ad, something happened. I just got pulled over by the cops.”
Most parents have heard those words from their teens at some time. No matter how well we train them, our sons and daughters are likely to break a traffic law, and usually in front of an officer.
“What happened? Did you run a stop sign?” I asked.
“Dad, I just had a burned-out light, and he said it was just a routine stop . . . .”
My son’s next words chilled my soul. “Dad, he pulled out his gun and kept it pointed at me,” my son said, his strong demeanor dissolving into tears.
All my fears and anger bubbled inside as he told me the details. I was horrified to learn that the youngest of my three Nazarene, parsonage-raised, Bible-believing sons had a gun pulled on him during a “routine traffic stop” by an overanxious policeman!
Of course, as a dad, I was so relieved that my son was safe, that he’d respected the officer’s position, and alleviated the officer’s reaction enough to come home alive. We hear too many stories about nervous officers using a gun as a first response instead of last resort. Like any parent, I get a little unsettled and protective when my children are dealing with the law for the first time. And like any parent, I feel indignant when my child is bullied or treated unfairly by authorities. But our family has to deal with an extra dynamic that some parents don’t. You see, my son is black. As far as I know, none of my son’s many young white friends have ever experienced a gun being pulled on them during a routine traffic stop
An Old Issue Made New
Is it just me, or does it seem that we have recently taken a “quantum leap” back in time? Fifty years ago, social and political unrest surged throughout the U.S. Protests against the Vietnam War were being held on college campuses. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s, voice cried out against racial injustice toward people of color and the poor. Race riots erupted in places like Cleveland, Detroit, and Newark. This was an era marked by social and political unrest that mirrors much of the unrest today. The words of Ecclesiastes come to mind: “What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun” (1:9, NIV).
The basic call, in the words of one of Aretha Franklin’s greatest hits, released in 1967, is for R.E.S.P.E.C.T., a little respect. However, we cannot achieve this goal of living in a world of mutual respect without first trying on the lenses of another.
Trying on New Lenses
Recent events, like those that gave rise to the Black Lives Matter movement and the NFL protests, evoke the same feelings today as the Vietnam protests and the call to actions by Dr. King and the Civil Rights Movement of an earlier era. I feel that many of my Anglo brothers and sisters have expressed a genuine desire to understand the world in which many blacks and other minorities live. In times like these, we can learn from the past and stop talking past each other by seeking to look through the lenses of our brothers and sisters in Christ, many of whom come from different backgrounds.
As a black, Wesleyan-leaning, holiness-teaching, card-carrying elder in the Church of the Nazarene, I too am engaged and concerned about this society we live in. I hope to offer an example of the good that can come when my brothers and sisters from other cultures try on a different set of lenses.
A Case Study: Seeing BLM Through Different Lenses
The Black Lives Matter movement began as a result of unarmed black men being killed by police. The Bureau of Justice Statistics did a study a few years ago (2011) and found that 26.4 million people said their most recent contact with the police was being pulled over in a traffic stop. The report showed that 30 percent more male drivers were pulled over than female drivers. And 30 percent more black drivers were pulled over than white or Hispanic drivers. Black drivers were three times more likely to be searched than white drivers (but about 10% less likely than Hispanic drivers). About 68% of black drivers believed police had a legitimate reason for stopping them compared to 84% of white 74% of Hispanic drivers.
When seen through the lenses of most black men and women, it appears that police are more threatened by young black men, and are quick to pull out their gun and fire, for what they label as aggressive behavior. However, when men of the dominant culture exhibit similar behavior, they are significantly less likely to shot. In a January 2015 through July, 2016 real-time database, the Washington Post found that 1502 people were shot and killed by on-duty police officers. Whites make up about 62 percent of the U.S. population and are 49 percent of those killed. On the other hand, blacks make up just 13 percent of the U.S. population, but are 24 percent of those who are killed. According to the Washington Post, black Americans are 2.5 times as likely as white Americans to be shot and killed by police officers. While this data helped my son and me to see why he had been treated in the manner he did, it was also disconcerting to me.
I recognize that it is hard for someone who has worn the lenses of the majority culture all of his or her life to understand how it feels to walk in the shoes of a black person. It appears, to those of us who see through different lenses, that white lives have always mattered in America. Black folks, including black Christians, are simply saying they want the same respect afforded as our Anglo counterparts.
A Case Study: Seeing the NFL Protests Through Different Lenses
The protests in the NFL, first precipitated by the kneeling of San Francisco quarterback Colin Kaepernick, is seen through some lenses as disrespect for the country, the flag, and even the military: a lack of gratefulness for all that this country can offer. However, viewed through different lenses—the lenses of those who, like my own son, have experienced systematic disparity in this nation—the protests are seen as a way of pointing out that a prominent person of color should call attention to the fact that the nation has, even in recent days, had a different standard of treatment for black people and other people of color.
In Kapernick’s own words as quoted by www.nfl.com/news: “To me, this is bigger than football, and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way. There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder."
Millennials of all races in the church I pastor see Kapernick’s protest as an example of someone having the courage and conviction to call attention to the fact that the flag that represents the best of American values does not always afford equal rights and the pursuit of the American Dream to black men and women in America. In matters like this, it helps if we try on the lenses of the millennials we say we are so desperate to reach, if for no other reason than to clearly hear the widest range of voices coming from the Church.
An Eye Exam and the Lenses of Jesus
As men and women of faith, we must be the eyes, as well as the hands, heart, and mouth of Jesus. We must earnestly seek to understand and promote peace and reconciliation among all peoples. This begins by being honest about the lenses we look through and the need for the kind of clear vision that comes from Jesus.
The parable of the Good Samaritan sets forth a great example of how believers are to show love and compassion to those that are hurting and disenfranchised. The expert teacher asked Jesus a question: “Who is my neighbor?” Jesus’s response was the aforementioned parable (Luks 10:29).
Christians today face the same question: Does your neighbor look like you and live in the same geographical area? Does your neighbor sit at the desk next to you and go to lunch with you every week? Is your neighbor of the same race and ethnic background as you sharing the seat beside you on Sunday morning worship? That is a friend in your inner circle and your immediate comfort zone, but Jesus’s view of our neighbor is much broader. Samaritans and Jews had decidedly different visions of God and God’s ways: they wore different lenses. This parable of Jesus is prophetic in that it called both groups to see through the eyes of the other and to respond with compassion and grace.
Who is my neighbor? Could it be Trayvon Martin, the teenager who lost his life while coming from the store with a bag of candy and a drink in a neighborhood where he didn’t belong? Could it be Anthony L. Smith, a young black man killed by a police officer after a high-speed chase, who might have had a gun planted on him, apparently to justify his shooting? Or even Terrance Sterling an unarmed young black man, fatally shot by police after his motorcycle collided with a police car that pulled in front of him while he was riding home from a party? (This happened despite a radio command from a police supervisor directing all units not to pursue Sterling, according to the Washington Post).
The list goes on. Who is your neighbor? Perhaps trying on different lenses can help answer that question. The answer from Jesus is: Any disenfranchised, oppressed, or marginalized person or group that is being mistreated simply because of their race or ethnicity. Anyone in need of a champion to show them the love of Christ and the way of true holiness: This is our neighbor. As Christians, we are called to try on various lenses, so that ultimately we can see through the lenses of the love of Jesus Christ. Doing so results in a faith that is demonstrated by actions. This kind of holiness in action can allow us and those who need the light of Christ to echo the words of the classic hymn: “I was blind, but now I see!”