Grant, O God, that your holy and life-giving Spirit may so move every human heart and especially the hearts of the people of this land, that barriers which divide us may crumble, suspicions disappear, and hatreds cease; that our divisions being healed, we may live in justice and peace, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen. (The Book of Common Prayer, pg. 823)For more than twenty years as a parish priest and particularly as a preacher, I felt like I was in an extended conversation with the congregations I served. My sermons emerged in that intersection between the Word of the Lord that I was trying to read, mark, learn and inwardly digest, while at the same time paying attention to what was happening in the world and in the neighborhood - and in my own soul and those among whom I served. Through this practice and discipline of preaching, I figured out (always with God's help) what I thought, believed, cared about, and considered true. And when I got it wrong, I had enough trust within the congregation to be pretty sure that someone would correct me. Hopefully in the midst of all that, the Good News was proclaimed.
In my role on the bishop's staff, however, I am an itinerant preacher - which is to say that I am on the road. I still know what's going on in the world - I read the news. And I still meditate on Holy Scripture. But what I don't have is that same depth of relationship with congregations, and so practically speaking my preaching is different. Very often I'm in a congregation because they are in the midst of a pastoral transition and so my attention turns toward the thoughts and feelings parishioners may be having about saying goodbye or hello to a priest.
I've spent this entire Advent season in the pews rather than the pulpit and that has been a welcomed change. But going through Advent and very shortly Christmas without writing a sermon is a disorienting experience, at a time when there is a lot going on in the world. Even so and even now, the light shines in the darkness...and the darkness has not overcome it.
Even as I continue to process the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner, two New York City police officers, Wenjian Liu and Rafael Ramos, have been gunned down. People like Rudy Giuliani can't get on television soon enough to tell us that this is the fault of the current mayor of New York, or the protesters, or the Attorney General, or even the President. It is hard for me to understand, quite frankly, how the act of a deranged man is the fault of people who are working for racial justice, but I realize there is much I do not understand. I read a lot, yet even in the letters being written by bishops and clergy in my own denomination I think myself thinking, "yes...but." I tend to agree with about 80% of what the wisest of my friends are saying but then there is that last 20% that seems to expose some blind spots. Why is it that so many pro-police people sound racist, or at the very least in denial about what it is like to be black in America? And conversely, why do so many people working for racial justice seem to be suggesting that all cops are racists? It honestly is beyond my comprehension that the mayor of New York City, who has a black son and has talked about that experience, is being asked not to attend the funeral of two police officers in his city because they feel in speaking up about racism he is against cops? Can we really be this polarized?
This is why I love the image shown above of a Richmond police chief holding a sign that says "black lives matter." It strikes a chord for me, and represents to me the place where I might begin to make sense of this past year and this Advent season in particular. It is an icon of sorts into the depth of what this December has been like. Life is complicated, and at best we see through a glass darkly. But I yearn for more cops to stand up and say "yes, black lives matter." And I yearn for more activists to say, "yes, most police officers are decent people who are trying to serve and protect, and who put their lives on the line every day."
This is one thing I do know: the Brown and Garner and Liu and Ramos families are all grieving this Christmas. And grief can take us in two very different directions. We can get stuck in our hurt and pain and turn to blame. Or it can bind us together, and help us to reach out to others who are hurting.
For many years I served as the volunteer police chaplain in the small town where I served as a parish priest. This included, but was not limited to ride-alongs with officers, and the hard work of making death notifications, and various social events with officers and their families. I got to know and to enjoy the company of the police officers in my town, and to engage in more in-depth and honest conversations with at least a few of them than the average person does. Cops don't, as a rule, talk much about their "feelings." But it doesn't mean they don't have them, so if you hang around for a while you hear some things.
I have a friend who is a member of the NYFD - his father was a NYC cop. He has some theories around the major difference between cops and firefighters. While both groups are made up of imperfect human beings, firefighters fight fire, which as my friend points out, is always bad. If a building is burning, the mission is clear. But the mission of police officers to protect and serve is way more complex. They see the worst in human beings far more often than they see the good and that can leave some cops jaded. It's true they fight crime, but it isn't always clear in an instant who the criminals are. And it's not always clear in a moment when or how a potentially violent situation might be de-escalated.
Like most clergy I know, police officers live in a world of grays. One big difference is that very often they are forced to make life-or-death decisions that do not allow time for careful reasoning. And so in those moments they must rely on instinct and training. To say this is stressful is an understatement. Based on experience, personality, and a whole host of other factors, some officers simply make better choices than others. But on the whole my experience was that most cops are among "the good guys" who are trying to make the world a better and safer place. Most, but not all.
So this month in Rolling Stone Magazine there was an article entitled 6 ideas for a cop free world. And then there is this piece, from Salon, on police brutality. These are hard to read, especially if you like and care for those who protect and serve as I do. And yet, while I surely don't think either of these articles are the final word, I think we dismiss them at our peril. There is at least some truth in them - and it is a hard truth that those who do love and care for police officers need to address. The "thin blue line" can't be so deep into denial (as former Mayor Giuliani seems to be) as to say that there is not a problem, and that the only problem is the criminals.
Most white people, even those who have had bad experiences with the police, don't worry when their teen-aged kids are out late that they will be shot and killed. By the police. More and more black people in our society, from all classes and educational levels, carry that burden however. And a society where that is the case has some work to do. It's the place, I think, where a far more serious and intentional conversation needs to begin or continue about race in America. And perhaps here in particular there is a role for the Church - where we are called to a ministry of reconciliation.
We would do well to back up and remember that racism and prejudice are not synonyms. On all sides of our national conversation it is incredibly unhelpful to forget this. All of us have prejudices and biases and blind spots. We begin to overcome those as we learn to listen to the experience of others; and conversely we get more entrenched, literally, when we dig in and ignore the experience of the other. All human beings are susceptible to this. But racism is about prejudice plus power. White racism is about how we got to a place in our society where on average more of the cops in a city are white than the population - and more of the criminals are black. Figuring all that out may be complex, but recognizing that the "system" is broken seems to be an important first step toward healing.
I remember once being at a concert in New York City where Bruce Springsteen sang American Skin (41 Shots). He got some boos from those who felt he was criticizing all police officers. I think we have to figure out how to respect the vast majority of cops who put their lives on the line to protect and serve enough to hold those who fail to do that accountable. That isn't easy. But it is why we have laws in the first place, and no one must be above the law.
This is the challenging context into which preachers must speak this Christmas as we pray for both peace and justice, and as we look to the God who is with us through it all: Emmanuel. Our work is not to return to first-century Palestine to celebrate a birthday, but to be open to the ways the the living God takes on flesh to be among us right now.
Here is a prayer that still seems as relevant as it was in 1966: Silent Night/7 O'Clock News. We won't make things "calm and bright" by drowning out what makes us uncomfortable or challenges our firmly held "positions." We need to go more deeply into the pain of it all, and we need to listen to the experience of both police officers and of African Americans. We can pray for the Brown, Garner, Liu and Ramos families - and for all who experience loss this holiday season. God is with them all, and we should be too. Come, o come, Emmanuel.