Ellie Wiesel, Black Lives Matter, and Police

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Of the people whom I have met in person, the one whom I respect perhaps more than any other died last week.  Elie Wiesel was a Holocaust survivor, a prolific writer, and Nobel Peace Prize winner.  He was 15 years old when the Nazis sent him to Auschwitz, and later Buchenwald.  The Allies liberated Buchenwald in 1945.  If you don’t know who he was, or if you do and want to hear some of his thoughts and memories, listen to this interview.  If you haven’t read Night, I believe you should.

TERRY GROSS: Why have you made it your life work to bear witness?

ELIE WIESEL: What else could one do, having gone through certain events? I believe a human being – if he or she wants to remain human, then he or she must do something with what we have seen, endured, witnessed.

We are faced with horrors.  I don’t think the world has gotten worse in the last week–we may be myopic if we suspect it has– but the United States has just witnessed horrible, public tragedies, violence committed by police officers against black men, violence committed against police officers by a black man. I’ve already shared some of my views about our racism.  Choosing sides as if one is right and the other is wrong strikes me as inhuman and certainly contradicts following Jesus in any way I could comprehend.  

Trevor Noah, the current host of The Daily Show, said this:

“You know, the hardest part of having a conversation surrounding police shootings in America, it always feels like in America, it’s like if you take a stand for something, you automatically are against something else,” Noah said during his broadcast, which was taped before the events in Dallas.

 

“But with police shootings, it shouldn’t have to work that way. For instance, if you’re pro-Black Lives Matter, you’re assumed to be anti-police, and if you’re pro-police, then you surely hate black people. When in reality, you can be pro-cop and pro-black, which is what we should all be.”

I also recommend the entire monologue from which this quote comes.  

Like many of you, I’m trying to make sense of these deaths and I’m trying to figure out how to respond.  Like many of you, I’m grieving, I’m angry, and I’m numb, all at once.  

I experience white privilege.  I know some people hate that term. I think it’s accurate.  The very fact that I have choices in how I respond–or don’t respond–points to my privileged position.  I can ignore all of this if I choose, and it will not affect me directly.  

That beings so, do I have any right to say anything in response to Alton Sterling and Philando Castile’s killings?  

Officers Lorne Ahrens, Michael Smith, Michael Krol, Patrick Zamarripa and Brent Thompson were killed in Dallas last week.  
Vinson Ramos, Melissa Ventura, Anthony Nuñez, Pedro Villanueva and Raul Saavedra-Vargas were shot and killed by police last week.  
Then today–today–Joseph Zangaro and Ron Kienzle, bailiffs in Jackson, Michigan were fatally shot by a prisoner.  
Is there no end?  
Bullied children matter.  The kids who get beat up, picked on, humiliated, abused, ganged up on, those kids matter.  I know bullying continues and we have not successfully defended all the victims of bullying–all three of my daughters experienced some form of bullying in school–but strong movements are springing up in many places and in many forms to advocate for these children, to stand with them, to empower them to speak up, and to address the violence against them.  
Nowhere have I heard anyone respond, “But all children matter!”  Of course all children matter.  Calling for us to focus on, and stand up for, bullied children neither denies nor diminishes the value of other children.  There is no inherent reduction of non-bullied children’s value when we take a stand to stop bullying.   
Black lives matter.  We have to be pro-cop and pro-black.  It’s what “we all should be.”  
When policemen and women get murdered, we speak up.  We shout.  We pursue changes to make them safer, to defend them.  We ask, “What will help?  What can we do?”
Black lives matter.  When black men and women get murdered, we speak up.  We shout.  We pursue changes to make them safer, to defend them.  We ask, “What will help?  What can we do?”  
I have a right to say this.  I have a responsibility to say this.  So do you.  
I respect Elie Wiesel because he refused to be consumed by hatred.  Every member of his family except his two older sisters were murdered in the Holocaust.  (Stop and imagine that: every one of your relatives but two are killed.)  He had every reason, as we understand such things, to hate those who committed these horrible acts of violence.  Instead, he chose to bear witness.  He did it, he said, in order to remain human.  
I know there are people associated with Black Lives Matter who state that they hate cops.  There are also racist police who hate black people.  The police department in Ferguson, Missouri, was found by the Department of Justice to have a consistent record of violating civil rights and worse.  I understand many of us don’t want to hear this, but it’s true.  Denying it, brushing it off, or covering it up will not help us in our current crisis.  Neither will declaring all police evil and hateful and racist.  
When we talk about being patriotic, my best understanding is that we speak the truth for–and to–our country and hold our country to its highest values.  “My country, right or wrong” is not patriotism; it is willfully blind obeisance.  So to be patriotic in the U.S. is always to pursue the ideal, “and justice for all.”  
By the same measure, looking away, or claiming that if blacks just obeyed the law there would be no problem, or supporting all actions of all police indiscriminately, is not right.  It’s not justice.  It’s not patriotic.  It’s not even truly support for our police departments, in the long run.  
I am a pastor.  Whether I am coaching, mentoring, teaching, preaching, or writing, I am pastoring.  Pastoring is my orientation, my giftedness, my calling.  Tragically, a number of pastors do horrible things.  In our sphere, these things most often involve money, sex, or power.  A pastor who embezzles, who commits sexual abuse, who twists his or her influence to manipulate and subjugate and demean, this is a sinner like the rest of us but also someone who must be stopped from hurting others.  Arguably the most grievous sin the United States church has committed is choosing to deny such abuses, sometimes by silencing the abused, or by moving the abuser to a different congregation, or even quietly removing the abuser without acknowledging the wrongs committed. Even this last, while the best of bad choices, leaves people horribly damaged and causes ongoing harm to vulnerable people.  
It’s a nightmare for a church when a leader abuses power, but the only redemptive action is to confront the abuser and stop the abuse.  Churches that choose this path offer the possibility of healing for everyone involved–including the one who committed the abuse–and through admission of guilt and wrongdoing can begin to rebuild broken trust and restore relationships.  I know there are crucial differences between church leadership and police work, but I do believe this principle must remain constant for both: if one of us abuses our power, we on the inside have the primary responsibility first to prevent abuse, but failing that, to identify and stop that abuse.  As the church, we extend grace, but if we ever “defend one of our own” by excusing or covering up their abuse, we have violated our sacred trust and damaged  God’s Kingdom.  Jesus has scary words for people who cause spiritual damage to others, especially for those who exercise authority over others.  
All of us must bear witness to the truth in our spheres.  All of us must speak up and refuse to be silenced.  We are all responsible to hold one another accountable.  
Our black brothers and sisters are grieving and outraged.  I pray  that they can find their way through to forgiveness and love and bearing witness.  I have no right to judge how African-Americans in the U.S. respond to these tragedies because I have not experienced racism as they have.  My family members are not being killed.  I cannot pretend to understand.  As a follower of Jesus, I believe in a non-violent response.  But again, I am not the victim of this violence.  I think one of worst responses to these tragedies is to tell others how they should grieve or protest.  If you had tried to do that to me after my son had died…  
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Chris Magnus, police chief of Richmond, CA, supporting Black Lives Matter. Read more about how his department has helped lower violence in their community.

I have never been a police officer.  Frankly, I doubt I would have the courage or the ability to remain calm and make right decisions under such pressure and threat.  As I’ve said here before, a life-long friend of mine is a policeman and I have the utmost respect for him and for the work he and his colleagues do.  His life matters to me, and the fact that it might be threatened sheerly for his efforts to protect his community is an outrage that I must speak against.  I know not everyone feels protected by the U.S. police.  I live in a country where police protection is often dubious, at best.  I do believe it is our police departments’ responsibility to address abuses of power among their own members.  Having said that, I am extremely grateful for the work U.S. police do keeping the peace, particularly because many of them put themselves at severe risk to do so.  
I know this:  hatred sows more hatred and begets violence.  Every one of us can do something to change the current atmosphere, this storm of rage and violence and killing.  I know many of us feel helpless in the face of it all, and it’s easy either to despair or grow cynical.  It’s also easy to lash out, in either direction.  
Pray.  I don’t care if you don’t believe in prayer (did I say that out loud?), take the chance to ask someone to help.  Honestly, can it hurt?  If you just can’t, I understand, but if you are a Christian, this is the time.  Fast and pray.  
If you are not directly involved, get to know someone better who is.  Yes, that may come across as patronizing or awkward.  Someone might reject you.  OR, you might develop a deeper friendship and understand a little better from a perspective other than your own (and all the folks who agree with you).  Similarly, think about whom you already know who might have more personal insights into Black Lives Matter or violence against police than you do.  
If you’re reading this and you do have a more personal, direct understanding, if you are black, if you are a police officer, if you’re less white privileged than I am, teach us.  Share your perspective.  No, not everyone will listen.  Some people are shitheads not yet enlightened and awake.  But try.  Please.  Help us.  Help us to understand.  Help us to help, and not just talk with our heads up our…  Some people will listen.  
Speak up as a citizen.  Tell your elected officials that you want to see change.  Ideally, you would do this after you’ve learned more and have an educated grasp of what change would help most.  
Here’s the big one, and please, I beg of you, take this seriously:  love more.  Love yourself more.  Love yourself honestly and look at your dark side.  A few days ago, I broke my rule and read a bunch of Facebook comments on some political posts.  Within five minutes, I was convinced that most people are rude, hateful, arrogant and narrow-minded to the point of being blind.  That’s not actually true, thank God.  But a bunch of people feel free to call strangers horrible names because they disagree politically, as if that will help.  But of course, they aren’t really trying to help, they are simply venting their spleen.  Sowing hatred and enmity. Most of us aren’t writing those things–we aren’t, right?–but we’ve all probably got some of those thoughts and beliefs concealed in our hearts (except my mother-in-law, I suspect).  Bring them into the light.  Expose them and love yourself enough to rid yourself of that.  
Then love others more.  I don’t believe Jesus was naive, I don’t think this is naive.  Jesus lived in a violent, divisive, racist atmosphere.  He didn’t say those things about loving one another and loving our enemies on the set of a 50’s sitcom.  Make choices to express love and kindness and forgiveness and grace.  To strangers.  To friends.  To family.  To enemies.  Overcome hatred with love.  
It’s going badly.  The status quo is scary and getting scarier.  This is not the time for us to bolt our doors and say, “It’s not my fault,” or “I’ve done my part.”   An angry, violent, seemingly self-loathing man killed forty-nine human beings in a night club in Orlando.  It was an act of terrorism–he’d pledged allegiance to ISIS–and a hate crime.  That was less than a month ago.  But it’s not in the headlines anymore, because we have more recent tragedies and violence and death.  
I believe God is bigger than all this.  I also believe that God’s means of changing the world–always–is through people loving one another.  That’s his thing.  
Tonight on my Facebook feed I saw this.  Opposing protesters crossing lines, hugging, praying together.  At the time of this writing, it had 42,000,000 views.  Why?  WE ALL WANT TO SEE THIS!  We all want to figure out what to do!  No, those moments of grace didn’t solve the problem, but I believe, I believe they are part of the solution.  
We’ve got to love one another.  I don’t know how, exactly, and I’m still failing at this with some people in my life, but today we’ve got to try. As John’s first letter says, “…let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action.”
Coming back to Elie Wiesel, my friend Morgan and I heard him together when he spoke to a small gathering of us before addressing an auditorium full that night.  Morgan wrote me, ‘I remember him saying that he thought a good measure of a person was ability to experience gratitude.”  
Wiesel also wrote, 
The opposite of love is not hate, it’s indifference.
I’m guessing that none of the the readers of my blog are big-time haters.  But are we indifferent to others’ suffering when it does not touch us directly?  Do we feel grief and misery for a day or a week and then return to our lives?  Do we experience gratitude for these lives and desire to allow others to live such lives, too?  
Are we, each of us, bearing witness through whatever means we can, in whatever way God makes possible?  
Because we have to change this.  Lord have mercy, we must try.  
Here is a great and challenging blog post by my friend Laura, exhorting us to do something practical: speak up.  
Here is a deeper look at saying “All Lives Matter” versus “Black Lives Matter.”  
And here is where you can learn more about Elie Wiesel.

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