legal questions surrounding the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner.  I am confident that we all condemn looting, vandalism, and violent protesting.  We may have questions or concerns about the role the media and social media play in fueling discontent.  But surely we can agree these incidents have brought to the surface deep divisions in our society created by ongoing inequality that leads to anger, brokenness, and mistrust.

In a letter to the Episcopal Church, Katharine Jefferts Schori, our Presiding Bishop, wrote that our first response to this tragic reality is deep lament.  She also called on Episcopalians to work for reconciliation so that each person will live in “the justice for which we were all created.”  It is this vision we hold up as the reign of God in our world.  What specifically is lacking at this point, as I see it, is that people of color have experienced incidents of police misconduct and brutality on the basis of race alone and believe that the legal system is tilted against them in terms of receiving justice.

I in no part believe those eight white police officers at the football game are representative of the majority of law enforcement officials in our country.  They are a small minority among those who courageously and selflessly do a very difficult and demanding job.  But there are police officers who abuse their authority because, as I said before, every African-American I know can tell at least one first-hand story of being mistreated for no reason other than the color of his/her skin.  This simply should not be.

I was told a story about our own Jim Moore, a judge here in Suffolk.  One day a white police officer brought before his bench a courtroom filled exclusively with black people cited for traffic violations.  Judge Moore dismissed every single case with one motion.  We need the system to hold those in authority to the highest possible standard if we are going to have faith and trust in our judicial system.  That it works well for me is not reason for me to turn a blind eye on those for whom it does not.

This is not just a timely topic for a sermon.  It is an implication of living into Advent.  In this season we long for light, for truth, for reawakening, for the dawn of a new day.  On the second Sunday of Advent we read from the 85th Psalm:

Mercy and truth have met together; *
  righteousness and peace have kissed each other.

Truth shall spring up from the earth, *
  and righteousness shall look down from heaven.

“Truth shall spring up from the earth.”  What a beautiful image depicting the necessity for us as a society (and us in the church) to be honest about our collective shortcomings.  “Righteousness shall look down from heaven.”  There is a link between the truth-telling we do in this world and the blessing of righteousness that God pours upon us.

A resource put out by the Episcopal Church made this observation:

Christ was born in the midst of a divided and violent society.  The Word was made flesh among a people who faced bias from their neighbors and persecution from the occupying Romans.

Jesus modeled a different kind of community.  Jesus broke bread with outcasts and sinners, with religious authorities and Roman officials.  Jesus pointed to a vision of the new community, and invites us to the difficult work of reconciliation.

I was just a child during the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s and most of what I know about it comes to me as history rather than actual experience.  Those protests saw their share of looting and violence to be sure.  But as a whole, it was deeply rooted in something spiritual; in the Judeo-Christian tradition of biblical justice.  Many of its leaders were religious figures who instructed the oppressed to act as Jesus taught us; turning the other cheek, walking the extra mile, forgiving others in order to be forgiven.  And those who protested and paid a great price for their witness received from their faith patience, strength, comfort, hope, and joy. 

I wonder about the connection between faith and our current protests.  There are clergy that are involved, local churches that very much are present and engaged, and leaders from various denominations who are speaking out.  But this is a different country than it was in Civil Rights era and religion is not central in the lives of many people.  It seems to me that our voice and witness is on the periphery at best.  We are voice crying out in the wilderness, but few, I fear, are listening. 

I set out this fall to do something that I still have not done.  I wanted to get together with some of my African-American clergy colleagues here in town in order to learn what they think about all of this.  I am curious about their congregations and what their members’ experiences have been like here in Suffolk.  I wonder how far it is from Suffolk to Ferguson – not in terms of miles, but in terms of experience.  I wondered if our congregations could come together to listen and to learn from one another.  Maybe, with a little encouragement from all of you, I will take that step to reach out.

I was very moved by John McCain’s speech on the Senate floor after the release of the report on torture.  You may or may not agree with his position, but his foundational understanding of America is spot on.

When we fight to defend our security we fight also for an idea… that all men are endowed by the Creator with inalienable rights.  How much safer the world would be if all nations believed the same.  How much more dangerous it can become when we forget it ourselves even momentarily.

I feel the same way about the issues and concerns raised by the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner.  How much better would our society be if everyone was treated equally by the law and had confidence in the judicial system?  How much poorer we are when some people are targeted for abuse because of race and the system appears titled against them!

In Advent we wait and hope for a Savior.  When our Savior comes, the easiest place for me to welcome the Holy One is in my own heart; to allow God’s Incarnate Word to change me, to fill me, and work through me.  I suppose from there the Savior can begin to do the same in my family, among my friends, in my neighborhood, in our church, in our community, in our society, and eventually in our world.  But the Kingdom of God, if it is going to start anywhere, is going to have to start with me and with you.  O come thou long expected one.  Our hearts and minds are open.  We long for your reign of peace and goodwill.