Fear, Faith, Philando and How The Church is Failing.

Most people who know me know that I am fairly apolitical. I don’t attach myself to a political party or persuasion by choice. I’ve always tried to use my platform and my influence wisely. I prefer to do my work on the ground. I serve a church where racial, gender, and economic diversity are high values. We believe in racial reconciliation and justice. I serve a community that I am proud to say is making a real effort in tackling these tough issues. I have served with many others in our community on a racial trust building initiative in our community over the last couple of years. We are invested in making a difference, and I believe that we are making progress.
With that being said, what I am about to share is very raw and very honest.
“Fear is one of the persistent hounds of hell that dog the footsteps of the poor, the dispossessed, the disinherited. There is nothing new or recent about fear-it is doubtless as old as the life of man on the planet. Fears are of many kinds-fear of objects, fear of people, fear of the future, fear of nature, fear of the unknown, fear of old age, fear of disease, and fear of itself. “- Howard Thurman

On Tuesday of this week, along with millions of people around the world, I watched the horrifying results of fear as a man seated in his vehicle was shot to death by a police officer in front of a woman and a four-year old child. Before I continue I want to be clear. I am not a police officer. I am not a politician . I am a parent and I am a pastor. Those two things alone are what inform what I am about to share.
I am (and have been) deeply angered and troubled over the state of affairs in our nation (and around the globe). I think everyone is, so in that regard I don’t consider myself special in any way. We are all upset, but there is something about this video and this case that penetrated my soul.
When I watched the video of seven shots being fired into the vehicle that contained a four-year old child, the only thing that I saw was fear. Fear controlled the situation. Consternation won the competition over compassion. Fear had complete control and as always when fear is the emotion that communicates the choices we should make, death always occurs.

“Fear is such a powerful emotion for humans that when we allow it to take us over, it drives compassion right out of our hearts.”- Thomas Aquinas

This is the power of fear. Fear always leads us to sentence one another to death and the same fear always seeks to acquit itself of wrong doing. Fear is the problem that presents itself as the answer. The truth is however, where there is no compassion there can never be correction. Perhaps that’s why Paul insists that “God does not give us a spirit of fear.”

As a parent of three young African-American boys (our youngest who is also four years old) I often feel hopeless. Honestly I am afraid. Some people think that I shouldn’t be afraid but I am. I am a husband, father, and pastor. I am a community leader. I am a public figure. Like many I have a past that I have grown and learned from, but I have never been in any real trouble. I follow the rules. I don’t break the law. I have respect for authority and law enforcement. I do my best to serve my community. My wife can tell you that I am such a straight arrow that I don’t even go over the speed limit.

Yet if I were to be completely honest, when I see police behind me on the road, even if I am 100% sure that I have broken no laws, I am deathly afraid. This fear didn’t start because of recent events over the last few years. I became afraid in 1991 when I watched Rodney King be beaten by four police officers on camera only for the initial trial to result in their acquittal. I was 13 years old, and at the time I didn’t know much about the case, all I knew was that I watched a man get brutally beaten by the police and for the last 26 years of my life I have been afraid of the police.
On September 12th, 2001 I had a personal encounter with police that could have ended my life. The tension was high that day because just 24 hours earlier our country had been attacked by terrorists. At the time I was a young manager for a large retail company and I had just finished up the evening by closing down the store. With the night crew inside stocking shelves, I followed protocol by driving my car around the building to be sure that it was secure.
When I reached the side alley of the building I noticed a car backed in front of an emergency exit door and it had no license plate. I called the police because I was afraid that someone may have been hiding in the store and with the terrorist attacks happening the day before I wanted to make sure that my night crew was safe.
Just a mere 3 to 4 minutes after placing a call to 911 my car was surrounded by three, maybe four police cars. At the time I had no clue what was going on because they were shining their high beams into my car and I was completely blinded by the light. I had no idea who it was, how many of them were surrounding me, and if they had guns drawn on me. I froze. Then I cried. I didn’t want to die.
They yelled across the loud-speaker to roll my window down and place my hands out of the vehicle. At the time my car didn’t have automatic windows so rolling the window down meant literally dropping my hands below their line of sight. I couldn’t see them, what they were doing, or how close they were to me. I assumed they had their guns drawn, so I froze. Then I cried more. I didn’t dare move because although they had instructed me to roll the windows down, my fear for my own life told me that as soon as I reached down they would kill me. So here I am in an alley on the side of a store praying not to get shot, but preparing to meet my maker because I was certain I was going to be shot.
After what seems like an eternity at a stand still, one lone officer approached my car (he must have told his fellow officers to turn their lights off) and he tapped on my window and told me that it was okay, I was going to be okay, and he kindly asked me again to roll down the window. I was terrified and he knew it and he saved me and the other officers from doing something that could have ended my life that night. I don’t know where he is today, but needless to say I was thankful that he didn’t allow fear to control him or the situation. In that moment he did not allow fear to drive all the compassion out of his heart. He did not know me. He did not know that I was the person who made the initial call. I was sitting in my car, in an alley late at night after they received a call about a suspicious car in an alley on the day after the most devastating terror attack on our country and all the ingredients for a fatal shooting of an unarmed young African-American male were present and the one thing that defused the situation was an officer who at the height of fear in our country decided to not allow fear to drive all the compassion out of his heart.
There were no cameras. No witnesses. No evidence that would not support any decision that they would have made in that scenario. Good or bad. Thankfully we all lived through that night, which is why I need to share a few ways that the church and the faith community is complicit in situations where the outcome does not turn out favorably.
The narrative in these fatal shootings always contains two elements. Fear and Faith.  I’ve already shared the impact that fear has on these situations. I’ve also shared that the fear that is present in those moments isn’t always just a fear of the moment. That fear is almost always brought into the moment. It defines the moment. It corrupts the moment and as we have seen it can destroy lives in just a moment. In Philando’s case, just 40 seconds.
Fear, however is only one side of the equation. In the past the narrative has also included faith. In the past when there was no available video or audio of these deadly encounters the system has both played and preyed on our faith. We have been asked over and over to have “faith” in the system. We are asked to believe in things that we can’t see. We have been asked to trust a small, special, and select few people to properly interpret the things that we can’t see and to have the faith that they carry  with them the sacred ability to decide and define the meaning and value of human life.
When victims have no ability to add to the narrative we are left with only one option. Have faith in the system and its ability and authority to interpret the unseen. In many ways it feels like theological appropriation. The system seems to be out “churching” the church. Without us noticing they have subtly and strategically snatched the spiritual and theological essence of the church and all that we hold sacred and have successfully systematized it into a means and method to subjugate and silence the church. We are asked to believe in things we can’t see only for the benefit of those who hold the sacred and special ability to interpret the meaning and value of life for us.
The system has somehow become the experts at delivering messages of faith and we have fallen for it. This feels much like the pre-reformation rhetoric that the church itself used to subjugate its own people. Priests, ministers, and other special humans told us what was right and we had to just believe it. In fact, it has become so much apart of our subconscious that we struggle to believe these injustices are happening even when we do see it on camera. In many ways we don’t even have the faith to trust what we see with our own eyes.
It’s unfortunate and frustrating, but if fear and faith are the main tenets of the conversation surrounding these shootings then why isn’t the church at large taking primary ownership of this conversation? Faith is our territory. Fear is our enemy. Again, I am not a police officer. I am not a politician. I am a pastor. Talking about faith is what I do and if the system insists on using our core values as it’s primary talking point in addressing issues of injustice and violence against people of color, then I think the experts in discussing the role of faith, the damaging affects of fear, and the value of human life should be driving the conversation and even more importantly asking critical questions.

That is what faith is. That is what real faith does. That is what the faith community is. We ask questions.

“When faith no longer frees people to ask hard questions, it becomes inhuman and dangerous.”-Daniel Migliore

“Unquestioning faith, soon slips into ideology, superstition, fanaticism, self-indulgence, and idolatry.”- Daniel Migliore. 

In my opinion, if the system continues to insist that as it relates to the pursuit of justice and accountability that our role is to “have faith” in it, then I believe that it is the church’s duty to practice the type of faith that the early church practiced in the face of fear, a faith that does not simply comply with the system but rather a faith that questions, critiques, and challenges the system because the system can not under any circumstance continue to successfully appropriate our values without our voices otherwise our message of faith, our message of the gospel, our message of the cross of Christ will give way to another message of faith except this message does not give life, it takes it.

 

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