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Search and Seizure

July 11, 2016

A sermon preached by The Rev/ Jeffrey A. Geary at the White Plains Presbyterian Church on the Eighth Sunday after Pentecost, July 10, 2016

 Psalm 82          Luke 10: 25-37

 Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus. ‘Teacher,’ he said, ‘what must I do to inherit eternal life?’ He said to him, ‘What is written in the law? What do you read there?’ He answered, ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.’ And he said to him, ‘You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.’  

But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, ‘And who is my neighbor?’ Jesus replied, ‘A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead. Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan while traveling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, having poured oil and wine on them. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. The next day he took out two denarii, gave them to the innkeeper, and said, “Take care of him; and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend.” Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?’ He said, ‘The one who showed him mercy.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Go and do likewise.’

*****

 At least two more black men lie dead at the hands of the police.
Alton Sterling. Philando Castile.
Say their names.
Remember their families and friends and all who grieve.
Black Lives Matter.
[1]

Now that five police officers are dead, and seven others wounded, by the attack of lone gunman trained to kill by and for his country, it is more important than ever to say, Black Lives still matter.  As Attorney General Loretta Lynch explained, “To our brothers and sisters who wear the badge, I want you to know that I am deeply grateful for the difficult and dangerous work that you do every day to keep our streets safe and our nation secure,” she said. To the protesters, she said, “Do not be discouraged by those who would use your lawful actions as a cover for their heinous violence.”[2]

*******

On Thursday evening, as my son and I were having dinner together, we listened to President Obama address the nation on the killing of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile. “We are better than this,” the President told us. “We are better than this.” My son replied, “No, we’re not!” I asked him what he meant, and he said, “Police kill black people every week. Every week. We’re not better than this. This is who we are as a country.”

I felt a little bit of me die as I said, “But I’d like us to be better. Don’t you?” And my nine-year old son told me, “It’s never going to happen.”

Baltimore-Freddie-Gray-Stop-killing-Black-people-by-Ryan-Harvey

This is a boy who for the last three years has worn hoodies, attended vigils, held candles, spoken out as a white child about racism and police violence at his lunch table, and endured endless discussion of mass incarceration, racial caste, modern-day slavery, and immigration reform in his home and at his church; a boy who began learning about the violation of fourth amendment rights and illegal search and seizure with his first matchbox car chases; a boy who knows from long personal experience that marching, organizing, and advocating can bring about significant change and who is applying that experience within his own school to change its recess policy. Yet when it comes to police violence and systemic racism, he is tempted to despair.[3]

He is not alone. As I have spoken with friends, colleagues, and neighbors (black and white) over the last few days, as I have spoken with some of you, I have heard this same despair, a sense of exhaustion and futility that leaves you feeling like a squeezed out like a lemon, alternately raging and wanting to close your eyes. That impulse of “here we go once again” as we cry “how long?” and “how many will it take?”

Now, I have had several conversations this week with my son about the difference between the despair experienced by black and brown communities who are targeted for broken-windows law enforcement and subjected to our misguided ‘war on drugs’, who experience environmental racism, mass incarceration, and economic marginalization, and the kind of despair experienced by white people, who see only overwhelming problems and unceasing violence, but who can throw up their hands, turn off their T.V.s, and still drive their cars without fear that a broken taillight will lead to their death, or feel the need to train their children how to act when the police stop them, if the police stop them.

But friends, as those called to recognize the precious image of God in each person, who are called to live as neighbors among strangers, who are to be generous with our goods and hospitable with our homes and tables, who are to refuse violence even in a violent world, who are called to keep faith with one another even-and-especially in a broken and fearful world, we are not permitted to despair. We may feel hopeless, but we may not fail in our commitment to stand up, speak out, and walk beside any who are beaten down, broken or subject to the daily crucifixions this world deals out.

A colleague wrote this week:

We know with certainty that the news will come, that yet another black man will be murdered, that undue force will be used and courts will excuse it. I find myself doubting if anything will ever change. Change and transformation, however, are at the heart of the Gospel that weaves us into community. Justice is the cord that binds us. Despair is not an option. Giving up in discouragement is not an option for those who choose to follow Jesus.[4]

*********

In response to a lawyer’s question, Jesus told a parable about a man who was beaten and left for dead by the side of the Jericho Road. Some passed by and failed to help.

Then came a Samaritan. An other. The least expected person.  Indeed, they were considered enemies.[5] And the Samaritan stopped to help. He bound the wounds of the beaten man and took him to an inn for further assistance. Go and do likewise, Jesus told the lawyer.

Hopefully the lawyer went forth to try and care for those beaten, battered, and wounded by life.

But then I think …

What would happen the next week if the Samaritan came along the Jericho Road and found another beaten person?

And the next week?

And the next?

How long would it take the Samaritan to realize that something had to change–that the Samaritan had to help change things–or there would be wounds to bind forever?

Perhaps the road needed widening. Or brush needed to be cleared. Or the economic conditions that led people to rob needed to be addressed.

Sooner or later, we realize that it is not enough simply to bind up those wounded and left along the Jericho roads of life. We realize that expressing love corporately involves seeking justice in corporate, public decisions, actions, and policies. We have to address the conditions that contribute to people being wounded. We have to transform the systems that inflict the wounds.

This is not a question of either binding wounds or transforming systems. We do not have to choose. We cannot choose. To recreate our society, we have to do both.

Change will involve working on laws and practices and it will involve working on attitudes and values.[6]

And it starts by telling the truth. My son is right. Black people are killed by the police every week. In response to the most recent murders of two men in Baton Rouge and Minnesota, J. Herbert Nelson, the Stated Clerk of the Presbyterian Church (USA) wrote:

Police departments charged with the responsibility to protect and serve remain unchecked by common citizens, because we are not calling powers and principalities into accountability as a response to the gospel message.[7]

This problem defines the everyday legal violence faced by black and brown communities, as well as the tragedy that unfolded Thursday night. We as a congregation have studied how

  • systemic racism, racial caste and a problematic colorblindness;
  • enlisting law enforcement in waging a War on Drugs and as agents of immigration enforcement;
  • as well as a series of judicial rulings over the last few decades;

all weave together to create a veritable cage within which people of color are ensnared and from which they are unable to escape. Three weeks ago we had yet another example of one of the bars of that cage being strengthened by the Supreme Court.

canary-in-coal-mine

The Supreme Court issued a ruling in Utah v. Strieff that took an expansive view of the limits the Constitution places on police misconduct, upholding the illegal search and seizure of a black man by a police officer in a situation where the officer broke the law but got “lucky” and an arrest was made. As we all learned from studying Michelle Alexander’s book earlier this year, the fourth amendment – which defines our right to be free from unreasonable search and seizure – is routinely violated, and police are trained is all sorts of ways to get “legally” around it. Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote a powerful dissent to this ruling. It’s worth quoting in full:

“For generations, black and brown parents have given their children ‘the talk’ —  instructing them never to run down the street; always keep your hands where they can be seen; do not even think of talking back to a stranger— all out of fear of how an officer with a gun will react to them,” Sotomayor wrote.

By legitimizing the conduct that produces this double consciousness, this case tells everyone, white and black, guilty and innocent, that an officer can verify your legal status at any time. It says that your body is subject to invasion while courts excuse the violation of your rights. It implies that you are not a citizen of a democracy but the subject of a carceral state, just waiting to be cataloged.

We must not pretend that the countless people who are routinely targeted by police are “isolated.” They are the canaries in the coal mine whose deaths, civil and literal, warn us that no one can breathe in this atmosphere. They are the ones who recognize that unlawful police stops corrode all our civil liberties and threaten all our lives. Until their voices matter too, our justice system will continue to be anything but.[8]

Today I will not leave you with the false words, “peace, peace” when there is no peace.  Instead, I invite you to imagine what it means for us as a church to stand together like the Samaritan at the roadside where the broken tail light stops take place, over and over and over, and determine together how we will bear witness to love that is courageous in word and deed.

 

[1] Refrain lifted from a post by The Rev. Mark Koenig, cited below.

[2] NYTimes, July 8, 2016.

[3] See the moving article about the burden born by our children in the midst of this violence: “In the Turmoil Over Race and Policing, Children Pay a Steep Emotional Price.” NYTimes, Sunday, July 10, 2016.

[4] Pastoral Letter from our Synod Executive, Harold Delhagen.

[5] You’ll remember we read about the Samaritans two weeks ago when, for their lack of hospitality, James and John wanted call down fire from heaven upon them but Jesus said, no! He refused the violent response.

[6] This telling of the story is from a blog reflection by The Rev. Dr. Mark Koenig earlier this week.

[7] J. Herbert Nelson, Presbyterian Outlook, June 7, 2016.

[8][8] See “The Supreme Court Just Ruled in Favor of a Police State, and Sonia Sotomayor is Not Having It,” with links to the decision, Huffington Post legal affairs writer Cristian Farias, June 20, 2016.

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One Comment leave one →
  1. July 11, 2016 11:20 am

    Reblogged this on Along the Graybeard Trail and commented:
    Many sermons were preached on Sunday that looked at racism, racial justice, #blacklivesmatter, the killing of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, the killing of five police officers in Dallas, the killing of Latinx and Native Americans, and more. Here’s one by my friend, the Rev. Jeff Geary.

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