I was struck by the headline of the Tulsa World this morning, echoing Police Chief Jordan’s words following the killing of Terence Crutcher by a Tulsa Police officer. “We will achieve justice in this case.” Perhaps it was just a turn of phrase that is more commonly rendered by public officials in the too common occurrence of these tragedies, “we will seek justice,” as US Attorney Danny Williams Sr. said regarding the same case Monday. I found those two words bouncing around in my head: achieving and seeking with regard to justice.
Having not yet heard the news about the shooting, I preached Sunday on “Sabbath and Justice in the Vineyard,” and made the case that the two are joined together in a cycle that perpetuates both. Sabbath and Justice are in a dyad, like two hydrogen atoms orbiting the single Oxygen atom of the Holy Ruach—the Divine Breath. What you have when you combine those elements of course is water, and when the light of creation shines through water, the rainbow appears—the symbol of Shalom—a Hebrew word that incorporates peace, harmony, wholeness, completeness, prosperity, welfare and tranquility. Seeking justice involves pursuing these things. But, “achieving justice?” I see that verb as something more.
Perhaps some feel that “achieving justice” will simply mean meting out appropriate punishment to the police officer who pulled the trigger that ended the life of a man with car trouble in the middle of the street. That may be part of the picture, but it is certainly not “achieving justice.” Achieving justice will not be limited to the police department. It involves a whole community. If there is anything the prophets of the Bible teach us, it is that injustice is invasive. It is like a wild vine that creeps into a tended vineyard and puts forth sour grapes. “What more could I have done?” God asks in Isaiah 5, lamenting the fruit of his vineyard. The question should be reflective for the Body of Christ. The quest to “achieve justice” is not some task to be placed in the hands of a task force or council. It is a community endeavor. Time and time again in the scriptures, the answer is in collective responsibility, and in our present crisis—the crisis of police over-exertion of force, the blame isn’t relegated to one police officer—like ashes billowing out in a crowd of onlookers, the incident implicates all of us.
I would be surprised if the officer or officers involved in this incident held overtly racist mentalities. Maybe I shouldn’t be surprised, since that perverted ignorant mindlessness is more common than I like to think. But in any case, what seems to be more likely to me in most of these cases where police officers have had hair triggers in encounters with black men, is that systemic racism that infects our whole culture underlies those tragedies. Systemic racism is the ash that blankets all of us—it is vile and invasive. It creeps into our conversations and mentalities and stereotypes. My friend, Pastor Chris Moore of Fellowship Congregational Church stated at yesterday’s press conference that he was quite certain that this would not happen to him, a white man, at 36th and SOUTH Lewis. I wonder if this same thing would have happened to a BLACK man at 36th and South Lewis. There is undoubtedly something in the mind of a police officer when she or he is on the north side of 244 that is less on edge when she is on the south side of 244. The Crosstown Expressway divides this town on purpose, and we reap the bitter fruit of that systemic racism in such instances as these. We reap the bitter fruit when we seek tax breaks for businesses instead of tax revenue for the training of the police that the community as a whole charges with the responsibility of being on the front line with every kind of problem. We recently passed a law levying taxes for MORE police officers. Well, there were four police officers and a police helicopter on the scene for this, a man having car trouble and reportedly being “uncooperative” with the officer who first arrived and engaged him in a way that we have not yet heard. It seems to me that “more” isn’t necessarily the answer. Do our officers receive the same kind of “de-escalation training” my mother did when she was working as a social worker with formerly incarcerated mothers? I would like to see more resources offered to the police force we have rather than bringing on more police. Why shouldn’t four police officers be capable of engaging and then if necessary subduing a single man, even if he is a “big, bad dude,” as the helicopter inferred from 3000 feet above the scene? Even if he is “on something,” as the same helicopter policeman also implied. (And does the news that PCP was found in the Terrence Crutcher’s car have any bearing on anything? No it does not.) Especially when on the same weekend, a bombing suspect in New Jersey who was engaged in a firefight with police officers and wanted for questioning by the FBI was subdued without being killed. And that man was an ACTUAL suspect, contrary to the term applied to Terence Crutcher by police on the scene—when did this Tulsa citizen go from being a person needing help with a broken down car to becoming a suspect? That is also yet to be revealed—for now he was simply suspected of being big and black and for whatever reason uncooperative, and the tragic result of systemic racism is that that sometimes equals a death sentence without trial. All “suspects” should be treated as “wanted for questioning.” That’s what due process is all about.
So, what is the achievement of justice that we collectively seek? Achieving justice means participating in relationships that foster racial harmony. Achieving justice means cultivating prosperity instead of a ghetto in a community that sees itself as a whole instead of a divided city. Achieving justice means ensuring the tranquility of citizens and police in the midst of agitation and stressful situations. Achieving justice means Shalom—and we need God’s help in that, because achieving justice is a Divine pursuit—it is a collective pursuit, and it is an endeavor that belongs to all of us.
This topic has unfortunately been a persistent theme of my ministry, and I have written on it before. See the following for further thoughts if you are so inclined.