Continuing protests related to racial justice are creating concerns around the country. How far will the protests go? What will it take to move beyond them?
Questions like these imply fear and a desire to look past underlying reasons for protest. Neither fear nor dismissing reasons for protest is a suitable response.
The simple fact is, protests are here, and they are unlikely to stop. Our posture toward them should be more curious and hopeful than fearful and dismissive.
We ought to be asking, “Where do we want to go from here?”
A question that seems to go nowhere
Notice, the question is not, “Where should we go from here?”
“Should” is a moral term. Moral terms do not always translate into action—positive or negative.
For example, back in the days of going out to eat after church, our heads nodded—either in assent or sleep—when the preacher told us how a Christian should be kind to people. Then, we swarmed local restaurants, berated the wait staff for their less-than-perfect service and short-changed their tips.
Sure, we know how we should live and where situations should end up, but that doesn’t mean we’re going to live thatway or bring about that kind of future.
Talking about what protesters should do, what they should be thankful for, the respect they should have is not leading to a positive outcome. Instead, it is dividing and entrenching us.
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The question we ought to be asking—ah, the irony—the question we ought to be asking is, “Where do we want to go from here?”
Parsing “should” and “want”
Framing the problem of protests (1) as a problem and (2) in moral terms of “should” and “ought” does not open us to curiosity—to wanting to know more about others. When we know what a person should do, we don’t care anything about why that person isn’t doing whatever it is he or she should do.
Likewise, we base our idea of what that other person should do based on our experience of the world. Perhaps in our experience of the world, police officers don’t pull guns on us. And so, we can’t, don’t or won’t believe a police officer would pull a gun on someone else—even a child—unless that person was a criminal.
Because the world so often works the way we want it to work, we want it to stay that way. But what if we had experiences in the world that generated enough trauma, fear and anger that we wanted the world to work differently, because we thought the world should be different?
The worst experience I have had with a police officer was when a state trooper in New Mexico angrily told me to get out of my vehicle. I couldn’t understand how it was physically possible for me to be traveling the speed he said I was traveling, and he didn’t like my questioning him. I thought I was going to jail, but not once was I afraid he was going to hurt me.
In fact, no one in my family, neighborhood, school or church ever described being afraid a police officer was going to beat them or kill them.
The vast majority of my experiences with police officers have been positive. One reason for that is because the majority of police officers are good people doing their best to enforce the law justly.
Now, we not only are hearing about fear of police, but we are seeing reasons for this fear. And it’s not because “bad apples” just joined the police force. We are hearing that some families, neighborhoods, schools and churches do have people—going back generations—who have had at least one traumatic experience with a police officer.
If we are in the second community and not the first, where would we want to go from here?
Directions to go from here
If we are going to move beyond where we are now, our present focus needs to be on want, not should. Should will leave us asleep on the pew, dreaming about what we want after the service. When we wake up, we will go where we want to go, not necessarily where we should go.
From here, we can go backward, nowhere or forward.
Some people do want to go backward. Some want the return of Jim Crow laws; some even want the return of legalized slavery. They wouldn’t call that “backward,” but going back there will lead us right back to the conditions that give rise to protest.
Many people just want things to stay as they are, just to leave well enough alone. Don’t rock the boat; don’t cause trouble. Just be grateful for the repeal of slavery and Jim Crow and the passing of the Thirteenth, Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments.
But maintaining the status quo will leave us stuck in the conditions that give rise to protest. Even worse, staying where we are now will leave us stuck, not in the conditions for protest, but in the state of protest.
No, we cannot stay here. We have to go somewhere from here.
A desired future
Telling the protesters they should stop and the police that they should behave is answering the wrong question. The question is one of desire, that thing we will work toward.
Do we want a future free of protest? Do we want a future free of fear and brutality? Do we want both? Or something else?
Christians nod their heads when the preacher tells them about the kingdom of God. They nod their heads when the preacher tells them there won’t be any more death or pain or crying there.
We all agree we should want to go there.
But I wonder if we want that future enough to live as people of that kingdom here and now.
Eric Black is the executive director, publisher and editor of the Baptist Standard. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at @EricBlackBSP. The views expressed are those solely of the author.