Saturday, December 17, 2016

Black Lives Do Matter

When I was a young lawyer practicing in Orange County California I found myself one day in a court that is now, I believe, known as the Harbor Justice Center.  Over time I appeared in courts all over California, but most frequently in the Orange County Superior Court located in Santa Ana.  This day was different because it was the first and only time I ever stepped foot in this particular court, which is located in Newport Beach.

Although I have no recollection of why I was there that day, I distinctly remember that I was in a large courtroom and that the judge had quite a few civil matters on the docket that morning.  The courtroom was crowded with other guys in suits just like me.

After the judge took the bench he announced that before calling the civil docket he had to attend to a few criminal matters.  On one side of the courtroom there was basically a cage where they brought in three men, all donning orange jump suits and hand cuffs.  All three men also happened to be "African Americans" -- or if you prefer black men.

After the three men were situated the judge advised them that although they were each there for separate and different offenses, they were all in basically the same boat so he would deal with them together.  The long and short of it was that each had been charged with a relatively minor offense, and each had been in jail for three days because they had been unable to post a bond so they could get out on bail pending trial.

The judge then said that if they wanted to plead guilty, the judge would sentence each to three days in jail, give them credit for time served and let them go home.  The first man readily agreed to the plea as did the second.  But the third man balked -- he was adamant that he did not commit whatever crime he had been charged with. 

So, the judge patiently told the third man his options again -- he could insist on a trial, or he could plead guilty, get credit for time served and go home.  A second time the man balked.  "But judge, I didn't do it" he said.

In a slightly less patient tone, the judge advised the man a third time of his options.  "Look," he said, "you have been here for three days because you couldn't make bail.  I will sentence you to three days, give you credit for time served and let you go home today, if you plead guilty.  If you plead not guilty, because you cannot make bail you will have to go back to jail and wait for a trial date, which could take weeks."  "Now what do you want to do?" the judge asked again.  Exasperated, the man responded that he really didn't do it, but that he guessed that he had no choice but to plead guilty.

I cannot tell you that the arrest of any of these three men was motivated by racism.  (Although I can tell you that this might have been the only time back then that I ever saw three black men in Newport Beach on the same day.)  I cannot tell you that three white men suspected of committing similar offenses would have been treated differently.

What I can tell you is that at least the one defendant was firmly convinced of his innocence, and that he was denied justice because of his economic circumstances.  Or, to put it more bluntly, he was denied justice because he was poor.

You may be wondering what this isolated event twenty-five or so years ago has to do with Black Lives Matter.  I want to suggest that it has a great deal of relevance.

I cannot speak on behalf of white Americans, or black Americans or anyone else.  I can only speak on my own behalf.  And personally, I am sick that our country (and the church) remains divided based on race.

I have seen many people, including many of my friends, respond to the idea of "Black Lives Matter" with the cry that "all lives matter."  Well, let me be clear about this -- I agree that "all lives matter."  Who doesn't agree with that?  In fact, guess what?  I think that the overwhelming majority of black Americans agree that "all lives matter."  And, I think that the overwhelming majority of black Americans believe that "police lives matter."  In fact, I don't think any human being with an ounce of moral fiber can disagree with the idea that "all lives matter" and that the hate toward and targeting of police officers in this country is beyond horrendous.

The problem, though, with simply responding to the current crisis with the retort that "all lives matter" is that it is really saying (or at least interpreted as saying) "we are not listening to you."  It is seen as a denial of, or disinterest in, the black experience in America.  It is heard as a denial that at least some of the events that have lead to where we are today were racially motivated -- and particularly a denial that some innocent young black men have lost their lives at least in part because of the color of their skin.

I am not defending "Black Lives Matter" as a movement -- I honestly don't know enough about it to really comment one way or the other.  (If I had to guess, I would say it has this similarity to the anti-war movement in the 60's -- there were some people who were honestly and passionately against the war, and there were others who were mostly interested in sex, drugs and rock-n-roll.  Like most things, painting with too broad a brush is not all that helpful.)  What I am suggesting is that to find unity -- which I think is what most people really want -- we need to start by doing a little more listening, and a little less reactionary talking.

I don't think that the encounter I had with injustice at the Harbor Justice Center is foreign to many in the black community.  I think it is common.  And I think the sometimes reality, and sometimes perception, that justice is not color blind is, and to an extent must be, part of the lens through which black Americans see life in this country.

If you know me, you know that I have little to no interest in politics.  And, I hold out no hope that government will ever fix this particular problem.  What I am desperately interested in, however, is unity in the church of the living God.  I am desperately interested in God's people leading in the way of love.

Romans 12:16-21 says: "Live in harmony with one another. Do not be proud, but be willing to associate with people of low position.  Do not be conceited.  Do not repay anyone evil for evil.  Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everyone.  If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone." 

The Bible tells us to strive to live in harmony, but far too often we are happy to voice opinions that divide.  Facebook can be a terrible thing!  We are to strive to live in harmony and peace because when we act or speak there is something greater at stake than our political positions, our rights or our convenience.  Someone's eternity may hang in the balance.  The reputation of Jesus may hang in the balance!

Taking this idea a step further, the Apostle Paul endeavored to become whatever he needed to become in order that some might be saved.  He didn't ask his audience to become like him -- a follower of Jesus -- until he first became like them.  He knew he could not effectively share the gospel until he first attempted to step in their shoes -- to see the world as they saw it.  This is the heart of a disciple of Jesus.   

The next time you are tempted to react to at least the idea of black lives matter, you might ask yourself what it must feel like to be worried for the safety of your twenty-something year old son or daughter every time they walk out the door.  You might ask yourself what it feels like to pray that your children don't experience some of the hate that you grew up with. ....

Though I am free and belong to no one, I have made myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible.  To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews. To those under the law I became like one under the law (though I myself am not under the law), so as to win those under the law.  To those not having the law I became like one not having the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law), so as to win those not having the law. To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some. I do all this for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings.
                            1 Corinthians 9:19-23                                                                       

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