Unprecedented

So for the second time they called the man who had been blind, and they said to him, “Give glory to God! We know that this man is a sinner.” He answered, “I do not know whether he is a sinner. One thing I do know, that though I was blind, now I see.” They said to him, “What did he do to you? How did he open your eyes?” He answered them, “I have told you already, and you would not listen. Why do you want to hear it again? Do you also want to become his disciples?” Then they reviled him, saying, “You are his disciple, but we are disciples of Moses. We know that God has spoken to Moses, but as for this man, we do not know where he comes from.” The man answered, “Here is an astonishing thing! You do not know where he comes from, and yet he opened my eyes. We know that God does not listen to sinners, but he does listen to one who worships him and obeys his will. Never since the world began has it been heard that anyone opened the eyes of a person born blind. If this man were not from God, he could do nothing.” They answered him, “You were born entirely in sins, and are you trying to teach us?” And they drove him out.

Jesus heard that they had driven him out, and when he found him, he said, “Do you believe in the Son of Man?” He answered, “And who is he, sir? Tell me, so that I may believe in him.”  esus said to him, “You have seen him, and the one speaking with you is he.” He said, “Lord, I believe.” And he worshiped him. Jesus said, “I came into this world for judgment so that those who do not see may see, and those who do see may become blind.” Some of the Pharisees near him heard this and said to him, “Surely we are not blind, are we?” Jesus said to them, “If you were blind, you would not have sin. But now that you say, ‘We see,’ your sin remains. – John 9:24-41 (NRSV)

The Merriam-Webster Dictionary’s word of the year for 2020 was pandemic.[1] The word has Greek roots: pan means all and demos means people. Pandemic could be defined as “all people.” Interestingly — or interesting to word geeks like me — is that demos is part of the compound word demokratia, or democracy, which means “power of people.”

Although not in Merriam-Webster’s top ten, the word unprecedented also ranked high. Spiking in March, it was one of the top 1% of word searches in 2020.[2] I guess, March was the beginning of our unprecedented times. And this week, we reached a new level of unprecedented.

Unprecedented but not unexpected.

Like you, I had a lot of thoughts and feelings on Wednesday as I watched parts of the rally and what unfolded at the Capitol building, but what struck me most was the lack of a police presence or response. This might not have been your first thought, but as I mentioned before I volunteer as a Legal Observer for the ACLU. Over the last six months, I’ve watched many demonstrations and protests unfold.

 

I was in Milwaukee and Wauwatosa the day the DA announced there would be no charges against Joseph Mensah, an officer who shot and killed three people in five years. Legal Observers had been requested to be present. Any organization holding a protest or demonstration under the First Amendment can make a request.

I had been a Legal Observer at other actions by this organizing group because they had been marching daily for police reform for months. I arrived one hour before the scheduled time. In preparation for the DA’s announcement, the City of Wauwatosa instituted a curfew for five days. Milwaukee County closed the Safety Building and Criminal Justice Facility an hour before the scheduled announcement. The National Guard was mobilized and present before the announcement was made.

I was present when the announcement was made, and while the family made their statement. The response by the crowd was silence as they listened to the family. From there, the march began from the Milwaukee County Safety Building to Wauwatosa as scheduled.

I observed the group until they reached Wauwatosa city limits. By this time, it was after curfew and the City had not allowed a request for Legal Observers to be present, I and others no longer followed the demonstration. That night, police used tear gas on a group of approximately 150-200 people, arresting one person.

I was also there three nights later when the City of Wauwatosa amended its curfew to allow Legal Observers to be present. The video and pictures from that night an hour after the curfew began. A group of approximately 50 protestors[3] had marched from Milwaukee and held the intersection at 76th street and North for some time. The group was leaving the area after being told to disperse. The police line still formed and advanced.

 

Paddy wagons were still following demonstrators 90 minutes after curfew, although the group had been peaceful all evening and had dispersed to a group of about 20 as they walked back to the starting point in Milwaukee.

When I had approached the area about 30 minutes prior to curfew, there were people in bars and eating meals in restaurants on North Avenue. As I followed the march back to Milwaukee, some of these businesses were still open, despite the curfew being in effect for 90 minutes. No citations were made.

I was in Kenosha the week Jacob Blake was shot in August. On Tuesday, January 5, the Kenosha DA announced there would be no charges against the officer who shot Jacob Blake. In preparation for the announcement, the City of Kenosha created designated demonstration space, set limits on bus routes, closed roads, instituted a curfew, and erected protective fencing.[4] 500 members of the National Guard were mobilized.

 

These are just three local examples that I witnessed. Others can be found throughout the country, including Washington, D.C.

On June 1, groups of predominantly peaceful demonstrators gathered in the street outside Lafayette Square, north of the White House, to protest police brutality and abuse, after Minneapolis resident George Floyd died in police custody after an officer knelt on his neck for nearly nine minutes. Law enforcement officers in riot gear later scattered the protesters, using tear gas and rubber pellets.[5]

This occurred prior to curfew with less than five minutes notice and without adhering to requirements that when a crowd is ordered to disperse, officers are to provide a route for people to leave before they take action.

[The next day,] On June 2 — the day of the primary election in Washington — law enforcement officers appeared on every corner, heavily armed in fatigues and body armor. Humvees blocked intersections. Buses full of troops deployed into military columns and marshaled in front of the Lincoln Memorial in a raw show of force. Police kettled protesters in alleys. Choppers thudded overhead for days and sank low enough over protesters to generate gale-force winds.[6][7]

 

On Wednesday, January 6, none of the precautions taken by the Cities of Wauwatosa and Kenosha or previously in Washington were in place at the Capitol Building. This is despite several scheduled rallies with one organizer reporting they expected about 5,000 people. And despite violence at a similar rally in the capital in December. The National Guard was called in to do traffic control.[8][9] The initial request to expand use of the National Guard was denied.[10][11]

I’m not reviewing all this for a critique of individual municipalities and government agencies. At least not as to whether or not they prepared appropriately. It is the lack of consistency — or more accurately — the consistency in bias I am addressing.

On January 2, 2016, a group of 20-25 armed white men seized and occupied the headquarters of Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon. They held the building until February 11. During this time, militants were allowed to come and go at will. One man was shot and killed when he reached for a handgun during arrest. 26 were indicted. Six received probation and seven were acquitted. Five men were convicted, with no sentence longer than 37 months.[12] The two still in prison were pardoned by the President on July 10, 2018.[13]

There are many thoughts and opinions about the occupation of the U.S. Capitol building: who was in the crowd, what people or groups they represented, and who or what incited the violence.

However, it is not opinion but fact that people, armed and unarmed, breached and entered the U.S. Capitol building while both houses of Congress were in session, including the first three people in the presidential line of succession. These are also facts:

  • It was known a large number of people, many armed, were expected at a scheduled rally near the White House that morning, intentionally coinciding with the Congressional certification of the Electoral College votes.[14] [15]
  • It was known that large numbers of people were expected to go to the Capitol building.[16]
  • It was also known that most of these people would be White.

It is also a fact that the events at the Capitol Building on January 6 confirmed the reality of institutionalized white supremacy in our country.

 

We celebrated Epiphany last Sunday, but January 6 is the actual feast day. Epiphany is the celebration of Jesus Christ manifest to humanity, the revelation of grace to the world.

That’s an interesting thing, revelation. We have the existential question, “If a tree falls in the forest and no one hears it, did it make a sound?” We might also ask, “If a revelation is made but no one acknowledges it, has anything been revealed?”

Jesus was revealed to Herod, but he could not, did not, really acknowledge who Jesus was. There was no epiphany for Herod. In our reading from John’s Gospel, Jesus revealed himself to both the man born blind and the religious leaders. The formerly blind man could see with both his eyes and his soul: revelation, epiphany. Despite all their knowledge and witnessing the same revelation, the religious leaders remained blind.

Last week, we talked about the star that guided the magi to Jesus. They both saw the star and discerned its importance. We are called to do the same. Like Herod, the religious leaders in John, and others as we read through the New Testament, we can choose to ignore and dismiss the light of epiphany.

We can choose not to acknowledge the revelation. But just like a tree alone in the woods that still creates sound when it falls, revelation is true even when we don’t admit it.

On January 6, we received an opportunity for Epiphany. This revelation of truth wasn’t what people believe or don’t believe about the election. It wasn’t the question of the adequacy of the security of federal buildings. It wasn’t even the realization of the fragile nature of our democracy. No, what was clearly illuminated was the truth that we hold the value of a White person’s life above all others. We value our White lives so much, that we — collectively as a country — condone the persecution and killing of People of Color to protect our racist systems.

I’m not saying you individually condone the persecution and killing of People of Color, but we do when we ignore the truth played out every day in this country that white supremacy is part of who we are. I do, when I don’t name it out loud or decide to throw up my hands in defeat.

We can say we didn’t create it, but we become complicit when we say we are not a part of it. Or that we aren’t responsible to change it. We can say, “This is not who we are.” But the truth is that we, as a country, have shown that this is who we are time and again. From the day we first displaced Native populations from their land or brought the first Black person here in slavery to today. This is who we are. Will we choose to ignore it and remain blind?

It’s true, we are living in unprecedented times. But they are only unprecedented because we have been forced to see them. God willing, we will never witness a violent overthrow of our Legislative Branch again. However, our country’s imbedded racism as it was revealed Wednesday will happen again. And again.

Beloved, we have received an opportunity for Epiphany and the invitation to increase the love and justice of Christ in our community and nation. We can choose to ignore our guilt and feign blindness, or we can let Jesus open our eyes. Amen.

Jesus, Epiphany, the manifestation of you in our lives, is a gift. You offer it for free, with open hands and a loving heart. This means we are free to receive it or not. And though you are so beautiful, it terrifies us to truly acknowledge who you are. For if we do, we cannot be the same. And not being the same, means the road ahead will be more difficult and uncomfortable. In accepting who you reveal yourself to be, we must face the truth of who we are. And while part of that truth is that we are beloved, valued, and held, there is also the truth about our sin and the sins of others we participate in.

You may have changed Paul is one brilliant moment on the Road to Damascus or opened the eyes of the blind man with a word; however, the change we face will take much longer. And we need to want that change. May we have the courage to face the truth, the humility to confess, and the resolve to be the people you created us to be. You told us in you all things are possible. Show us the way. Amen.

[1] https://www.merriam-webster.com/words-at-play/word-of-the-year/coronavirus. Accessed: January 7, 2020.
[2] https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/unprecedented. Accessed: January 7, 2020.
[3] https://www.wauwatosa.net/Home/Components/News/News/2252/17?npage=3. Accessed January 7, 2021.
[4] https://www.kenosha.org/images/KenoshaMRJan32021.pdf. Accessed January 7, 2021.
[5] https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/2020/06/11/how-clearing-lafayette-square-made-white-house-look-bit-more-like-kremlin/. Accessed January 7, 2021.
[6] https://www.pbs.org/wgbh/frontline/article/capitol-rioters-planned-for-weeks-in-plain-sight-the-police-werent-ready/. Accessed January 7, 2021.
[7] https://www.usnews.com/news/national-news/articles/2020-06-02/military-begins-staging-around-washington-to-quell-george-floyd-protests. Accessed January 7, 2021.
[8] https://www.wusa9.com/article/news/local/protests/march-for-trump-rally-dc-january-6-protest-pro-trump-demonstrators-event-details/65-2e019324-7861-48fa-8d78-d99b9617558b. Accessed January 7, 2021.
[9] https://www.pbs.org/wgbh/frontline/article/capitol-rioters-planned-for-weeks-in-plain-sight-the-police-werent-ready/. Accessed January 7, 2021.
[10] https://dccouncil.us/dc-council-statement-on-the-department-of-defenses-denial-of-dcs-national-guard-deployment-request/. Accessed January 7, 2021.
[11] https://apnews.com/article/joe-biden-donald-trump-politics-electoral-college-muriel-bowser-1634bf71a27de48efef3cd1e6ed4abe4. Accessed January 8, 2021.
[12] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Occupation_of_the_Malheur_National_Wildlife_Refuge. Accessed January 7, 2021.
[13] https://www.reuters.com/article/us-oregon-standoff-trump/trump-pardons-oregon-ranchers-who-inspired-refuge-standoff-idUSKBN1K021Q. Accessed January 7, 2021.
[14] https://www.nytimes.com/2021/01/06/us/politics/capitol-mob-trump-supporters.html. Accessed January 7, 2021.
[15] https://dccouncil.us/dc-council-statement-on-this-weeks-demonstrations-in-the-district/. Accessed January 8, 2021.
[16] https://www.pbs.org/wgbh/frontline/article/capitol-rioters-planned-for-weeks-in-plain-sight-the-police-werent-ready/. Accessed January 7, 2021.

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2 Thoughts to “Unprecedented”

  1. dadderto

    Wow. This was a great read. There’s nothing I disagree with. But I’m frustrated because I don’t see an end to what’s going on. I live in Southern California and many churches are ignoring the pandemic. These same churches also seem to side with the people with “alternate facts”. It seems like our country has lost its moral compass. I pray and pray,
    Thank you for your words.

    1. Thank you for reading (and responding). Justice, in its many forms, will not arrive in its fullness any time soon. However, I believe each step we take is important, and – as frustrating as it is – to continue to speak the truth when faced with lies. One important path to change is to vote. I join your prayers that we, collectively as a country, will wake up to see what we have become. I also pray that the Gospel would not be coopted by people of faith as a message of personal freedom at the expense of the community. There is no love if we don’t love our neighbor. Peace.

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