My friend, Peter Heltzel, and a cohort of some 75 faith leaders in New York have called the lack of Police accountability in New York and elsewhere “a spiritual problem.” They’re right, and it’s a problem that requires a spiritual response.
Those faith leaders converged on New York’s city hall for a “Die in” protest in response to the death of Eric Garner, an African-American man who died of suffocation while being choked by officer Daniel Pantaleo, a New York City police officer. It is one of several cultural flash points which have raised the issue of police violence – particularly white officers on people of color – to the forefront of our national conversation. In the case of Michael Brown, the protests continue in Ferguson, MO, where officers responsible for the young man’s death also were not indicted, or even tried, much like officer Pantaleo. And of course the most recent groundswell in concern around this began about a year and a half ago in Florida when Trayvon Martin was shot, though not by an officer.
There are many issues at play in each of these incidents, including the militarization of our police forces, racial tensions in our midst that too often go ignored, and doubts about the impartiality about our Grand Jury and greater judicial systems. Perhaps almost equally as important is how perspectives on the results of these cases as they’ve been judicially reviewed, inevitably break largely across racial lines.
The faith leaders gathered in New York are right about the spiritual malady indicated by the apparent lack of accountability within our police forces, but the spiritual sickness goes much deeper, and is far more complex than any one policy, a single death or a trial (or lack thereof). Yes, we need to address these specific problems head-on, but until we consider the more existential deficits we’re suffering from in our communities, these problems will inevitably continue.
We have to consider the profound deficits of opportunity that exist, particularly in our urban environments. We have to address the fallacy that all people in the United States have an equal opportunity for health, safety and professional advancement. We have to root out the systemic oppression that endeavors to keep generation after generation in poverty, while a fractional minority manipulate policy and tax codes for personal gain. We have to get honest about our terribly broken educational system, and how inequitable the opportunities for leaning – let alone basic safety, diet and physical health – are for too many children, many of whom are among our most vulnerable.
But beyond all of this, there is a greater spiritual sickness I see: one that is not being discussed nearly enough. It reaches both to the deeply individual level and to a global scale. It is the question that King asked and ultimately died for, as well as others, past and future. It was a principle for which Jesus was willing to die as well, and yet the wound festers.
Violence, or the threat of violence, is real. And the human response of fear to such a threat is a normal, socially accepted response. It is a deeply rooted instinct, honed by human evolution over millennia, to defend ourselves against a perceived threat. However, if we want the systems around us to change, we have to consider that this human response has failed us, time and again. We still have violence and fear. And those with power exploit those fears to further personal agendas and to manipulate others.
We hold out hope that changing leadership at local, state and federal levels ultimately will save us from ourselves. But as Walter Wink wisely said, if you want systems to really change, you can’t just change the rulers; you have to change the rules entirely.
I pray for a seismic rupture in the collective human consciousness, a moral awakening that helps us see one another as God-breathed creatures. But I also search daily for ways in which I can live that out and help usher it in. After all, if all we do is pray from our church pews for God to intervene, we’re ignoring Jesus’ command to drop everything and go. So we practice in the particular of justice, while also holding the whole of creation in our prayerful hearts, expressing sometimes with sighs too deep for word to capture the simultaneous despair we experience and the seemingly impossible hope we dare to believe can be made real.
How long? Not long.