A week has passed since the unfortunate deaths of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, two black men who lost their lives during contacts with police officers. We have been following much of the aftermath from these two events and talking with people we know as we tried to decide on the best direction for this article.
There are many things that could be said, and most of them have been said many times over. But, since our focus here is to help Christians connect with people around them and be good witnesses for Christ, we have a slightly different approach than most.
We're mostly interested in talking about how we, as Christians, can do the most good for those we actually interact with. So, instead of focusing solely on the two events that made the headlines, we want to focus on the impact these stories are having on people. The emotions that are causing backlash and discussions about race in America.
Depending on your situation, you may have a lot of interactions with people on either side of the issues raised by recent events. And, if you're like us, you have a lot of interactions with both sides. This is where we will start.
There is definitely a problem
While many still debate about the innocence of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile (we don’t have all the facts yet, and it’s too early to make that call), this doesn’t change the fact that there is a problem.
The problem is that black men and women in America are afraid that they will be treated unjustly by law enforcement. Some even worry that they might be killed without cause.
We admit that we are a white couple living in one of the most diverse cities in America, and we have a lot of friends in law enforcement. That adds up to 3 pretty significant aspects of our lives that make it difficult to understand how deeply racial tension affects people of other races, in other cities, and with less personal connection with police officers.
But, we also have a lot of minority friends and friends who are deeply rooted in minority communities. So we know that the fear of law enforcement is real. We know that criminals and others who should be afraid of receiving justice from a police officer are not the only people expressing their concerns.
It’s not our job to argue about the validity of someone else's fears. Whether the deaths of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile (men killed in Louisiana and Minnesota respectively) were justified or should be investigated as murders doesn’t change the fact that some black men and women get scared when they see a police officer coming toward them. This fear is based on their belief that the law enforcement officer approaching them might treat them as if they are less-than-human based on the color of their skin.
And the same is true on the other side. There are good and honest law enforcement officers out there that take their jobs seriously and want to protect and serve all of us. And they too are now scared and afraid of retaliation. Which can make it difficult for them to do their jobs.
It’s not for us to decide whether any of these fears are justified. That differs from case to case. And from place to place. And from face to face.
What we've seen
Our Facebook feeds have been pretty bipolar over this last week. Maybe yours has too. We've read hundreds of posts that assume the police officers involved in these shootings were driven by racial hatred. And many of these posts make assumptions that all law enforcement officers are equally racist. Then, right alongside these, we've read posts that assume anyone concerned about the officer's actions in these incidents must be a criminal and/or an idiot.
What ended up happening was we saw our friends shifting into two separate and opposing camps: those who support the Black Lives Matter movement (and therefore must be anti-law enforcement) and those who support law enforcement (and therefore must be anti-black).
But, we know it isn't really so cut and dry. Most people fall somewhere in between the two extremes. But it is hard to make any kind of statement about the issue without being labeled one or the other.
Even in the posts that are intended to bring reconciliation, there are terms that can't be overlooked.
What can we do?
You don't have to fully understand a person's fear to have compassion and give them comfort. But you do need to recognize that fears are real.
When certain incidents like the deaths of Alton and Philando make national news and receive the kind of attention and political commentary they do, people react. Law abiding Black men and women worry that their next interaction with law enforcement could result in them being shot. And good police officers worry that rightly doing their job could result in public condemnation by citizens and retaliation.
So, how can we respond?
For starters, we can stop making these national events the focus of our interactions with our black friends. The media hype over Alton Sterling and Philando Castile may have been what raised your friend's awareness of the issue. But, now it is personal. Your friend isn't worried that the officers who killed those men will travel across the country to get him. He's worried about racial relations in his own city. So arguing the details of those events isn't going to help.
What is your motive when you share "99 reasons the police were justified in shooting Alton Sterling"? Or the lists of Alton and Philando's prior arrests? If your goal is to comfort all of the black men and women who are concerned about their own safety by showing that these men were not law-abiding citizens, then it's not working. In fact, all you've done with a post like that is tell your black friends that you don't have compassion for their concerns and vice versa. And this just adds to the division caused by the situation.
We have seen two camps set up. Black Lives Matter and Blue Lives Matter. As if there are only two ways of thinking and supporting. We must resist this kind of thinking. It’s only adding more division and conflict.
Maybe, in a time like this, the best way to respond is to simply talk to the people you interact with. Who says you have to take a stand on Facebook? From what we can tell, Facebook has only added to the conflict.
Instead, keep on spending time with the people you know who might be affected by recent events. Ask them how they are doing, and find out if you can help.
You must decide if you will respond with hate and fear or love and peace. We can be the change the world so desperately needs. Remember that what you say and do matters. Think about what you can do today to help bring about peace and reconciliation. Seek to listen and understand. Where can you make peace in your life? Forgive someone. Extend grace and mercy even when it is hard. Encourage someone who desperately needs it. Sit with someone in their hurt and grief. Small acts of kindness can make a huge difference.
We don't want to see Christians out there creating more division in a world that is already broken enough. So, show compassion to everyone in your life. Remember we were called to be peacemakers and given the ministry of reconciliation. What can we do today to make this a reality with the people around us?
Let's be a source of healing rather than increasing the divide.