Charlotte, chaos and the casualty of truth

September 28th, 2016

It was on the third day of the chaos in Charlotte that I realized that what had gone up in flames on our streets was truth, or several truths actually. Standing behind Rev. William Barber at a press conference as he asked for transparency from the police, and for all of us to look squarely in the face of governmental policies and personal attitudes that are blatantly adverse to the African-American community, I got stuck on his words which were first Jesus’ words: “You shall know the truth, and the truth shall set you free.” I wonder if, in order for us to get anywhere with race or justice or anything that matters, we have to dig our way out of the crusty cynicism that has given up on the idea of truth. No matter how flawed the press or politicians or religious leaders or even we ourselves might be, there is still such a thing as reality. God not only wants us to know what's true, but has mercifully given us the ability to figure out what happened. When we do, we’ll begin to walk toward freedom.

Many of us were distressed with the press right now, and for two good reasons. The storyline on TV and in the newspaper was this: “Three thousand people showed up to protest in Charlotte, and although it began peacefully, it grew violent.” Whites and those who support the police gobble up this storyline, but it is patently false and only feeds false biases. I was there. What happened was this: Three thousand people, black, white and brown, engaged in an intense but peaceful demonstration that remained peaceful. Two or three dozen provocateurs jumped into that march, and began throwing rocks, breaking windows, and setting things on fire. Who was most mortified, and actually terrified by the provocateurs? The three thousand peaceful demonstrators. This is what really happened, and the distinction is enormously important to us, and important in God’s eyes.

The press sensationalizes in these instances by showing the guy hurling a metal chair through a window and the teargas looming. I could fault them, but that’s what the public has a taste for; it’s what we demand — which means we insist upon a very narrow picture of the larger truth. But there is a larger truth. I personally was distressed with the paper, as I appeared in a photo standing behind a speaker on a podium who, according to the story, was fomenting the anger that turned the crowd violent. Of course, he didn’t want violence, and the crowd as a crowd wasn’t violent. Personally I was chagrined in that I'd been nowhere near that speaker. The paper had lifted a photo from an event more than three years ago where he and I and others were at an event promoting good education for children. Naturally I started getting calls from parishioners, either applauding me for supporting him or castigating me for promoting violence.

Neither of which were true, but when I posted a disclaimer on Facebook, my friends unleashed a torrent of scathing remarks about the press; that they are vile, biased, liars, and we can’t trust them. The worst ravage of postmodernity, and what will be the ruin of Christianity if we are not careful, is this ferocious rage against the idea that events can in fact be accurately reported. I have many friends who work at my local paper. They are thoughtful, hardworking, diligent people doing their best to get out complicated stories under the pressure of deadlines. I posted a rejoinder, explaining that newspapers actually say true things we need to know. You should even consume news from multiple sources. Something happened, and you can figure it out. But the hostile fantasy that you just can’t know leads to the fiction that there is nothing left but ideology, which is nothing but idolatry, and a faith like Christianity that really does hinge on some facts winds up crucified.

Truth is the casualty when our ideology blinds us to simple facts. I was quizzed by church members asking me why I was standing behind leaders of the NAACP “who as we know are anti-police.”  At first, I defended myself, saying “It’s important to stand with African-American clergy during these days, doesn’t mean I have to agree with everything they say.” But I actually did agree with what Rev. Barber had to say. He named simple facts, like an all-too pervasive anti-black mood in the police force; laws our legislature have passed that are detrimental to the poor; unacknowledged racism. He denounced violence. The protesters are angry for reasons that aren’t mere moods. There are some simple truths, and if the truth will set us free, we can detect it in the exasperation, the frustration and the pain of our brothers and sisters who are black — and we have to find a way forward to change things. Change is another real thing that can happen.
In Charlotte we see how truth really is the foundation of trust. A huge segment of our community doesn’t trust the police, but another segment swiftly and adamantly supports our police. There are some basic facts, though. Our clergy asked officials for transparency. If evidence isn’t released, if we can’t be trusted to sort through what happened in the shooting, why should trust be returned? If no policeman is ever prosecuted successfully for wrongful killing, how could there be anything but exasperated rage? Our police chief is African-American, and his own father was killed under questionable circumstances by a policeman. Surely he will know that facts matter, that accountability to those facts will be the only way to trust, to find freedom from distrust.
Here’s a simple, obvious truth I denied myself. For three days I have harbored a kind of crushing disappointment in myself. I’ve moaned things like "Race relations are worse than ever." "I’ve spent my entire adult life working on racial reconciliation, and here we are." "All those workshops, community dinners and conversations, friendships with clergy who look different, it was all a chimera, a waste."
I was so forlorn I thought I’d reach out to a couple of friends who would commiserate with me. One was an African-American pastor I’d phoned the night before near midnight, the other a conservative rabbi in town. Then truth dawned in my embarrassingly dense skull. I had their cell numbers, and their love and trust. I’d whined to my rabbi friend a few years ago saying, "Murray, we’ve been working so hard and so long on this stuff but things are still awful." He responded, "You’ve got it all wrong. If we hadn’t been doing all we’ve been doing, things would really be in a much worse mess."

Lost in the smoke is the truth of a great work God has been doing in my lifetime. We have actually made great progress on race. Sure, we have light years to go. But many of us who follow Jesus have made friends we’d not have had a generation ago. We know how to stand together, how to support one another, how to be the Body of Christ. We haven’t perfected the thing, but we’re on our way. Why should I feel discouraged? His eye is on the sparrow, and his eye sees we really are making some progress down here.

It was on the third day that something actually happened, and it got reported. Those who heard the news were confused, and there was violence to come. But the truth was out, and the truth then did begin its relentless labor of setting us free. So call somebody, read the paper, pray, and hope. God is still God. 
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