Prayer for the United States

Michael Brown as an Icon of our Brokenness

[Episcopal Diocese of Texas] I am heartbroken about the events in Ferguson, Missouri.

Our Presiding Bishop, Katharine Jefferts Schori wrote: “Michael Brown’s death was and is a tragedy, and has become a powerful witness to those divisions between human beings in this nation.”
People across the Episcopal Church have joined with brothers and sisters in Ferguson, Missouri over the last few months in prayers for healing, peace, for the soul of Michael Brown and for Darren Wilson. I have lamented together with many of you and with people around country regarding this tragedy.
Since Michael Brown’s death, 14 other teenagers have been shot by police: Tamir Rice, Cameron Tillman, VonDerrit Myers Jr., Carey Smith-Viramontes, Jeffrey Holden, Qusean Whitten, Miguel Benton, Dillon McGee, Levi Weaver, Karen Cifuentes, Sergio Ramos, Roshad McIntosh, Diana Showman. Each of these individuals and confrontations with police is its own unique and complex story.
Our communities are in pain. Ferguson cannot be viewed in isolation. We must seek to understand the violence currently infecting our society. According to some statistics young African American males are 4.5 times more likely than other races/ethnicities, and 21 times more likely to be shot by police than white people.
It is difficult to understand what the numbers are exactly, say most of the articles on this subject. Even Mother Joneshas a difficult time grasping hold of the information. In August they reported:

Yet, the lack of comprehensive data means that we can’t know if there’s been an upsurge in such cases, says Samuel Walker, a criminal justice scholar at the University of Nebraska in Omaha and author of The Color of Justice: Race, Ethnicity, and Crime in America. “It’s impossible to make any definitive statement on whether there were more incidents in the last 5 to 10 years than in the past,” he says. “We just don’t have that kind of data.” But what is certain, Walker says, is that the fatal shooting in Ferguson “was just the tip of the iceberg.”

The article was updated following a USA Today report with this information:

USA Today reported that on average there were 96 cases of a white police officer killing a black person each year between 2006 and 2012, based on justifiable homicides reported to the FBI by local police. As reported, the FBI’s justifiable homicides database paints only a partial picture—accounting for cases in which an officer killed a felon. It does not necessarily include cases involving victims like Michael Brown, Eric Garner, and others who were unarmed when confronted by police.

Christian morality understands that all people are created in the image of God. We believe that we are to treat one another with dignity. Christians should never be comfortable with any kind of homicide.
No matter what the statistics are, we do have some clarity on the reasons for them. The social determinants of violence are clear. They should make us very uncomfortable and aware that we have work to do.  According to the World Health Organization:

Risk factors [for the social determinants of violence] within close relationships (family, friends, intimate partners, and peers) are:

  • poor monitoring and supervision of children by parents
  • harsh, lax or inconsistent parental disciplinary practices
  • a low level of attachment between parents and children
  • low parental involvement in children’s activities
  • parental substance abuse or criminality
  • low family income
  • associating with delinquent peers.

Risk factors within the community and wider society are:

  • low levels of social cohesion within a community;
  • gangs and a local supply of guns and illicit drugs;
  • an absence of non-violent alternatives for resolving conflicts;
  • high income inequality;
  • rapid social and demographic changes;
  • urbanization;
  • quality of a country’s governance (its laws and the extent to which they are enforced, as well as policies for education and social protection).

The health and well being of a society is always rooted deeply in how well families and individuals are able to thrive within a supportive community. The recent violence reveals not only racism and violence but the deep issues that prevent individuals and their families from thriving in the United States today. We must face the fact that we are not well and the divisions and violence we now suffer are deeply rooted and symptomatic.

We have a problem.
In recent months, we as a community have had to grieve with the African American parents and families of Michael Brown, along with the families of Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, Jonathan Ferrell, Kimani Gray, Kendrec McDade, Amadou Diallo, Sean Bell, Aaron Campbell, Wendell Allen, and Oscar Grant.
I also pray earnestly for the families of the thousands of youth killed in our cities by other black youth. “An outrage about unjustified police killings does not diminish by one iota our constant efforts to address the pandemic of violence in our own communities.” wrote the Board of Bishops of the AME Zion Church, known throughout our more than 200 year history as “The Freedom Church”. They offered these challenging words in their statement about Ferguson:

Our country and her leaders must ask some penetrating questions. Have we been lulled into complacency after the achievements of the Civil Rights Movement, ignoring the remaining struggles in the areas of education, economics, and mass incarceration? Have we been deluded by greater inclusivity and access to public accommodations to erroneously believe ours to be a “post-racial” society? Have we, as religious leaders and the broader community, become so co-opted by status, comfort, and materialism that our prophetic voices on behalf of the marginalized have been muted?

Presiding Bishop, Katharine Jefferts Schori has issued the following statement on the way forward from Ferguson regarding racism:

The Episcopal Church joins many others in deep lament over the tragic reality that continues to be revealed in Ferguson, Missouri. The racism in this nation is part of our foundation, and is not unique to one city or state or part of the country. All Americans live with the consequences of centuries of slavery, exploitation, and prejudice. That legacy continues to lead individuals to perceive threat from those who are seen as “other.” The color of one’s skin is often the most visible representation of what divides God’s children one from another. … I ask you to stand with hands extended in love, to look for the image of God in every neighbor, and to offer yourself in vulnerability for the sake of reconciliation across this land. May we become instruments of God’s peace and healing, made evident in communities of justice for all.

The issues that face our country are profound. While we are a nation founded on a vision of freedom – racism blurs that vision. While we are a nation founded on a vision of peace – violence (gun violence specifically) mars our sight. We are a country who is blessed with great riches and which offers a vision of prosperity; but that ideal is broken by scarcity and economic depression for many of our youth.

The death of young people in the United States through violence, and especially at the hands of law enforcement, is not a reality with which we can become comfortable. We are living in a time when we are fearful of the police and the police are fearful of us. We should be heartbroken, outraged, and horrified at this reality.
The social issues that lead to this violence are not a legacy we should be willing to pass on to our children’s children.
Forward in Prayer and Action
As the Bishop of the Diocese of Texas, I believe we must work together and partner with one another to deal with the issues of racism. We must work towards racial reconciliation; but this will not be enough. We must work towards reducing violence in our cities. We must deal with the disparities present in our society. We must work together stem the power of the social determinants that lead to violence in our communities. True reconciliation is never only about one thing, and it will only come with God’s help and our commitment to stand together in prayer and action, transforming our society which is becoming all too numb with an unconscionable social legacy of violence.
The AME bishops wrote:

Weariness must not conquer our spirits. Apathy and despair are not options. We will never lose hope! The legacy of our people has been forged in the crucible of slavery, oppression, lynchings, pain, and suffering and we’ve never surrendered to the spirit of defeatism or anarchy. Our efforts will be intensified as we work within our denomination and beyond to develop strategies to address the multitude of issues impacting our community, as we also partner with others who advocate and work for justice and peace. Our testimony is that “we are more than conquerors through Him that loved us!”

Let us pray for our country, let us pray for one another, let us pray for the families, let us pray for the end of racism, let us pray for the peace and the end of violence. Let us pray and let us act.

You can find resources for discussion at the Episcopal News Service.

— The Rt. Rev. Andy Doyle is bishop of Texas. 

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