Tuesday, January 5, 2016

Bless All the Dear Children in Thy Tender Care

Yesterday I got to go see my cousin’s newborn baby for the first time – 2 weeks old. As a teacher I’m around kids a lot but newborns rarely. I’d forgotten how small and helpless they are. Did you know babies’ brains don’t even begin to see color until about 3-4 months old? Watching little Isabella Rose beg to be fed, I was struck anew by the story that gets told a lot this time of year, of Christmas: God chose to send his son as a completely helpless baby. Aside from crying, there is nothing a baby can do to get her needs met. She is entirely dependent on others to care for her and keep her alive. And luckily Isabella Rose has parents who are doing a great job of keeping her alive right now.

Later that night I was reflecting on the all too short life of Tamir Rice. I am outraged by his death, yet I feel unable to enunciate anything new to say to help the conversation in light of the recent lack of an indictment. I see the way our socialized white selves and structures look to make sense of such an inhumane killing of a 12 year-old boy. “He shouldn’t have had a [toy] gun [in an open carry state].” or “He didn’t comply with the police [in the TWO seconds he was given before the police shot him].” or “He was a threat to public safety [in an empty park] and the police [who didn’t follow protocol by driving up so close to him].” The implied question underlying all of these comments is, “what should Tamir have done to save his life?”

However, I hate and reject this question because Tamir was not responsible for saving his life in that moment. The police are the ones who are charged with protecting lives – all lives, even black lives. It is their job. As a teacher it is my job to ensure that kids learn. It doesn’t matter if kids are restless, confused, or hungry, it is my job. It is still my job when kids are disrespectful or disengaged. It is still my job when kids are not following the rules. It is my job. As an adult. As the one who has been trained and privileged with control, I work to make sure every student learns because it is my job. I will get a stretch band for the restless student. I will reteach skills in a new way for the one who’s confused. I will feed the hungry student. I will teach respect and work harder to create exciting lessons. I will do everything I can to create an environment where my students succeed, because that is MY job not theirs. Do I have 100% control of outcome? Absolutely not. But I do have 100% control of how I do my job.

In the same way it was not Tamir Rice’s job to protect the community and himself. It is the police’s job. Tamir Rice was a child. Regardless if you think playing with a toy gun in a public place is a “good choice” or not (it was certainly not illegal), Tamir Rice was a child not a police man. Regardless if you think he didn’t respond quickly enough to the police man, Tamir Rice was a child not a police man. It is the police man’s job to know how to keep everyone safe, including the boy with the [toy] gun. It is the police’s job to know the laws and to enact them faithfully. It is the police’s job to be judicious and cautious and calm in responding to calls and keeping every body safe. Their job. They failed. (They also failed to give CPR as Tamir lay there dying.) Tamir was a child, in a park, playing and that was his only job.

And so I reject any question or argument that shifts responsibility from the police to Tamir. Sure, it is always easier to find fault outside of your own self, your own people. It is easier to blame, especially when you have been taught to see black bodies as less worthy, less capable, and less human. You don’t even realize you’re doing it. It can even “seem” logical. But in the end it doesn’t matter what Tamir Rice could have / should have done to save his own life. That was not his job.

Deplorably, the police did not do their job that afternoon. They did not protect the black life with which they were entrusted. And so, like little Isabella Rose, who must rely entirely on her parents for her survival, Tamir – as a black boy – was completely at the mercy of the white police to keep him alive. He was helpless to change their assumptions of violence, guilt, and criminality which white minds, for hundreds of years, have been laying upon bodies like his. Helpless to the ill conceived presumption of adulthood that denies childhood innocence. And in those two seconds helpless to even his right as an innocent American to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

If Christians believe it is significant that God chose to transform the world by incarnating Godself in the form of an innocent, helpless babe, we must also recognize God was incarnate in the life of Tamir Rice, a child helpless to the powers of American racism. And so James Cone’s declaration that “God is Black” is all the more powerful today. “God is Black,” he writes, “not just because African-Americans are Black, but because God freely chooses to be known as the One who liberates victims from their oppression.” Perhaps this is uncomfortable for some to compare Jesus to a young, black male in Cleveland, Ohio but Jesus was always going around aligning himself with the despised and oppressed – the lame, the prostitutes, the tax-collectors, the Gentiles, you name it. In the face of oppression and a world that told these people they were unwanted and unworthy, Jesus was their friend. He spoke for them. He challenged authority for them. And his liberating message got him killed.

But death has never been the end of the story. Jesus overcame the grave and I pray Tamir Rice’s life and death will lead to a positive change in white hearts and in our shared world. Cone writes that “God is that life-giving power who enables the victims of injustice to survive in the midst of misery and to fight on until freedom comes.” There is no question here who the victims of injustice are or the source of our current misery. The fact that no one was really surprised at the lack of an indictment reveals as much. Yet, according to Cone, God is the life-giving power which enables the fight for freedom to continue instead of sinking into the all too realistic sense of despair. I have witnessed this life-giving power alive in many who use these horrendous circumstances to continue to advocate for justice in their communities and in friends who allow their eyes to be opened to acknowledge systems of privilege and oppression in their own lives. Keep it up. However, tonight I struggle to find an adequate personal response in the midst of misery. And so, as a white female, I want to leave you today with the one life-giving thing I have: a prayer of confession. This prayer is from a liturgy I used to pray in college with friends working for justice in the LGBTQ community. I invite you to join me in this prayer; may our confessing lead to liberation. For until freedom comes, we have much to confess. LORD hear our prayer.
O God, we confess that the circle of love is repeatedly broken because of our sin of exclusion.
We create separate circles: the inner circle and the outer circle, the circle of power and the circle of despair, the circle of privilege and the circle of deprivation.
Sometimes we live in both circles at once, and we don’t know which way to turn. 
Forgive us our sins, as we forgive all who have sinned against us.
We confess that the circle of love is broken whenever their is alienation, whenever there is misunderstanding, whenever there is insensitivity or a hardening of the heart. 
Forgive us our sins, as we forgive all who have sinned against us.
 We confess that the circle of love is broken whenever we cannot see eye to eye, whenever we cannot link hand to hand, whenever we cannot live heart to heart and affirm each other. 
Forgive us our sins, as we forgive all who have sinned against us.
Jennifer Arnold

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