Friday, March 20, 2015

What is Truth? "Hands up! Don't Shoot!"

“So God created humankind in God’s image,
in the image of God he created them;
male and female God created them…
God saw everything that God had made, and indeed, it was very good.”
– Genesis 1:26,31

“Hands up. Don’t shoot.”
-Ferguson protesters

This week, the Washington Post’s Jonathan Capehart wrote a thoughtful, well-researched op-ed saying that forensic evidence shows Michael Brown did not have his hands up when he was shot by Darren Wilson, and thus the core mantra of the Ferguson protesters is a lie (“’Hands up, don’t shoot’ was built on a lie” )

His thesis is nothing new. In fact I’ve heard it over and over again in my conversations with my fellow white people about Michael Brown’s killing.

“Hands up! Don’t shoot!” is a lie.

It never happened.

You all are perpetuating a lie.

When it comes to cases like Michael Brown’s killing, we white people love to talk about “the facts of the case.” I think that’s because our experience as white people is largely that the justice system is fair. That the facts will win out, and that everyone should agree that a reasoned, unemotional discussion of the facts of the case will yield a just result.

I think it’s also because the raw anger and pain of the protest movement is scary – I know it is for me -- and a “reasoned discussion of the facts” is a way of moving the conflict back into our own comfort zone. And we feel on pretty firm ground doing it.

After all, our justice system is not founded on mob rule but on reasoned argument and careful consideration of evidence.

After all, justice is supposed not only to be blind but dispassionate.

The trouble is, many people of color in this country have a different experience. For many people of color, the “justice system” in this country is not fair and “facts” are often manipulated by those with money, power and privilege for their benefit and against them.

For many people of color in this country, justice is not blind – it is meted out against them with more frequency and severity than their white counterparts. And the statistical facts of that case bear that truth out. And they are tired of being dispassionate about it.

And this is where I disagree with Mr. Capehart.

“Hands up, don’t shoot” is not a lie.

I don’t disagree with the findings of the Department of Justice Report on Michael Brown’s killing. If I am to accept the other DOJ report on the Ferguson police, courts and city, then I cannot choose to accept one report and disregard another.

I will grant that forensic evidence and witness testimony shows that Michael Brown did not have his hands up when he was shot six times by Darren Wilson. But that doesn’t mean “Hands up, don’t shoot” is a lie.

It’s not.

When we read in Genesis that God created humanity in God’s image, that God looked at everything and said it was very good. When we read the second creation story in Genesis and hear of Adam and Eve and the serpent and the fruit, we don’t believe these stories are factually true.

Our intellect has given us the capacity to look into the beginnings of time, and we see a Big Bang instead of a tree-filled garden. We know the earth is more than several thousand years old, and we don’t believe God was pathologically insecure enough to hide dinosaur bones to test our faith.

But that doesn’t mean Genesis is a lie. The creation stories of Genesis were written by a people who were expressing the deepest lived experiences of their life and relationship with God - that we were created in the divine image, are sacred, beloved and good.

The creation stories of Genesis are not historical fact, but they are true. They are true – they bear and express deep truth -- because they are true to our human experience.

In the same way, “Hands up! Don’t shoot!” is true. Not in terms of historical fact but in terms of the lived experience of a community … specifically the community of people of color growing up in oppression and poverty in North St. Louis City and County.

As I have tried to listen deeply since August 9 (and realizing I wasn’t listening nearly deeply enough before then), I have heard stories from that community of powerlessness and abuse, of huge gaps in educational, economic and social opportunity. I have heard stories of clear messages being sent that their black lives don’t matter … or at least matter much less than my white life.

I have heard story after story that feel like people with their hands on their head, threatening no one, and yet being gunned down anyway.

We have to ask ourselves why “Hands Up! Don’t Shoot!” caught on so quickly? Why was it so easy to believe? Why were hundreds of people on the street chanting it as soon as the admittedly factually incorrect narrative was floated?

Because for the people of color who lived in this community, the idea that one of their own was shot to death with his hands on his head surrendering was completely believable because it resonated deeply with their lived experience.

Should Darren Wilson have been prosecuted based on the “lived experience of the community?” Absolutely not. And although I still have serious questions about his use of force, the training he received and the clear racial bias in describing Michael Brown as looking like “a demon,” Darren Wilson should be accorded what many people of color have not been – being judged solely by his actions and not by any external prejudice against him.

But do not say that “Hands up! Don’t shoot!” is a lie. Because it is not.

Don’t say it’s a lie when “black people are more likely than others to be arrested in almost every city for almost every type of crime.” (USA Today, Nov. 18, 2014)

Don’t say it’s a lie when the unemployment rate for Black and Hispanic Americans in major U.S. Metropolitan areas is 3-4 times higher than for whites.

Don’t say it’s a lie when Department of Justice report on Ferguson gives example after example of black people just living their lives being treated as ATMs at best and criminals at worst.

In his op-ed, Capehart, who is black, writes:

“We must never allow ourselves to march under the banner of a false narrative on behalf of someone who would otherwise offend our sense of right and wrong. And when we discover that we have, we must acknowledge it, admit our error and keep on marching. That’s what I’ve done here.”

I agree, we must never allow ourselves to march under the banner of a false narrative – and “Hands up! Don’t shoot!” is not a false narrative. It may not factually be about Darren Wilson and Michael Brown, but it is about the lived experience of young black men and women who feel a target is on their back every time they step out of the house.

And it is true.

Two weeks from tonight, we will gather in the Cathedral Nave for Blues at the Crossroads of Good Friday and we will hear the conversation between Jesus and Pontius Pilate, a conversation that ends with Pilate asking Jesus the critical question:

What is truth?

Jesus didn’t answer Pilate’s question because he already had. After dinner with his disciples and washing their feet, he said, “I am the way, the truth and the life.”

Truth is not confined to provable facts. We know this. Shakespeare tells us that “beauty is truth, truth beauty.” Jesus shows us that truth is a person, a relationship, a way of being.

Jesus shows us that truth is God who does not desire to be separate from us but as the living Word, becomes flesh and dwells among us.

Jesus shows us that truth is a God who takes the form of a servant, washes our feet and then says “if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you.”

Jesus shows us that truth is a God in dark-skinned human form who is convicted and sentenced to death by a rigged “justice system” despite there being no “facts of the case” against him.

Jesus shows us that truth is God dying on a cross as his mother wails in agony below and says “Father forgive them, they know not what they do.” Dying with a sign hanging over his head reading “Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews”

A sign that was not factually correct. A sign that was nonetheless true.

1 comment:

John said...

God, I love this so much, Mike, thank you! We talk about this issue all the time in theology classes at my school.