Is it nothing to you who pass by? Reflecting on the Walter Scott video

Turn my eyes from watching what is worthless,*
  Give me life in your ways.    (Psalm 119:37)

This verse came to mind last night after I felt forced to stop my routine on the rowing machine at the YMCA. The ubiquitous television screens were replaying the horrific murder of an unarmed black man, Walter Scott, as he was running away from Officer Michael Slager in North Charleston, South Carolina.  

All of us in the “cardio room” of the Y were watching what appeared to be a public execution by a policeman without due process of the law. I simply had to stop and bow my head in both disbelief, and in an appeal to God.   I looked up hoping to see a sympathetic glance on the treadmill or the stationary bikes or the stair-master.  No one seemed to have seen what they were just shown.  Talk about weekend plans, or the weather, or car repair went when on, even as the loop of the event in North Charleston kept replaying, on all the networks, from CNBC to Fox News, each expressing similar horror.  

None of us in the cardio room were of African American descent, as far as I could tell.  We seemed to be desensitized to such violence. Our hearts were pumping well, but they seemed to have hardened.  Or maybe my fellows’ eyes were fixed on the other small screen in the corner where a woman was hoping to spin a trip for a Sandal's getaway on Wheel of Fortune. Turn my eyes, O Lord.

Is it nothing to you, all ye that pass by? Behold, and see if there be any sorrow like unto my sorrow, which is done unto me, wherewith the LORD hath afflicted me in the day of his fierce anger. (Lamentations 1:12)

As it turned out, I had just come from a panel discussion on the death penalty at the UNH Law School.  It was striking that the most strident supporter of the death penalty on the panel strongly condemned what he sees is the growing number of homicides by police that are never investigated in our "Live Free or Die" state.  He held up a photograph of a bullet-ridden windshield in Manchester where he said an unarmed woman was shot repeatedly in the head.  There has been no independent investigation, no indictment, not much news coverage of it at all.  As the attorney, known for being rather hard-nosed, displayed the photograph, I heard gasps in the audience.  Hearts were moved, maybe even softened. 

If you’ve watched television news over the past year, you would have found it hard to avoid seeing the death of Eric Garner in Staten Island.  You would have heard his final words under the pile of police forcing this black man’s face into the concrete. "I can't breathe! I can’t breathe!”  I thought of that scene on Good Friday as I recalled how death by crucifixion is by asphyxiation. The crucified die because they cannot breathe.  

Stewardship is not only about how we manage and spend our money and our time.  It also involves what we consume through our eyes and our ears.  Cellphone cameras and the open Internet will make it more difficult for professional news editors to control the flow of violent images we see.  

The violence is not limited to electronic media, but extends to paper and ink. Even the front page of the New York Times on April 8, above the fold, displayed freeze frames of the Walter Scott shooting.  It didn’t pass my notice that the news of the Walter Scott’s death at the hands of a white man broke on the 100th anniversary of the birth of Billie Holliday, whose haunting rendition of the song Strange Fruit could very well be the sound-track to the images that are pouring into our senses these days.  Strange Fruit powerfully describes the scenes of lynching in the early part of the 20th century.  For many, this is one of the most important songs in the American songbook, but I didn’t hear about it until I was 54 years old.  You can hear it HERE.

Newspaper editors and newscast producers are doing their job.  They have difficult choices.  They will choose not to broadcast the nauseous beheadings of the victims of terrorists. Presumably such horrors are simply too much, and not at all edifying for an audience at the gym, or in living rooms, or in offices before computer monitors.  If curious enough, we could probably search out and download these scenes on the Internet. All this reality is available to us, but not all is good for our souls.  

How would seeing the death of New Hampshire’s own James Foley, or the death of the Christian martyrs on the beach in Libya, have furthered our baptismal vow to uphold the dignity of every human being?  What are we to do with the fact that once we see something, we cannot un-see it?  I don’t know what’s more horrific, seeing the black man twisted and hanging under a tree at night (the image that inspired the teacher Abel Meeropol to compose Strange Fruit) or the man in the crowd who looks directly at the camera proudly pointing to the lynched.   If you choose, you can see that 1930 photograph HERE.

Increasingly, as Philip Gourevich has noted in an opinion piece in the New Yorker entitled “Should You Watch the Video?" we have to become our own editors.  Of course, the family of Walter Scott is grateful that the fate of their brother and son was recorded for the sake of justice.  But, we have to decide, to edit for ourselves, what to watch, what to linger over, how to interpret, how to “tend the vine” of our individual and collective souls.  These images have an effect on us.  They both stir us to compassion and justice.  Over time, and without prayerful reflection, they can also harden and injure our relationship to God and each other. Our dignity is a risk.

The YMCA, still a “Christian association,” was where some of us first witnessed the killing of an unarmed 50 year-old black man at the base of a tree in the American South.  And I have seldom felt more alone in my life.  Clearly, the gym was not the setting for theological reflection, pastoral conversation, or spiritual discussion.  Silly me. I get that.  

But I can hope, and easily imagine, that there is time set aside for us in our churches and in our homes to shut off the programs or the video games, and to stop and pray, and to try to respond to Jeremiah’s lament:  Is it nothing to you who pass by?   What does the effect of these scenes have on our souls?  What kind of people are we becoming, as families, as churches, as citizens of both the Realm of God and of a society in decline? Actions for social justice will happen.  I have full confidence in our outreach and advocacy and organizing for just and moral budgets.  We do these things well.  I am proud to know that the Church of New Hampshire is known, and will no doubt continue to be known, for these things.  But before all that can happen, can we just stop and be silent and pray to God to help us be human beings, created in God’s image, and called to see the face of Christ in all persons?  

Today, in the Easter week, I wonder if we can have the courage to confess to one another our own hardness of heart.  I mean really confess in the robust confidence that God does forgive and does, in fact, seek to make us anew.  Sunday forums, weekday discussions and Bible studies, even monthly Convocation meetings, could be more fruitful if we inserted some time for holy conversation about the state our souls.  If we can’t find the time and the space and the room in our lives to do that in the Church, than we might as well say we are the YMCA with hymns.  And, may God help us. 

A new heart I will give you, and a new spirit I will put within you; and I will remove from your body the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh.  (Ezekiel 36:26)

The Episcopal Church of New Hampshire