The cost of being reasonable: reflections on why the whole church didn’t preach about Michael Dunn and Jordan Davis
I have some really smart friends. I have friends who are powerful leaders and facilitators and great thinkers. I have friends from all across the nation (and a few around the globe). I have friends of a fair few religious backgrounds, from Atheist to Zoroastrian. And I have friends from a whole lot of different racial and ethnic backgrounds.
One of the cool things about all of my friends is that they know when to hold loosely to an issue for the sake of discussion and when to hold fast because an issue is more than an issue; it’s a matter of life and death.
The challenge is, not all of my friends see that line between holding loosely and holding fast in exactly the same place.
I was struck by this on Saturday night, when the Michael Dunn verdict rolled out.
There was very little middle ground for me. I had friends offering perspective: Michael Dunn will not walk out of prison if he gets the sixty years he was given for attempted murder of the three passengers in Jordan Davis’s car. What he did was awful, but he will face decades of punishment.
I didn’t have that in me, because the jury couldn’t declare him guilty for the actual murder he committed, shooting Jordan Davis for playing music too loudly, or actually for being Black. (In the court case, he claimed that Davis threatened him and had a gun. No gun was found; there is no clear evidence that he was threatened.) I was furious. I was aching. I was unreasonable.
Let me be clear; I wasn’t totally unreasonable. I did not start a bar fight like I did in Orlando after Trayvon Martin’s murderer went free. (And even then, it was just a bar argument. At a Red Lobster. With a Black man. That my friend interrupted.)
I was only unreasonable enough to express gratitude for the clergy who were lifting up this tragedy in their sermons the next day and expressing mild contempt for those that didn’t bother to. Yup–I played the shame game, shamelessly. I saw that moment as a moment to hold fast, not loose.
I want to pause and note how grateful I am that I have colleagues and friends from other cultures who want to listen to my reflections about what it means to be South Asian in America, particularly after 9/11. I’m grateful for colleagues and friends who have taken great interest in looking at the history of the API (Asian Pacific Islander) community in America and in modern day discrimination issues and immigration policies. Similarly, I’m grateful when men want to know what it’s like to be a woman, to deal with patriarchy and fear and objectification and how they can be more aware of that in their own lives but also in advocating for better systems and structures for all women.
Similarly, since I want to be a part of the realm of God where all are equal, I work hard (and fail and keep trying) to stay in conversation with friends from different lived experiences than mine. I need to know their experiences and to think about those experiences as part of a larger narrative that affects culture and policy and institutions and personal interactions. It’s a lot of work, but it’s important to me as a member of the realm of God (or, as I sometimes refer to it in non-religious settings, “the movement”).
Movements only really move, I believe, when the people with a little power actually know the people with less power well enough to recognize their humanity in tangible ways, enough to risk their minimal power to stand in solidarity. Most great struggles in the past 100 years that have succeeded have been nonviolent. Most of those nonviolent struggles have succeeded because of solidarity work (by people with a little power within the country or abroad). As a person of faith, I believe that this is because we only truly thrive as a whole community when we recognize one another’s gifts and humanity fully. And if you’ll forgive me for being a little philosophical here, any movement that involves hate for anyone else will find that its self-love is too stunted to be truly empowering.
Part of why the importance of this verdict was on my radar is that a good friend of mine posted a picture on Monday of her adorable toddler in his sister’s lap, pointing out a window, with the comment, “This is my son, pointing out a person he wants to mug. #dangerousblackkids #laughsoyoudon’tcry”. Also, my favorite columnist wrote a very brief reflection on why he was done having the conversation about Black on Black crime while grieving this verdict. Also, my friends of all races were processing grief and rage in equal measures to a case that did not use the Stand Your Ground law but represented the culture of it so effectively.
I mentioned earlier that I believe movements only thrive with deep solidarity. I also mentioned that I saw the verdict regarding Michael Dunn as a moment to hold fast rather than loose. And I also said that we only thrive as community when we recognize one another’s humanity fully. I would add now, we are only truly building the Beloved Community when we stand up for one another’s humanity in the fact of others diminishing that humanity. Dr. Martin Luther King was famous for writing a book called Why We Can’t Wait, and also in his famous Letter from a Birmingham Jail. He was responding to good liberal White pastors telling him that the rigor of his efforts were “unwise and untimely.”
I recently asked a clergy colleague why, while he actually preached about Jordan Davis, he let people know they should feel no obligation to do so. (He also made a comment about my denomination, in its culture of “You’re only on God’s side if you agree with me” around these types of issues, as a “non-prophet denomination.”) To his mind, he shared, liberals and conservatives don’t talk across the aisles of the sanctuary. Activists get into a tailspin of being more self-righteous than thou, communicating in ways that are insensitive and don’t allow for real dialogue. He noted that a pastoral approach, or a chaplain approach, was actually more prophetic. What I appreciate is that my colleague’s commitment is to helping the community go deep together, honoring all voices and experiences instead of relying on slogans and shaming and calling that social justice ministry.
And I want to go there with him, because I am very aware of how shrill and sanctimonious the left can get, even if we feel justified about it because we think we’re being beaten up by the right (who feel exactly the same way). Except that the chaplain approach isn’t more prophetic. It is probably, in many moments, more effective. The prophets (at least the ones who made it into the Bible) weren’t all that effective. They followed their consciences and alienated whole nations a lot of the time. And as many of you know, I spend far more time on healthy process (sacred conversation) than my more outcome-driven colleagues think is wise. So clearly I think there is a time and place for a chaplain approach to justice issues, and that time is most of that time and that place is everywhere.
But there’s a cost to being reasonable all the time, I think. There’s a cost to saying it’s okay not to talk about the fact that our judicial system could not stake the claim that an innocent Black youth’s life was taken illegally. There is a cost to not making into an act of mourning in every church worship service that the parents of a dead son had to console the parents of another dead son on what would have been that second son’s nineteenth birthday.
This is not just a cost to Black people; this is a cost to the whole church in America. Any of us who have deep relationships with people in the Black community know that to be Black in America means having to fear for your son’s life on multiple fronts. And there might be congregations in this nation where people don’t have those relationships and therefore don’t know this. They may not know that the verdict on Saturday was further confirmation that young Black men’s lives do not have value akin to White men’s lives. But if we are really, as a church, going to build the beloved community, and we think it is unwise and untimely to grieve too publicly too soon, then we should proclaim publicly that building the beloved community is itself unwise and untimely. (I am making the logical leap that if you didn’t talk about this on Sunday, it’s because you don’t have a lot of deep relationships with Black people. This may very well be untrue. I also am not sure I care.)
Michael Dunn is in prison encouraging people to take up arms against Black people who scare them, whether those Black people have done anything to them or not. The church’s lack of commitment to and practice of cross-racial relationships at a deep level has contributed to that story even being reported. And the church’s lack of commitment to building the beloved community (which includes standing up for the equal humanity of all people) has contributed to people saying “What a racist” while sometimes being scared of Black people themselves and often not seeing their fate connected with that of Black people. (I recognize that this is complicated by the fact that people of color see racism systemically while White people see racism as individual acts. I know that is often true. I just don’t care.)
There are countless moments to hold loosely to the issues so we can have meaningful connections. There are countless moments to be reasonable. There are countless moments to be compassionate to one another’s limitations.
But my friends had to make jokes about their children being a threat to America when all they are is children. My friends who are faithful followers of Christ raising their children to be the same. My sisters and brothers. Your sisters and brothers. Our blood. Our family were told their lives don’t count for much. Our nephew’s killer was not held responsible for his death.
If we believe in the realm of God where all of God’s children are equally treasured, this Sunday wasn’t a time to hold loosely. It was a time to hold fast, because this wasn’t about politics; it was about human dignity. Sunday was a time to hold fast. And if that didn’t happen, it continues to be a time to hold fast. You have to preach to and pray with and worship within your context. And our context is America. And in America our Black men’s lives are under fire. And if we want to build the beloved community, we’ve got to show up and roll up our sleeves, or let’s not claim the beloved community is what we want.
In America right now it is not reasonable to have hard conversations across race. In American right now it is not reasonable to grieve publicly when most of a congregation doesn’t understand what it is grieving. There is a cost to being reasonable. The cost of being reasonable is real and authentic relationship. The cost of being reasonable is not being invited to the funeral because you never really knew your nephew. The cost of being reasonable is not knowing the next nephew, and being a part of stopping the cycle that might kill him, too.
God is not reasonable. I believe now is the time to join God.