tamir rice

The Might of Your Own Hand

With Eric Garner, Mike Brown, Tamir Rice, Freddie Gray, and the Baltimore riots sparking dialogue in the church about race and justice in America, it is impossible to avoid discussions of privilege. Except, for some of us, the reaction seems to be to resist discussions of privilege entirely. This effort at willed ignorance stands not only against the reality of privilege, but also against the Christian witness about the gifted nature of our existence.

This is privilege: a road made straight, a route constructed without the labor of one's own hands, traffic and street signs made to fit one's own understanding of the rules of the road.

It is strange to be alive at all, is it not? Then it should not be so strange to imagine people born with advantages beyond their own responsibility. Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote in 1943 that it is natural to look back with special thankfulness upon the joys of life, the unflagging support of friends and family, a way made smooth. Many Christians seem to have lost this thankfulness in the intervening 72 years. If they have not, then I wonder why so many react defensively to the concept of privilege. Bonhoeffer says: "no one can create and assume such life from his own strength."[^1]

This is ancient knowlege, not a product of some newly devised postmodern liberalism. Moses says,

Do not say to yourself, ‘My power and the might of my own hand have gained me this wealth.’ But remember the Lord your God, for it is he who gives you power to get wealth, so that he may confirm his covenant that he swore to your ancestors, as he is doing today.[^2]

He goes on to say that to forget this is to forget the Lord God and worship other gods. If wealth is anything in our present situation, it is a god. But wealth is perhaps too ambiguous for this discussion.

Being itself should be the basis of any Christian investigation of privilege. Life, from the Christian perspective, is a gift. Combined with the image of God within each person, the gift of being is the basis of equality for all humanity. This basic equality is erased by our economics, ethics, politics, and cultures. We erase our gifted equality. We sin.

Of course, part of the Christian witness is also an affirmation of our status as forgiven beings. Sin does not have the last word. But here I want to hold on to repentance as a precondition for grace. In relation to inequality, to repent is to contend with privilege. One must ask, how straight is my road? Is it smoother than my neighbor's road? What advantages have I reaped without the labor of my own hands? When has my labor yielded a greater harvest than my neighbor's when our efforts were equal? Have I often reaped more even when my efforts lagged? When my neighbor has been unable to work as I have, has s/he perhaps been burdened by something I do not see or cannot understand?

But one must go further than questions. Bonhoeffer would say that to stop here is "cheap grace." Answers to these questions aren't available in isolation. Life is a gift, and it is as Jesus says:

When you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift.[^3]

Contending with privilege is the same. First ask imaginative questions, then be reconciled to your neighbor. Only then may you be reconciled to God.

In the future, when confronted with discussions of privilege, simply repent. Turn away from defensiveness and toward your neighbor. Remember your life is a gift. Be reconciled to your neighbor, and offer your life back to your maker.

That's a Catch

You know how in football sometimes we watch a wide receiver make a spectacular catch, but due to the rules laid down before the season began it isn't a catch? We see the replay over and over, and by the rules of common sense it's a catch. It's totally a catch. If you and I were out at a park playing a friendly game of gridiron and your friend Wyatt made the same catch it would totally be a catch. And not only that, everyone would be filled with glee because it was such a great catch, and even if you're on defense you can't help but be happy to have been a part of something so good.

But a professional sport doesn't work like that. It isn't self-policed the way our friendly game is. There are rules.

Last November twelve-year-old Tamir Rice was shot and killed by a Cleveland police officer while holding a pellet gun. On Friday, the city of Cleveland produced court documents that argue Tamir was responsible for his own death. Specifically, they argue that Tamir "failed to exercise due care"[^1] in order to avoid injury.[^2]

There's a video of Tamir being killed. Normally I avoid watching these videos. I'm sensitive or afraid. I don't want to see someone be killed. But I watched this one.

Mark has written about it before: how Tamir played with snow and crushed ice under his feet, how he wandered around for minutes at a time, how he should have been afraid to be a twelve-year-old boy.

I watched the video knowing how it would end, but I was still shocked when the squad car burst into frame and a police officer shot Tamir not two seconds after opening the door. I don't know what I expected. Some kind of movie stand-off, I guess.

"Don't move! Show me your hands! Drop the gun!" A tense silence. Tamir makes the wrong move. Bang. Cue the music.

I was expecting something that conformed to common sense. Except the rules aren't based on common sense.

Sometimes a catch it isn't a catch and sometimes a twelve-year-old boy is responsible for his own murder. The only difference is, in the NFL everyone knows the rules and they apply the same to everybody.

  • [^1]: A phrase I will never forget.
  • [^2]: "Being shot in the stomach."

To Tamir

I'm sorry you're dead, Tamir. I'm sorry that playing with a pellet gun got you shot by a policeman. I used to play with pellet guns, too. My friend had them. We'd take them out into the yard at his house. There was one that looked fake, and one that looked like a real pistol. We shot at birds on power lines, but never hit one. I think I'd have been sad if I did. We shot at trees and signs, solid things that made the round silver pellets ping and pew. We didn't think about what it looked like, one skinny kid and one chubby kid toting gun-like guns near some houses, pointing them and shooting them. We weren't afraid.

I'm sorry you should have been afraid. Little boys have played with toy guns as long as I can remember. That's what you were, you know: a little boy. Twelve feels grown-up to a twelve-year-old, but I can say you're a little boy because I'm an adult. I was a little boy once, so I remember. Before you died, you weren't afraid to play in a park, wander about looking at whatever little boys look at on the ground, point your pellet gun at imaginary targets, sit at a picnic table and pass the time.

I wish you had been afraid, even though that's not right. It's wrong to wish one group of people have more fear and take extra care just for their safety, even if it's just because you want them safe. It's more that I wish you'd lived in a world where little black boys didn't have to be afraid of that kind of thing. I wish that I knew what it was like to be you. I was a little white boy in rural Alabama, so it was different. You'd have realized that if you'd grown up. Maybe you knew it already.

I watched the video. I saw you gather up the slushy snow, pad it together and send it into the air. You watched it sink to the earth and splat lazily on the sidewalk. I watched you step on the flattened pile, and I imagined the muffled crunch of ice and powder beneath your boots. I did that kind of thing, too, at your age. Then I watched a car roll up and a man jump out and gun you down, like in a gangster movie. But this was a police car rolling up, and a police man jumping out, and it was very real. You died, and I grieve about that. Lots of people do.

I wish you had more afternoons to point your pellet gun at trees and signs and power lines, more days to sit and be bored at a table, more days to look at worms in a sidewalk puddle. But you're dead, and now I wish for justice for you. I wish that all would see you as a boy, a child of God, an unjust death in an unjust world. And I wish they'd do something about it. But mostly, I wish you were still alive, Tamir. I wish wishing were enough.