Losing My Faith... In The Police

Saturday, September 24, 2016

I used to be a big fan of the police. I grew up watching Adam-12 on TV and had that image of the police instilled in my head. I saw cops as the heroes, the good guys, those who were there to "serve and protect."

I used to think that if there was a problem you could call 911 for help. But now I have to first ask myself beforehand "Will this make things worse if I call? Will it escalate the situation and cause harm, even possibly resulting in killing?" For example, if I see a homeless guy acting erratic -- so that I am concerned that he may be a danger to himself or others -- I would want to be able to call the police, believing that they would send someone who is trained in how to help him and keep him safe. Instead I need to consider the possibility that the police may come and kill him on the street. That is not hypothetical. It has become almost a common occurrence that the mentally ill are killed by police, rather than helped. 

So while I began with a positive "Adam-12 view" of the police as a kid, and carried that view into adulthood, that view has changed. The reason it has changed is primarily because the prevalence of cel phone cameras and social media has allowed me, as a middle class white guy, to see and understand the experiences of people of color and the very different way they experience the police. So while one can indeed trace a trend of the police becoming increasingly militaristic, a big part is also simply me being able to see the reality those less privileged than I have experienced for a long time. So Adam-12 is not something that belongs to the past, but is more a picture of what the police ought to be like.

Police ought to be there to make things better, safer, and just. However, rather than using techniques to deescalate a situation, police commonly escalate situations, making things unsafe and often deadly. They make things worse, and because of that, I hesitate to call. I used to think that the police were there to help. Now I think of them as dangerous, unsafe, and incompetent. Incompetent when it comes to knowing how to deescalate a dangerous situation. Instead they escalate. 

Now let me stress that I am not a pacifist. If I felt that I was in danger, say if there was someone trying to break into my home, I would definitely call the police, and would be glad that they had guns with them. That is the extreme situation. But there are lots of other situations where that military approach is completely unnecessary and wrong. For example with killing mentally ill people, rather than helping them. 

So while I used to trust the police, I find that all the stories of them killing the mentally ill, and killing people of color -- and doing so with complete impunity -- has eroded that trust. In its place is mistrust. I have come to see the police like I would see an occupying military force. I experience them as a danger. I fear them. In an emergency I would still call 911, but I always have to ask myself if doing so would make things worse, and often don't call because of this. 

When I think about how resistant police unions have been to reform in these areas -- including resisting training proposed by the DOJ to teach police how to deal with implicit bias, provide tools for deescalation that keep both officers and citizens safer, and focus on "community policing," rather than seeing citizens antagonistically as "bad guys" and threats -- it becomes abundantly clear that this is not simply a matter of a few bad apples, but is a systemic problem with deep roots in the culture of the police force. That police culture, rather than learning from these insights, has become increasingly militaristic, antagonistic, and dangerous, resisting any kind of reform or education. If you speak out for reform, whether from within the police or from without, you will be labeled as anti-blue.

In many ways this loss of trust in the police parallels people's experience of losing their faith. Just as the Catholic church acted as an institution to cover-up scandal and wrongdoing in the church, the police unions also seek to block reform. Just as abuse from a priest erodes our trust in religion, the deadly and inhumane actions of the police erodes our trust in the law and in our legal system. Finally, just as I am sure there are plenty of good and loving people sitting in the pews and behind the pulpits of churches, I am also sure that there are plenty of good cops out there, too. That being the case however does not help the very real systemic problem that perpetuates a culture of militaristic violence in the police force and resists any kind of meaningful reform.

So I find myself in the same place with the police as I do with my faith. I still consider myself a Christian and believe in the way of Jesus, but I need to constantly stress that I do not support -- and in fact am profoundly morally opposed to -- what conservative evangelicals support. Similarly, I still believe in the police of Adam-12; I believe that they could be good. I hope we can get to that. Not in a naive-childish way (the show was admittedly pretty naive), but in a deep, realistic and grown-up way. However that means repentance, and not just the repentance as individuals (which while important, can function as a scapegoat for the system), but also the repentance and reform of the system, too. That is the only way to get to real justice.

We are a long way from that. At best we are, I am, at a place of seeing the sin of the system. Just as I have come to see the sin of my faith, I also have come to see the sin of my country's criminal justice system. That is hard to face, but it's important to face, and I am grateful to Black Lives Matter and others for shining a light on this. It would be easy to disassociate myself from both my faith and the police, to see myself as good and "them" as bad. But I want to try to own it. This is my faith, my country, and it is profoundly broken and in need of reform.

P.S. If you would like some ideas of what that reform could look like, here is a good place to start.

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You Found Me, Just a Little Late

Saturday, September 10, 2016

Lost and insecure, 
You found me, You found me.
Lying on the floor, 
Surrounded, surrounded.
Why'd you have to wait?
Where were you? Where were you?
Just a little late,
You found me, you found me.
-The Fray

That song captures the complex mix of closeness and nearness, of intimacy and pain, that we all know from our experience of God in this world. We hear the same kind of thing in the Psalms, oscillating from passionate cries of abandonment, "Why have you forsaken me?" "How long Lord?" to expressions of tenderness "Before a word is on my tongue, you know it completely." Music, including the Psalms, and including this song by the Fray is often able to capture these kinds of contradictions of life that we all know and live with much better than our theologies or philosophies can.

In part, this is due to the motivation behind what we write. Often when I write theology I am trying to say something helpful, trying to build trust, encourage growth, and so on. That's a good place to come from, I'm trying to help and to do good. But I will never forget the time that a person said to me, "When you speak of a relationship with with God, it sounds so close and intimate. It sounds so simple and easy. But in my experience there is a lot of struggle and doubt. I often feel that God is far away." Now, that was actually my experience too. Sometimes I felt God's nearness, and it felt like home. Those experiences have forever changed me. But I also know the experience of utter darkness, feeling that I am alone in the universe, feeling that the whole thing is just wishful thinking. Yet I had apparently given the false impression that I don't.

An artist writes from a different place. Art is at its best when it does not try to have a message (even a noble and good message), but simply speaks vulnerably and honestly. When it does this, it touches something in us that recognizes the same experiences and feelings, touching and moving us. That's why it so important that we let art and music and story impact our theology. Because when we do that we are letting our theology connect with the reality of our experience.

It takes a lot of courage to sing/pray "You found me... just a little late." It's an expression of grateful devotion coupled with an accusation born from pain. It would be a lot easier to just express one or the other, either tenderness or complaint. To express both at the same time leaves us wide open and vulnerable.

Jesus described God as a loving father. If we ask for good things, our good heavenly Father will surely give them to us. "Knock and the door will be opened" Jesus tells us (Lk 11:9). But the story Jesus tells us right before that verse is of a person in need, banging on a locked door in the middle of the night (Lk 11:5-8). Jesus tells a similar story of how prayer is like knocking on the door of a unjust judge who doesn't care (Lk 18:108). Sometimes prayer feels like falling into the arms of our daddy, and other times it feels more like we're pounding our fist on a locked door of a judge who doesn't care.

In the end I think we find the answer to the question of theodicy -- the question of how God can be love when there is so much pain and wrong in the world -- not in finding an explanation, but in learning to walk in the tension of our experience of good and bad, intimacy and abandonment, love and darkness. I don't even want to say that this vacillating experience is how it needs to be, that is healthy and good, but simply that it is how we experience life and God. It's not just you. If we have the courage to be honest, we find that it's what we all experience.

Most of the time I feel like an atheist, and then there are the days when I'm born again, like the heavens have opened up. I long for those days. My heart is wide open to you, Jesus. Lying on the floor, surrounded, you found me.

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Learning to Listen: On Prejudice, Blind-spots, Humility and Repentance

Friday, August 12, 2016

This past week the conservative evangelical website The Gospel Coalition (TGC) published an article entitled "When God Sends Your White Daughter a Black Husband" which resulted in a virtual firestorm of responses, both in comments on TGC and on Twitter from people saying that they found the article deeply hurtful and offensive.

At the request of the author the article has been taken down from the TGC website and replaced by a discussion of the article in which three African American leaders—including one TGC editor—reflect on the article, the ensuing backlash, and lessons to be learned. Definitely worth a listen (the link is above).

What I wanted to draw attention to is the response of the author of the article, Gaye Clark. Gaye had written the article with the intent of celebrating God’s work in her and her family’s life surrounding issues of race and prejudice. She had shown the article to her daughter and son-in-law prior to its publication and they had told her they thought it was beautiful. She was consequently surprised and heartbroken over the negative response and indeed the hurt that it caused,
When asked what she was planning to do now, how she would show fruits of repentance, she responded,

Listening. That is so important. The internet has taught us all how to comment, often anonymously, but learning to listen is much more rare, and deeply needed. It is also rare to see someone respond publicly with humility, openness, and sincere repentance like Gaye has. It's so easy, when we feel attacked, to respond defensively. It takes maturity and empathy to be able to see past that, and instead respond with care for the hurt we have caused. 

To me this is not about pointing a finger at this author or even at The Gospel Coalition. I actually think they are both handling this admirably. What I hope to do instead is use the example of this woman's response as an opportunity to look into my own heart. I hope I can show that kind of maturity and empathy. I hope I can be self-reflected enough to see where I may have hidden prejudices in my heart. I hope I can listen to those of other races, genders, orientations, faiths, etc. -- in short those with different perspective and experiences than my own -- to hear and learn how they see things, to understand their struggles.

Doing that takes conversation and honesty. I feel bad that Gaye has had to have that happen for her in such a public way. She is not a hero or a villain, she is just a regular human like you and me. So what I hope this story can help us to do is look to ourselves and our own hearts. I hope we can take it as a positive example of how we can learn to listen with empathy and humility.

The reason I have moved from being a conservative to a progressive evangelical is not because I have been hurt by the conservative evangelical church. As a straight white male, I fit in pretty well. The shift came for me as a began to listen to others who were being hurt, and realized that the theology I had been advocating for and seeing as "normal" was in part responsible for the structures and belief system that was hurting them. This led me to see how much the theology I had inherited was influenced by those white male blinders. My bookshelves contained reams of books by white male theologians with very few written by women or people of color.

Seminary helped me with this. My professors encouraged us to read those with different perspectives than our own. We read feminist, liberationist, and black theology. I also learned a lot from Sojourners and their focus on issues of social justice and human rights. The white male theology I had inherited from conservative evangelicalism had been primarily focused on personal conversion, as social justice issues are not really front and center concern for a suburban white church member. So the "seeker sensitive" sermons never touched on those issues. 

To see them I had to look beyond my horizon to see the struggles of others from different communities and different perspectives. For example, I had always had a positive view of the police, seeing them as someone who I could call on for protection and help. I was shocked to learn that for many people of color, dads and moms need to fear for the safety of their children, and that they may be killed by the police. As a dad I find that devastating. I read a story this week of how police and security officers assigned to public schools are tasering (mostly black) students, and I am shocked and grieved at how quickly we resort to violence as our first and only response we know, and how our children are suffering as a result. This is not something I had ever heard of happening to my white kids. If it did, I would pull them out of that school in a heartbeat, but that only underscores my point of having privilege (having a car and a flexible work schedule for instance so I would be able to deal with that process). My point here is that we don't have "justice for all," and that is not just an abstract concept, but affecting the safety and lives of people's kids. And that matters to me. Black lives matter, gay lives matter, just as much as my life matters.

I want to care about how people of color experience injustice and violence like it was happening to my own child. I want to care about how gays experience injustice and violence like it was happening to my own child. I want to care about how Muslims experience injustice and violence like it was happening to my own child. I believe Jesus and the gospel calls me to do this. That begins by accepting God's love in my heart, but then that love must grow to expressing itself in showing that same love to others. The character of that love is most revealed in how I treat those I regard as "least" and "enemy." I am my brother's (and sister's) keeper. I pray that I can learn to listen.

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The End of the World As We Know It - Part 2: The Time of Crisis

Saturday, August 06, 2016

In part 1 of this series I discussed how we can deal with the reality of an imperfect Bible, and even more how we can find God in that imperfect book. It's about moving away from feeling like we always need to find an explanation to justify things (which even left-leaning evangelical intellectuals have a penchant for), and how it's so hard for us to accept that the Bible -- just like us -- is an imperfect vessel where Christ indwells. So rather than always seeking to explain why that vessel is not flawed, I propose we learn how to find Christ in the middle of imperfection. Isn't that the whole idea of the incarnation?

The specific topic that was the springboard for that discussion was eschatology, and let's face it... eschatology can get really weird with all of its dragons and demons, really yucky with all of its talk of blood and torment, and really flaky with all the doomsday cults. It's not surprising that lots of Christians just politely ignore the whole thing.

While we might wish that eschatology could just be "left behind," (ba-dum-bum), I think if we look hard enough and deep enough, we will find that Matthew's Gospel, with its apocalyptic focus, has something to say about the end times that, far from being irrelevant, contains a profoundly good, life-changing message that we desperately need to hear in our time, right now. 

Matthew is writing at a time of crisis, a time where the people all felt that things had reached a critical mass and something had to give. Many feel that we are in a time of crisis today. Trump's campaign capitalizes on those feelings and fears. At the RNC Trump began his acceptance speech by saying "Our Convention occurs at a moment of crisis for our nation" before launching into a long dark litany of signs of the end that he promised to rescue us all from.

In these times of crisis, it is common for people to say that the morality and values we would ordinarily hold to should justifiably be abandoned. We can see that throughout history, and we can see it now as well. This has been the argument of those evangelicals who support Trump. They are aware that he is morally the polar opposite of a family values guy, and further aware that he is not someone who will promote peace or work to resolve conflict. Quite the contrary, he is someone who they hope will use extreme strongman tactics to "make America great," such as banning all Muslims from the country, killing and torturing the families of suspected terrorists, breaking off our NATO treaty agreements unless we "get paid" by other countries, using more nukes, revoking the freedom of the press to say anything critical of him, and a host of other things one commonly associates with the behavior of a demagogue or tyrannical dictator. Those are considered a necessary evil that is warranted in the present crisis. Indeed these evangelicals do not see these as a problem to be tolerated, but as strength and virtue. They see violence as good and trust in it as the means to being "saved" in the crisis.

This all echoes the messianic hopes people held at the time of Jesus.  Then as now, in a time of crisis people look for a strongman, a savior who will rescue us with his mighty sword. That was the messianic hope, too. They were expecting for the messiah to be a warrior-king who would kill the enemy Gentiles. They did not expect a servant-Lord who would die for sinners and offer salvation to both Jews and enemy Gentiles. The religious leaders did not expect Jesus, and it seems that many evangelical leaders are looking for a different kind of messiah today as well.

In times of crisis, the common response is to feel the need for extreme actions in response to the crisis. As Jerry Falwell Jr. put it in his speech at the RNC, "We are at a crossroads where our first priority must be saving our nation."  Consequently, as he clarified in an interview, social issues, personal morality (not to mention basic human decency) all fall to "the last ones on the list - very bottom." The basic logic here is that these things that we would normally see as immoral and hurtful are all okay in the crisis.

What is unique about Matthew's Gospel is that he proposes that our response to crisis should be the opposite -- we should not seek to justify extreme and violent responses, we should not seek to justify throwing decency and morality out the door in the state of emergency. Instead, Matthew stresses, over and over again, that the way we will save ourselves from the coming crisis is by exemplifying the way of radical love and forgiveness in the face of evil and oppression. We need to overcome evil, not by returning harm for harm, but by loving our enemies. That's the message we find repeated over and over in Matthew's Gospel. In the crisis we should not justify being less good, rather we must rise to become more good. Michelle Obama summed this up well when she shared the advice she gives to her children, "When someone is cruel or acts like a bully, you don't stoop to their level. No, our motto is, when they go low, we go high."

Viktor Frankl had the opportunity to observe people from a place of profound crisis -- as a prisoner  inside of a Nazi concentration camp. There the psychologist observed that a time of crisis has the potential to bring out the best in people, and the absolute worst. He witnessed people become both angels and demons, ordinary people who in the time of crisis would either show incredible acts of selfless love and kindness or exhibit the most inhuman cruelty. We kid ourselves when we think these were monsters who do these evil things. A mother can show heroic love and "go high," but a mother can also justify unspeakable cruelty in the name of protecting her family. Frankl observed both in Auschwitz. The nature of evil is almost always one where the person committing the atrocity feels justified in their actions.

We do truly stand at a crossroads, a crossroad of the soul. In the time of crisis we have a choice to make. Will we sink to justifying hurt to protect our self interest, or will we rise to show grace, mercy, and goodness in the middle of all the ugliness and fear? In that sense the gospel is deeply personal, but it is not only personal, but also social and political. The central message Jesus preached was the "kingdom of God" -- a term whose meaning is perhaps better conveyed today as "God's politics" that is, God's way of organizing life together. The values and way Jesus showed us do not stop when we get to the political or public sphere. They are not intended to be tossed aside when things get tough. As Jesus says on the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew's Gospel, 

"You’re familiar with the old written law, ‘Love your friend,’ and its unwritten companion, ‘Hate your enemy.’ I’m challenging that. I’m telling you to love your enemies. Let them bring out the best in you, not the worst. When someone gives you a hard time, respond with the energies of prayer, for then you are working out of your true selves, your God-created selves.
This is what God does. He gives his best—the sun to warm and the rain to nourish—to everyone, regardless: the good and bad, the nice and nasty. If all you do is love the lovable, do you expect a bonus? Anybody can do that. If you simply say hello to those who greet you, do you expect a medal? Any run-of-the-mill sinner does that.
In a word, what I’m saying is, Grow up. You’re kingdom subjects. Now live like it. Live out your God-created identity. Live generously and graciously toward others, the way God lives toward you.” (Mt 5:43-48, MSG)

Speaking from a time of crisis himself, Matthew has an important message that we need to hear today in our time of crisis. He calls us to respond in the way of Jesus, a way characterized by grace, forgiveness, and enemy love. When they go low, you go high.

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