Our nation and our world have reached a breaking point. Actually, that point is long past.
Too many people are dying at the hands of American authority, in the United States and around the world. Too many people are being killed by those whose job it is to “serve and protect.”
Acquittals for the police shootings of Terence Crutcher, Philando Castile, and Sylville Smith send the chilling, dehumanizing message that black lives are expendable without consequence. In the midst of the deep sorrow, anger, and fear that these acquittals evoke, new atrocities compound the ongoing trauma. Charleena Lyles was shot by the two police officers she called to her home when she reported a burglary. Distressed and clearly suffering from mental health issues, she grabbed a knife and was shot dead. Her name joins a growing list of African Americans killed by police officers, who all-too-often forget non-lethal forms of subduing a potential threat, especially when melanin levels are high.
While African Americans as well as Native and Latinx Americans are systemically and pervasively devalued in the United States, our military, with approximately 800 bases around the world, also takes innocent life with impunity. While chastising other countries about their violence, our own violence has been out of control for nearly two decades in our ongoing “War on Terror.” Bombing hospitals, schools and mosques, flying drones so that children must stay inside on sunny days, ours is a war not on terror, but of terror. As the only nation to have ever used nuclear weapons, we refuse to participate in nuclear disarmament and instead spend over a trillion dollars to upgrade our nuclear arsenal. We occupy the very countries whose people we ban from our own. And we do this all under the guise of service and protection.
The truth is, too many of us are far too comfortable with equating “service and protection” with killing the enemy other. And the “enemy other” is not just a foreign enemy in a far-away land. African Americans imprisoned or shot on the streets are treated as enemy others. Native Americans at Standing Rock and around the nation subjected to environmental racism are treated as enemy others. Latinx Americans detained and deported are treated as enemy others. And while few people would describe themselves as racist, policies of enmity are reinforced by cultures of justifying or rationalizing fear against people with darker skin, fear that runs so deep in our culture and history that far too many people excuse it.
We spend over half of our discretionary budget waging war. And the wars being waged are not just far away, but here on our own soil.
Black people are being killed without consequence. Impoverished Native Americans at Standing Rock were effectively given a death sentence when oil began to flow through the Dakota Access Pipeline (though there is still hope that it can be stopped). Deportation may also amount to a de facto death sentence.
None of this is okay.
We are a nation built on violence and enmity, racism and fear. Stolen land. Genocide.
We have to understand that as much as we celebrate the values of liberty and justice, we have also earned a reputation as the land of the fear and the home of the slave. Our nation glorifies bravery while bombing and helping to bomb some of the poorest nations in the world, in the name of “security.” And we celebrate the valor of police officers but simultaneously excuse them for executing African Americans because they feared for their lives even when the people they kill are unarmed, or injured, or children.
Our collective national cognitive dissonance runs as deep as our national racism, as deep as our national violence. We rarely recognize our violence for what it is, rarely take stock of our civilian casualties, rarely recognize that “Shock and Awe,” cluster bombs, depleted uranium, and even so-called “targeted” drone strikes do not discriminate between fighters and civilians. Much less do we recognize the mimetic cycle of violence, that even the combatants we kill often became combatants in the first place out of vengeance or desperation in the wake of the devastation our weapons have wrought. We then turn these weapons on the citizens of our own country as militarized police patrol predominately African American neighborhoods. And when a senator is tragically shot, we say that violence has no place in this country when it absolutely does. We have barely left room for anything else!
The United States is my home, and I love the land and I love the people. I do not hate my country. But I cannot stomach policies that prioritize brutal, lethal force over compassion abroad and at home. It is beyond time we got to the root of the violence, racism, Islamophobia, and fear of the “other” that feeds these policies and starves not only our social programs but our very souls of the compassion we need.
Too many people are dying!
I absolutely believe that education and empathy, compassion and connection, can overcome fear and hatred when we cultivate them, and though I do not believe we can eradicate violence and racism this side of the Kingdom of God, we can and must transform our violent culture as best we can. But we have to get to work now, for if we do not, those of us who have survived the violence that is consuming the world and our nation will eventually be swallowed whole as well.
That means we must recognize the ways in which our violence overseas and the violence on our own soil is connected and driven by fear, limited understanding, and negative mimesis not simply between people fighting each other, but among people reinforcing one-another’s fears and stereotypes as they scapegoat others. It means not only will we have to understand human dynamics of scapegoating and violence, but we will have to understand how they are applied in the context of oppressive power structures like white supremacy. It means we will have to recognize the ways in which factors beyond our control, such as race, gender, and sexual orientation, affect our relationship with armed authority so that we may broaden our perspective. We must transform the criteria of authority from force to compassion. A part of that is transforming racial, religious, gender and heteronormative privilege into universal human rights. We must see beyond the limits of personal circumstance and the blinders of privilege to recognize our human interconnection.
The urgent need of compassion and empathy, reparation and reconciliation, the urgent need to stop the killing and dehumanization and exploitation and disregard for life, presses upon all of us. Where privilege protects some of us from some of the violence and demonization, it also confers extra responsibility.
In future articles, I will wrestle with the meaning of racial and religious privilege (knowing that there are other kinds of privilege as well.) I will show why understanding systemic privilege in order to transform it is essential for subverting violent systems close to home and around the world. I will suggest practical ways to amplify demands for restorative justice, and talk about ways to discuss these difficult but essential matters with our children. And, through the lens of mimetic theory, I will contend that the goal of transforming privilege and subverting violence is to convert our relationships from being over and against one another to being with and for each other.
It starts by recognizing the urgency of the situation we find ourselves in right now. Our nation is wielding forces of death all over the world, and at the root of that violence is dehumanization. This situation is unacceptable and unsustainable. We need to learn how we are complicit in systems of dehumanization so we can transform them, subvert powers of violence, and actively build peace. Now.
Image: Screenshot from Youtube.