The DNA in my three young grandsons comes from the continent of Africa and from the nation of Armenia. I do not know which country in Africa their ancestors came from. I can imagine how their ancestors arrived in this country. I know why and how the Armenian ancestors came to the US, how those Armenian people were seen as chattel and how they experienced Russian oppression and Turkish genocide.
My youngest offspring, their uncle, works as a police officer in a large metropolitan area. His work is dangerous, and he loves the challenges of his job. He deals with traffic problems, street crime, and metropolitan politics. I argue with him: “You’re socially conscious and a liberal. How do you fit in the culture?” “They need liberal police officers,” he responds.
My grandsons are learning the mixed messages of our culture: that civil authorities, including police officers, may be their friends and that the world contains much violence. They know that their uncle is a police officer, and their relationship is one of love. They are also aware of Trayvon Marin and Michael Brown. They are learning lessons at a young age that I wish were not necessary.
My prayers for my son and grandsons continue to evolve.
Hence my internal dialogue sparked by the events in Ferguson.
I’ve seen and read the range of conflicting reports concerning what happened the night Michael Brown was shot. Those reports remind me of the story of every traditional divorce: his story and her story and truth waiting invisibly somewhere in the middle. Brown’s death will remain a tragedy—as also are the deaths of Trayvon Martin and Emmet Till and my father’s two brothers Hovaness and Danel and many, many others.
I am not the first person to say that The United States has not dealt with its slave history nor am I the first person to say that this nation continues to live with the poison of racism. Friends in South Africa went through apartheid and the dismantling of that system of legal segregation. Some participated in the process of restorative justice through the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. They speak of healing and a restored wholeness in their lives after they dealt with the evil that prevailed in their nation. The dialogue is important, but dialogue seems unvalued in our US culture.
And maybe my conservative evangelical Christian friends are right when they say that this nation needs to repent, though we probably disagree concerning the subject of that repentance.
Our problem goes deeper than guns. Our national culture glorifies violence. Our entertainments on television are primarily murders, assaults, and rapes. Our sports, especially hockey and football, exalt violence. We describe political processes, civic functions, and sometimes even church matters in terms also used to describe fights.
We are trapped in a cycle of fear: fear of the other, fear of the unknown, fear of the future. When we fear, we become defensive and attack before the unknown can reach us.
In 1967 the monk Thomas Merton responded to a request from the Kerner Commission on Civil Disorders, which was charged with dealing with the racial and civil rights riots in Watts, Chicago, Newark, and Detroit. Merton wrote:
The real focus of American violence is not in esoteric groups but in the very culture itself, its mass media, its extreme individualism and competitiveness, its inflated myths of virility and toughness, and its overwhelming preoccupation with the power of nuclear, chemical, bacteriological, and psychological overkill…. If we live in what is essentially a culture of overkill, how can we be surprised at finding violence in it? Can we get to the root of the trouble? In my opinion, the best way to do it would have been the classic way of religious humanism and non-violence exemplified by Gandhi. That way seems now to have been closed. I do not find the future reassuring.–Thomas Merton (letter to Kerner Commission on Civil Disorders, 1967)
Still more violence happened after Merton wrote that letter in the late 1960s. The cynic in me thinks that nothing will change; however, I also hold the Christian hope of God’s reign of justice and peace. Onward then!