Michael Brown, Eric Garner, and a Cultural Hermeneutic
As the social temperature continues to rise my heart continues to sink.
Truthfully – my first instinct regarding the Darren Wilson verdict last week was to say nothing. I wasn’t there. I don’t have a law degree. I’m not originally from that community nor do I reside there currently. With the tsunami of responses flooding in – I didn’t feel in any way capable of intelligently or judiciously weighing in. To be honest – I still don’t.
But after the polarized outpouring following the Eric Garner/Daniel Pantaleo verdict on Wednesday – I found myself unable to sleep without at least attempting to articulate my heart. In fact – I’ve stayed up all night pouring over these words watching the sun rise even as I type this. As someone who has found life and restoration in the Gospel of Jesus – I’ve learned that heart articulation is a just part of the deal. Sometimes I know I must be silent. Other times I know I must speak. I pray you’ll carefully consider the right course of action for yourself as well.
First – if you are looking for objectivity from this post, in many ways you will not find it. I am a follower of Jesus who also happens to be white. Not only white, but born to loving parents and a family that cares deeply for one another. Because of this, there is a cultural filter by which I interpret information such as the Eric Garner case. I have a framework. I see through a lens. As much as I try to fight or deny it, I have a hermeneutic – a way I interpret the world – and so do you. Confirmation bias is inevitable and we need to first recognize that reality and the proclivities that are inextricably connected to it.
Easier said than done, to be sure.
A practice that my parents always weaved into the fiber of our family was to never ignore hurt. They challenged us to never over-look the struggle and heartache around us for the sake of our own productivity or self-interest. Many live by this same principle when it comes to their own family, and I’d like to invite us to not abandon that when it comes to national discourse. This conversation is simply too important for us to bulldoze past the layers and complexities of pain that exists on every side.
I’m certainly not suggesting that facts be ignored or devalued in any specific context – only that, in any circumstance involving human hearts, we have to remember that there will always be countless matters and nuances to consider and weigh in any dispute, disagreement, or tragedy.
This, I also realize, is no small or easy task.
Every wise person I know condemns riots and pillaging – but every wise person I know also understands that there is almost always something to be learned in those situations. Something of value to be gleaned. I pray that my ears are growing more and more attuned those truths every day.
That doesn’t mean, however, that real anger isn’t sometimes the right response. Perhaps even the only right response. As Sojourner Senior Director Lisa Sharon Harper says,
“There are a myriad of expressions of grief, righteous indignation and holy anger in Scripture. Nehemiah drops to his knees, weeps, fasts and prays. Jeremiah weeps and cries out and calls the powers to account. Moses confronts the powers with four words God gives him to say: ‘Let my people go.’ Jesus puts holy rage on full display in the Temple. He turns over the tables and confronts the Pharisees who are actively calling the people to abide by oppressive economic system. He calls them a brood of vipers. Anger is appropriate. Weeping is appropriate. Creative public witness is appropriate.” – Lisa Sharon Harper
Please hear me – there most certainly is a time for righteous anger, for uproar. Lives are ending. Families are being ripped a part. This, at the very least, should cause us pause before we hunt for page likes and blog hits. Our hearts need to bleed, throb, and break for those who suffer. For me – I want to always be as certain as I can that the lifeblood of my outcry is rooted in Jesus and not the pullings of my own fickle heart.
As image bearers, I think that it’s not only important, but of intrinsic necessity that we look beyond the overtly perceptible circumstances in front of us to see things from a different perspective – to identify the subtle and often indistinct difficulties that exist below the surface.
Fr. James Martin, in many ways articulates what I seem unable to:
“You can support our country’s police officers, as I do. I know a few police officers personally (as well as a former police officer) and I deeply admire them for putting their lives on the lines every day, something that I do not do. (Remember the police officers who sacrificed their lives, or who were ready to sacrifice their lives, on 9/11.) You can believe that the vast majority of law-enforcement officials are trying to do their best in often extremely complicated situations. I see that almost every day in the streets and subways of New York City. You can appreciate the sometimes nearly impossible challenges of dealing with the volatile and dangerous people they must encounter. I see that too almost every day in New York. And you can understand that many of their decisions must be made in a split second, under the kind of pressure that few of us will ever know.
You can think all those things and still be appalled by the death of Eric Garner.
You can admire police officers and still admit that they made a tragic mistake. You can support the justice system and still feel that justice has not been done. You can uphold the rule of law and still feel that the law is not being applied justly.
And if Mr. Garner had indeed just broken up a fight–being a peacemaker, as Jesus called us to be–then it is an even more brutal tragedy.
I’m not a police officer, so I don’t know what that life is like. I’m not an African-American, so I don’t know what that life is like either.
But when a man says, ‘I can’t breathe,’ you should let him breathe. And if he dies after saying it, then you should have let him breathe.”
In my case – it’s pausing long enough to seriously ask if my ethnic, geographical, and socio-economic lens isn’t simply one vantage point in a vast and varied spectrum. And, if that’s the case, does there exist a possibility that there is struggle well below the surface that I am far from understanding at a heart level? I’m not embarrassed to admit it – I’ve watched the video of Eric Garner video numerous times – and I cry every time. So what am I going to do about it? What should a Gospel-informed response look like?
When asking these questions, I need to fight to remember that I, without a doubt, come from privilege. That reality unmistakably informs my worldview. But to go even a step further – I have to remember that there is such a thing as being right in the wrong way.
How many volatile and toxic words have been spewed because of an inability to fathom how an opposing perspective could ever come to be?
Over the years there have been countless posts I have agreed with positionally but found to be so vile methodologically that I sought distance, not closeness with that person. We cannot hope to experience any true and abiding restoration if our only objective it to simply be right. Facts, no matter how “clear”, do not heal hearts.
I think that the way forward is not always an appeal to facts as a first resort, but instead an attempt to do the hard, necessary task of getting into the head and heart of those we disagree with. If there’s anything I’ve observed with these cases, it’s that they, in many ways, serve as a sort of cultural x-ray machine – revealing the pain and grief that still lingers. This is not insignificant. We simply cannot hope to ever make any progress without getting into each other’s skin. That can only begin to happen with some kind of communication.
Fr. John Powell, in his book Why I am Afraid to Tell You Who I Am, describes five levels on which we can communicate, and I think an understanding of these levels is essential.
Essentially, what Fr. Powell asserts is that there are five levels of communication: 1. Cliché; 2. Facts; 3. Opinion; 4. Feelings; 5. Transparency. I am learning (albeit slowly) that, if someone is sharing with me at a level four (feelings) and I come at them with level two (facts), there is very little chance that I’m successfully building any bridges. There is no true intimacy.
As Pastor Loritts says,
“Facts are a first and last resort in a court of law, but when it comes to human relationships, let us first stop and feel before we go to facts. The communication pyramid offers a revolutionary paradigm in our journey to understanding.” – Bryan Loritts
However, as much as I am a Caucasian-American, I am even more so a follower of Jesus Christ. The Resurrection and the Gospel not only invites but demands that I subjugate my cultural hermeneutic to my gospel hermeneutic. In other words – the blood of my savior matters more than my own. My identity, not only as one declared righteous in Jesus, but as a son of God has more weight than my nationality, politics, or address.
Because the Gospel is true – I am not only free from sin and death, but I’m also free to a new Gospel reality – free from the need to take, to extract, because everything in Christ I already possess. I am free to put myself aside. I am free to listen and love unconditionally and without stipulation because the love shown to me is without brim or bottom. I am free to a life of blessed self-forgetfulness.
The stark and startling reality of the cross is that Jesus died for both the Michael Browns and Darren Wilsons of the world. He died for slaves and slave masters, the lynched and the lynch mobs, the oppressed and the oppressor. Even those who would brutally declare, “Crucify.”
My new gospel hermeneutic, therefore, leaves no place for hatred, bitterness or unforgiveness.
And there is room for justice. If someone acts illicitly, that person should experience justice. We have a God who is both just and forgiving – the two can indeed co-habitate. What this Gospel posture does not afford me is a lethargy that blindly dismisses this group or that demographic. I do not give up because God has not given up on me.
The more I work to understand the chaos, heartache, and brokenness around me – the heavier my heart becomes. I’m more aware each day of just how little I know, how narrow my scope is, and how much need there is for change. I want to sob and yell all at the same time. And I want be close enough to taste the salt of the tears of those who are hurting. I want to be so near to others who yell in anguish that it leaves my ears ringing. I want more than to write words on a screen, I want to embody the Word in the streets.
What I do know is that we have before us an unprecedented opportunity – on every side – to show the world the true, transformative, heart-repairing love of the resurrected carpenter who is God. The kind of love that refuses to engage in ferocious, fruitless battles in the comment section of a Facebook post, but instead does the often heart-rending work of reaching across the lines that would otherwise enslave us.
We are followers, not of a way but the Way. The road is long and the journey brutal – but may we start by putting sole to soil and taking the first step.