When Politics Trumped Faith

As a child, I was taught that the most important characteristic about a political candidate was their faith: as a Christian nation, we needed Christian leaders, preferably born again and evangelical. Learning to swim in waters so thick with political convictions and action, it felt at times as though the world around me inhaled religion and exhaled politics, and somewhere inside us one became the other.

The political world changed over time, and so did my faith. Once I learned that I could fail and God would still love me, I started to understand grace and fell in love with being a part of the Methodist movement that places grace at the center. Once I released the list of “Don’ts” that I clung to as a life-preserver in a terrifying sea of sin, I found solid footing on all the “Do’s” of a loving God. I began to walk forward. I found passages in John and 1 Corinthians and Isaiah that became old companions on the journey; my oldest and my dearest friends, always faithful, always present.

The years passed and I journeyed far and wide seeking to be a good Methodist, to “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.”

I messed up plenty – as often as everyday and as recently as this morning – but I put my heart and soul into it. I tried so hard. Every day. I tried to live with faithful discipline, love with liberal generosity, and learn with determined optimism. With time, I learned that faith was not about what I did or did not do, it was about the fact that God loved me and that love required a response.

One of the biggest changes I had to make was the choice to accept my calling to preach after being raised in a church that taught that women were not to be clergy. I wrestled so hard with it; the struggle most intense between the age of 20 and 25, when one of my deepest points of identity fought for it’s very survival against the erroneous teachings of my youth that tried to tell my calling that it deserved to die; that it was heresy; that I was heretic.

My calling won, and I proceeded forward as United Methodist clergy, fully ordained, fully credentialed, fully amazed by what God had done with a little girl who had never imagined she’d live in a world that wanted to hear her voice.

As my faith grew, it brought me to acquire a set of my own deep convictions: some the same I had been raised with, some different, and some quite the opposite. I came to understand how Christianity had been co-opted and used to justify the expansion of Empire after Empire; how the same Empire that had issued Jesus’s death warrant, would be the first one to recognize the power of misusing his name.

I decided that my faith could inform my politics, but that for the sake of my faith, it was too dangerous to mix them together in the same bowl and end up losing track of which was which.

My faith changed, and so did the political world around me. When I crossed paths again with the Republican Party of my youth, I saw a stranger before me and I felt betrayed. I may not have found myself in sync with the Republican Party, but I expected that when we came across one another he would at least look familiar and we could be civil with one another. He had, after all, sat at my dinner table every evening growing up. I may have taken a different path in life, but I felt unreasonably aggravated that the old path did not feel familiar.

When I bumped into the Republican Party, he told me that Barack Obama, a member of the United Church of Christ, was a Muslim; and that Mitt Romney, a member of the Mormon religion, was closer to the evangelical Christian ideal. I was so confused; I felt like the whole world had been turned upside down. I had been okay with all the changes that had taken place within me, but I felt betrayed by the changes that had taken place within the world I left behind. I no longer recognized the Republican Party when he told me that Donald Trump was a Christian man; although there was a flicker of familiarity when he claimed that Hillary Clinton was not a Christian, that was an old song he had sung all throughout my youth.

Yet, when Hillary spoke, I could not deny I heard the echoes of her Methodist upbringing in her words; I heard that earnest determination, that Wesleyan intensity, that I shared with other Methodist women like Jarena Lee, Harper Lee, and Sandra Bland.

On Trump’s tongue, I heard poison. A poison that threatened to destroy everything I am and everything I love. Fear. Hate. Mockery. Sexism. Racism. Xenophobia. Power. Greed.

I wondered how could the political realm I had grown up in have changed so much? Then again, maybe it never changed; perhaps we are only just becoming aware of the repercussions. While we were inhaling religion and exhaling politics, did we never realize that the direction of the wind might change? Did we never realize that we might choke on our own exhaust?

Maybe it was politics that trumped faith all along. We just failed to see it clearly until now.

 

Jesus the Criminal

Sitting here at the Waller County Jail in hour 44 of the 64 that Sandra Bland spent here before news of her death broke on July 13; making sure her voice is heard here throughout the duration. Sitting here a week after the indefensible killings of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile; as well as a week after the targeted shooting of five Dallas police officers (Senior Cpl. Lorne Ahrens, Officer Michael Krol, Sgt. Michael Smith, DART Officer Brent Thompson, and Officer Patrick Zamarripa). Sitting here after Breitbart published a piece yesterday falsely claiming that the Dallas shooter was a part of protests here at the Waller County Jail. Sitting here thinking about Jesus. 

Thoughts on Jesus:

• He was born as minority ethnicity within an oppressive Empire.

• He was arrested when religious leaders and the government conspired together to meet their common goals of order and control.

• The government and religious leaders engaged in character assassination, and the majority of people turned on him leaving him with only a handful of supporters.

• He was falsely convicted, and chose to remain silent and plead the 5th.

• He was unable to appeal his conviction because of his ethnicity and the fact that he was not a citizen of the Empire; whereas Paul was later able to appeal the decision all the way to Rome because of his citizenship. 

• After his conviction, the enforcers of the law took him to their headquarters and stripped him and beat him up, making his head and body bleed.

• In the moment of his death, they tried to break his pride and show him his place by putting a mocking sign over his head. 

• He was executed by the Empire/State and died slowly while the world watched; people have replayed it repeatedly over and over ever since. Since they did not have cameras at the time, people have used their own bodies to act it out in Passion plays.

Maybe the question we should be asking is not so much “What Would Jesus Do?” but rather “What Would We Be Doing When Jesus Died?” Currently, in a time removed by 2,000 years, you may believe that Jesus was the perfect Lamb of God; but back then, he would have been just another oppressed man of non-European decent who the State called a criminal and the Religious leaders called a sinner. 

The one we call perfect was rejected as a criminal in his day.

If there were televisions in that day, they would have told you: 

• Jesus frequented prostitutes.

• Jesus was homeless.

• Jesus had verbally attacked church leadership.

• The followers of Jesus claimed he could perform magical feats.

• Jesus was prone to psychotic breaks and had actually waved around a weapon in a public place and destroyed property.

• Jesus mom got pregnant with him when she was not married.

• Jesus family was shiftless and moved around a lot when he was young.

• Jesus was delusional and claimed he was a god.

• Jesus associated with known criminals.

• Jesus had criminal connections in his family, as his cousin John had previously been executed by the State.

• Jesus posed a threat to the stability of the nation.

Now, answer honestly: What would you do? Where would you stand? Is that where you are standing now?

If you still find yourself wanting to hold onto this Jesus, can you not make room for the grief and outrage of those who died in similar ways?

Our theology teaches there was a purpose in the death of Jesus; it does not teach it was right and just to kill him. 

This is why it is an act of faith when I say: #BlackLivesMatter

Imagine A World Where Women Matter

*This piece is written from the perspective of a white woman who attended a heavily privileged Southern institution of higher learning.  It in no way captures the plight of women involved in other conversations about male privilege such as the #RapedAtSpelman advocacy work being done.

When I was in college, I was afraid of boys who looked like Brock Turner, the rapist. I was afraid because in the confines of my southern gentility drenched college campus, I knew that boys like Brock Turner could do what they wanted to me if they got the chance. I knew that even if it happened off campus, that would not make my rights safer. Even if they were reported to city police, those city police would bring them to our campus police. And I knew the mantra on campus: we don’t want to ruin a promising young man’s life.

It reverberated: we don’t want to ruin a promising young man’s life. Yet, there was a silent word in the sentence, like the silent *k* in know. The silent word was *white*: we don’t want to ruin a promising young *white* man’s life. The word was there, we just did not say it.

In my context, I had never heard the phrase, “We don’t want to ruin a promising young man’s life” used to describe anyone but a privilege drenched white man. Privilege becomes equivalent to promise. Having much becomes equivalent to deserving much. Having an affluent past becomes equivalent to having an affluent future. It is the fall we fear. He may not have gotten to the height he is at on his own, but we do not want to see him fall. If he falls, then we all might fall. So we have to protect him. If we do not protect those with the most privilege than it puts all of our privilege at risk.

prom·is·ing (ˈpräməsiNG/) adjective: showing signs of future success. Traditionally seen in the United States to be an attribute belonging to white men raised in affluent contexts.

Imagine, if you can, a campus where the mantra about every woman raped on their campus was: “We don’t want to ruin a promising young woman’s life.” Imagine, if you can, that that conviction drove campus personnel to pursue justice for their women, or persons of any gender who were raped, with the same level of passion they now use to protect the men. Imagine if it was the women that mattered.

Imagine if it was the women that mattered.

Imagine if it was the women that mattered.

Imagine if it was the women that mattered.

I want it so badly to be true.

Imagine if we feared nothing more than ruining a promising young woman’s life by permitting her to be raped without real consequence.

I did not know what would happen in the conversations in closed offices. What I did know was that I saw white frat boys go into closed rooms after women had come out having told their stories. What I did know is I would see them walk past each other the next day in the hall. What I did know was that I never heard about a white boy being expelled for raping a woman. What I did know is that the women I knew who had reported said they had been told it was their own fault.

Imagine if it was the women that mattered.

We don’t want to ruin a promising young *white* man’s life.

Syllogism of the day:

If you know that some women are reporting being raped by white boys.

And you never see any public consequences for those white boys.

Then, you conclude that white boys are allowed to rape women.

I came to that conclusion fairly easily, and it had consequences for me. I became a very careful person around white frat boys, wary, knowing what they could do to me.

If I could come to the conclusion that easily, merely by watching from the outside of the situation, I couldn’t help but wonder what conclusion the white frat boys came to. If I realized that they were allowed to rape me, did they realize it too? Maybe not consciously, but in some part of their psyche? The part that was supposed to tell them when to stop?

True, my high school/college sweetheart was a white frat boy in a Christian fraternity. And true, I moved into a house full of white boys when the Mere Christianity Forum asked me to integrate their Vista House. Yet, all of that felt different. While all men are capable of rape, not all men are exposed to it as a game rather than a crime, taught they can get away with it on a weekly basis, and confident that their privilege supersedes the law.

That same spring that I agreed to move in with the MCF boys, I was chosen to lead Orientation for the freshmen the next year. My campus was a dry campus, and parents sent their freshmen there with the confidence that they would not be handed a beer their first week, at least not during any official Orientation activities.

They sent their daughters there assuming that it was the women that mattered. The sent their daughters there assuming that we would protect them. They assumed too much.

As Orientation leader, I found myself called into a meeting one day in the corner of the PalaDen, with the representatives of the Fraternity Council. They were worried about declining recruitment and the school had opened the door for them to have an exception to the dry campus policy if I would approve it. Their proposal was for the fraternity council to sponsor a party on campus as part of Orientation Week with an open bar.

Imagine if it was the women that mattered.

I was having trouble following the logic of why it would be a good idea to have a party with an open bar on a dry campus for eighteen year olds who were away from home for the first time. It was, to put it bluntly, part of my role to educate in order to prevent not facilitate those kinds of situations.

Imagine if it was the women that mattered.

As I resisted, alone with a table full of men, they became increasingly furious that they could not force their will on me. Finally one of the fraternity representatives flew into a red-faced white man rage: “We’ll tell all the freshmen you aren’t cool!” burst from him mouth as his final impotent threat.

Imagine if it was the women that mattered.

When he was finished, when they were all finished, I thought of a better world, a world where the women mattered. For once, I was the one who had the power to live as if that was true. I pushed my chair back from the table, and lived into that truth. I took my first step out of that world and into another.

I live now in a world where the women matter: black women, and white women, and trans women, and Latina women, and Asian women, and Native women, and older women, and younger women, and celibate women, and sexually active women, and…

We have a responsibility to show those who do not know it yet that the world they are living in is the lie. We do live in a world where women matter. They just don’t know it yet. We will have to make them know it.

 

The Distortion of “What Happened To Sandra Bland?”

The cover article of the May 9-16th issue of The Nation Magazine is an article entitled “What Happened To Sandra Bland?” It takes the words first used by alumni of Prairie View A&M University who were mourning Sandra Bland the week of her death, and ultimately used to express a movement, and repurposes them to make whiIMG_8595te people more comfortable. In a rhetorical move as equally unconscious of bias as the #AllLivesMatter shift, the author uses her platform as a journalist and award-winning author to write an opinion piece masquerading as an investigative piece. The article takes the discomfort that has been rising amongst White liberals and defuses it. It converts it from White responsibility back to White guilt.

It does so not by honoring the intention of the words – a persistent and yet unanswered question – but by delivering the author’s answer.

I was there in the Opal Johnson Smith Auditorium when Debbie Nathan requested an insider interview from Sandra’s family. I was there when she was turned down. I was there when she said she would write the article with or without them. At the time, I did not understand their response. I liked Debbie well enough. Now I understand.

What would motivate her to dig more deeply into the personal affairs of the grieving family than she dug into the circumstances surrounding Sandra’s death in a Texas jail?

To understand her article, you have to start by working backwards, realizing that Debbie Nathan is not asking “What Happened To Sandra Bland?”; she is telling her opinion of “What Happened To Sandra Bland?”

Debbie Nathan had already decided the culprits. She committed one of the biggest errors of investigative journalism, she investigated in order to prove her theory rather than to find the truth.

I first met Debbie Nathan when she came to the Houston area with the conviction that she was the one who would write about Sandra Bland. She had become so fixated on Sandra, seeing her as a daughter figure; and consequently had become a student of my work as well. She had studied both of us on Facebook, and felt so attached to me that she had brought me a red scorpion made of beads that she had picked up for me while on vacation. She felt like she knew me. She did not. She felt like she knew Sandra. She did not.

Through a narrative filled with assumptions, such as the assumption that Sandra Bland cut herself in response to Dylann Roof’s murders, Nathan provides the nation with a way out of the discomfort that has become almost unbearable for many. She works to subtly convince the reader that the only intelligent, educated, reasonable answer is that Sandra Bland killed herself, while simultaneously emphasizing the refusal of many in the African American community, especially Sandra’s close family and friends, to accept those results at face value. She even uses a Black child’s refusal to accept that ‘truth’ as the closing line of the article. Pair such logic with the subtle racism of White liberalism, and the results are obvious: A translation of the experience of the Black community utilized to discredit rather than empower their perspective.

Nathan communicates that it was oppressive systems and structures that killed Sandra inch by inch, wearing down her psyche until she was primed for suicidal thoughts: Sandra Bland died from a “thousand tiny cuts.” Diffusion of responsibility.

This rhetorical move will conveniently remove the thing that the dominant culture abhors most: holding individuals responsible for the actions that they carry out as willing participants in racist and oppressive structures. This terrifies us, because to hold any of us accountable raises the possibility that any of us may be held accountable.

Let me be clear, we do seek to hold the system accountable. We do seek to dismantle the system of white supremacy. However, in order to dismantle the system, there must be accountability for the individuals within it. Without accountability, there can be no motivation to change. First, we made corporations people so they can bear our rights, will we next make systems people so they can bear our sins?

Fundamental to the Christian faith, and many others, is the concept of both corporate and individual fault or sin. While we must seek to deal with the crimes we commit as a corporate body, we cannot lose sight of the sins we commit as individuals. Both are important. Repentance for our corporate wrong-doing does not relieve of us accountability for our individual wrong-doings.

By framing her answer in such a manner, Nathan does dishonor to the reason why we sat in front of a jail for 80 days with a sign that said, “What Happened To Sandra Bland?” We were not asking what happened to Sandra Bland before she got to Texas. We were asking specifically what happened to her from July 10-13, 2015. By using the words of our question to avoid the intent of our question, she relocates the answer from Sandra’s present to her past. She colonizes our query, seeking to replace its original inhabitants.

She takes a big question: “What Happened To Sandra Bland?” and makes the reader believe there are only two answers, A or B; homicide or suicide. That binary is exactly what we have been trying to avoid and expand.

This rhetorical move is so subtle in the article that it is helpful to have gotten the chance to hear her May 5 on the Leonard Lopate Show on WNYC to discuss her true intentions in writing the article:

Arun Venugopal (substituting for Leonard Lopate): “In terms of the time [Sandra Bland] spent, the last few days, you’ve really tried to clarify and sorta get past the conspiracy theories. What are some of the conspiracy theories that you were trying to sort of put to rest?

Debbie Nathan: “Well, um, the basic one is that she didn’t commit suicide. That was the finding of the autopsy. And so there is a theory that that was wrong and that she was murdered. That it was a homicide. So, you know, I tried to look at all the facts, all the evidence and see if there is anything that would reasonably support the theory of homicide. And the only thing that I could come up with is that since there is no evidence of homicide, there’s no physical evidence of homicide, um, that you would have had to have a pretty big conspiracy. You’d have to have several people in that jail, including the administration, do things like tamper with the film, do things like study for weeks beforehand about how you, um, strangle somebody but make the mark on the neck look like it was a suicide mark, which you’d have to be a genius to do. I mean, I think you’d have to be Hannibal Lechter to figure out how to do this. And, um, there’s just sort of like many things that a bunch of would have to get together and do. So who are these people? I mean like brilliant, psychopathic, really malign racists? I mean, when you look at who was working in that jail, um, many if not most of the guards were either African American or Latino. um. They are low-paid, not very well educated people; to the extent that any of them have education they’ve often gone to the historically black college, to Prairie View, because they live in that community. um, they all have their social media too. I looked at their social media before they all took it down because they got sued. They were doing things like Martin Luther King food drives, they didn’t seem like the kind of people that would be capable of engaging in a very viscious, racist, brilliant, psychopathic conspiracy.”

There it is: the bias. Without even giving notice to the shade thrown at HBCU’s, her belief that it is not possible that footage has been edited would contradict Selma producer Ava Davurnay’s absolute confidence that it has been. Her presentation of the Facebook activity of the guards has portrayed them as saints focused on “Martin Luther King food drives.” She seems to have missed their sinister joking about cell 95 where Sandra Bland died: “Be nice, or else you’re going in 95 and talk with your friend” (Dormic Smith to Elsa Magnus).

IMG_3984

You do not need conspiracies and “tall tales” to know how Sandra Bland was treated. To quote directly from the Waller County Sheriff’s Office Committee Recommended Police & Jail Practices, released in April of 2016: “Epithets such as ‘turd,’ ‘thug,’ ‘gang-banger,’ and ‘piece-of-shit’ were sometimes used to describe suspects. Such ‘us’ vs. ‘them’ language is not only dehumanizing in itself, but tends to be a cultural value passed down to other, more junior deputies and engenders an atmosphere that denigrates the rights of suspects and invites misconduct. The risk is that dehumanizing language will be translated into inhumane actions.”

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So where did Debbie Nathan go astray? To understand that, you have to look at another article that she wrote for the Boston Review. In the article, she writes affectionately of Sandra Bland: “Watching the footage these past few weeks, I have felt like one of her queens, and I wish we could all experience the royalty she offered us.” It is there that she shows her cards.

See, the thing is those words were not for us; they were not meant for Debbie and I. They were not meant for white women at all. And that is perfectly okay.

When Sandy was addressing white people, she made it clear, “To my white folks…” and she usually had a loving but firm challenge to go with it. When she was addressing her African American brothers and sisters, she made it clear as well, “My Kings and My Queens” and she also usually had a loving but firm challenge to go with it. But her advice was different for the different audiences. Her challenge for white people was different from her challenge for black people.

Nathan’s inability to understand that crucial difference and boundary is the key to understanding why she may not be the one to look to for an understanding of “What Happened To Sandra Bland?”

She stepped outside her lane. She forgot that the Lemonade being served up in our culture right now is for Black women. It belongs to them. They do not have to share with us. They do not have to give us the recipe. We will not be able to figure out how to make it by watching them. It is not ours.

There are many things I have seen, heard and witnessed about the experiences of Black women in America, but I’m not going to be the one to analyze it. Why? One simple reason: Black women in America are fully capable of doing so themselves. It is not my place. Not my lane. There are plenty of Black women talking about the pain and burden of Black women. Our role as White women is to amplify their voices, not to silence them by telling their stories for them.

Our role is to speak from our own experience: How have we experienced privilege? How can we talk about the impact of racism with other White people? We need to stop thinking that the only way to talk about racism is from the perspectives of those suffering from its effects; we have to start talking about how we benefit from its effects economically and socially, even as it wounds us spiritually.

There was so much real investigative journalism to be done in Waller County. The truth is not even hard to sniff out. It lies on the surface like the algae in my father’s pond. You only have to reach for it and it is in your hand. Yet, Debbie Nathan has chosen to tell the nation through The Nation, that corruption is not there. There is so much white-people work to be done in Texas. Yet, Debbie Nathan left Texas to fly to Chicago; and finding no one close to the situation willing to talk to her, she found people who would say what she wanted to hear, and she let her displeasure with the grieving family’s reticence be known through her writing:

“Geneva Reed-Veal—her mom had gotten married—has acknowledged in recent press interviews that she and her daughter had long-standing conflicts. She and Sandy’s sisters declined to speak with me on the record; what those conflicts were about, Reed-Veal has not said publicly… She contacted a sister who was hardly in a position to send $515, since she was being sued by her landlord for back rent, to the tune of more than $1,500.”

The amount of effort that it must have taken to dig into the struggle of the woman who had been the most supportive of her sister’s Sandy Speaks videos and activism could have been put to so much better use in seeking the truth in Texas. Yet, maybe that was not the goal.

Sometimes it takes a whole lot of facts to distract people from seeing the truth.


The pain and struggle of Black women in America is not one more possession for white women to claim. Their lives and minds are not ours to pick apart, to analyze, to interpret. We have our own work to do. Clearly.

If you want to listen and amplify:

Dr. Chanequa Walker-Barnes, Too Heavy A Yoke

Everything on Candace Benbow’s Lemonade Syllabus

 

Man Interrupted: Accountability as Apology

*Satire. Written with our deepest apologies to Sheriff R. Glenn Smith, Brian Encinia, Daniel Willis, Dante Servin and all the many law enforcement officials who have suffered due to the death of black women. You have suffered so many small inconveniences, and temporary life interruptions, yet all we have done is think of the bereaved families of the lost and slain. 

There are few things more tragic than for a man with authority to be interrupted in the course of his duties by the monotony of accountability. It can be very taxing on the accused, even when the proceedings are purely for show. One can still trust that in Texas the right of officers to kill unarmed black women will still be upheld by the court. There are still certain rights with deep historic roots, passed down from generation to generation since the time that white men first brought black women here in chains, that continue to be protected in the Lone Star State.

Yet, as we saw in the case of Daniel Willis last week, the formalities of accountability must still be followed for the good of the system. For if it was discovered that there are certain lives that are treated as disposable by the system, it would put at risk the entire democracy. If people were to discover that the law protects all lives only in theory, but not in practice, it would be more than the populace could bear. It would cause too many questions, too much uncertainty, and would surely lead to chaos. If the populace discovered the truth, they may all, with one voice, demand a new system and that would lead us into unknown territory creating more upheaval than we can bear.

Few people think about the price those men going through the motions of accountability must pay. While Yvette Smith’s mother sat, bereaved, knowing that she would never see her daughter again, did she think about the price that Daniel Willis had to pay? Did she think about how murdering her daughter had impacted his reputation and career prospects, or did she only think of her own loss? For what, in the end, is a black woman’s life in comparison to a white man’s career and aspirations.

The suffering of Daniel Willis goes so deep, indeed, that he may even have to leave the state of Texas in order to start anew in another place. The one blessing being that the deaths of black women do not shake our collective consciousness as much as attacks upon the reputation of men. Anticipating the failure of the #SayHerName movement, we can trust that people will quickly forget the name Yvette Smith, and already have forgotten the name Daniel Willis. This being the case, Willis should be able to go to another location not too far off, and continue life without raising the eyebrows of his neighbors.

The ancillary benefit that this will likely provide is that in his departure, Daniel Willis will take with him all hints of corruption and racism that could have been linked to the Bastrop County Sheriff’s Office. The false statement made by the Sheriff that Yvette Smith had a gun will soon be forgotten, as will the falsification of the training records of Willis. In its place, Bastrop County will leave their citizens with an image of their County supporting the bereaved family of Yvette Smith, protecting those within the system from further interruption in the form of processes of accountability. For while what Willis loses is indeed tragic, sometimes one man must bear the burden of accountability so that the rest may go free.

His own process Willis bore with patience stolidness. Although assured of the conclusion from the beginning, the process still had to be born out for the purposes of perception. The defense had chosen a bench trial and waived their right to a jury and the prosecution had agreed to the process; helping said process, whether purposefully or inadvertently, by persisting in a charge of murder that would be the most difficult to prove and, thus, the most likely to effect a release.

Reaching its conclusion, after all the stress that Willis had born in order to protect our democracy; after bearing the brunt of the accountability necessary to pull the veil back over the eyes of those who need to believe that all lives matter, Daniel Willis received his reward. In a beautiful and lengthy oratory, Judge Albert McCaig explained first that he himself answered to no one, not the voters nor the politicians nor the critics, but only answered to the Law and Jesus Christ. Once that explanation was made, Judge McCaig delivered an impassioned reading of the quote from Theodore Roosevelt about “the man in the arena”, closing his remarks by honoring Willis with the words, “You were the man in the arena. And you are not guilty of the charges stated.”

What joy swept through some parts of the courtroom at those words. Willis truly deserved that honor, for like Jesus, he had suffered greatly, bearing the weight of criticism on his own shoulders so that the rest of the system could go free. Yet, in the end, the system did not desert him. The system honored the sacrifices he had made by setting him free as well. Nothing could take that from him: not the anguished hollers of Yvette’s brother, not the weeping of Yvette’s mother, nor even the moment when her knees buckled in grief and she fell into the arms of a friend.

Once again, Yvette’s family thought only of themselves, only of the fact that Yvette’s sons would have to go through life without their mother. They had looked with disdain on that AR-15 on the table before Judge McCaig’s bench and had been able to see it only as the gun that had killed their mother, sister, and daughter without a moment’s hesitation; they never thought about how much that gun meant to Willis; how long he had owned that gun and loved that gun; or how many years he had been forced to use it for nothing more than target practice. That gun had waited so long to be permitted to serve its intended purpose in taking life. Yet, now would he even be permitted to keep his old friend and regain custody of his gun; or would that too be taken from him, just as his job had been? What, after all, is the relationship between a mother and her son in comparison to the relationship between a man and his gun. In Texas, we know that latter relationship to be sacred.

Such deep uncertainty deserves deep reassurance, and that is exactly what Judge McCaig offered to Willis with those words from Roosevelt. He gave him release; he gave him so much more than an apology, he gave him honor.

“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”

In doing so, he gifted so many more people than Daniel Willis alone, however. In a way, he honored every officer who has killed an unarmed person, only to have their actions questioned afterwards. He honored every officer who has shot a black man in the back, and then been criticized by those who were not even there. He honored every prison guard who has tasered a woman like Natasha McKenna to death in jail, only to have video of it broadcast across the nation and his actions questioned. He honored the man who choked Eric Garner, as well as the ones who shot Walter Scott, Tamir Rice, and Jordan Baker. He reminded the nation that it is only the officer who has the right to say what happened; whatever video footage others may try to bring in to distract people, no one except the officer knows what truly happened and why it was absolutely necessary to shoot Laquan McDonald 16 times.

No critic, politician, or grand jury has the right to question the actions of an officer, whether that be Daniel Willis firing his gun without warning at Yvette Smith, or Brian Encinia threatening to fire his taser at Sandra Bland. Fortunate indeed we are then, that Brian Encinia’s case will go before a judge who can identify with what it is like to be an officer because, as he explained, of his years at war. We can rest easy knowing that those who believe that our system treats all lives the same will not be awakened from their slumber on this judge’s watch.

Not unless they #SayHerName #YvetteSmith #SandraBland

*Satire

The American Reformation


 

PART 1: The American Reformation Begins

Not all Revolutions begin with a Declaration, and not all Reformations begin with a list of Theses. The Reformation of the Methodist church in the United States began with prayer.

In 1787, ten years after Thomas Jefferson penned the words, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal,” Richard Allen and Absalom Jones came to the recognition that these words though ambitious in scope were incomplete in execution. These ideals, impressive as they sounded, were not truly intended to include all people.

On July 12, 1787, the Constitutional Convention met in Philadelphia,the city where Allen and Jones were pastors, and agreed upon the “Three-Fifths Compromise.” It was a compromise between the Northern States, who did not want African American slaves to be counted as persons in the census, but instead as property; and the Southern States, who did want them to be counted, but only so that they could receive more seats for white men in the legislature. The two sides agreed to compromise and count slaves as 3/5ths of a person.

Within only four years of the establishment of the United States, it was abundantly clear that the nation that had won its independence from Great Britain would not be extending that liberty and equality to all people. The white, land-holding men who held power in the country would continue to treat the indigenous peoples as trespassers on their own land, or rather God’s land, and would continue to hold their brothers and sisters in slavery.

While they said that all men were created equal, that was not how they treated all men, let alone all women. This hierarchy of value, placed upon persons according to their gender and nations of origin, ran contrary to the Christian scriptures. Disappointingly, however, that was not the prevailing narrative told by preachers and theologians of the time.

According to the seventeenth-century English theologian Lancelot Andrewes, “Animals [i.e. indigenous persons of the Americas, Australia and Africa] can have no right of society with us because they want reason.” With respect to land, animals had no rights, Andrewes concluded on biblical grounds, because God had given the earth to humans. Since they had no human rights, they could be exterminated, both in the sense of being driven from land settled by humans and in the sense of being killed, because biblical commandments against theft or murder did not apply to non-humans.”  – David Chidester, Savage Systems, p. 14

Although the Methodist movement had been built upon staunch abolitionism in Great Britain, and although it contained many abolitionist preachers within its ranks, within a nation whose economy was built upon this theological falsehood, the new religious movement found itself failing in many places to remain true to what had set it apart.

So it was that Absalom Jones and Richard Allen found that the promises of freedom rang just as false when coming from the church bells of St. George’s as they did when tolling from the nearby Liberty Bell.

At the root of this disconnect was that theological error, that exegetical fraud, that hermeneutical crime – or, as we once called such things – that heresy. The heresy that God did not love all people the same. The abominable heresy that not all people were made fully in the image of God; thus, justifying leaving them out of the words, “all men were created equal and endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights.” Thus, allowing the “Three-Fifths Compromise” to go unchallenged on theological grounds.

Falsehood in science, ignorance in philosophy, criminal greed in the economy – yes, all these things played a role. Yet, the betrayal and falsehood that cut most deeply, was the one that was the most unexpected: the betrayal that came from the church. Abolitionist preachers, of all races and ethnicities, did battle to be heard over the more common teachings of preachers that promoted and endorsed the practice of classifying African Americans as only 3/5 of a person and, thus, not made in the full image of God.

If left unchallenged, this social teaching, supported by a false hermeneutic of exclusion rather than inclusion, rang the death toll for any hope of spiritual integrity that the churches of the fledgling nation might have.

Enter the American Reformation.

In November of 1787, just three months after the passing of the “Three-Fifths Compromise,” Richard Allen and Absalom Jones had the courage to take action in the face of theological cowardice just as reformers throughout the centuries had done before them. Rather than nailing the 95 Theses to their churches door, the renowned preachers did what many civil disobedience activists since that time have done: they simply knelt to pray in a place where they were not welcome to do so.

When the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. knelt in the middle of the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, did he know that Jones and Allen had been there before? When leaders of the United Methodist Church were arrested while kneeling in front of the White House to protest the separation of families taking place through deportation last year, did they know that Jones and Absalom had been there before? When we kneel to pray in the driveways of prisons about to execute human beings, or in the streets of places like Ferguson where lives have been lost, do we recognize that Jones and Allen have been there before?

With a simple act of kneeling to pray in a place that God had called them to pray, yet man had denied them the right to pray, these leaders sparked the American Reformation within the Methodist movement.

The response they received was not unlike those received by practitioners of civil disobedience today.

When they knelt to pray at the front of the church, rather than in the balcony where the white members preferred them to pray, they were pulled to their feet and told to go pray where they belonged; receiving treatment much the same as practitioners of civil disobedience today. Their response, so the story goes, was to respond that they intended to finish their prayers and then would bother the congregation of St. George’s no more. That is exactly what they did.

Absalom Jones walked out and went on to eventually found the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church (AMEZ). Richard Allen walked out and went on to found the African Methodist Episcopal Church (AMEC). Sixty years after, Laroy Sunderland and Orange Scott walked out and founded the Wesleyan Methodist Church. A hundred years later, more leaders down in Tenessee would walk out of their church and founded what is now called the Christian Methodist Episcopal Church (CME).

Richard Allen had been present at the actual establishment of the denomination, The Christmas Conference in 1784. Yet he had been restricted to preaching at 5:00 a.m. early services at St. George’s Methodist rather than the regular Sunday services, and disrespected until walking out of that church was the only way he saw to be faithful – the only way to continue the movement, both of Christ and of Wesley.

For the past decade of my ministry, I have looked to this example as the root of a Reformation that began, at least in the Methodist movement, with Allen and Jones, and continues to our day. That Reformation, I would argue, quite possibly holds equal importance to the one begun by Martin Luther. The fundamental truth that all people are made in the image of God, and all people hold equal value in God’s sight, has perhaps just as much to do with our relationship with God and with one another as Luther’s sola fide.

Historically, we have not called Allen and Jones reformers, most likely because we have not recognized that their actions have universal importance; not only for African Americans, but also for all people. The men made this clear in addressing their voices to the nation as a whole:

If you love your children, if you love your country, if you love the God of love, clear your hands from slaves, burden not your children or your country with them” -Richard Allen, To Those Who Keep Slaves and Approve the Practice

In fact, the men were so serious about their theology of love, that when given the opportunity put it to the test, during the Yellow Fever epidemic of 1793, Allen and Jones organized their followers to care for the dying white citizens of Philadelphia while other white citizens fled the city.They did not allow the cruelty of others to impact their own integrity and theological consistency.

The question arises, why have we been so slow to follow the leadership of Jones and Allen, who insisted upon being treated as children of God and as no lesser than their fellow human beings? Why have we been so hesitant to join our voices with theirs in condemning the heresy of a hierarchy of humanity: not only in philosophy, but also in practice? Why have we been hesitant to vocally acknowledge, repent and confront the inherently corrupting sin of racism?

The American Reformation began over 200 years ago, it is time for us to finish it.


 

PART 2: The American Counter-Reformation

When the need for Reformation makes leaving the only option for some, it also makes staying the only option for others. Every movement, revolution, and theological shift creates multiple roles that must be fulfilled. These roles work together to bring about change throughout society.

Therefore, every reform movement that has a lasting and universal impact involves not only those who are called to walk out as a statement of their theological disagreement, but also those who feel that they, at least for a time, are called to stay and work for change from within.

One of the Roman Catholic responses to Martin Luther’s Reformation was what we now call the Counter-Reformation. In many ways, the Counter-Reformation was not a response that moved away from Luther’s criticisms, it was a response that mainly moved with them and addressed them. It turned the focus of the church away from indulgences and towards faith development, as Luther had desired. Without acknowledging the fact, the Counter-Reformation followed Luther’s lead from within the Roman Catholic Church, even after he had departed from it.

Any description of the American Reformation, thus, that leaves out those who stayed within racist institutions and fought to change them would be incomplete, would be dishonoring of their labor, and would be quite discouraging to those still laboring. The story of the American Reformation must include those who believed in Wesley’s principle that “there is no holiness without social holiness” and worked with every ounce of their strength to end injustice and inequality.

There has always been a social component to Reformation, because our actions are symptoms of our theology, and the systems we put in place reveal our understanding of the nature of God.

Martin Luther’s concern for the hard working peasants of Germany in the 16th century, who lived in poverty while sacrificing to buy indulgences from the church, created distance between himself and the Roman Catholic Church.

John Wesley’s concern for the workers in the field, the destitute in the streets, the miners in their shafts, and those suffering in prison created distance between his movement and the Church of England.

Thus, it should come as no surprise that Richard Allen and Absalom Jones’ concern for those suffering in cruel slavery created a rift between themselves and the Methodist Episcopal Church (now called the United Methodist Church).

Yet, they were not alone in their indignation. There were many that stayed and used that same righteous indignation to fight for change from within, and who also taught a theology that proclaimed the full humanity and dignity of all people.

In what is now called the United Methodist Church, those people would include: the staunch abolitionists of the 18th and 19th centuries. People like Harry Hosier, an African American preacher who left audiences spellbound. People like John Dixon Long, who risked his life riding onto slave plantations to preach freedom and collect stories of how the slaves were being treated; who was charged with slander and brought to trial by the slave owners when he published the stories in a book called “Pictures of Slavery.”

They would include the African American leaders that insisted, 100 years after Allen’s departure, that African American congregations should not have to submit to white Senior Pastors and trustees, and formed their own Annual Conference within the denomination: the Delaware Conference, an institution that would serve an important role until deeper changes were possible.

They would even include those members of the laity and clergy who labor today in the #BlackLivesMatter movement and who work to fight racism in the pews through activism and education, with the support of The General Commission on Religion and Race.

This work will not be finished until everyone in our pulpits and in our pews understands that we stand as equals in front of both God and one another.

Furthermore, the work of many churches will not even begin until they recognize that this is a conversation that needs to be had. Five hundred years of racist theology being taught in this nation will not be undone in a mere fifty; furthermore, we would be foolish to believe that the teaching of racist theology ended fifty years ago.

So what can we do as leaders, and for many of us as specifically United Methodist leaders?

First, we must celebrate and learn from the “Counter-Reformation” that has been taking place within our churches for the past two hundred years. We must celebrate the work of those persons of indigenous descent that have labored and still labor to bring accountability within the United Methodist Church. We must celebrate the work of those African American leaders who have been and continue to be bold enough to speak truth to power. We must acknowledge that our institution’s problem with racism has received a new nuance every time a new group has arrived on our shores or borders; that leaders of many nationalities, all around the world, have been a part of demanding equality and justice; and that the growth of our Korean and Hispanic/Latino ministries within the United States should translate into representation in leadership. We must ask ourselves how a theology of the full humanity and sacred worth of every person should impact the current struggle over the full inclusivity of LGBTQ persons within our movement. Lastly, those of us who are allies must learn from the examples of those who have come before and remember their part in our history.

Second, we could start by shifting our perspective from desiring reunification, to first desiring reformation. We cannot approach any conversation about coming together without first doing the hard theological and practical work that cause denominations to part ways in the first place. We must address the reasons why leaders had to leave our churches to begin with – namely racism and racist teachings.

We must ask ourselves, is it more helpful and authentic to seek to undo the division or to seek to first undo what caused the division?

What would it look like if the United Methodist Church recognized that a Reformation has been taking place, and that perhaps our role is to listen to the call for justice and liberty given by our contemporary Reformers and submit to their leadership?

What if we focused on hearing the voices of young African American leaders in the AME, AMEZ, CME, and UMC the way that crowds from all communities in the 19th century focused on AME preacher Jarena Lee and Sojourner Truth?

The sign of a great leader is their ability to follow those who know the terrain better than they do. It is the fastest and surest way of making progress.


 

PART 3: The American Reformation Continues

By the time 2014 came to a close, many were ready for it to be over. Within two weeks, the United States observed two non-indictments in high-profile killings of African American men by police officers. Just days before Thanksgiving, news broke that there would be no trial for the officer who killed Michael Brown; and a week after Thanksgiving, news broke that there would be no trial for the officer who killed Eric Garner.

The reason why this is important theologically for the church is because there is a tradition of impunity for white men who kill African American men that stretches back centuries. That tradition was supported by philosophers and theologians who, as discussed in Part 1, did not define African Americans or the Indigenous Peoples of America as human. While God claimed them as children and people of sacred worth, false teachings in universities, newspapers, books and pulpits claimed otherwise; and in so doing, made countless murders over the centuries state sanctioned and accepted.

Therefore, when we now see African American men and women killed in the streets, like Walter Scott, we have no reason to think that this is rooted in anything other than it ever has been – lack of respect, racism and the expectation of impunity.

Therefore, on December 10, 2014, the clarion call of the American Reformation was heard once again from those who still follow Richard Allen’s example over 200 years later.

The Young Adult leadership of the African Methodist Episcopal Church were unwilling to remain silent in the face of injustice.

Therefore, a week after the second non-indictment announcement, they penned a bold statement, encouraging their denomination to speak up.

We stand with our church leadership to follow the example of leadership of a young adult named Richard Allen who believed in a church that challenges sources of oppression and dares to believe that the United States should live up to its creed of “Liberty and justice for all.” …

“It is time that we push ourselves, our ministries, and our churches to walk out the liberating ministry of Jesus Christ.  The time is now for peaceful yet powerful protests to show our open dissent and demand that the voices of Mike Brown,Tamir, Tamika, McKenzie, and Eric are heard and not dismissed as their bodies were by those that saw them as disposable.”

Signed:

Felecia Commodore – Young Adult Rep. Connectional Lay Org.

Martinique Mix – President Connectional Richard Allen Young Adult Council

Erica Austin – Member At Large Women’s Missionary Society of the AMEC (WMS-AMEC)

Jon Ingraham – President Connectional Young People’s Division (YPD)

Those words, right there, that is the theological struggle that has defined this Reformation; the words that though blatantly obvious, are tragically necessary to say: black lives are not disposable. Black Lives Matter.

That is theology. That is revolution. That is reformation. That is truth.

Their words are a direct response to theologians like the 17th century’s Lancelot Andrews, and philosophers like Thomas Hobbes, who denied that fact and wrote it into our history, culture and institutions.

We are not starting from a point of equality. We are starting from a point of tragedy. We are starting from a point of cruelty. We are starting from a point of heresy. We are working our way out of that.

We cannot, therefore, approach these issues as if those with power can be trusted, when they have never been worth trusting before. They were not worth trusting when persons of indigenous African descent were forced to cross the ocean in ships; and they were not worth trusting when religious leaders in Selma voluntarily crossed the Edmund Pettus Bridge. Trust must be earned, it cannot possibly be assumed or expected. Having authority does not mean you cannot be trusted, but neither does possessing authority mean you can be trusted. Trust is earned.

What could be more true to this spirit of the movement then for the American Reformation to be driven forward by these young leaders’ observation of gross injustice and insistence that the church respond. In other words, their insistence that the church reveal what it really stands for and what its theology really is.

The demand for justice, the demand that the sacred value of lives be recognized is often hard for people of privilege to hear. It is hard for us to hear because our lives have been valued and protected, and so we have a hard time accepting that others have not. We have a hard time remembering that up until quite recently, a hierarchy of humanity was taught with us at the top, and a system that protected and promoted us. That teaching is not gone, it has merely gone underground. It must be unearthed from where it is hiding, challenged, and defeated.

Our discomfort with accepting that we have been treated differently, reveals that in the relationship between justice and reconciliation, the church has been far off course. Reconciliation, the restoration of trust, the coming together of what has been divided, is not truly possible without justice. Without justice, reconciliation is an act of silencing.

We, as people of privilege, want justice, but we want justice that does not cost us anything. That is not justice. The reality is that if we have more power, privilege, money, protection, opportunities than is our fair share in this world, then in order for things to be equal and just, we must have less of all of those things. Things cannot remain as they are.

Believing this to be true, Christians Uniting In Christ, an inter-denominational group that has a history of working against racism, responded to the letter from the young AMEC leaders. They worked with them to put together a gathering last month with representatives from many denominations to discuss the work that must be done (Video).

I have never felt more confident that the American Reformation is in good hands than when sitting beside some of those same young AMEC leaders and the Rev. Waltrina Middleton at “Truth to Power: Eradicating Racism” in Dallas, Texas on March 14, 2015.

Hearing from so many of my young peers, who have been keeping the American Reformation alive in the streets and in the pulpits, I knew I was looking at the next phase of this Reformation.

The leaders of this movement are in many cities and many churches and many denominations. Whether or not they are Wesleyan, they are doing something very Wesleyan. They are taking their theology out into the streets.

John Wesley could not be confined by a pulpit in a building, but went into the streets, and the fields, and the prisons, and the mines, and the factories to bring a message of hope.

Richard Allen could not be confined to a pulpit that did not recognize his full humanity and equality in the eyes of God, and he walked his movement right out of the doors of the church and into the streets of Philadelphia.

The laity and clergy involved today in the Black Lives Matter movement cannot be confined to a pulpit when their peers are struggling in the streets. They have gone out; not months after tragedy, but hours after tragedies.

They go into the streets because they understand one very important thing: to say “Black Lives Matter” is like saying “God is love.” If everyone believed it already, we would not need to say it; yet, because they do not, we must keep saying it until they do. We must say “Black Lives Matter To God” because the heresy was once taught that they do not. That is the job of a preacher. That is the job of a theologian. That is the job of a reformer. We must set things right.

Our place is not only in the pulpit, not only in the pew.

Our place is in the streets. With John Wesley. With Richard Allen. With Traci Blackmon. With Waltrina Middleton. With Felecia Commodore.

With Sandra Bland.

The theological descendants of Richard Allen have issued a challenge to us, do we have the courage to answer that call? As leaders cross denominational lines to make this not merely a Wesleyan movement, but a Christian moment, will we be a part of finishing the work of this courageous American Reformation?


PART 4: The Next Chapter

Check back in a couple years. With the help of Methodist activist/evangelist Sandra Bland, we are busy living this right now.

Yvette Smith Verdict: No Comment Necessary

*Photo is of a building about 15 minutes from where Yvette Smith died, off the side of the road near the Bastrop County Line. It is the first significant building drivers see welcoming them to the County. 

Today Judge Albert M. McCaig, a Waller County Judge visiting for one case in Bastrop County, rendered verdict in the murder trial for ex-officer Daniel Willis’s killing of Yvette Smith. Beginning mid-May, he will oversee the trial of ex-officer Brian Encinia on charges of perjury for lying about his arrest of Sandra Bland.

On April 16, 2014, Daniel Willis responded to a 911 call, calmly speaking to a man in the front yard when he got there who told him the situation was diffused. Getting a call on his radio that there was a gun in the house, he went and got his AR-15 assault rifle from his car, stood behind cover in his body armor, and waited. When the door opened shortly after, he yelled “Police!” and fired immediately without giving any warnings or commands, and without taking the necessary time to ascertaining if the small African American woman who had opened the door to check on her boyfriend was armed.

He killed Yvette Smith on the threshold of her own house.

Daniel Willis has never shown any signs of regret or remorse: neither in the dashcam footage at the scene, nor in the two years that followed. Today, his attorneys reiterated that he had no regrets and that if put in the same situation again, he would do it again.

Before concluding his remarks by honoring Daniel Willis as “the man in the arena” described by Theodore Roosevelt in 1910, Judge McCaig spoke for about ten minutes as Yvette Smith’s family clung to one another, two rows strong. In those ten minute remarks Judge McCaig made this statement: “So regardless of my decision, there will be those who will attempt to use this tragic situation to further their own personal agendas. To all of those, I ask only that you tell the truth of what happened in this courtroom.”  Although our agenda is more of a communal one than a personal one, to honor the fact that black women’s lives matter, it seems wisest to take his words to heart. Therefore, the clearest way to communicate what took place today is to simply allow you to offer Yvette Smith’s family the solidarity they deserve by reading what Yvette Smith’s mother, identical twin sister, and son had to sit through: All of it. Every last word. Without commentary from me. You can draw your own conclusions. His words speak for themselves.

It would be very disingenuous of me, as well as very short-sighted, to believe that this case is nothing more than a routine case in which Daniel Willis is accused of murdering Yvette Smith. Since the law is certainly what I’m bound to follow, it is that, in simplified terms, the legal question is whether Daniel Willis knowingly [put to death?] Yvette Smith, or alternatively whether he did an act which is clearly dangerous to human life that caused her death. And the question of whether his conduct was objectively reasonable is the controlling issue. I fully understand the law, the indictment, the issues. I also understand the facts, having heard most of these facts through a total of almost three weeks of actually vigorous and well-presented trials of this case from both sides.

This case is also, as Mr. Sanderson had pointed out in his opening, about what we as a culture and as a society expect from our law enforcement officers. They do an incredibly difficult job often in very difficult and intense circumstances, and it is a tribute to the overall professionalism of the police in general that so few situation such as this one actually take place. But I’ll go a step further and say that its not only about what we expect from our law enforcement officers, but also what we should expect from ourselves. Each and every one of us as citizens of this great nation as we react to circumstances that occur within our society.

I’m fortunate in that I answer to very few people in this case. I’m a visiting judge and I don’t run for office over here in Bastrop County. In fact, I doubt if I’ll run for office again due to my age and the length of service that I already have. But regardless of the decision that I make here today, there will be a lot of commentary about what it is and those that are affected by this decision. And certainly all that I do is subject to review by our courts here in Texas and perhaps even higher.

I’m fortunate in that I do not answer to political correctness, I do not answer to the media, I do not answer to politicians. I answer to the law and to the facts as they relate to this case. Also, and I’m fortunate that I have the only other entity that I’m ultimately responsible to, that is my Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, but I do not invoke his great name in making my decision here today. I believe that would be very shallow and weak of me to do that. My decisions and my comments are my own and I stand by them on my own.

But before I go further, to the family of Ms. Yvette Smith, I tell you truthfully that I am sorry for your loss. I’ve come to find through these proceedings that she was indeed a good person, a kind person, and a gentle person trying to do the right thing. And I know that you will miss her greatly and will continue to miss her for the rest of your lives.

In this situation there is plenty of blame to go around, and there are several people beyond Daniel Willis who share this tragedy that eventually took the life of Yvette Smith. There may be those who may ask how would I dare judge the actions of those who were not on trial here today, but as the fact finder, and as the person rendering judgement on the law, that is what I am entitled to do. And as I look at the facts of this situation, I see that both Willie Thomas and Chris Thomas got a large part leading up to the events that evening. Had they not fought. Had one of them had the ability to walk away from the fight, ultimately that 911 call just after midnight on February 16 of 2014 would never have been made. Whether it was alcohol, fear, or passions, whatever the reason, each of them could have changed the outcome had they changed their actions.

I believe we can all certainly regret that Yvette Smith walked out that door. Yvette Smith is without a doubt the victim in this tragic situation.

And now I do have to come to Daniel J. Willis. You know I was not there in the incident when Deputy Willis fired his weapon and took the life of Yvette Smith. Yet, I have heard a great deal of testimony from all of the witnesses. All of whom may have more experience than I do in highly charged, tense and stressful situations. You know I have had my share of intense situations in life, especially in my time in the military, but I have not personally dealt with a situation like this. I’ve seen the video and I’ve heard the audio many, many times and I’ve come to know it well. I do respect Ranger Verina and the balance he attempted to bring to these situations, attributing good police work and good police conduct to Mr. Willis when it was deserved, and clearly stating his disagreement with his actions in firing the fatal shots. Ranger Verina is also good enough to recognize that a lot of what was said by the other experts in this case was accurate and consistent with his own training. I believe it takes a very strong man to be able to agree with an opponent, and I congratulate you sir.

I appreciate what the other experts brought into this courtroom as they used their training, experience and education to try to make some logical sense from what can only be described as a chaotic and illogical situation. All of that added to my understanding of what happened, and ultimately was a great aid in my coming to a decision in this matter. The expert reports themselves were not all that persuasive, but the testimony of those experts and especially the vigorous cross examination from both sides certainly was very helpful. In retrospect, all of the officials actually agreed on many of the same points, they only differed in their conclusions. And as we all know this all boils down to a very few seconds.

We all know there was no weapon, but was there a reflection? Was there a piece of plastic? Was there a piece of junk on the porch? Was it a large and bright silver earring as those worn by Yvette Smith that reflected back the light from the flashlight? Or was it about the last radio message that Mr. Willis received, the man behind the door with a gun, that priming that was talked about by several of the witnesses. Those are questions that cannot be answered with any certainty. At least two of the professionals gave me an opinion that Daniel Willis should have waited longer before he fired. So my question to myself then became: do I convict a man based upon those opinions alone or do I look at the totality of the circumstances to find the proof beyond a reasonable doubt of his guilt. I had to look deeper, knowing it would be easier, literally, to sacrifice one person for the good of some others. 

So regardless of my decision, there will be those who will attempt to use this tragic situation to further their own personal agendas. To all of those, I ask only that you tell the truth of what happened in this courtroom. The truth that both sides have been given a full and fair hearing of all of the available facts. Both sides have been represented by very competent, capable advocates, and no short cuts were taken by either side.

To the attorneys from both sides, you’ve done a tremendous job with a very difficult task and regardless of the ultimate ruling that I make, you may each look at this body of work with a great deal of satisfaction. None of us are rookie attorneys, but you have all truly done what we all dreamed about doing when we were back in law school. You have zealously, courageously advocated your positions with skill, knowledge, understanding, even coming whenever was necessary. And I do commend you for that. And I thank you for the trust that you have given me in allowing me to hear this case and render a verdict in this manner.

To everyone watching this case unfold, I know that you will each carry away from this courthouse your opinions of what I should have or could have done or not done. Frankly, we may agree or disagree on the ultimate decision, but frankly I’m pleased that you’ve come and watched regardless of your reasons for being here.

So Mr. McCabe, Ms. Jernigan, is there any legal reason why the court should not render its verdict in this case?

Will the defendant please stand.

And please bear with me as I read to you one of my life-long favorite passages from Theodore Roosevelt, from April 23 of 1910. It’s a really great passage. It goes this way: 

“It is not the critic who counts. Not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or whether the doer of deeds could have done better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood. Who strives valiantly, who errs and comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming, but who actually does strive to do the deeds. Who knows great enthusiasms, great devotions. Who spends himself in a worthy cause. Who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement. And who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly. So his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”

Mr. Daniel J. Willis, you are the man in that arena, and it is the verdict of this court that you were not guilty of the charges stated.

"There's a crack in everything. That's how the light gets in." (Leonard Cohen)

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