Do not be afraid

Marchers calling for the indictment of two Sacramento, Calif., police officers who shot and killed Stephon Clark, make their way through downtown Sacramento on April 4, 2018. Clark, who was unarmed, was shot and killed by Sacramento police officers on March 18. (AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli)

(RNS) — Do not be afraid. To those of us rooted in Christian and Jewish traditions, these are familiar words. They often come from the mouths of angels who appear in human form. They understand that their presence might initially be overwhelming, disruptive and disquieting.

It is a phrase aimed at putting the one who sees them at ease right away so that they can then deliver their message. But as we face relentless attacks on our rights and our lives, what role does fear play in our lives today?

Last week, an independent autopsy revealed that Stephon Clark was struck by eight bullets fired by Sacramento police officers. Six of those bullets hit him in the back. Even at the revelation of such a disturbing fact, the officers will continue to testify to the fear they experienced when they shot and killed Clark.

And just last week, fear appears to have been at least partially at play in the killing of a black man in Brooklyn, N.Y. It has now become a predictable response for police officers to cloak themselves in claims of fear as they seek to justify shooting down black people.

Do not be afraid.

For people of faith and moral courage, fear is not an acceptable shield for law enforcement to hide behind to escape accountability. We all know that law enforcement is a difficult job. We also know that good policing is rooted in positive relationships and respect; it is not rooted in “othering” or thinking of some people as “less than” or “disrespect” — all of which make it easier to allow fear to become the prevailing driver during a confrontation.

As a clergyperson, who also experiences fear sometimes, I know there are coping strategies that help us in those moments. We can expect better from law enforcement. Fear should not have the last word. It undermines officers who are building positive relationships and respecting all people — no matter their race, ethnicity, gender or sexual orientation.

Do not be afraid.

There is another way. It is important to look at those who have turned things around. Prince George’s County, Md., has nearly eliminated police killings of unarmed civilians. This took hard work on the part of law enforcement, the judicial system, elected officials and community leaders working together to hold each other accountable.

Once local leaders saw that law enforcement was ready to make sure that officers who perpetrated such killings actually lost their jobs or were imprisoned, it sent a clear message to everyone that their government took the problem seriously. It was no longer business as usual. Local partners were then willing to put some “skin in the game.” Every police department in the country must implement programs and policies that result in successful, peaceful solutions. Fear cannot have the last word.

Do not be afraid.

I am tired of fear being used as a legally and morally acceptable excuse to gun down black and brown people. As a black Baptist clergyperson, who is also a father of two black teenage boys, I am deeply concerned that the tragedy of police shootings of unarmed black men and women continues unabated. As we commemorate the anniversary of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination, the tragic reality is that my sons and I are branded as threats to be feared rather than as community members worthy of respect.

We can and must stop the racism that is killing us. After commemorating the death and resurrection of Jesus in Christian communities on April 1, let this be another opportunity for us to live and believe that what seems impossible can indeed become possible. “God makes a way out of no way.”

Do not be afraid.

(The Rev. John H. Vaughn is executive vice president of Auburn Seminary in New York City. The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.)

About the author

John H. Vaughn


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  • Am I the only person to wonder at the degree of compartmentalism required for a “clergyperson” to rail against fear?

    I don’t know if it is true, as I’ve been told, that humans alone have the capacity to fear that which is potential rather than experienced – it maybe true (our rescued dog was beaten – we know because of the way he reacts to sticks, rolled up magazines, coils of flex etc. but ignores guns, bird scarers, fireworks et al).

    We humans (most of us) have the evolved benefit of imagination, and like most things it brings with it both advantage and disadvantage. The advantages include many aids for survival as well as less basic matters such as literature, art and music. The disadvantages include our exposure to manipulatiuon by those who seek to control though any effective method.

    Religion has always manipulated, and often viciously magnified, the natural ability to fear. Religious folks may major on the bribe, the carrot, the undemonstrable, irrational and frankly rather weird expectation of a better life once the only one we know we have is over – but there is always, whether in the background or, as sometimes, bloodcurdlingly in one’s face, the equally silly stick of Hell.

    If you teach people to fear you cannot restrict what they fear – they learn the sensation, the process of fearing, the generalised insecurity and lack of self-esteem that follows the diminution of the perception of one’s ability to care for and protect one’s self and those one loves.

    And, although I’m not that frequent a visitor, the immediate sense I get when in the US is of a fearful people. Fear of sickness, fear of poverty, fear of unemployment, of violence, of pregnancy. Fears that are manipulated through guns, religion and faux patriotism to prevent meaningful involvement by the state to provide an effective support system for the state’s citizens (thus magnifying the dependence on “church” and closing the circular trap).

    I get lectured about the evils of “socialism” and “communism” by people who have never heard the phrase “ownership of the means of production by the state”. I know old, white, turkeys in seriously poor health who voted for Xmas (aka the DTs) – out of fear. Irrational, habitual, unadmittable fear – encouraged by their pastor!

    The triumph of humanity over our animalistic origins is that we can imagine a world without fear – the tragedy, in part at least – is that that same imagination is so often, so powerfully, used (and not just in the US) to deny, frustrate and derail the benefits of life without the debilitating effects of unnecessary fear.

  • We can throw some of the blame on the NRA as well. Their official policies and lobbying enable illegal guns to flood urban streets. Putting cops on edge for fear of concealed firearms with every attempted arrest*

    *Also there is the inherent racism that a black person openly carrying a firearm is a threat and a white person doing so is just “exercising their rights”