Few things are as painful as standing before a crowd of cameras, community members, families, and friends while simultaneously praying for victims of senseless crimes and speaking out against the perpetrators - for the third time in two months. In one such occasion on Chicago's South Side last February, I lead a vigil and press conference for a young couple and their unborn nine months old child whose lives had been taken through an intentional shooting.
For what seemed like the "um-teenth" time I'd shared the same words. "Our hearts and prays hold the family and friends pained by this tragedy." "This is not normal, and we should never presume it is." And, most challenging, "we pray for the courage of those who know anything, including the shooters, to come forward and share information."
Later that evening at home while reflecting with my family, I came to a startling realization. My children were proud, yet also concerned, asking the consequences of someone becoming upset at me for speaking. Images of the retaliation killing of an innocent 9-year-old Tyshawn Lee in November of 2016 flashed through my mind. I came to grips with the realization that for each time I spoke, referencing my name and the church I served, I was placing not only myself on the line, but the safety of my wife and children, too. No amount of scripture or sermon quotes could stop someone from choosing to find me or someone I loved and doing the unthinkable. Standing up for justice has a high cost associated with it.
The work of justice requires people of faith to face a challenging reality: doing good does not always result in receiving good in return. It is easy to hold in our heads ideas of how we reap what we sow and receive blessings for doing right in the eyes of God, but a serious reflection on the life of Jesus Christ forces us to embrace a tough alternate ending. Christ's testimony to "preach good news to the poor, to proclaim release to the prisoners and recovery of sight to the blind, to liberate the oppressed, and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor," (Luke 4:18-19) yields crucifixion as the outcome. Speaking up, doing right, and supporting just causes do not guarantee that goodness will be returned. Often, in fact, it is much the opposite.
Esteemed Jewish scholar, activist, and contemporary of Rev. Dr. King, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel shared in "The Reason for My Involvement in the Peace Movement" bold words worthy of consideration. "... indifference to evil is worse than evil itself. Even the high worth of reflection in the cultivation of inner truth cannot justify remaining calm in the face of cruelties that make the hope of effectiveness of pure intellectual endeavors seem grotesque." Nobel Peace Prize recipient (and personal hero I met years ago at Duke University) Bishop Desmond Tutu, said it this way: "if you are neutral in situations of injustice, you've chosen the side of the oppressor."
Stepping past indifference and neutrality for individuals is challenging and requires courage. It is the same for organizations, too. Risk includes supporters who choose to walk away, loss of resources from disagreeable funders, and, in a world of social media and instant responsiveness, the staining of our reputation from those who are quick to voice discontent.
At CRS we have chosen to take bold steps - moving past indifference and neutrality - to join with partners in a lawsuit challenging the standards of Police Reform in Chicago. For those willing to take the difficult step of sharing testimonies of painful encounters with the CPD the challenge is even greater - we hold them in our prayers. Next week, our Associate Director for State Policy and I will be in Springfield challenging our legislators to support efforts in gun dealership reform. As a pastor in a socioeconomically starved community victim to violence, I've had to share with my staff, the potential fallout from political and faith leaders in walking this path. CRS has had the same conversations with its member congregations and faith leaders, too, over our new directions.
The challenges are present, the struggle is difficult, and the risks are real, whether as a parent speaking in the streets of Chicago or as an organization taking steps into unknown territory. But if we are honestly choosing to restore what is broken in our society and living out a supernatural love of all humanity, these challenges are quite necessary to live out God's requirement, "to do justice, embrace faithful love, and walk humbly with God" (Micah 6:8).
Photo Credit Miki J. Activist shares important message at 2014 March on Washington.