Of Grand Juries, Fear, Trust, and Greed – Your Dean’s Reflection

Dear Cathedral Community and Interested Others,

I begin by reflecting on the fact that I was not a part of the grand jury sitting on the matter of the shooting of Michael Brown by Darren Wilson in Ferguson, Missouri. I have not reviewed the physical evidence, testimonies of people presenting themselves as witnesses, or the reports of medical examinations. I doubt anyone reading this has. I have not been read the law of the State of Missouri as it applies in this matter, or received grand jury instructions on how the law is to be applied in this matter.

I am hopeful that the promises to make the evidence in the matter available are kept. I believe it will help some understand how the conclusions that were reached could be reached. It will not resolve the matter, but it may help.  It may clarify for us the application of the law as it is written. It will not approach justice, nor will it quench the thirst for revenge in those who have it.

Further, I do not conclude that, had the grand jury returned one or more indictments, that that action would have approached justice. The issue of justice, in this matter, is much deeper and more difficult to obtain. In this case a young man, who allegedly stole a few cheap cigars, is dead. That is too high a price to pay for petty theft. There have been many other young men; they, too, are dead. It is too high a price to exact, period. I hope this kindles your passion (even anger) for justice, as it does mine.

That Mr. Brown was a young black man matters. His race should not matter, because every life ought to be, must be, considered priceless, period. But it does matter. In the United States of America in the twenty-first century, it matters. I will not rehearse the statistics here. Many analyses have been, and will be, written about the imbalances, racial and otherwise, in the disproportionate use of deadly force by law enforcement and others. I will not rehearse them, because, while they point to a reality, they don’t point to the heart of the matter.

For me the heart of the matter is this: We cannot continue to exist, much less thrive, or even approach being fully human if such an existence continues to be grounded in fear, in the absence of trust, and by greed.

People are afraid. Members of our communities who comprise ethnic and socio-economic minorities are afraid because a look at the numbers provides conclusive evidence that racial minorities (and males in particular) are, times over, more likely to be shot and to be killed than white males in encounters with law enforcement; receive more severe punishment from the legal system for similar crimes; and have limited access to comparable tools (e.g. education, healthcare, and job opportunities) to control their own socio-economic destiny. Grand juries are highly likely to bring indictments, except when the person in question is a police officer.

Members of the predominant culture (in 21st century America that would be “whites”) are afraid because they fear losing their “way of life,” which is to say economic, government, and social power. This fear is not necessarily irrational since “white Americans” are no longer a majority in this country, but do still remain the largest single plurality. It is reasonable to believe that, too, will change over time. It is reasonable to conclude that predominant culture privilege will shift with changes in the predominant culture, but, as I believe we are witnessing now, it will not be easily or willingly surrendered by those losing their predominance. Change, when not perceived to be neutral or to our advantage, evokes some level of fear.

People do not trust each other. This prompts two questions: Why? What do we do about it? “Why” brings us back around to the first topic: fear.  We are afraid, mostly I think, of what, or more accurately “who” we don’t know.  For all the access offered by social media, it seems to lead less to deep and genuine conversation and more to diatribes and pontification. Daily I grow in my appreciation of the work of the truth and reconciliation process in South Africa.

Secrets, generally speaking, are destructive. Confidentiality is sometimes a very necessary thing. I get that the deliberations of a grand jury, or any jury, are rightly confidential. I understand that how individual jurors may vote on a given matter is by confidential ballot. At the moment, I do not see the value in keeping the overall vote itself secret. When the Supreme Court rules, the balance of the court is made known.

Greed is the drug we have chosen in an effort to treat the symptoms of fear and absence of trust. We have succumbed to the idea that enough money, enough power, enough fortification, enough arms, are the antidote for the absence of trust. And we’ve convinced ourselves that these things will insulate and protect us from that of which we are afraid. Nothing could be further from the truth. Just ask the Romanovs, Louis XVI, apartheid, etc. The more the fear, the lower the trust, the greater the chasm between excess and poverty, the more the fear ramps up greed prompting to who have to hoard and those without to grasp at gain through any mechanism possible. Desperation always breeds destruction.

Transparency, a buzzword of sorts these days, is a great catalyst for trust, but the greatest positive influence on trust is an investment in listening to one another, and, as Stephen Covey put it, “Seeking first to understand; then to be understood.”

In the Episcopal Church there are five questions that are part of the Baptismal Covenant. These questions come after a set that are a question and response setting of the Apostles’ Creed. The fifth question is this: “Will you strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being?”

This question, even apart from its four predecessors, is proof positive that the Episcopal tradition’s understanding of Christianity is not for wimps. It is inexpressibly hard, at times, to bring a resolute commitment for justice together with peace. We all know deep within us that it should not be that hard, but the fact remains that it is. There is all kinds of truth in the statement, “No justice; no peace.” But often times that statement ceases to be an observation acknowledged, and becomes a form of self-declared permission to cast peace aside when justice is not, or cannot be, found. In the absence of trust and in the presence of fear, this will happen.

Respecting the dignity of every human being demands no less than the embrace of peace in the midst of rage. It is, to my mind and heart, the hardest thing a human being is ever called upon to do.

It has been my prayer through the overnight since the announcement in Ferguson, and with each new dawn that we can find our way to tables (both conference and dinner), front porches and stoops, legislative chambers, in organized and in informal ways, to raise trust, lower fear, and dismantle the mechanisms of greed, which includes unjust laws, artificial protections, and unnecessary secrecy. An indictment, or no indictment, cannot accomplish this.

But perhaps the pain of the price of too many lives cast aside has now reached the point where we, personally and collectively, will be resolute and compelled to address and dismantle our fears and raise our trust. Our passion (even our anger) as well as our pain must fuel our resolve today and tomorrow and …. Some will always have more, some less, but there is plenty for all to have enough – enough freedom, enough security, enough trust … enough love.

Lord, in your mercy, hear our prayer,