I cannot help but feel compassion for slain officers Rafael Ramos and Wenjian Liu, and Shaneka Thompson, wounded ex-girlfriend of the murderer—that infamous murderer whose name I will not even glorify by mentioning—and their family members. I have just as much compassion for them as I feel for all those who have been the victims of domestic violence, community violence, police brutality, and state violence. I also pray for the Episcopal Bishops of New York, Long Island and environs, and for New York Mayor de Blasio, as they will undoubtedly have to reckon with a church and a city that likely is as divided about the matter as the proper course of action for moving forward.
Bishop Provenzano’s pastoral letter to the diocese of Long Island gave me pause on account of its vague calls for peace and an indefinite prohibition on “grandstanding, instigating, organizing, or even marching any longer.” My most charitable reading of Bishop Provenzano’s words is that they were written with a tinge of rage-filled compassion in the heat of the moment, a gut-wrenching cry that enough is enough. Who among us hasn’t cried thus in recent days? My most charitable reading of the clergy and people of his diocese who are joining public protests is not that they are “seizing the moment to be relevant,” but making their Christian witness concrete, however risky and messy a proposition that is.
A specified moratorium on demonstrations alongside an invitation for clergy and parish representatives to come together and discuss with him what they have seen and heard may well be a positive step. Mayor de Blasio called for just such a moratorium at least until after the funerals of the victims. The problem, as I see it, is that the bishop’s letter reads to this African American more like an all-too-common call to sit down, shut up, and go slow in the face of injustice rather than a thoughtful directive for decisive, positive change. It is on this broad and troubling reading, especially since I am a priest of the Episcopal Church but not of the Diocese of Long Island, that I share my initial reactions.
“Our young people need to know that we will teach them how to stand up for their rights.” How, may I ask, has the Episcopal Church done that until now? In how many pulpits—or perhaps in adult forums, a much better venue—have the issues regarding questionable policing, confessions coerced by torture (I’m looking at you, Cook County), and disparities in incarceration been broached before these disruptive protests made the matter newsworthy?
The composition of the Episcopal Church as a whole is 2.5% African American. Only a handful of us are in her pews and serving at her altars. Saying “Y’all come so we can show you how to earn your freedom,” is not going to change that any time soon. Shouldn’t the Church go and be among the young African Americans and others who are standing up for their rights any way they know how? They will not be found at your coffee hour. They will not knock on your door. Many are in the streets, protesting, and live in neighborhoods where few Episcopalians will ever venture. And no, this isn’t a problem that can be foisted on our black clergy and parishes while the rest of the Church goes its merry way. What is the role of hearing from courageous young people of all hues, who likely will never pass through the doors of an Episcopal Church, their explicit refusal to tolerate any longer the kind of world that too many Episcopalians simply take for granted?
I happen to believe that one can march publicly without joining in anti-police actions. I have done it. As a clergy person it is not terribly difficult to be a public presence that respects demonstrators and the police. Clergy are often the very ones helping to calm tempers of folk who want to attack police, who model a different way of making their presence known and their voices heard. It is not a stretch to attend a heated town hall meeting including clergy, politicians, and community members to discuss positive steps for moving forward.
Let’s not fool ourselves into thinking that if we light enough candles and say enough masses or even pose for enough photo ops at our private interfaith demonstrations rather than mingling with the public everything will just work itself out. It hasn’t in my lifetime and it won’t, unless people of good will address what has been simmering for decades in the midst of the messy masses.
I am all for peace and peacemaking. The current disruption and violence that we are witnessing are a direct result of the kind of peace that has been enjoyed at the expense of others for far too long. St. Augustine already weighed in on the kind of peace that I have learned good people too often prefer, especially when dealing with issues that intersect with race: “Peace and war had a competition in cruelty, and peace won the prize.” (City of God, Book III, Chapter 28)