Our Lot

A life of service is never wasted;

A potent truth if we embraced it.

As long as we will harm for gain,

This world of violence will remain.

It’s not a fact of war alone,

Or actions rending flesh and bone,

But it’s our ev’ry word and thought

We must amend to change our lot.

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“Stand Your Ground” Law: Why I Stopped Killing Spiders

I used to kill spiders, often on command. Spiders or insects of various kinds would enter our dwelling and someone would yell, “Kill it!” I’d do it, usually with no thought at all.

After all, people I love are scared of those things. I have been scared of them. Therefore, I am justified in taking life from them, right?

Our country even defends this behavior with humans. The Zimmerman and Martin case in Florida is a good example. It turns out you can pick a fight with someone, lose that fight, and shoot that someone because you made a stupid decision.

Totally makes sense, yes?

In pre-historic times, sure. Killing things that seemed threatening kept our species alive. The problem is that civilization doesn’t function well under those parameters. That’s A LOT of death when you take into account how often we tend to fear or hate difference. Yet many states are totally fine with validating our fears to the point of violence.

I get the idea. We want people to legally be able to defend themselves, which is great until you factor in prejudice (in the form of unequal threat association based on race or appearance) and a set of lawyers out to manipulate juries for a win. Also, humans get scared of a lot of things, and that fear is subjective, which is not a sound basis for law. Juries are supposed to consider evidence precisely because empathy can interfere with justice because of shared prejudice.

After all, if we legally excuse people based on their mindset at the time, NO ONE would pay for their crimes. There is ALWAYS justification available. We humans can rationalize anything.

When we justify violence based on fear, we set ourselves up for more violence, not less. This works against what I would say is the goal of laws against murder, manslaughter, assault, etc.

But what is the alternative?

Well.

What if we cared more about life (all life) than possessions or our own illusion of safety? What if we as individuals decided ahead of time to act with love and kindness toward others, no matter how others might act toward us? What if we as a society recognized the inherent value of all living creatures as part of this interconnected natural world?

There is inherent risk to this idea. It’s a scary, idealistic approach to complex, dark, and real issues. However, things can’t change if we keep responding “in kind.” You can’t kill your way to peace. It takes an entirely different response to affect change, and I think we can all agree that change is something we need.

So I stopped killing wasps, spiders, roaches, all of it. I catch them, and I move them. I take precautions, but those precautions are selected with love and appreciation in mind, not fear. It’s a small thing, but perhaps we as a society would benefit from finding such a “third way” for how we deal with each other.

Peace be with you!

Black and Blue Lives Matter

Once when Joshua was by Jericho, he looked up and saw a man standing before him with a drawn sword in his hand. Joshua went to him and said to him, “Are you one of us, or one of our adversaries?” He replied, “Neither; but as commander of the army of the LORD I have now come.” — Joshua 5:13-14, NRSV

With the shooting of Botham Jean by a Dallas Police officer and the killing of Garrett Hull, an undercover Fort Worth officer, we here in the Dallas-Fort Worth area have seen another set of contributions to the national “debate” regarding police officers and their treatment of people of color. I render “debate” this way because we aren’t truly debating, whether it be this or any other issue. Debate is a discussion in which two positions interact for the purposes of finding the truth. It is a conversation that happens in community. What we are doing these days is more like screaming at each other from inside our own little boxes.

What I mean is that both people of color and police officers have experiences that are true. People of color were never intended to have an equal share to success and dignity in this nation, and we are in the midst of historical growing pains as we try to overcome a prejudicial narrative that spans over two hundred years, made more difficult by the tendency to devalue certain lives based on whether or not they meet a fickle set of standards in the eyes of the public. On the other hand, police officers are often under-trained, under-paid, and unsupported as they enter into situations we’d all like to pretend don’t exist. They are tense, and they have good reason to be, especially when a routine traffic stop or sitting on a lunch break can become deadly activities.

Families of police officers are fearful every day that their loved one might not make it home. This feeling is both shared and amplified in communities of color, whose fear is actually stoked by the sight of a blue uniform. Further, both officer families and marginalized citizens earnestly desire justice and peace for those they love.

These commonalities, however, are largely ignored in our national dialogue. A motto as specific as “Black lives matter” chafes a public that is still not at peace with its own history, and is misrepresented as an attack on law enforcement and all other lives. Meanwhile, officers are demonized, killed, and blamed individually for systemic issues. To make matters worse, inflammatory rhetoric surfaces that further deepens a divide that never should have been there, putting all parties in greater danger.

So what do we do?

So far, it seems to me that we pick our “box” and scream at those on the other side, blaming “those people” for the present state of our country… and the world loves it. The world is all about handing us two human-made sides from which we must choose. We cannot stay in the middle, for this is a most unacceptable neutrality. When it comes to our politics, religion, or this specific example of Black and Blue lives being pitted against each other, we must exclusively decide.

Screw that.

I’m done, and I hope you are as well.

The truth is, there is no reason to “pick a side” in this worldly debate. Why? Because understanding and reform are needed across the board if we want this nation to move forward with justice and peace. When citizens feel safer, officers are safer. When officers feel safer, citizens are safer. Too much overlap exists for there to actually be exclusive “sides” in this (or any other) national issue.

To illustrate this, I’ll share a conversation I had with an Orthodox priest from Ferguson, Missouri, who was chaplain to both police officers and protesters in the wake of the killing of Michael Brown by a white police officer. During one protest turned riot, looters from surrounding areas had started tearing into a local food pantry. Within seconds, protesters, who were ahead of police forces, performed a citizen’s arrest, locking arms and barring the perpetrators from leaving the charity until officers arrived.

“There,” he said, “in the midst of all that chaos and shouting, I saw hugs exchanged, tears shed, and finally, everyone understood that they all wanted the same thing.” The priest went on to say that even in separate consultations with police and protesters, he found the concerns of both to be similar in every way. They all wanted justice, they all wanted peace, and they all wanted everybody to be okay.

My own experiences testify to the truth of his claims. I have marched in and been a part of Black Lives Matter protests and events. I have also sat with my father-in-law and the rest of my wife’s family in fundraising dinners in honor of fallen police officers. I’ve listened to my Black brothers and sisters and my police-related friends and family as they all described the horrific fears and realities that face them on a daily basis.

So what do we do? It’s true that we can’t just sit neutral, but I also believe that just picking one of the “sides” presented to us is far too simplistic. This is where the text at the beginning of the article comes into play.

At this point in Joshua’s story, he is preparing to attack Jericho. He sees a representative of God, and asks him which side he is on. Notice what the angel says. “Neither; But as commander of the army of the LORD I have now come.” The Hebrew word the NRSV Bible translates as “Neither” actually means “no.” God is not on any particular human-made side. God is on the side of righteousness, and perhaps that is the side we need to be on as well.

It is not righteous to use our experiences to judge or dismiss those of other people. We are not acting righteously if we do not recognize that God weeps for all who suffer, including our officers and brothers and sisters of color. Progress is not found in vengeance, violence, or one-sided narratives aimed at deepening social and cultural divisions. God’s desire is for all of His children to fully live, and the hatred, suspicion, and fear that so frequently guides our interactions these days will not help us honor that desire.

For us to be righteous, we must recognize that God’s image rests on all people, and they should be treated accordingly, regardless of their race, occupation, economic class, or even their misdeeds. We can’t go on only mourning officers or civilians, without striving to make life better and more sustainable for both. We can’t continue allowing the world to tell us who our enemies are and how we treat them.

We shouldn’t be afraid to specifically say, “Black lives matter.” It shouldn’t insult us, nor should we fail to understand the greater context behind the phrase, as it represents a continuous struggle that is not limited to (or even primarily about) interactions with police officers. It’s not a concept we should feel the need to argue with.

We also shouldn’t be afraid to support and respect our local law enforcement officers. The vast majority of our American brothers and sisters who enter this type of career do so out of a desire to do good things for their families and communities. While systemic issues do lead to particular biases, these problems are largely not conscious, and result from the day-to-day experience of officers in the areas they serve.

By the same token, being righteous means we have the courage to honestly look at what’s wrong within ourselves and our communities, as there are real issues that need actual attention. Such examination necessarily includes police and other institutions that impact our lives. When we let go of allegiances that blind us to suffering, we are free to question any practice or institution that denies equality, justice, and safety to any to our people.

I know this is a lot to think about. I am also sure I run the risk of pissing off a lot of people with what I am saying, as no one likes their reality to be challenged. The truth is, however, that progress and growth are impossible when we keep digging our heels in without taking time to listen with our hearts and minds open. It sounds like hippie advice, but take a look at our society and tell me with a straight face that what we are doing now is working out well. I’ll wait.

Can’t do it can you? So let’s try something different. Let’s prayerfully approach this and all other issues with the understanding that we all want a better future. Let’s acknowledge that we don’t have all the answers, and all we can do is offer our experience while being truly open to the experiences of others. Let’s strive to find our common ground and then try to discern together what a better way forward might be.

Peace be with you!

Violence and Christian Compassion

No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did. — Luke 13:5, NRSV

When I look at the world and all of its violence, I always try to look and see how we as a nation are responding to it. News articles from a variety of sources, social media, church and dinner table conversations, all of these are indicators of our position regarding the death and violence that occur on a daily basis. For the most part, our position looks pretty bad.

Take, for example, the shooting of Botham Jean in Dallas. He was a man in his own apartment, which was mistakenly entered by Dallas police officer who proceeded to shoot him dead. In the wake of the shooting, news reports emerge regarding the marijuana later found in his apartment. It may seem like a trivial detail, but it’s actually an act of character assassination that is all too common, as if to say, “Sure, it happened. But look! It wasn’t one of the good ones!”

We tend to be stingy with our compassion. When someone is killed or suffers violence, our response is proportional to their innocence. Death row inmates (understandably) garner very little compassion, along with anyone who was committing a crime of any kind at the time of their death. Certain states even have laws that seem to say property is worth killing another human over!

For the Christian person, this must become unacceptable. Too many of us in the faith operate by this system of selective compassion, and it is exposing a frightful hypocrisy on the part of a belief system that centers on a God-Man who was put to death according to laws of His day!

So, if you’ve stuck around this long, you may be asking, “Why?” It’s an expected question.

After all, why should we show compassion even toward the worst of the worst? After all, don’t they deserve what they get? Perhaps they deserve worse!

Let me ask you this: do you want God to treat you as you deserve? He will, you know. Jesus says so multiple times, and it is even a central part of our most sacred prayer, remember?

“And forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.” Jesus teaches us, “For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you; but if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses” (Matthew 5:14-15). If we know this and repeat it every Sunday, why in the world do we treat others according to a standard we hope God will set aside for us?

God weeps tears for even the worst killer in existence. He may even weep more for this lost soul. On the cross, God even bled for the worst of sinners. How then, as His people, can so many self-professing Christians not see the danger in refusing to practice the spiritual discipline of unrelenting compassion? It doesn’t amount to a lack of desire for justice, nor is it a means of condoning wrongdoing, but it is an expression of the grace we believe we have received from God. It is our way of loving back the One who died because of our hard hearts. Further, it is a practice that is applicable without regard for race, creed, profession, nationality, or any other worldly criteria that are often used to determine the worthiness of others.

The good news hidden in this message is that God does love and is eager to forgive us, regardless of our past. The challenge is that He expects us all to pay that grace forward to all others, regardless of whether or not we feel they deserve it. The Christian’s response to violence in this world should consist of heart-broken compassion and self-reflection. These responses do not exclude a desire for justice, but they do temper it with awareness, preventing us from transgressing in thought, word, or deed.

This kind of change is not easy. It takes practice and a lot of grace with ourselves and each other. However, if we start to make the effort, the promised blessing will follow. After all, “Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy” (Matthew 5:7).

Peace be with you!