By Charles Allen Wynder, Jr.
The days immediately following July 4 left the nation wounded, heartbroken, and unsettled. On July 5, a police officer in Baton Rouge shot and killed Alton Sterling after pinning him to the ground. Alton had been selling DVDs outside a convenience store. On July 6, a police officer in a suburb of St. Paul shot and killed Philando Castile while he was in his car with his fiancée and her 4-year-old daughter. Diamond Reynolds live-streamed video of Castile dying in the car.
These two shootings are part of a larger pattern of police-involved killings that have become too common in the last couple of years. Since the death of Michael Brown in 2014, it has become routine to see images of black men, women, and children killed by police. What made the week of July 4 different? Was it that one shooting took place in the Deep South and the other in a state bordering Canada? No. The series of police-involved killings of black civilians has taken place across the United States, from California to New York and many points in between, including Ferguson, Missouri, and Cleveland.
In fact, the disproportionate killing of black civilians by police is in many ways mirrored in the disproportionate killing of Latino and Native Americans. I contend that the many days following this year’s Fourth of July were different because they intersected with the ambush killings of five police officers in Dallas and three officers in Baton Rouge.
Micah Xavier Johnson, a U.S. Army Reserve veteran of the war in Afghanistan, targeted the officers in Dallas (and seven others whom he wounded). Dallas Police Chief David Brown reported that Johnson told police negotiators he was upset about the recent police shootings and that he wanted to kill white people, especially white officers.
In Baton Rouge, Gavin Long, a veteran Marine, targeted officers in what was described as a classic ambush.
The juxtaposition of these deaths forced the entire nation to stop and take notice. These horrific events leave the nation, particularly the citizens of Louisiana, Minnesota and Texas, with heavy hearts. The premature loss of lives due to violence is a moral outrage and calls for a time of prayer, lament, and much more, from the “sanctuary to the street,” in the words of the Children’s Defense Fund.
Frightening statistics bring this sad reality into sharp relief. Specifically, the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund reported that 26 police officers have died in the line of duty so far this year, compared to 18 officers who had died at this point in 2015. The Guardian reported recently that in 2015, 464 people were killed by American police; 102 of them were unarmed. Of the 102, 43 were black, 35 were white, 17 were Hispanic or Latino, two were Asian or Pacific Islander, two were Native American, and three were of unknown racial background.
The Washington Post recently reported that at least 385 people have been shot and killed by police in 2016. Of that number, 49 people were unarmed, 13 were carrying toy guns, and six were carrying weapons that were unknown or undetermined. The Post further reported that 171 whites have been killed in 2016 compared to 100 blacks, 54 Hispanics, six Asians, three “others,” and 31 people of an unknown race. Looking at these deaths in the larger societal context, blacks and Latinos are clearly overrepresented in police-involved shooting deaths. The Centers of Disease Control and Prevention and the National Center for Health Statistics found that while Native Americans constitute .8 percent of the population, they represent 1.9 percent of police killings of civilians.
The Rev. Dr. Kelly Brown Douglas reminded me recently of Karl Barth’s counsel: “Take your Bible and take your newspaper, and read both. But, interpret newspapers from your Bible.” If we take this charge seriously, she said, we have to recognize that racial justice and reconciliation must be on the Church’s agenda. It cannot be ignored.
Many Episcopal clergy used the lectionary readings of July 10 to preach about these dynamics. The Gospel reading that Sunday was Luke 10:25-37 (often referred to as the parable of the Good Samaritan), an ideal passage for reflecting on how we understand the meaning of neighbor.
As the Rev. Martin Luther King preached: “On the one hand, we are called to play the Good Samaritan on life’s roadside; but that will be only an initial act. One day we must be transformed so that men and women will not be constantly beaten and robbed as they make their journey on life’s highway. True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar: it is not haphazard and superficial. It comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.”
Against this backdrop, how do we make meaning of the events of this Bloody July? I find it helps to recognize that these events are not isolated. The police-involved killings of black, Latino, and Native American citizens are symptomatic of an American legacy of racial hierarchy and oppression. Like many radical white supremacists, Gavin Long had declared himself a sovereign citizen who need not answer to any laws.
I write as a newly ordained deacon whose journey includes time as a prosecutor, a defense attorney representing adults and youth, and a veteran Army Judge Advocate General attorney. A lifelong Episcopalian, I grew up in an Afro-Anglican parish in Virginia. I am a father of an 11-month-old black boy who was baptized in June. His development and flourishing is my main concern. I tremble at the world facing him. These issues have a lived and concrete meaning for me. My prior vocation allows me to understand the strengths and flaws of the criminal justice system. I respect the sacrifice and service of law enforcement officers. I worked with many professional police and state troopers. The elected prosecutor and staff judge advocate who mentored me were ethical, competent, and respected individuals in the community. I also recognize the brokenness of a justice system that incarcerates more people than any country in the world.
The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander provides a compelling analysis of the racialization of criminal justice in America. Suffice it to say that our current situation is grounded in the original sins of racism and manifest destiny embedded in the nation’s founding. Laws, systems, cultural and religious beliefs and practices continue to reinforce false assumptions of white superiority and the inferiority of black and native peoples. We can trace the implicit bias that assumes criminality in black bodies to a long history that continues to live today.
Eddie Glaude, chairman of Princeton University’s Department of African American Studies, writes that a value gap in America’s racial hierarchy “reflects something more basic: that no matter our stated principles or how much progress we think we’ve made, white people are valued more than others in this country, and that fact continues to shape the life chances of millions of Americans. The value gap is in our national DNA.” This value gap is larger than the issue of policing; it minimizes opportunities for human flourishing by increasing disparities in housing, education, and health.
Reconciliation lies at the core of the Church’s vocation: 2 Corinthians 5:18 reveals the ministry of reconciliation given to us by God in Christ. Furthermore, the Church is uniquely positioned to co-labor with people, institutions, and communities in the work of racial justice and reconciliation.
While the Church has yet to fully live by its vocation, it has a theology and moral framework to contribute to the public square. Christians believe every human being is created in the image of God. Building on this knowledge, Episcopalians specifically commit through the Baptismal Covenant to respect the dignity of every human being. Every human being is a child of God. Each life is equally sacred. This theology and embodied spirituality counters the value gap lying at the core of America’s racial oppression and hierarchy.
Perhaps the greatest contribution the Church can make is to co-labor with others to reimagine the meaning of community. Working with others to adapt how we relate to each other and work for the commonwealth means looking at the way our neighborhoods, cities, and towns foster environments for every child of God to flourish. This work also requires us to broaden our definition of safety and protection. Engaging in this process will transform our understanding and practice of policing, criminal justice, public health, public education, and much more.
Christians profess to be followers of Jesus and his way. As people of the way, we recognize the truth of the gospel that Jesus preached. We look to his example to order our lives and the actions we take. Jesus taught and lived the Greatest Commandment, and he told us to love one another as he loved us. Jesus’ love ethic is one that transforms the hearts of people, the practices of communities, and structures of society. We witness this ethic from the beginning of his public ministry when Jesus says: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor” (Luke 4:18-19). In Jesus we find our ministry of reconciliation and we see that justice is a critical aspect of reconciling to God and our neighbor.
The Gospels also teach us that Jesus understood that oppression operates on multiple levels. Jesus spoke to individuals as he walked in the street. He taught and labored with the disciples as a group. Jesus used his parables, miracles, and teachings to contest the oppressive systems, practices, and structures of his day. This level of engagement and commitment to justice and reconciliation threatened the powers of his day. Christians are called to mirror this challenging ministry in our times, in part by addressing racism and other forms of oppression at the personal, interpersonal, structural, and cultural levels. This practice requires us to integrate love, justice, compassion, and mercy into our way of being as individuals, congregations, and communities. It is one of the ways we can participate in God’s mission in the world. This, I believe, is what it means to be members of the Jesus movement. We co-labor with God to transform unjust structures and oppression. Let us resist the pull of silent collusion with the comforts of power and privilege. The work before us is significant and I believe we can do it, with God’s help.
Bishop Mariann Budde, during Washington National Cathedral’s broadcast of Racial Reconciliation: What the White Church Must Do, said that we must change minds, change hearts, and change laws. My colleague Heidi Kim, the Episcopal Church’s missioner for racial reconciliation, contends that racial justice and reconciliation must be part of our spiritual formation. We have a good example of this approach in the work of the Diocese of Atlanta’s Beloved Community: Commission for Dismantling Racism led by Catherine Meeks.
Part of my charge from Presiding Bishop Michael Curry is to enhance our capacity to advocate, organize, and witness for racial justice and reconciliation in our communities. As members of the Jesus movement, we can have a profound effect on the public square if we advocate for policies and practices that transform our systems. We can do so while working for the conversion of hearts and minds. The church can help lead this movement by serving as a convener of people, communities, and institutions. We can use our moral foundation and spiritual practices to hold open safe spaces for dialogue and sacred conversation. People are crying out for a place to lament together. They want to connect with others to build a new vision of community.
As the Rev. Canon Ed Rodman counseled the Church during his many years of ministry: “Let there be peace among us, and let us not be instruments of our own or others’ oppression.”
The Rev. Deacon Charles Allen Wynder, Jr., is the Episcopal Church’s missioner for social justice and advocacy engagement.