I was almost unable to write this article. Several weeks ago I found myself in a terrifying encounter with a law enforcement officer in Mississippi. The day before the incident I had conducted funeral services for my father-in-law who was a retired Mississippi law enforcement officer. While the family slept the following morning I gathered framed photographs of the recently deceased family patriarch to have them scanned by a local photography shop. As I arrived at the nearby strip mall where the shop was located I was greeted by a rain shower. Wanting to keep the photographs dry, I parked in front of the shop and asked a store employee to help me unload the photos. After we finished and I was in my car getting ready to pull off a police officer stopped next to me and informed me I couldn’t park there. After I told him I was leaving, the police officer began to lecture me about my parking. After quietly listening to his lecture I eventually offered to leave but only received more lecturing. I eventually asked the officer if I was being detained or free to leave, to which I got no initial response. Assumedly frustrated with my questions the officer got out of his car, slammed the door and began yelling at me. I began recording our encounter, asked for his name and badge number and eventually his supervisor. This seemed to enrage him. At this point I rolled up my windows, locked my doors and called 911 requesting assistance. While on the phone with the 911 operator the officer continued yelling at me while repeatedly banging on my car. Eventually the shift supervisor arrived, saw I was recording and helped the officer calm down. Thankfully I left the encounter with my life and only a $41 parking citation. After the fear subsided I became angry and became determined that the officer be held accountable for his behavior. I began reviewing my video recording, researching lawyers, and developing a media strategy to hold this officer and the police department accountable. Un/fortunately in the midst of my brainstorming I began to hear the pesky words of my Middle Eastern Mentor that are recorded in the 18th chapter of Matthew, encouraging his followers to first go to the offending person prior to lodging complaints in a wider forum. So I reluctantly stopped working on my complaint and wrote a personal letter to the officer expressing my willingness to enter a personal or mediated dialogue instead of proceeding with my complaint. I am still waiting for a reply from the officer but I believe the choice to initially seek dialogue and understanding instead of filing an anger-filled complaint can be instructive for the ways we seek justice in our fractured and fallen world.
The words of my before mentioned mentor should be the moral foundation for the Church’s work of being the conscience and moral guide for movements and communities seeking justice through agitation, legislation, and/or deliberation. Unfortunately the church’s morality has too often focused on the politics of respectability that says if you are a member of certain communities, if you have a criminal record, if you don’t dress right, talk right, act right….you deserve what you get. I submit that the most valuable gifts faith communities can give to justice movements are spaces and resources for reconciliation instead of winning. This small but significant shift towards a reconciled community has profound consequences.
When the Biblical writers mentioned a world where lions and lambs peacefully coexist, I don’t think they believed that God would divinely turn lions in to vegetarians. Rather I believe the lion and lamb symbology represents a world where formerly oppressed and marginalized people live in true community with those responsible for their former oppression and marginalization. I believe the Church and all communities of faith are vital to ensuring our movement towards justice is aimed towards community, where scales are rebalanced, rather than producing a world filled with winners and losers. I am experienced enough to know that some people will misuse and take advantage of our choosing reconciliation and community over vengeance and winning. My Middle Eastern mentor also knew this but still consistently chose the path towards reconciliation and redemption; all the way to the cross. In the same way let us put on the mind and Spirit of Christ as we journey along life’s highway.