I was late to the Grey’s Anatomy party—I didn’t get a chance to start watching the show until a couple summers ago—even though the show has been running for a phenomenal fourteen seasons, starting back in 2005. I binged watched my way through season twelve, sobbing at nearly every season finale, and have been keeping up every since.
Last weekend’s episode is one of the reasons I’m still in. The episode featured a twelve-year-old African American named Eric who had been shot by the police, while trying to let himself into his own house. The police remain by his side throughout his ER examination, trying to hand-cuff him to the gurney. The doctors express their rage when one of the officers says they were “doing their job.” Jackson (played by Jesse Williams), yells out “Your co-worker shot a kid in the neck for no reason; you need to figure out a new way to do your job.” Later, he shares with the other doctors his own experiences growing up as a biracial kid in a white neighborhood, stopped by cops and thrown against a police car for carrying speakers down the street.
Towards the end of the episode, you see another young black boy with his hands above his head, saying “I am William George Bailey Johnson. I am 13 years old and I have nothing to harm you.” These words he has been instructed to say by his parents, doctors Miranda Bailey and her husband Ben, who are giving their son “the talk.” They have to teach him what he needs to do if ever approached by a police officer, and that “Your only goal is to get home safely.” His parents share what other activities may call attention to him, how to avoid getting in trouble, which means not being able to do what his white friends may be doing: “You can’t climb through windows, throw rocks, play with toy guns and never, ever run.” His mom explains: “Everything we’re saying to you, we’re saying because we want you to come home again and grow up to be anything you want to be.”
This episode is narrated by one of the most religious characters on the show, April (Sarah Drew), who begins and ends the episode with reference to Job, the biblical story of a righteous man who loses all his loved ones as a test of faith. April’s faith is tested in this episode, and it’s a powerful message to persons of faith: seeing persons die unjustly should test our faith. Faith is something that helps us make meaning out of life, but sometimes our faith can be misplaced. Sometimes our faith is not in God, but in the current system, the way society works.
April is asked to give a comment for the police, and she responds: “A little boy was at home when your fellow officer shot and killed him. You can’t shoot people just because you’re afraid. How am I supposed to have faith in a system like that?”
The fact that parents of black children have to give their children “the talk” should make us question the way things are. This is a reality that should not be taken for granted as acceptable. It should create in all of us a crisis of faith in the status quo, calling us to speak out for change.
A crisis of faith can be scary—if you are a religious person, to have a crisis of faith threatens to unravel your belief system, making you doubt everything you’ve depended upon until now. And there will be others who want to dismiss your crisis of faith or reject you for having doubts. But having a crisis of faith can also lead to a deeper commitment to love and faithfulness, and one’s faith may just appear different than it used to look.
Having a crisis of faith in the social system can also be scary—it makes you call into question assumptions you may have had about whether our society operates justly and gives everyone a chance to succeed. You may begin to doubt that everyone “doing their job” is going to lead to fair treatment for all. You may begin to wonder whether there is bias in you that you act on without knowing (there are tests you can take online for this—we all have implicit bias). You may wonder why your worshipping community is predominantly white, and what about Christianity has fostered such racially segregated churches.
What are we going to do with this crisis of faith? Are we going to let ourselves pretend nothing happened, and go back to the way things used to be? Or maybe we can let this crisis of faith in the system help us go deeper, commit to a new way of being in the world, a new way of working for justice.
If you’re uncomfortable talking about race, you’re not alone. But we need to go there, and we need to embrace the crisis of faith that may happen in that moment. Journey with others, and find ways to make a difference where you can.
Carolyn B. Helsel is the author of the new book Anxious to Talk about It: Helping White Christians Talk Faithfully about Racism (Chalice Press). She teaches preaching at Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary and is a minister in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).