Many have said much and will say more about the deaths of black men in Ferguson, New York City, and elsewhere at the hands of police officers. I share the sadness and the shock of so many speakers and writers, but will try not to repeat their insights. As a lawyer I learned not to judge an individual case by what I read in the press. But the failure of two grand juries even to return indictments in these cases, especially the New York chokehold case, certainly looks as if a thumb rests heavily on the scales of justice when the suspect is a white policeman and the victim is a black man. Whatever the specific facts of these particular cases may be, they have exposed a latent violence and inequity in American society that cannot be ignored.
When law enforcement turns deadly to unarmed people, especially those of historically subjugated races, we see something at work that the late Bible scholar Walter Wink called “the domination system.” The whole stories of the lives of the people who killed and died, the story of their neighborhoods, the story of the economic and social context are part and parcel of the domination system. That system was revealed at the cross. It was revealed at the deaths of martyrs. It was revealed in the genocide of indigenous peoples in the Americas, in slavery in the United States, in the slaughter of coal miners at Ludlow, Colorado, and in countless instances of violence and threats of violence to preserve the social order. I say this not to deny the particularity of black/ white injustice. All injustice is particular but it is also all connected to the exercise of “power over” by the domination system. The problem revealed by Ferguson and New York is deeper and wider than officer involved homicides, tragic as they are.
Because the problem is deeper and wider, it is more complex. It will not yield to simple technical fixes. Putting cameras on the police may be a good idea. It may reduce the incidence of these tragedies. If it will help, then let’s do it. But we must not think we have addressed the deep, wide problem.
Can we imagine a concerted effort by churches to build personal relationships across racial lines? Could we recommit to public education for our children, of all races instead of whites escaping to private schools while public schools go unsupported and underfunded? Could we care as much about bringing small businesses to poor urban neighborhoods as we do about expanding hi-tech plants in wealthy suburbs? Can we imagine fundamentally changing both the social network and the economic power structure of our country?
Until we take on the domination system – spiritually, politically, socially, and economically – we will not have responded to these tragic deaths. “They have healed my people’s wounds too lightly, saying ‘peace, peace’ where there is no peace.” Jeremiah 8: 11. We must not heal these wounds too lightly.
The protests in the streets are both right and natural. My fellow bishops, priests, deacons, and Christian lay people have been part of the demonstrations. But history tells us of many a street protest that vents our feelings without changing our world. I suspect the reason the domination system preserves our right to such expressions of political passion is to provide a safety valve lest real change break out. Just as technical fixes to reduce the incidence of officer involved homicides would be too little change, street protests will be an inadequate, albeit reasonable and legitimate, response. Real change will take a deep conversion of the American heart, and that begins with the slow, hard work of changing each of our hearts through disciplined work to build relationships, to join hands for the common good, to build a better world for all our people.