Sitting In Between: Community during Crisis

Last Friday night, Terence Crutcher was shot and killed by a Tulsa police officer. On Sunday morning, we sat in worship. On Monday afternoon, there were press conferences and video. And questions, still: What if? Where was? Who should? Why don’t? When will?

And in between? Sitting there – at home, in worship, in my office – in between Friday and Monday, all I could think was: It’s really quiet.

And maybe it should be. Maybe … before we run the compassion gauntlet in an effort to be the first to speak, the definitive word, the declarative voice, the One Who Will Be Heard … maybe we should be quiet, at least for a minute.

Maybe, when it is not our experience, when we do not entirely know, when we cannot even imagine, maybe sitting and being quiet and listening to the voices that need to rise, that come in pain, that wail in agony, that cry out for understanding – from every direction and every place … maybe THAT is where God’s voice can be most clearly heard.

… something is very, very wrong: And if it’s wrong for one of us, then it’s wrong for all of us. – says the pastor
… This beautiful child just told me that he skips and smiles while he is walking home so that he will look less threatening to [white] people. – says the mother
… It hurts my heart more than yours when you accuse me of anything less than simply wanting to make sure my words are articulate, and accurate when using them. – says the officer
… There is simply no easy fix to be found here; there is just challenging and uncomfortable and deeply important work that we must engage in to build a better Tulsa for ourselves and for our children. I believe in Tulsa. – says the educator

And after Friday night, and Sunday morning, and Monday afternoon: On Wednesday evening, sitting in between colleagues and friends and strangers of every tradition, and neighborhood, and hue … maybe it was good to listen some more to the songs sung and prayers prayed and challenges issued and laments shouted and mourned. Sitting in between those hundreds of people, in the beautiful worship center at Metropolitan Baptist Church, it was not hard to hear: but it was terribly hard to listen. And painful to listen. And heartbreaking to listen. And for many, it has probably been heart-hardening to listen.

It is not, as some have suggested (particularly in comparison to Charlotte this week), that Tulsa is ‘better’ or ‘doing it right.” We  are doing it how we do it. We build relationships in between so that when the time comes – even when the time comes too often, and far more often than we would like – when the time comes to sit and be together, we can sit and be together. We hate to have to keep showing up to mourn, but we are honored to keep showing up for our friends and our neighbors and our leaders and our children and our communities. To advocate for change; to commit again (and again and again and as many agains as we need) to be new and renewed in our hope; to mourn with those who mourn and to let that mourning come. Maybe that seems too little, but it can never be too late.

Maybe it is wise for us to practice the discipline of a Holy Saturday … that sitting, and waiting, in between the crucifixion and the resurrection. It is NOT inaction. It is active listening. It is intently considering what WE are NOT saying. Maybe it is in that silence … when we don’t know what to say, and when we shouldn’t be the ones saying it anyway … maybe that is where God is most readily heard: in the cries of God’s people, in the stones crying out: That we might hear, and listen, and THEN act, and be most faithful.

Courtney Richards is the Connections Pastor at Harvard Avenue Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in Tulsa, Okla., and the co-editor of It’s Not All About You: Young Adults Seeking Justice (2012, Chalice Press).

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Brad Lyons is president and publisher of Chalice Press.

America’s Undeclared Martial Law

Twenty-something years ago I was a police and fire reporter. Fresh out of college, I worked for two Oklahoma newspapers: first in a mostly rural county of about 30,000 residents and then in Edmond, my upper-class suburban hometown. I spent mornings reading police and fire reports, talking to the police department spokesperson, occasionally calling the families of those who had died or who clung to life. I got to know the officers I met each morning, and we built a cordial, professional relationship. We never went out for drinks after work, but I never feared being pulled over by one of them during a traffic stop.

During my time in Edmond, I had the misfortune of covering two fatal shootings by police in the course of about a month. I forget which came first, but one involved two police officers in the woods firing 13 shots at a naked, intoxicated suspect. I think he was Hispanic. The other shooting resulted when a suspect, high on inhalants carrying a baseball bat, charged the officer. I think he was white. 1

After the second shooting, I had the so-called audacity to ask publicly if the police department had a shoot-first-ask-questions-later problem. In a time before tasers became standard-issue, I asked whether pepper spray should have been used instead. This challenge of authority didn’t sit well with the spokesperson I talked to each morning. He and the police chief thoroughly lectured me that the cardinal rule of use-of-force is to keep the upper hand on suspects. To an extent, I understand why police are trained to use necessary force before somebody uses it on them. When dealing with people consciously breaking the law or who are mentally ill or chemically altered, they are not making good decisions. Police officers, more than anyone else, know lives are on the line, especially theirs. We thank them for their courage, for doing what we cannot.

But goodness gracious, these are hard times to be a cop in America. Not only because American policing is so militarized. Not only because training is outdated. Not only because mental health services for police are insufficient for the demands of the job and using mental health services is scorned by an uber-tough culture. Not only because there are more guns on the streets. Not only because violence is gaining tacit, silent approval from the powers that be. Not only because racism is getting bolder and more aggressive in its violent manifestations. Not only because the income disparity makes the poor poorer and more willing to take desperate measures. Not only because politicians want to look tough on crime so they overprosecute the financially vulnerable to feed the prison-industrial complex. Not only because politicians knowingly drive wedges between races and classes as a way to mobilize their base.

I can’t help but think that in 2016, the hardest factor for any socially conscious police officer has to be how race figures into law enforcement – and the worst-case scenario of having to fire shots. Over the past two years, since the deaths of Eric Garner in Staten Island and Michael Brown in Ferguson, the relationship between police and people of color is under tremendous scrutiny – as it should be.

Let’s be perfectly clear here: People of color in this country are living – and dying – under undeclared martial law.

People of color – not whites like me – are living and dying under undeclared martial law. I know it’s highly unlikely that I, a middle-aged suburban white guy, will have to deal with a police officer drawing a gun on me, due only to the fact that I’m a middle-aged suburban white guy. White privilege is on full display right here.

Cops know that people of color are justifiably angry. Keith Lamont Scott, Terence Crutcher, Philando Castile, Alton Sterling, Sandra Bland, Walter Scott, Michael Brown, Eric Garner, a million other injustices – who can blame people of color for being scared of law enforcement? The lack of trust makes both the officer and the citizen even edgier when engaged in a law-enforcement situation. The odds of an altercation rise immediately.

Our Wild West mentality toward guns only makes it worse for both the cop and for people of color when their paths cross. Loosening gun laws means police are now far more likely to assume people are carrying guns (and they probably are) and instinctively react based on that assumption. Lawmakers do police officers no favors by loosening gun laws despite opposition from the law enforcement community. If politicians support law and order, why are they betraying the people entrusted by our society to carry it out?

How do we break this horrific cycle? How do we reduce violence, build trust, and find common ground?

Fact of the matter is, fewer and fewer people know how to do it – and the so-called leaders in American society don’t appear to give a damn. That means politicians, and that means the voices of faith as well. Across the political and theological spectrum, the increasing polarization of American society portrays compromise as a vice, and listening to the opinions of others a weakness. That trickles down into the way we treat each other each day. We don’t listen to each other, our relationships crumble, we hurt each other and ourselves. We allow the love for our fellow humans and the world around us to decay. We quit thinking, we shut down emotionally, and we live hollow lives. Yes, we are physically safer for it, but are we morally or ethically better for our isolation and emptiness?

Clearly there is not an easy answer. But it is our duty as followers of Christ, of a man who called for us to reconcile a broken world, to turn the other cheek, to seek justice, to represent the oppressed – it is our God-given duty to try. We are called to be reconcilers, to hear others, to facilitate the exchange of ideas, and then to put the best ideas to the test. And if we have to try one hundred thousand different ways, and all but one of them fails, it will have been worth the effort.

Where shall we start?

Gratefully,

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Suggested resources:

Introducing a 25-part series on how to reduce police brutality following the deaths of Alton Sterling and Philander Castile by Shaun King, New York Daily News

Pre-Post-Racial America: Spiritual Stories from the Front Lines by Sandhya Rani Jha

Ferguson and Faith: Sparking Leadership and Awakening Community by Leah Gunning Francis

Forward Together: A Moral Message for the Nation by William J. Barber II and Barbara Zelter

Towards the “Other America”: Anti-Racist Resources for White People Taking Action for Black Lives Matter by Chris Crass

Reconciliation Ministry of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)


1 The articles I wrote for the Edmond Sun are no longer online, so forgive me if I misremember a specific detail.


Brad Lyons’ opinions are not necessarily those of the Christian Board of Publication, its imprints, authors, or other affiliates.

Brad Lyons is president and publisher of Chalice Press.

Stand with the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe

I urge Christians and all people of good will to stand in deep solidarity with the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, their First Nation allies, and the many others who have joined them in their effort to permanently block the North Dakota Access Pipeline. The decision of the Departments of Justice, Army, and Interior to temporarily stop construction is a direct result of the actions of these “stewards of the earth” who have taken a courageous stand to protect the sovereignty of Native Americans and our environment.

Native Americans, the Mainline Church, and the Quest for Interracial JusticeMany Protestant denominations have apologized to Native Americans for their participation in the long history of our nation’s efforts to assimilate or exterminate Indigenous Peoples. Some denominations have renounced the Doctrine of Discovery—a legal fiction couched in quasi-religious sentiments that gave European kings a right to conquer foreign lands and is now the basis for U.S. control of Native lands. Most denominations have called for an end to the public use of images and logos that demean and degrade tribal people. Now is the time to take the next step and stand with the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe.

David Archambault II, Standing Rock Sioux Chairman, addressed a letter to “all Native American Tribes in the U.S. and to all Indigenous Peoples of the world,” on August 25, 2016, in which he wrote: “We all have a responsibility to speak for a vision of the future that is safe and productive for our grandchildren.” In this same letter he quoted Chief Sitting Bull of the Hunkpapa Lakota, who once said: “Let us put our minds together and see what life we can make for our children.” When President Obama spoke to the 20th Annual Environmental Summit on August 31, 2016, he quoted a Washoe tribal leader: “What happens to the land also happens to the people.” The president has invited tribes to a formal government-to-government consultation on infrastructure.

If completed, the proposed 1,172-mile pipeline will carry nearly a half million barrels of crude oil from the Bakken fields in North Dakota through South Dakota and Iowa to Patoka, Illinois, where it will be linked to another pipeline. Proponents of the pipeline promise that during the construction phase it will create 8,000 to 12,000 jobs. Craig Stevens, a spokesperson for MAIN Coalition, a group supporting the pipeline, is quoted as saying that a delay in construction could have “a long-lasting and chilling effect on private infrastructure development in the United States.” Other advocates for the pipeline suggest that the actions of the Obama administration are a “temporary halt” to the project, which may be completed under a new administration.

The National Congress of American Indians put the development of the Dakota Access Pipeline in a historical context when they called it “another chapter in a long history of constructing hazardous pipeline routes through tribal lands without respecting tribal sovereignty.”

The immediate concern for the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe is protection of Lake Oahe, a primary source of water for the tribe and people and communities downstream who rely on the Missouri River. The larger but no less important concern is respect of the rights and sovereignty of Native Peoples. Deep solidarity, a phrase coined by Joerg Rieger, is rooted in an understanding that we are all in the same boat. We share the same earth and water. Given that many Protestant denominations have already renounced past efforts to assimilate or exterminate Native Peoples and repudiated the Doctrine of Discovery, it is time for us to stand in deep solidarity with the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe. “Let us put our minds together and see what life we can make for our children.”

David Phillips Hansen David Phillips Hansen is a minister in the United Church of Christ and author of Native Americans, the Mainline Church, and the Quest for Interracial Justice, available for preorder now for delivery this autumn.

Brad Lyons is president and publisher of Chalice Press.