Times of tragedy, such as the recent string of violent shootings and murders in our country (Dallas, Minneapolis, Baton Rouge, Tupelo and Columbus) have reminded us of how precious life is. However, these shootings also remind us that we live in a time that is often violent and tragic. Violence against one another has become in recent years an unfortunate part of the fabric of our nation and our world.
In particular, African Americans are now frightened of the police, who are sworn to serve and to protect because of the mounting incidents of African Americans that have died while either in police custody or during encounters with police officers. This has resulted in significant distrust within the African American community where many now believe they are under attack by the very persons who have sworn to serve and to protect them. I trust you are aware that the vast majority of police officers serve with integrity and honor and yet because of these suspicions, they are viewed as enemies rather than protectors.
Now police officers are on edge because of the violence now being visited upon them. Violence is never justified for the followers of Jesus. The Lord instructed us to turn the other cheek but most of all, He called us to a life of service to all humanity centered in love.
When violence and tragedy occur on such a massive scale we have several choices as to how we respond:
Some of us respond to such horrific events by becoming numb or paralyzed. We are so overwhelmed that we become immobile and thus, ineffective. Being so overcome that we do nothing but become silent bystanders to the tragedies of life is not an appropriate response.
Like a turtle, we seek to withdraw into our shells and find safety and security there. However, we cannot find the peace that we seek by withdrawing.
Many persons respond to violence with violence. However, Jesus reminds us that to do so is not of God. Jesus said that we should not seek vengeance or retaliation, no "eye for an eye and no tooth for a tooth." Our country seems to be becoming more and more violent with the tragic aftermath in its wake.
Bishop Mike Coyner of the Indiana Area reminds us in his letter to these tragedies that we must not get used to all this violence. It may be easy to become apathetic to the violence because we witness so much of it that it becomes a regular occurrence and we are no longer as impacted by it as we initially were.
Follow Jesus’ Example
When Jesus faced severe tragedy in his last days on the earth, including betrayal, beatings and death on a cross he modeled for us an appropriate response to such violence and tragedy. In the Garden of Gethsemane Jesus was so overcome about the violence that was about to be inflicted upon him, He began to sweat blood. However, ultimately Jesus went from saying, "Let this cup pass from my lips” to "not my will but your will be done." We also see that when Peter wanted to become violent with those who were about to arrest Jesus, Jesus rebuked him. Jesus’ major response to violence and tragedy was prayer, Scripture and non-violent action. Jesus asked the disciples to keep watch while he prayed.
Our Christian Response
Prayer is a powerful tool to undergird our action. Here are at least two responses we should follow our prayers with:
1. What if each local church opened their doors for honest faithful dialogue between those that live in your community and the police or sheriff's department on how we might work together to end the violence?
2. The United Methodist Men have an awesome tool that they have partnered with called “Strength for Service.” It is a devotion book that I believe police officers could tremendously benefit from. Why not order some copies and have a service of Community Healing and present these devotional guides to your men and women calling on them to police your community as disciples of Jesus.
3. Let us begin to cross the racial divides in our own communities with events that allow us to be in dialogue with each other.
Mississippi United Methodists, I'm counting on you to be instruments God can use to stop the violence.
Yours in Christ,
Bishop James E. Swanson, Sr.