For Philando

You shall not pollute the land in which you live; for blood pollutes the land. (Num 35:33)

My freshman year in college, I was living in a large city. One evening, I was taking the subway home from some kind of event. We pulled into a station and a lot of people got off; when the doors closed, I realized that I was alone in the subway car with a large man. I returned to reading my book, but after a minute or so, I became aware that something was not right. I looked up and found the man staring at me, intently. His eyes were glittering; he had unzipped his shorts and was pleasuring himself, staring at me with those glittering eyes.

I was terrified. I did not know whether his invasion of my personhood would stop there, or whether his actions were a prelude to a deliberate assault. I did know that he and I were alone and that I had no way off that train until we pulled into the next station, which was several minutes away. I remember going cold with fear. I remember praying.  I was as frightened of that man as I had been of anyone in my young life, but my fear gave me no right to pull out a gun and shoot that man. Nor should it have. The man’s actions were grossly inappropriate, but he did not proceed to assault me. He remained in his chair; the train pulled into a station; I jumped out of the car; the incident was over.

That was then; this is now.

This week, a jury acquitted a police officer of the murder of a school cafeteria-worker named Philando Castile. Mr. Castile was driving with his wife and small child when an officer pulled him over. Mr. Castile complied with the officer’s requests. He was polite. He was deferential. And about a minute after the officer approached the car, Mr. Castile was dead.

The jury’s verdict hinged on the question of whether the officer had been correct to feel threatened by Mr. Castile.  As with the other cases in which black men have been killed by police officers in the last few years, the jury concluded that the officer’s sense of threat was appropriate. But with all due respect, that is not the right question. Being perceived as threatening does not give someone a right to kill you.

I am a small woman, and I have lived my adult life in large cities. Most weeks, I encounter men who are threatening to me: men who are mentally ill and raving, or who seem to be strung out on drugs, or who are angry and aggressive, or who look at me in ways that are not benign. But I do not have the right to kill those men. I have the right to be prudent about how close I get to them; I have the right to refuse to interact with them; I have the right to remain in places where the presence of other people mitigates my sense of danger. I do all those things, and you know what? Not one of those men has ever tried to harm me. Not one. I manage those perceived threats without relying upon a gun, and all of us have gone our separate ways in peace.

And so I have to ask, Why are certain police officers so much less able to handle their fear than I am? And if they are so threatened by black men, why do they insist on interacting with them?

I’m being serious here. If they come upon a person who is engaged in an armed assault, of course they have to intervene. But if the person they’re afraid of is selling cigarettes on the sidewalk or driving a car with a tail-light that’s not working, why not give it a pass, or ask for help from an officer who is less afraid? After all, the vast majority of our police officers are not killing people at traffic stops or choking them on the streets of our cities. Most of them are honorable men and women who try to build relationships with the communities they serve, to maintain the public peace, and to go home each night without blood on their hands. I am deeply grateful for their work, and I trust that they could handle these incidents without resort to violence, or, at least, not to violence that has a fatal outcome.

I know that the police officers who keep us safe need to engage in prudent self-protection. But there is a difference between that and murder. There are Tazers. There are clubs. There is the simple tactic of avoiding confrontation. Because, in the end, fear is just a feeling, and a lot of what we fear never happens. If my continued existence or your continued existence is contingent on someone else’s feelings, rather than on our actions, none of us is safe. None of us is secure.

And the videotape is utterly clear: Mr. Castile did not engage in threatening actions. Trevor Noah asked, “How does a black person not get shot in America? Because if you think about it, the bar is always moving. The goalposts are always shifting. There’s always a different thing that explains why a person got shot. Oh, the person was wearing a hoodie. Or the person was running away from a police. Or, no, the person was going towards the police. Or the person was running around at night. Or, no, the person had an illegal firearm. Or the person didn’t have a firearm. But, at some point you realize, there’s no real answer.” Because the real answer isn’t in the actions of the person whose been killed. It’s in the fear of the person who did the killing.

So let me repeat: being perceived as threatening does not give someone a right to kill you.



fra-angelico-the-entombment-of-christ-ca-1450This afternoon, I had the opportunity to go behind-the-scenes at the National Gallery of Art, to tour the labs where skilled conservators work to preserve priceless works of art. At one table, a conservator examined a painting slowly under a microscope. Near a window, a woman in a black silk gown smiled enigmatically from a canvas by Van Dyke. By another window, a man wearing magnifying lenses worked painstakingly on a canvas by Fra Angelico, a painting of the entombment of Christ.

The painting was in dreadful condition. The faces of the figures were beautiful, but the background and robes had been ruined by a previous attempt at conservation, performed when harsh chemicals were all that had been available. The paint was marred and scarred, the colors of the robes muddied. Amid it all, the body of Christ shone out. The legs and torso were bright white — too white — while the face and shoulders were darkened by a deeply discolored layer of varnish. The conservator was working with a swab to clean the varnish off the corpus.

I asked him whether it could be made whole again. He replied that the damage to the landscape actually wasn’t bad, but that the real problem was the figure of Christ. “It should be pale, because he’s dead, but not that pale.” He said it was nerve-wracking, to have to reconstruct the central figure without much to go on, other than his studies of how Fra Angelico had depicted Christ in other paintings.

It would be nerve-wracking; I could barely have brought myself to do what the man was doing, touching a swab to something so ancient and so beautiful. But it is also what each of us must do: reconstruct the face of Christ anew in our lives, working by hints and guesses and old stories, tracing the lineaments we have been handed down, giving them living color as best as we can imagine it.

It is up to us whether to paint Christ living or dead, whether to honor his presence in every single person and creature, or to efface it by any means we have. Honoring it means giving them freedom and the wherewithal to succeed (food, shelter, education, moral teaching, faith, love, joy, cause for hope). To efface it, all we need do is withhold those things, without which our souls stumble. Some are more important than others. People can flourish without education, but not without love or hope.  However, each of these things is necessary in some measure if we are to realize the potential that God placed within us and show forth God’s full glory to the world.

Irenaeus wrote, “The glory of God is the human being fully alive.”

Fully alive.


Photo depicts Jose Limon Dance Company.

The painting I’ve included is of the Fra Angelico, before restoration. In the version I saw, the image is a lot less complete, but the colors are true. For example, cleaned of the discolored varnish, the brown hill on the left is now revealed to be green, and the robes of the seated figure with her back to us are lovely shades of lavender.


Ragnarok (A Pentecost Meditation)

götterdämmerung-apocalypseWhen I was a child, I loved to read mythology. There was D’Aulaire’s Greek Myths, with the Chariot of the Sun driving across its cover, and the beautiful, petty, unexpectedly noble gods vying for power and love within. There were the Egyptian myths, more frightening to a young girl, with their half-human deities rending one another’s flesh and the cackle of jackal-headed Anubis. The ancient Hawaiians, riding ti-leaves down mud slides and savoring their poi. Among them all, the only ones I could not embrace were the myths of the ancient Norse, with their dark pessimism and their certainty that at the end of time, the gods and heroes would enter into battle with the forces of evil, and the gods and heroes would lose. The great divine city of Valhalla would burn to the ground, the earth would subside back into the raging waters, and all living things would be destroyed. They called it Ragnarok, the Doom of the Gods, and it ushered in a return to primeval darkness and silence, before, by some unspoken word, the world would be born anew.

This has been a Ragnarok kind of week. It began with the killing of two courageous witnesses who spoke out against anti-Muslim hate speech in Portland. It continued with acts of terror in London and in Kabul. In between, the President of the United States announced that he was withdrawing our country from the Paris Climate Accord, which prompted an avalanche of writing about the actual end of the world.

How fitting, then, that today should be the Feast of Pentecost, when the world is not ended, but reborn. Oh, it had looked like the end. Christ had died, horribly. The disciples had huddled in fear behind locked doors. And even after the Resurrection, they remained there — heartsick, shaken to their core, and terrified. But on the Day of Pentecost, they went to the Temple, and there rained down fire from heaven — not the fire that would consume the world, but the fire of divine love.

If it seems to you like the world is ending, it might be. Both these stories, the true myth of Pentecost and the ancient tale of Ragnarok, struggle to communicate a deep reality. People die. Civilizations die and change and emerge unrecognizable for what they were. Within any one life, there are countless small deaths, and, if we live with hope and with courage, enough new births to equal countless-plus-one. We cannot grow without letting go of who were were. We cannot mature without setting aside childish things. And sometimes, we are made to watch the destruction of things we love, of people we love, and continue breathing in naked faith, trusting that the God who came to us in fire will come to us still.

We who are people of faith,
we who, like the first apostles, struggle to believe,
we who walk (sometimes) in darkness, and
(sometimes) do not walk at all —

We who will not surrender hope
Who turn and
Turn again
The face the light,

Or to find it,

We who weep and we who mourn and we who dance
because at any rate, it will not do harm, and might,
if the balances are exact,
evoke a blessing

Still we walk in the fire of love
We breathe it even when our hearts are breaking
(Perhaps, especially, when our hearts are breaking)
And it is not the fire of the end

But the fire that leaps from the plain white page
At the beginning of the chapter
At the beginning of the book

The one we have yearned for all our lives
The one whose letters
burn with love.