The prophet Jeremiah speaks in
anguish: “Disaster overtakes disaster.”
There were other African
Americans killed by police officers before Eric Garner was killed by New York
City police in July 2014. Although New York Police Department policy prohibits
the use of chokeholds, the maneuver was used on Garner. He repeated “I can't
breathe” eleven times while lying face down on the sidewalk until losing
consciousness. Countless other
African Americans had been killed before Eric Garner, but his killing was
recorded. Maybe something would change.
But a month later Michael Brown
was shot in Ferguson. This time, perhaps because of Garner’s recent death, the
outcry and the outrage were great. The cry “Hands up. Don’t shoot” was echoed
across our nation. Even the United Church of Christ began working to keep
people mobilized and engaged in countering institutional racism and sanctioned
violence. Maybe something would change.
But then just three months
later, in November, twelve-year-old Tamir Rice was shot by police who left him
for four minutes with no attempt at first aid. This happened in Cleveland, the
UCC national headquarters. It was there that the Rev. Traci Blackmon, executive
minister for Justice and Witness, called this “murder by law enforcement.”
Tamir Rice was just a child. Certainly something should change.
But of course nothing changed.
Disaster overtook disaster.
A year later, we were able to
listen in as Ta-Nehisi Coates spoke to his son in Between the World and Me:
You know now, if you did not
before, that the police departments of your country have been endowed with the
authority to destroy your body. It does not matter if the destruction is the
result of an unfortunate overreaction. It does not matter if it originates in a
misunderstanding. It does not matter if the destruction springs from a foolish
policy. Sell cigarettes without the proper authority and your body can be
destroyed. Resent the people trying to entrap your body and it can be
destroyed. Turn into a dark stairwell and your body can be destroyed. The
destroyers will rarely be held accountable. Mostly they will receive pensions.
And destruction is merely the superlative form of a dominion whose prerogatives
include friskings, detainings, beatings, and humiliations.
Coates concludes: “All of this
is common to black people. And all of this is old for black people. No one is
Nothing changed. We have seen
in recent days how nothing has changed.
Many saw the video of the
shooting, the execution of Terence Crutcher in Tulsa. He had car trouble. He
was waiting for help after his SUV broke down. His hands were up. A police
officer in a helicopter saw a black man and from on high made the judgment that
he looked like “a bad dude.” A few seconds later the father of four was shot
In Charlotte last Tuesday Keith
Lamont Scott was sitting in a car waiting to pick up his son after school. In
short time he was shot by officers who were looking for someone else.
Disaster overtakes disaster.
How long before this happens in
How long before this happens in
The words of Martin Luther
King, Jr. seem as though they were written in recent months: “If you try to
tell the people in most Negro communities that the police are their friends,
they just laugh at you. Obviously something desperately needs to be done to
correct this. ….Police must cease being occupation troops in the ghetto and
start protecting its residents. Yet very few cities have faced up to this
problem and tried to do something about it.”[ii]
It isn’t, as Mick Jagger
channeling Lucifer once sang, that “every cop is a criminal.” It isn’t that the
lives of police officers or other lives don’t matter.
But we must join with others in
saying that Black Lives Matter because these are the lives that are most at
risk in encounters with police.
For many, African-Americans continue
to be Ralph Ellison’s “invisible man,” who says at the beginning of that novel:
“I am an invisible man. No, I am not a spook like those who haunted
Edgar Allen Poe; nor am I one of your Hollywood-movie extoplasms. I am a man of
substance, of flesh and bone, fiber and liquids — and I might even be said to
possess a mind. I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see
And when white people do see, well,
we have been shown once again, as one person recently said, “that race can — and does — shape who’s seen
as ‘bad.’ The death of Terence Crutcher is a distressing reminder that
race informs which people are seen as threats, which in turn affects whether
police encounters turn adversarial, which in turn determines people’s
likelihood of being killed. You don’t have to be black to imagine the terror
people feel knowing that their skin color means there’s a chance they will at
some point be seen as a threat, a police officer will react to them as such,
their every hesitation or terrified motion will be interpreted as failure to
comply, and they will end up dead.”[iii]
Let me be clear. This is not an
abstract worry. Some in our congregation know this fear first hand.
We could despair over our
situation. When we hear King’s words we could lament that the more things
change, the more they stay the same.
And when we turn to scripture
this morning, there is little that suggests otherwise.
We hear Jeremiah speak and
there is little that give hope. Jeremiah speaks of judgment, not correction or
winnowing or cleansing. We hear only of judgment and destruction.
Jeremiah wrote at a time when
the nation of Judah was threatened by external enemies. It seemed as though the
judgment of God was coming harshly and swiftly upon the people. It would be so great
as to seem like the undoing of creation, with the earth returning to chaos and
void, with the heavens having no light, without human beings, without life.
The people were skilled in
doing evil, Jeremiah said, but did not know how to do good. Many had said “It
shall be well with you,” but those were words spoken by the foolish and those
To such a people, Jeremiah
spoke the word of God saying: “On that day, says the Lord, courage shall fail
the king and the officials; the priests shall be appalled and the prophets
astounded.” The civic and religious leaders would be of no use, as surprised
and shocked as everyone else.
And here we are, thousands of
years later. In spite of the obsession with terrorism, is there not a greater
threat from within—the racism that is so entrenched in our nation, the racism
that no one wants to see, the racism that strips us of courage and leaves us
appalled and astounded? Is there not a great judgment and great destruction
that we are bringing upon ourselves?
Across our country there are
ongoing, concerted efforts to take voting rights away from people—new laws that
put new burdens on African Americans.
Across our country there are
ongoing concerted efforts to keep immigrants out and to deport those who are
Across our country the
“alt-right”—the voices of white supremacy—are more and more entering the
mainstream of political conversation.
Courage has failed our
Several years ago our denomination
urged what were called “sacred conversations on race.”
Now our denomination has
released a curriculum on “white privilege.”
And a recent poll suggests that
the only religious group less supportive of Black Lives Matter than
evangelicals is, yes, you guessed it, mainline Protestants.
Our religious leaders are
appalled and astounded, but, really, of little use in dealing with this ongoing
evil in our nation.
In my own foolishness, I want
to give you hope. I want to say, “It shall be well for us.” That’s what you
expect me to do. That’s what you pay
me to do.
But words of hope are hard to
Near the end of this morning’s
reading from Jeremiah we hear this: “Thus says the Lord: The whole land shall
be a desolation; yet I will not make a full end.”
It is as if the God, who
thundered judgment and total destruction, cannot really bring this about, will
not really bring this about. And so, while filled moral outrage, God whispers,
“I will not make a full end.”
Maybe we, too, can yet join
with God and not make a full end of the disaster that we are bringing upon
ourselves and our nation.
Maybe we can stand against the
cowardly political rhetoric based on hate and fear.
Maybe we can look at the racism
in ourselves even when it leaves us appalled and astounded and ashamed.
Maybe we can let our eyes be
opened, and with new sight see what we don’t want to see and find our path
toward new possibilities.
some people bring a blind man to Jesus seeking his healing touch. After laying
his hands on the man, Jesus asks, “Can you see anything?”
reply is, “I can see people, but they look like trees, walking.”
And to be
honest, all too often, that seems to be the way that white people view people
of color. We don’t see people. We see threats. We see “bad dudes.” We see, as
one Congressman said this week, “people who hate white people because we’re
The only hope we
have here is that in all the Gospels, this is the only account of a healing
that does not take place immediately. Here new sight comes only gradually. And
some would suggest that this is the reason that this story was left out of both
the Gospel of Matthew and the Gospel of Luke.
But there is
something encouraging for us in this story of healing in stages.
It reminds us
that the healing we need is a process. Remember that story in Genesis about the
Adam and Eve and the serpent? In it the serpent promises instant awareness:
“Your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” If
we want quick solutions, the serpent has them for us.
If we choose to
follow in the way of Jesus Christ, our sight, our healing, our wholeness might
take a little longer.
answers are not the ones we really seek.
We seek the answers that come when we have been touched
for a second time, recognizing that if “clear sight” does not come right away,
we must continue to pursue it until we are able to see things as they are.
“Jesus laid his hands on his eyes again; and he looked intently and his sight
was restored, and he saw everything clearly.”
Listen. Listen carefully. You and I might yet be able
to hear the voice of the God who whispers, “I will not make a full end,” so
that from us those words become a shout of hope, an announcement of a new
Look. Look closely. You and I might yet be able to see
with clear sight, might yet be able to see our neighbors for who they are,
women and men, girls and boys created in the image of God, our sisters and
When we listen, when we look, we might at last engage
in the dialogue that is needed, the conversations that will change us as we
heed the words of the old song:
Don't punish me with brutality
Talk to me, so you can see
Oh, what's going on
[i] Ta Ne-Hisi Coates, Between the World and Me, pg. 9.
[ii] MLK, “A Testament of Hope,” in A Testament of Hope, pg. 325.