Just over a week after the news from Ferguson, a grand jury in my own home town of New York has refused to indict a police officer in the death of a black man suspected of a crime. This time there is not even the pretense of an explanation. Now we find ourselves in the aftermath of the Staten Island grand jury decision. I struggle to find the words to express myself that go beyond a rant at a gross injustice. I struggle to find something spiritually helpful in his senseless loss of life. I feel even sadder now than I did ten days ago. I am also more horrified.
I am horrified, for one thing, by the video of Eric Garner's death. How could one not be horrified--an unarmed man posing no apparent threat to the large number of police officers surrounding him (it looks like at least eight to me) on a charge, at most, of selling untaxed cigarettes (an allegation of which I, at least, have seen no evidence).
Lethal force over untaxed cigarettes is horrifying enough. The horror becomes all the more intense, though, if this chain of events was set in place because of the color of someone's skin. We are told that it wasn't. I want to tell you why I do not believe that.
The day after the Staten Island decision morning I rode the B Train from 110th Street in Manhattan to Bryant Park at 42nd St. I like the B Train. I can almost always get a seat.
There were two barely teenage boys, perhaps 13 or maybe 14, sitting across from me, although separated by several empty places. They were not together. One was black. One was white. I doubt that is why they were separated. I suspect they were just on their way to different middle schools somewhere down the line, or perhaps escaping one up the line.
I was struck by how alike they behaved in a very typical 13-year-old-boy way. The one directly across from me pulled up the hood on his coat, leaned all the way over to rest his head on his backpack, and went to sleep. The other one leaned back against the wall of the train and closed his eyes. Thirteen-year-old boys are nocturnal creatures.
I wondered if their mothers had sent each of them off earlier in the morning, maybe with a kiss on the cheek, which 13-year-old-boys will sometimes still allow, and perhaps a lunch or snack for later in the day. I'm pretty sure their mothers sent them off with the admonition to be careful. I'm pretty sure the black mother sent her son off to school with more anxiety than the other, although all mothers of teenage boys have every reason to be anxious. It did occur to me, though, that one might be more likely to come home safely than the other.
Before the one in front of me leaned over and went to sleep, I noticed him look at me. He looked at me several times. And he looked at me suspiciously, very suspiciously. He was the black one. I remember thinking I understood why he might be looking suspiciously at the white guy across from him, particularly that morning.
And then the really horrible revelation. Was I projecting? Was what I perceived really my suspicion of him and not so much his of me? God, I hope not, but if I'm honest with myself, I can't tell you I absolutely know for sure. It calls for me to examine myself carefully.
It seems to me that this is where we have to start, and that this current season of Advent is a particularly good time to do it. We must begin with self-examination, a painfully honest self-examination.
And now what I'm going to say is particularly difficult. The self-examination must begin with white people, such as myself.
I say this carefully and regretfully, but also from my heart. For one thing, I am a white person. I have no business telling black people what they need to examine in a situation like this. And besides, it's not the same thing. Black people may have racial prejudices, but they do not generally make the power structure work based on them because the power structure is more in hands the color which is more like mine.
Just as an example, I saw the former mayor of New York, Rudy Giuliani, comment on the Staten Island grand jury yesterday and ridicule the current mayor and others who took issue with it. He reminded his audience of the importance of process and that in this case the process had reached its result. And then he reminded those who watched that, after all, Eric Garner, the dead man, had just committed a crime when he was killed, something which, by the way, no jury, grand or otherwise, had a chance to consider. That's the difference between those with power and those without. Those with power get the process. Some systemic self-examination might be in order.
There's another reason to start with white people. I was brought up to notice skin color and to breathe in racism with no more intentionality than I breathed the air around me. I'm sure my parents and grandparents made no decision to do so. It just got passed on. That's the nature of original sin, after all. It just gets passed on as naturally as every other trait that goes with being human. And in America, this is a sin with which, with rare exception, white people just come with without any particular fault of their own. We just get it. To get rid of it is going to take some self-examination because it is difficult even to notice, so subtle is it, to say nothing of criticize.
Finally, I begin with white people because I have spent the last 26 years being a pastor primarily to white people--not exclusively, especially after I became a bishop, but primarily. And as someone who has spent a lot of years caring for the souls of white people, I know that racism threatens their spiritual health in a very profound way. What is a life or death issue for black people, as we have seen demonstrated, is an eternal life or death issue for white people. So as a white pastor to a lot of white people, I think this intense self-examination needs to begin with us.
The Episcopal Church is committed to changing this reality. We are committed to taking our part in God's Beloved Community, to preparing the way of the Lord, to the coming of the kingdom of God. There is action coming. For now, I'm suggesting that white people such as myself begin with some serious self-examination, and that we ask our black brothers and sisters to help us like John the Baptist in calling the powers that be to account. And if we don't do that, I suspect we have not seen anything as horrifying as what we will. And it wouldn't hurt to pray, all of us.