Peacemaking

I know a cop, a "police officer," as he calls himself. I think an old fashioned job title offers the best description of how he does his work. He is an "officer of the peace."

This officer is part of the police force of a county in Virginia. It's a county that's quite diverse in its geography, demographics and economics. There are concentrations of urban density, suburban sprawl, and rural countryside. There is great affluence in some areas and profound poverty in others. This officer is currently assigned to be a "resource officer" in a county high school. He's a white cop in the midst of a student body that is largely African-American and Hispanic.

"My first priority is to keep the students, faculty and staff safe," he told me once. "But I try to spend as much time as I can talking with the kids, getting to know them. I want them to have positive interactions with an officer. So many of them have negative stereotypes." He's been assigned an office in the school, but he doesn't spend much time in it. He's out in the hallways, talking, schmoozing. He and the other resource officer in the school frequently gather students for question and answer conversations, so they better understand each other. When there's a football game or a basketball game, he wants to be out there, keeping the students and staff safe, enjoying his relationships with them.

This is what peacemaking looks like in our culture with its dangerous racial polarizations. For this officer of the peace, his work is a calling (to use a religious term). His concern for the youth in the school has been formed by his experience in religious community. For years, he's worked with teenagers at his Lutheran church, and has staffed large youth events sponsored by the wider Synod.

Peacemaking like this rarely generates headlines. What's in the news is the latest appalling example of what's been going on for a long time in communities in which police officers have long antagonized citizens. There is a benefit to this dangerous, painful process of exposure: these abuses are becoming widely known and acknowledged across racial lines. That kind of truth-telling and truth-receiving is a crucial aspect of peacemaking, when there is good will, when there is a desire to correct abuses.

Most recently, the Chicago police department has been forced to release the video of an officer killing an un armed African American man who was lying on the ground. On the day that video was released, I asked the police officer how this affects his work. It makes his work of peacemaking harder in the short run. The worst part, he said, was that the kids in his school assume that all cops are like those who have been exposed by such videos, and that all police departments are like those that have been abusing the citizens they are supposed to be serving. "We're trained to do our work so much differently," he said.

Then he began telling me about something new he's become involved with. He told of a local African-American college professor who has been involved in protests at crisis spots such as Ferguson, MO, and Baltimore, who is acting out of a desire to increase conversation and understanding. County police leaders are responding in the same spirit. (Could we call it the Holy Spirit?) The professor is inviting police officers into classrooms for interaction with African-American students. Officers have been listening to the experiences of the college students, coming to understand why their procedures can be misunderstood, why they can be perceived as antagonists. The professor has gone on "ride-alongs" with officers, coming to understand the realities of their jobs, learning what their procedures are, coming to understand why people and situations can look suspicious to an officer, according to his or her training. A 15-member team has been gathered, of citizens and officers, to create a curriculum that might bring what's being learned to a wider audience.

None of this will make it into the news. It doesn't generate a screaming headline or a provocative sound bite. But I think it's an example of what Jesus meant when he said, "Blessed are the peacemakers."