As a black woman and Reformed Christian, the past week has been rough. As I’ve tried to process the shootings of black men by police officers, compounded by the sniper who took out five police officers where I live in Dallas, I find the Internet is full of opinions about how we should process these tragic events.
I’ve noticed two extremes. First are those who see every victim as deserving of the treatment because, after all, the police are there to protect and serve. On the other hand, there are those who only see a black man getting shot, which translates into a wholesale police culture gunning for black people.
It’s clear that people are drawn to simple narratives and often draw myopic conclusions. But as Christians, we have an obligation to sort out the complexities of these situations. Here are four things we should remember as we continue to process these terrible events.
1. Experience shapes our response.
We need to step back and evaluate how our experiences play into these divergent perspectives. If your experience with law enforcement has been relatively positive, it makes sense that you might have a hard time imagining a cop abusing power or using unnecessary force. However, for people who have had different experiences, the perspective will be that unarmed victims are innocent, even when there is a criminal record. And given the history of injustices against blacks in America, it’s reasonable that a sort of PTSD settles in, creating an exaggerated sense that these incidences demonstrate that there is a police culture en masse.
Now it makes sense that this impacts blacks most of all, who may develop a sense of dread to the point of hyperbolized statements, such as cries of fear to even leave the house. But we’d be wise to consider that not all police or even police departments are equal. Certainly there are communities that experience a culture of police that seems to work against them. And let’s acknowledge that people living in their own communities can best speak what transpires in them. People outside the communities shouldn’t be the first voices to speak about what is going on.
2. Police have the difficult duty to protect and serve.
I get that people, and especially blacks, are angry. I recognize that there is a police culture to examine with suspicion of abuse of authority. But put yourself in the shoes of those who are called to maintain law and order.
The outcry I keep hearing is that criminal backgrounds of unarmed victims don’t matter. Yes, it probably does. If I were a cop, and I knew I was approaching someone who had a history with law enforcement, especially of violence, I probably would have a heightened sense of expectation that person might get violent with me and act accordingly. Police actually do shoot people in a commission of a crime and are conditioned to dealing with criminals, which I’m pretty sure conditions how they deal with people they perceive to be a threat. The question is do they give all people the equal benefit of the doubt?
Given studies done on racial bias, as well as historical track record of how black people have been treated in this country, it is quite possible that black men are perceived as more dangerous even when they aren’t. We can’t create simple narratives of people just doing their job without the recognition that in the course of that job, there are perceptions at work, even when not intended.
3. Christians love and pursue truth.
Because of the sensitive nature of police brutality against persons of color, it’s quite natural that those most affected by it will tend to exaggerate. Countless times I’ve seen people recite how many black people are getting shot by police. While we’re counting how many black people are getting shot by police, I think in obligation of the ninth commandment, we probably want to compare that to all people who are getting shot, armed versus unarmed (also the incidences we know about compared to all incidences).
Though the information available is not as comprehensive as it should be, these numbers actually do matter if we’re going to make a case that police have it out for black folks. Christians have an obligation to pursue truth.
4. Not everyone is given the benefit of the doubt.
As disturbing as the Alton Sterling incident is, Philando Castile was even more so to me. A common retort to the cries over unjust killing has been that if people are compliant with police these kinds of things won’t happen. I’m left to ask how then do you explain a black man who was allegedly compliant being gunned down? It leads me to ask how many black men are not given the benefit of the doubt when being compliant and informing officers what they are doing. Both statistics and perception are worthy of examination.
In all of this, we Christians must remember our kinship in Christ. One of the most disheartening responses I’ve seen play out in these events is the fractures they have caused within the body of Christ. It is vitally important to us to remember that our kingdom identity and commitment must outweigh any desire we have to align with simple narratives.