Saturday, July 9, 2016

By the Waters of Babylon We Lay Down and Weep: Thoughts on Dallas, America, and A Way Forward

Officer Weeps At Vigil.
The nation has been rocked again of news of gun violence. This time a sniper shooting police in Dallas. Unlike the Sig Sauer MCX rifle used in the Orlando attack in the nightclub against the GLBTQ community-- similar to AR-15 style the Dallas shooter used an SKS rifle originally produced by the Russians for their military. It is popular today with civilians. This is first and foremost a story about how an American used a weapon meant to kill, against other Americans.

Five police officers died: Brent Thompson, 43, a transit police officer; Patrick Zamarripa, 32, who had served three tours in Iraq; Michael Krol, 40, who had joined the Dallas police in 2008; Lorne Ahrens, a former semi-pro football player and 14-year Dallas police veteran; and Michael Smith, a father of two, who liked to give stickers to the children at his church. Twenty-five police officers have been killed in 2016. Seven others were wounded in the Dallas shooting.

Seven others were wounded in this shooting. Their lives will be forever changed by the events in Dallas too. They will forever be connected to this event. These are people, with families, and friends, and lives all of which will be forever changed.

To say that this violence is unique to a person, to say this man was our enemy, to disconnect the weapon from the person, to disconnect the person from his society, or to disconnect this man from other events in our society is to seek to anesthetize ourselves against the violence in our society. This man's name was Micah Johnson, he was 25, he was a college student, and served this country in the U.S. Army Reserve. He was angry. Not unlike the shooter Dylann Roof at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in downtown Charleston, South Carolina who targeted blacks in order to make things right, Micah Johnson believed he was going to make things right by killing police. Johnson was wrong just as Roof was wrong. Johnson is a person though, with a family, and friends, and a life.

The gun violence took place at the conclusion of a peaceful Black Lives Matter protest march that was in response to the shooting deaths of Philando Castile near St. Paul, MN and Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge, LA at the hands of police. Both deaths were videotaped and spread over social media. Minnesota Governor, Mark Dayton, blamed Castile’s death on racism, telling media the shooting would not have happened had Castile been white. Dayton and others have called for the Department of Justice to investigate Castile’s death, which occurred just after the DOJ took up the investigation of Sterling’s death in Louisiana. Castile and Sterling had families and friends and lives.

In 2015, more than 100 unarmed blacks were killed by police. Individuals killed in gun related police action resulted in 773 deaths of 2013; 1111 in 2014; 1208 in 2015, and halfway through 2016, stands at 609--white, Latino and black. This story then is about these growing statistics and their worrisome affect on both the society and the police. Each death, each officer, each incident has a story--thousands of people with families, friends and lives.

We have experienced an unprecedented escalation of fear and violence in our country--a violence perpetrated in many forms, with guns, between Americans. There is an escalation of hate speech and racism by politicians, pundits and the populace. The Internet has given rise to new platforms for hate and dark mobs who express an animosity towards people who are different.

In the wake of the Dallas shooting you can read former Rep. Joe Walsh let loose a series of tweets, including one (later deleted) that said, "This is now war. Watch out Obama. Watch out Black Lives Matter punks. Real America is coming after you. Still elsewhere we saw, this pitched as a "Civil War," and blame cast by still others who say: "Black Lives Kill." Texas Lieutenant Gov. Dan Patrick blamed the protesters and called them hypocrites. Still others said the police had it coming.

We are, as a number of columnists have written, addicted to our outrage. Ryan Holiday calls it "outrage porn," the steady stream of insincerely performed umbrage and gulping hysteria that seeps like super concentrated vinegar out of the web's pores every moment of every day. He writes, "'Outrage porn,' as we've come to call it, checks all the boxes of compelling content—it's high valence, it drives comments, it assuages the ego, projects guilt onto a scapegoat, and looks good in your Facebook Feed." (

There was, of course, an outpouring of love as well. Love and compassion poured out onto the Internet, in person, in prayer and in vigils. There were calls to pause, to look, and to see something different going on--to embrace our common humanity. The Dallas police, like Houston and many other police offices, have been working to be transparent and to curb escalation during confrontations with police. Pictures of police along side Black Lives protesters throughout the country show a far different story that that seen by the likes of Roof and Johnson.

Police and Protester in Dallas.

Former police chief and now Deacon Alberto Melis wrote on his Facebook the following: Look at this photo: "No, really. Look at this photo. Read, mark, learn and inwardly digest it … this photo was taken at Belo Garden Park, Dallas, and Tweeted by Dallas PD during the protests march and before the shootings. We are a polarized nation. We sit and live in our echo chambers, listening only to those who think like us and listening only to what reinforces our beliefs and values … Since the shootings I've read comments which range in the polar extremes of blaming "Black Lives Matter" to "Chickens coming home to roost." Really? Really... But I've read countless comments written from within the depths of people aching for our communal and personal loss. Indeed … Look at this photo. THIS is our nation. Beyond the hate, fear and discord, exacerbated by the ugly metrics of an election year—this is still us, this is our nation. We are in this together ..."

I have talked with and corresponded with police and their families over the last year and they are fearful of the public. Each time their officer goes out they are confronted with the fear that they are literally in the line of fire. One spouse wept and told me of how so many officers are good officers and how she worries that those who have records of complaints and who are shooting people are bringing her own husband into the line of fire. Our church has parishioners, priests and bishops who have served in blue and whose families have lived the Dallas event in reality and in their worst nightmares.

I have sat with Black parishioners and listened to their fear for their children and for themselves. I have heard them talk about the different way in which they approach the police. I have heard how Black men are frequently stopped. I have listened as parents explain how they have to teach their children how to behave when the police stop them. Black parishioners weep and they tell me that they are afraid. Our church has parishioners, priests and bishops who have been unfairly targeted due to racism and live the St. Paul and Baton Rouge event in reality and in their worst nightmares.

I am afraid too. I am afraid for my parishioners. I am afraid for our children. I am afraid for our country. I am afraid for our future. In my fear I find myself with the Psalmist and I weep.

This all makes me think of Psalm 137.
By the rivers of Babylon—
   there we sat down and there we wept
   when we remembered Zion.
On the willows there
   we hung up our harps.
For there our captors
   asked us for songs,
and our tormentors asked for mirth, saying,
   ‘Sing us one of the songs of Zion!’
How could we sing the Lord’s song
   in a foreign land?
If I forget you, O Jerusalem,
   let my right hand wither!
Let my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth,
   if I do not remember you,
if I do not set Jerusalem
   above my highest joy. 

I weep for I find myself in Babylon.

The poet Malcolm Guite was once asked, "If we should read the parts of the Bible about dashing babies against the rocks and passages like that? (Psalm 137)

Guite responds, "Well, it is there isn't it. 'Blessed shall ye surely be who taketh thy little children and dash them against the stone.' What are you going to do with that?"

The interviewer questions, "Rip it out?" Guite then says, "No. If you don't understand that is what you do to people when you oppress them. Where is that coming from? By the rivers of Babylon—there we sat down and there we wept when we remembered Zion. On the willows there we hung up our harps. For there our captors asked us for songs, and our tormentors asked for mirth,' And then the bastards made us entertain them. You know … 'Sing us one of the songs of Zion.' 'Like it is bad enough being here now you want us to turn my whole heritage into some kind of rinky-dinky entertainment for you.' Yeah. So if the people in there can't see that you have done something to me that makes me want to do this, if we don't get that, then we aren't going to get it.”

C. S. Lewis has a great riff on this psalm where he is convicted in his own internal anger and says “at least the psalmist is honest.” But he also says, “If my whole soul is an Israel that God is trying to plant and grow, then I must never do this thing to another human being because God loves every human being. But there are little thoughts in me, envy, pride, scorn, before that grows into something I can't control." (The Work of the People:

Photo of adults shielding children and a baby in a stroller as shots are fired and the crowd breaks up in Dallas.

The fear, the anxiety, the hopelessness, the poverty and desperation of people in this country, of people in our churches, is deeply connected to the violence we are facing as a nation. It is not some kind of out of body experience but is deeply rooted in our DNA. We are faced with many human dilemmas in this one event: violence, access to weapons, hate, racism, classism, authority(s) and power(s). The American situation will not be classified in the code system we have been using for some time and it will not be easily solve-able.

We have set aside the experience of the lived body under the guise of scientific observation. We might even excuse these events as oddities carried out by people who are not us, not real, not American. We as individuals see ourselves from outside – just as we see this experience in Dallas from outside. We can barely comprehend this event as a symptom of underlying problems in America. However, the violence, the death, and sickness within our society is very real – and we are all connected to it. We are living in a very real bodily experience with very real interconnections with one another. We have families, friends, and lives.

As Christians, we recognize that we live in a metaphorical Babylon and that our world of entertainment masks the torments of living in a society that is fearful and violent--and justly so. We do not long for a false yesteryear, but for Zion itself--a heavenly city that is out of our reach today and before us--there our citizenship lies. As Christians we know that this is our country but we are citizens of a different reign. We see the broken, enmeshed world of violence and we weep. We weep.

Martin Luther King confronted this violence in his time. In a sermon at Riverside Church he directed his comments directly to systems of Babylon and their violence. He wrote:

As I have walked among the desperate, rejected, and angry young men, I have told them that Molotov cocktails and rifles would not solve their problems. I have tried to offer them my deepest compassion while maintaining my conviction that social change comes most meaningfully through nonviolent action. But they asked, and rightly so, “What about Vietnam?” They asked if our own nation wasn’t using massive doses of violence to solve its problems, to bring about the changes it wanted. Their questions hit home, and I knew that I could never again raise my voice against the violence of the oppressed in the ghettos without having first spoken clearly to the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today: my own government. For the sake of those boys, for the sake of this government, for the sake of the hundreds of thousands trembling under our violence, I cannot be silent. 
He turned his attention in that same sermon to society and called us to act and do something about the Babylon in which we are living. Using the parable of the Good Samaritan and the road to Jericho, he called our attention to the work we have left to do:
On the one hand we are called to play the good Samaritan on life's roadside; but that will be only an initial act. One day we must come to see that the whole Jericho road must be transformed so that men and women will not be constantly beaten and robbed as they make their journey on life's highway. True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar; it is not haphazard and superficial. It comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.
So on this day, and in the days to come, we weep. By the rivers of Babylon I sit down and here I weep as I remember my heavenly citizenship in Zion and the broken and violent world in which I live. I hope you will join me and weep--weep and pray.

Then, instead of explosively spewing more hate and fear and anxiety into the world, let us, as C. S. Lewis invited us to do, nurture the Israel, the Zion, which is already planted within us and without. Let us be citizens of God's heavenly Jerusalem. Let us be convicted of our internal sin and repent and let us build a new city. Let us seek real conversation with one another a way forward. Let us reject talking at one another for a platform of talking with one another. Let us reject, out of Christian unity, the idea that we are enemies. Instead let us join our hands as family and find our peaceful way forward.

Prayers for Dallas and America
From the Book of Common Prayer, Burial Office

I am Resurrection and I am Life, says the Lord.
Whoever has faith in me shall have life,
even though he die.
And everyone who has life,
and has committed himself to me in faith,
shall not die for ever.
As for me, I know that my Redeemer lives
and that at the last he will stand upon the earth. 
After my awaking, he will raise me up;
and in my body I shall see God.
I myself shall see, and my eyes behold him
who is my friend and not a stranger.
For none of us has life in himself,
and none becomes his own master when he dies. 
For if we have life, we are alive in the Lord, 
and if we die, we die in the Lord.
So, then, whether we live or die,
we are the Lord's possession.

Happy from now on
are those who die in the Lord!
So it is, says the Spirit,
for they rest from their labors.

                   The Lord be with you.
People        And also with you.
Celebrant    Let us pray.

O God of grace and glory, we remember before you this day 
our brothers and sisters who have been killed because of racism, 
bigotry, and violence in America. We thank you for giving them
to us, their family and friends, to know and to love as a companions on 
our earthly pilgrimage. In your boundless compassion, 
console us who mourn. Give us faith to see in death the gate 
of eternal life, so that in quiet confidence we may continue 
our course on earth, until, by your call, we are reunited with 
those who have gone before; through Jesus Christ our Lord. 

A reading from Paul's Letter to the Romans chapter 8 beginning
at the 24th verse:
For in hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.
Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes* with sighs too deep for words. And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.
We know that all things work together for good* for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose. For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn within a large family. And those whom he predestined he also called; and those whom he called he also justified; and those whom he justified he also glorified.

What then are we to say about these things? If God is for us, who is against us? He who did not withhold his own Son, but gave him up for all of us, will he not with him also give us everything else?  Who will bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn? It is Christ Jesus, who died, yes, who was raised, who is at the right hand of God, who indeed intercedes for us. Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? As it is written,‘For your sake we are being killed all day long; we are accounted as sheep to be slaughtered.’
No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. 
Reader       The Word of the Lord.
People       Thanks be to God.

God the Father,
Have mercy on your servants.
God the Son,
Have mercy on your servants.
God the Holy Spirit,
Have mercy on your servants.

Holy Trinity, one God,
Have mercy on your servants.
From all evil, from all sin, from all tribulation,
Good Lord, deliver them.
By your holy Incarnation, by your Cross and Passion, by 
your precious Death and Burial,
Good Lord, deliver them.
By your glorious Resurrection and Ascension, and by the 
Coming of the Holy Spirit,
Good Lord, deliver them.
We sinners beseech you to hear us, Lord Christ: That it may 
please you to deliver the souls of your servants from the power 
of evil, and from eternal death,
We beseech you to hear us, good Lord.
That it may please you mercifully to pardon all their sins,
We beseech you to hear us, good Lord.
That it may please you to grant them a place of refreshment 
and everlasting blessedness,
We beseech you to hear us, good Lord.
That it may please you to give them joy and gladness in your 
kingdom, with your saints in light,
We beseech you to hear us, good Lord.
Jesus, Lamb of God:
Have mercy on him.
Jesus, bearer of our sins:
Have mercy on him.
Jesus, redeemer of the world:
Give him your peace.

Lord, have mercy.
Christ, have mercy.
Lord, have mercy.

Our Father, who art in heaven,
    hallowed be thy Name, 
    thy kingdom come, 
    thy will be done, 
        on earth as it is in heaven. 
Give us this day our daily bread. 
And forgive us our tresspasses, 
    as we forgive those 
        who trespass against us. 
And lead us not into temptation, 
    but deliver us from evil.

Lord Jesus Christ, we commend to you our brothers and sisters who
have been killed because of racism, bigotry, and violence. 
Grant that their death may recall to us your victory over death, 
and be an occasion for us to renew our trust in your Father's 
love. Give us, we pray, the faith to follow where you have led 
the way; and where you live and reign with the Father and the Holy 
Spirit, to the ages of ages. Amen.


  • "Christianity is not a theory or speculation, but a life; not a philosophy of life, but a life and a living process." Samuel Taylor Coleridge
  • "Most people are willing to take the Sermon on the Mount as a flag to sail under, but few will use it as a rudder by which to steer." Oliver Wendell Holmes
  • "Perfection, in a Christian sense, means becoming mature enough to give ourselves to others." Kathleen Norris
  • "Do all the good you can, by all the means you can, in all the ways you can, in all the places you can, at all the times you can, to all the people you can, as long as ever you can." John Wesley
  • "The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting; it has been found difficult and left untried." G. K. Chesterton
  • "One of our great allies at present is the Church itself. Do not misunderstand me. I do not mean the Church as we see her spread out through all time and space and rooted in eternity, terrible as an army with banners. That, I confess, is a spectacle which makes our boldest tempters uneasy. But fortunately it is quite invisible to these humans." C. S. Lewis
  • "When we say, 'I love Jesus, but I hate the Church,' we end up losing not only the Church but Jesus too. The challenge is to forgive the Church. This challenge is especially great because the church seldom asks us for forgiveness." Henri Nouwen, Bread for the Journey
  • "Christians are hard to tolerate; I don't know how Jesus does it." Bono
  • "It's too easy to get caught in our little church subcultures, and the result is that the only younger people we might know are Christians who are already inside the church." Dan Kimball