Rare is the ocassion that something happens and I don’t have a clear-cut opinion about it. It’s either good or it’s bad. It requires this fix or that degree of support.
But I don’t mind admitting I’ve struggled to make sense of the shootings in Dallas, Baton Rouge and Falcon Heights, Minn. To be sure they are all bad. It’s a bad thing for anyone to lose their life, particularly when that happens out of anger and malice.
Beyond that, though, I can’t figure out what all this means. Do police officers institutionally have it in for black people? Do black people really dislike all police officers because of the shootings that have received national media attention? Do black lives matter more than blue lives? Or white lives? Or any other color lives?
When I struggle with really difficult decisions or troublesome questions like these, I like to talk to James Lee. More than once he has guided me through troubling situations and he’s always had an air of calm and grace about him that I find comforting.
So on Monday, I found myself in his living room asking some of these same questions. James, if you don’t know, is a black man. He is the pastor of First Baptist Church in Wendell and he’s slightly older that my own father, so I consider him my elder and his opinions always matter to me.
James pointed out that any group – including police departments – can have a bad apple. We shouldn’t judge all police officers by the actions of a few who make bad decisions or who are abusing their own authority.
Likewise, he said he doesn’t believe all black people really dislike the police. He pointed out that police and protesters were mingling just fine during the protest in Dallas before a lone gunman started shooting at the police.
I truly tend to think he’s right. It’s never good to generalize about any group. There are always too many exceptions to those generalizations to give them any credence.
But even if we don’t buy into the overgeneralizations, we’re still living in a time when everyone is tense. The black community is tense. Police are tense. Too much tension will only boil over.
“So, what in the world are we to do,” I asked James. He turned to his Bible and he read to me a verse he used in his sermon the day before. In 1 John, 3:18, the writer tells us “My little children, let us not love in word, neither in tongue; but in deed and in truth.”
Said another way, it’s not enough to stand up and say we deplore the actions of police officers who abuse their authority. It’s not enough to mourn police officers slain in the line of duty. We must do something about it.
Some might say that’s exactly what protesters around the country were doing the night of the Dallas shootings, but I would suggest that was simply an example of loving in tongue.
We are terribly fortunate that an incident like the three last week, or the recent shooting in Raleigh of a black man by a white police officer, or the shooting of a black man by a white police officer in North Charleston, or the shootings in Columbine or Sandy Hook ... just keep naming the incidents ... hasn’t happened in Garner.
Before they do, we should all look for ways to strengthen our systems. Police department leaders ought to take a good, long, hard look at the screening a prospective police officer undergoes before he or she is hired. Do we really study the backgrounds, life experiences and mental stability of prospective police officers as well as we could? If not, our local government should move to strengthen that process.
What about residents who live in the communities these police officers serve?
Have we really done a good job of voicing our concerns, fears and frustrations with law enforcement in a constructive way that helps them focus their attention on self-improvement?
And do our residents really do all they can to help police do their jobs – not by carrying guns around and dispensing our own brand of justice – but by getting to know our police and letting them know what’s going on in our neighborhoods when they aren’t around?
Those are just a few things police and residents can do to help keep from reading a headline in this newspaper about violence between police and the people who live here. I am sure there are more.