Vision Amidst Violence

October 06, 2019
Psalm 37:1-9; II Timothy 1: 3-7; Habakkuk 1:1-4, 2:1-4

“Why do you make me see wrongdoing and look at trouble? Destruction and violence are before me; strife and contention arise.”

This description from Habakkuk is all too real. My head and heart have been full the past ten days, full of the wrongdoing and violence of the police shooting less than a mile from here, near the Mall at Prince George’s, though I didn’t know or even recognize Leonard Shand, the man who was shot and killed.

Five days after the police shooting, as Eric and I were watching our son, Elijah, play soccer, gun shots rang out across the street from the high school field in Greenbelt. The players and coaches were instructed to get flat on the ground; family, friends and students crouched in the bleachers until the police gave an all clear signal some 20 minutes later. (No one was injured as far as we know.)

None of these events were dangerous for me or my family. And still, the reality of gun violence is disorienting, preoccupying and very troubling. This time it feels close because some of the people who shot and killed Mr Shand are people that I am connected to. The other community chaplains and I have ridden alongside some of the Hyattsville Police officers involved; we know that they want to do the right thing, to preserve life. We observed the footage that shows them following protocol, even using the de-escalation techniques they studied and still Mr Shand is dead. It is the first time the Hyattsville Police Department has had a shooting like this but we know all too well that this happens in other places across the country and even here in Prince George’s County. Out of fear and violence and death grow more fear and violence and death.

More “strife and contention” as Habakkuk says; it can feel debilitating. For most, not all, but for most of us in this room the violence feels a few steps removed. We care, absolutely we care, but most of our lives are not in perpetual threat like if we were African American males or Latinx immigrants or transwomen of color in this country.

What might it sound like to hear this text through the ears of an immigrant child separated from their parents? Or a parent who feels they can’t trust the police? Or a trans teen who has been kicked out of their family home? Let’s sit with that for a moment.

—————— ————————

“How long, YHWH, am I to cry for help while you do not listen?
How long will I cry ‘Oppression’ in your ear and you do not save?
Why do you make me look upon injustice?
Why do you tolerate tyranny?

The prophet Habakkuk is not one we spend much time with even though the message unfortunately never grows old. Habakkuk speaks for a people who are oppressed by an enemy empire, forcibly removed from their lands, then forced to go live among their enemies. They are witness to, and experience, unspeakable violence. As prophets do, Habakkuk gives voice to the truth that no one wants to say: violence multiplies and increases, and yet God is silent.

This accusation is not foreign to the scriptures. Remember Jesus quoting Psalm 22? “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” Neither is the accusation foreign to people who are trafficked, those who live in the midst of domestic violence, those who find try to find full life in between mental health crises, or people who live a good life, working and loving their families and who still live in fear because of how their body is perceived by others. “Why have you abandoned me? Why do you not listen? Why are you silent?” These words still fit in our mouths because violence, as well as truth, resonates across time and space.

While most of us here do not live with constant, imminent fear, we are not immune from the violence and hatred that permeates the air we breathe. Besides gun violence and people threatening others with knives, we live at the center of the empire and media storm where anger and lies and threats are becoming commonplace, almost normal. Some of us have work environments that might well be labeled toxic, probably more psychologically toxic but certainly there are too many people in this country who have physically, chemically, toxic work environments. There seems to be no end to the ways that we as humans can inflict violence on each other, not to mention the ways we do violence to the planet.

What do we do with that feeling of being abandoned by God? The brief book of Habakkuk outlines one approach. Name the violence, call out the horrors. Protest and lament to God. It is not too much for God to handle. We can challenge God and wonder why God lets it all happen. And if we follow Habakkuk, we don’t stop after one time. We challenge God again and again. The violence is too expansive to be contained in one complaint.

Then comes the hard part. After all the terrors are named and renamed, when exhaustion sets in, Habakkuk writes:

“I will stand on my watchtower and take up my post on my battlements,
watching to see what God will say to me,
what answers God will make to my complaint.”

What does it mean to watch and wait for God to answer. What do we look for? What are the clues that God is listening, that an answer is near? I used to think that it is very clear, that “way opens” as the Quakers say. The way will open when it is time. When the way becomes clear, that is God speaking, that is God leading.

Over the summer, when I was on sabbatical, I visited a number of African American congregations. It was not unusual to hear the preacher say that when people are praying, when they are waiting on God, they should not let the devil close the door or stand in the way. My white, privileged ears and mind thought, “If the door closes then it is not of God anyway. Leave the devil out of it.”

But my heart began to listen too. And I began to realize that my assumption that there will be a clear and obvious path, and that the path will be open and easy, that assumption shows my privilege. If African American people in this country waited for the way to open out of enslavement or segregation or unequal education or redlining or – you name the form of racialized oppression, where would we be as a country? Oppression does not just part like the Red Sea, opening at a lifted arm. Sometimes the devil does block the way. Sometimes the way must be pushed open, pried open. Habakkuk says it this way:

Write down the vision, make it plain so that people passing by can see it.

This is God’s encouragement to get creative, to imagine an alternative to the violence and horrors of the present. We must imagine another way so that we can live into it. If we can’t envision an alternative to the violent reality, it is almost impossible to live into a new reality. When we catch a glimpse of that new reality in our imagination, when we begin to envision our hope for the future, Habakkuk says, write it big enough for passersby to see. Invite others to live into the new reality alongside of you.

We are familiar with some of alternative visions. The people of Israel wandering in the desert looked to the promised land. Isaiah writes of the peaceable kindom. Jesus speaks of the reign of God. Dr King had a dream. It seemed practically impossible at the time he spoke it in 1963. But he spoke it so that people remembered it and recited it, recite it still. Even people who did not agree with his vision of freedom, of black children and white children holding hands as siblings, even opponents came to know the dream, could “read” it as they ran by. And we are still trying to live into Dr King’s dream, as well as the visions of the desert wanderers, Isaiah and Jesus.

It is one thing to see or hear the inspiring vision of an alternative to violence. It is another thing to find concrete ways to live into that vision. It is not a smooth path from violence to justice, from inequity to partnership, from wandering to home. There are risks and it is messy.

This past Tuesday evening a community meeting was called by the mayor, city administrator and police chief of Hyattsville. The meeting was held in response to the police shooting. Usually when police violence occurs the politicians and police circle up; they close ranks and don’t have much to say. But the mayor, who describes herself as “unchurched,” has a different vision for the city of Hyattsville so she called a community meeting which was held at University Christian Church.

Nathan Hill, pastor at University Christian and one of the community chaplains, opened the meeting with a moment of silence for Mr Shand and all those affected by the killing. Then the mayor, seated in a chair, next to the police chief and the city administrator, all of whom are African American women, spoke of how difficult and painful a killing like this is, and that we all carry deep care and concern. The mayor asked how many people in the room have had negative interactions with police. At least 25% of the room raised their hands.

Over the course of two hours emotions ran high. In a voice that sometimes quavered, the police chief described the events that led up to the killing of Mr Shand. People wrote their questions on note cards and submitted them to the mayor and chief for comment and answer. Some people were angry, not everyone could wait their turn. One father cried out, “Last year the Police shot my son in the back and nothing has been done.” One mother shared her experience, “I was there that day, in my truck with my son. I saw the police tase Mr Shand. I had to get out of there, I didn’t want my 12 year old son to see that man get killed.” A voice chanted, “No justice, no peace, no justice, no peace…”

It was tense. A woman questioned whether it is even safe to call the police if there is an incident. Not everyone was pleased with or trusted the answers they received from the police chief. One man muttered angrily, “Is this what Dr King had in mind for black and white to come together?”

It was a difficult evening – and there was compassion and care. There we sat together, younger and older, black and white, different religions and community affiliations. Though the meeting was in a church, it doesn’t necessarily follow that people will act like Christians (whatever that means these days) or that the leaders will follow biblical guidelines. But in this case, the three women who led the meeting absolutely took a page from II Timothy. I don’t know if these three leaders were inspired or taught by their mothers and grandmothers; they did not lead from a spirit of fear. They led from a spirit of power and love and self-discipline just as the biblical text encourages. The mayor closed the meeting by reminding us that we all gathered because we carry love as a value. By the end of the evening even some of those who spoke the loudest in opposition to the mayor and police, thanked the mayor for calling the meeting.

A lot of questions remain and it certainly is not the end of the story. Mr Shand’s family was not represented, his voice and story get lost in the details and explanations. The Prince George’s County police investigation into the shooting is ongoing. There will be more community meetings when the report is released.

There is no nice, neat way to wrap up this story, of Hyattsville city or Habakkuk. The story is ongoing. What is clear to me is that my own imagination, my own vision needs stretching, is being stretched. I invite you to stretch your imagination as well. The vision of violence is all too concrete, right down the street. What is the concrete vision of peace that we hold out, that we invite others to? Where do you see yourself fitting into the big vision of peace?

We need each other in this work, let’s support each other in this work of envisioning peace in a broken world so that we are as Habakkuk writes,

those who steadfastly uphold justice
and (we will) live.