By Matt Sapp
NOTE: Since I started writing this, one of our church members was held up at gunpoint at the bank she works for, another black man was killed by a police officer in St. Paul, MN, and 12 police officers have been shot (5 killed) in Dallas, TX. Lord, have mercy.
Yesterday was my thirty-seventh birthday. I’m getting old. As old as thirty-seven sounds to me now, I have every reason to expect that I’ll be able to celebrate my thirty-eighth birthday and many more.
Another thirty-seven year old isn’t able to say that. His name is Alton Sterling. He was pinned to the ground, shot in the back and killed by Baton Rouge police officers earlier this week. He was the 560th American killed by police officers in the United States this year. In the same time period more than fifty police officers have been killed in the line of duty, too.
We are in the midst of an epidemic of violence in America.
We used to be able to name the places of violence or the names of the victims—to rattle them off in a list to prove that they were mounting up. Now, though, the instances of violence have become too many and too frequent to keep a running list.
We can no longer say Baton Rouge and Cleveland and Baltimore and Charleston, or Tamir and Freddie and Sandra and Alton as if these incidences can somehow be categorized as localized or isolated.
It’s no longer enough to say that Staten Island was a dangerous place for Eric Garner or that North Charleston, SC was a dangerous place for Walter Scott. We must now speak in the broader terms that have always been true; America is a dangerous place for black Americans. Or maybe just, America is a dangerous place.
Here’s what makes these cases so hard. The victims are rarely completely innocent. It’s never 100% clear that the police were motivated by race and rarely clear that there was intent to use lethal force inappropriately. What is clear is that violence, in all its forms, is a real and growing threat to our way of life and peace of mind in America.
And what’s becoming even clearer to me is that WE are to blame. The officers who are overly aggressive and physical with black citizens and who fire weapons out of fear for their own safety aren’t to blame. The black men who struggle and flee from encounters with police for the same reasons aren’t to blame.
A larger culture of fear and suspicion is to blame, and it isn’t created by the black community or the police community. It’s created by us.
When we mindlessly watch partisan anger spewed on cable news and just sit there like zombies soaking it in, we create it. When we stand silently while whole groups of people—immigrants, Mexicans, Muslims, gays, African-Americans—are smeared with the brush of bigotry, we create it.
When we fail to demand accountability of our elected leaders, we create it. When we fail to expect more from and for our impoverished communities, we create it.
When we fetishize violence and celebrate weaponry even as we stoke fear, we create a culture of rising tension and distrust—and ultimately a climate of violence and death.
Sitting in my office in Canton, GA—even in 2016—I know it’s dangerous to write about race or guns. I know how hard it is to ask questions that tend toward the political. And that, more than anything, is what I mourn this morning.
I mourn how difficult it is to even talk about what’s going on right now. I mourn that fear, distrust and anger—even hatred—have gripped our hearts and stilled God’s spirit within us.
I mourn because I know that Christians were not created to live this way. When fear, anger and hatred rise up in us, they are not of God. They come from somewhere else.
But my hope lies in the knowledge that there’s at least one other thing Christians weren’t created to be—timid. Instead, God gives us spirits of power, love and self-discipline (2 Timothy 1:7). We are not powerless in the face of violence if we have the courage and self-discipline to respond with loving words of truth.
So here’s a word of truth. These things don’t happen in other places. This is a uniquely American problem. Encounters with police don’t end in death—for citizens or police officers—anywhere else in the world. It doesn’t have to be this way.
And, the answer is not more violence or the militarization of police forces. Every time we resort to violence to solve a problem, we make America weaker, not stronger.
The only way to fix the problem is not to demand better of the police or the black community. We must demand better of ourselves. We are the stagnant water in which these problems fester.
God’s Spirit needs to come and stir our waters. And, today, God’s Spirit stirs waters most often when God speaks through you. Fear has stifled God’s voice in us for too long. It’s time for our country to hear Christians speak God’s truth of peace, love, reconciliation and forgiveness with a clear and united voice.
God, free our hearts and voices. Give all of us the courage to speak your truth to a troubled nation.
The time for silence has passed.
Matt Sapp serves as the pastor of Heritage Baptist Church in Canton, Ga.