"Do you think the Surgeon General is behind it?" Sean joked with me this morning, "I mean there were cigarettes and cigarillos involved in both so maybe they just really don't want us to smoke."
Sean's attempt at humor masked the deep pain he is feeling as a black man in the wake of the Eric Garner grand jury decision in New York. Sean told me that when he heard the news he was by himself in his living room and broke down and cried. I heard the same from many of my friends who were absolutely devastated by the news.
I didn't cry. But when I heard the news about Eric Garner, my casual faith in America died -- and I am thankful for its death.
My casual faith in America is the part of me -- thoroughly grounded in white privilege -- that has believed without overmuch reflection that our country values equality of all races at its core; that our laws and policing are color blind in their practice; that the efforts of politicians, business leaders and clergy are sincerely geared towards serving all the people; and that America is steadily progressing on the path towards a 'more perfect union,' to quote our president.
My 'faith' in America was based on things hoped for but as yet unseen (to borrow from Hebrews 11:1). But more importantly, it was based on things hoped for, but not worked for -- at least not very hard. Contrary to much that I intellectually knew to be true about the vicious, pernicious nature of racism, I held onto a lazy faith that racism in America would slowly erode itself through some kind of magical process of good will that required little of me aside from a friendly disposition and a hopeful spirit.
That faith, which was blind and useless, died when I watched the video of Eric Garner being choked to death at the hands of an officer who has now been let off without even a trial.
I thank God for my loss of faith.
Because one thing I know is that blind faith is dangerous -- by what it does and what it leaves undone. In this case, my blind, casual, easy 'faith' in America stood by while daily violence was done to my black sisters and brothers and I did essentially nothing to help. The image of Eric Garner's outstretched hand as he was being suffocated reaches out towards all of us bystanders with an unanswered plea for help, for mercy, for justice.
Well, as the song says, I was blind, but now I see. My sight is stunted yes, but at least I, along with millions of other white Americans, have seen with my own eyes the brutality and lack of consequence exercised by our police and criminal system. We have now witnessed the reality that African Americans have known all along.
And we can't un-see what we have all seen.
The question for me, and for all America, is what will we do about it. The first thing I need to do is let it sink in, let it shake me, and trouble the waters of my soul. Only then will I be ready to take the steps I need to take to be a part of the solution to the problem of racism. Only then will I be able to rebuild a faith in our country based on my own tears and sweat and risk.
My friend Dr. Jennifer Harvey teaches at Drake University in Iowa and has just written a book on race and repentance called Dear White Christians. Jennifer told me that the most important thing a white Christian like me can do right now is show up, and shut up. We need to put our bodies on the line, and we need to listen to the stories and the goals of our black neighbors and act together in solidarity.
The Rev. Dr. Jacqueline Lewis is the Senior Pastor at Middle Collegiate Church, which is a multi-racial congregation in New York City. She told me that, in addition to calling up NYC Police Commissioner Bratton and showing up for rallies, members of her congregation are holding structured conversations this Sunday and continuing all winter that will focus on ending racism with a close engagement with the other:
We are calling them Courageous Conversations, in which we ask ourselves what does this mean to us? How will we get past the fear and the suspicion?... We are not going to get to the promised land, we are not going to over come, if we continue to work segregated silos on our faith, which means cross racial and ethnic conversations and also inter-religous conversations. Let's build relationships so we can understand the particular uniqueness of each individual.
Rev. Anthony Lee has been walking this walk for a long time and he talked to me about the work it took for him and Community of Hope AME , his large African American congregation in Prince George, Maryland, to build positive relations with the local police force. The largely African American area around his church at one point had the highest rate of killing of civilians by the police in the nation. But after a federal investigation and visits from the governor, and changes of leadership and hearts at the police department, change has come to Prince George.
Last week, after the Ferguson grand jury did not indict Darren Wilson, Rev. Lee invited Police Commissioner Mark Magaw and his senior leadership to his church and prayed with him at the altar. Rev. Lee told me the moving story of a very young child who drew a picture of Rev. Lee blessing Commissioner Magaw and the powerful impression that could make on that young person.
He emphasized the work that went into creating that moment for that young person where they could see the police and not react with fear. That is the kind of work that I want to be a part of. Getting involved in community policing, transforming the systematic causes of racism, and connecting with others in a way that inspires mutual dignity and respect.
And if I truly work for it in solidarity with my sisters and brothers from every part of this country, and if we can effect real change so that our criminal system, policing and education is free from racism, then maybe, just maybe, I will regain my faith in America.
At one point this morning I asked my friend Sean what he hoped might come out of all of this. He looked at me and asked: "Is it too much to say equality?"
No, that seems about right to me.