Kenneth Chamberlain, Sr. was a retired Marine Corps veteran whose Life Aid medical alert bracelet went off accidentally at about 5 o’clock in the morning on November 19, 2011. Police officers responded to his home in White Plains, New York and he told them through the door of his apartment that he had not called them and did not need them, and he asked them to leave. The Life Alert device in his home made an audio recording of what happened next—the officer’s curses, and shouts of “nigger”, the breaking-down of his door, followed by the use of a taser on a 68-year old man with a chronic heart condition. The officers then shot him with a bean-bag round from a shotgun, before finishing him off with a revolver.
A secret grand jury convened to review the case and on May 3, 2012 announced it would not bring criminal charges against the police officers involved in the shooting. Two days later the office of the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York said it would review the case for possible violations of federal civil rights laws. The family of Kenneth Chamberlain, Sr. is still waiting for word.
Another family in Ferguson, Missouri now waits for word on the case of the man who shot young Michael Brown; just as they are waiting for word on Staten Island about the policeman captured on a cell phone video choking Eric Garner to death. They waited for grand juries to conclude their secret proceedings, only to hear the word of no criminal indictment, and now must wait for word of possible federal civil rights cases. People of color all over this country are waiting, waiting to hear the word that the life of a black man in America is not something cheap, that can been thrown away with impunity, but that word never seems to come.
Words are being said, words like “Justice Department investigation,” and “officer re-training program” and “restoring trust in the police,” but those of us for whom the police represent protection and service do not know what it’s like to live in communities where there is no trust to restore. We are not black and brown people in Ferguson, Missouri or one of the other neighborhoods all over this country where the police historically have been and all too often remain a presence of constant harassment and intimidation, and occasional murderous violence. Those people do not take comfort from such words.
The carefully calibrated statements of the state’s attorneys and federal officials are inadequate to their longing for justice. The politicians’ vague promises of reform are not enough to sustain their hope. But, though it might not be my place, I will say that neither will it be enough to punish individual police officers. Some, no doubt, are filled with racist hate, but others are simply men in a dangerous occupation reacting as anyone would to their perception of a deadly threat. Either way, they are products of systemic violence and institutionalized prejudice, oppression, and fear. They also are victims.
So putting a few more people behind bars, even white police officers, might give momentary satisfaction to the thirst for justice. But it won’t be enough. It won't be enough to end the folly of treating our nation’s social sickness with a militarized remedy. This has already given us the second-highest per capita prison population in the world and turned Mexico, Colombia, and Central America into a killing field. But it has not made us safe, or free—not even drug-free.
Sending Darren Wilson or Daniel Pantaleo to prison might signal that it is still a crime to kill an unarmed person even if that person is black. And that would be something. But it will do nothing about poverty and the lack of vocational and educational opportunities that forces people into the underground economy. It will not rid our streets or our homes of the omnipresent cheap weapons that turn every routine traffic stop, and neighborhood party, and domestic quarrel into a potential firefight. It will not end the school-to-prison pipeline that begins downgrading the academic expectations of black and brown males, and disproportionately singling them out for disciplinary punishment, in the lower grades of elementary school.
More long prison sentences will not heal the lingering wounds of the devastating trauma of slavery—of nearly four hundred years of systematic kidnapping, murder, rape, assault, torture, theft, and other mass crimes against humanity that were never indicted, and to this day are still hardly even acknowledged. In the face of such sin and evil, and its ongoing denial, no indictment, or verdict, or punishment will be the word we long to hear.
There are times when only the voice of God is enough. There are situations where only God’s word can move the people who are hopelessly stuck, or comfort those who are utterly desolate. It’s times like these that call for voices that make a straight and level highway for the truth. We need words of judgment and of comfort, words that will stand firm forever. The families of Michael Brown and Eric Garner, of Trayvon Martin and Oscar Grant, Andy Lopez and Kenneth Chamberlain, Jr. need to hear that they have served their term, that their penalty is paid, that they have received from the LORD's hand double for all their sins, but now the glory of the LORD shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together. Darren Wilson needs to hear this too, and George Zimmerman, and Daniel Pantaleo. We all do.
The Gospel of Mark begins with someone who speaks those kinds of words, with a voice like thunder in the wilderness. John tells the people to prepare a way, so God can come and set them free from their hopelessness and violence. He does not call them out to the Jordan one by one, for individual acts of repentance. The power of John’s voice inspires a mass movement. They all go out to him together, rural people from the villages of Judea right alongside city dwellers from Jerusalem, a national movement of repentance and hope for forgiveness. They all go out together to the Jordan, to the place where their ancestors crossed over from the wilderness and took possession of the land.
John tells them that if they will stop denying what they have become, and admit the truth, they can become a new people. They have a chance to start again. It is God who is giving them this chance, because God’s has come. God is not delaying any longer, but is coming to them, and will do a new thing. “Someone is coming,” says John, whose voice was able to get them all up bring them en masse to the banks of the Jordan, “someone more powerful than I. I am not worthy to stoop down and untie his sandals. I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”
Every year in this season of Advent we hear the voice of John, crying out in the wilderness, because this is the season of hope for the chance to start again. This story offers us an extraordinary and powerful vision, the kind of word that can save a nation from itself. It is a vision of our whole people going out together, going down to the waterside, going back to the shore where we first came into this land. And whether we came here in the first class cabin or in steerage, or as cargo in the hold of a slave ship, we all strip down together. We shed the entitlements of our color, be they entitlements of white privilege or of black grievance. And standing there together, in our underwear, each of us confesses our part in the sins that have turned our nation into a place of hate, of violence, and fear.
We tell this story every Advent, and perhaps this year we tell it with a heightened sense of sorrow. But in that sorrow there is hope, hope for the coming of God. The story tells us to prepare the way, because the Lord will come. If we can stop blaming and stereotyping one another and listen to each other speak the painful truth, God’s coming will not be wrathful judgment, but consolation. God will make a new beginning. He will forgive us, and more than that, his Holy Spirit will clothe us. She will give us power to heal and restore. She will give us new visions, new voices, new words to speak. She will make us a new people, no longer Black nor White, male nor female, slave nor free.