Alton Sterling: A Framework For Action
By now you’ve likely seen the all too graphic cellphone video.
Alton Sterling, 37, wrestled to the ground and shot to death in Baton Rouge after a confrontation with police. All caught on camera.
It’s a story that, sadly, seems to have played out any number of times recently. And, as happened in those other cases in the immediate aftermath, any attempt to hastily set the narrative concerning fault, or intentionality, or negligence, or eventual justice is just so much political theater – and it’s a destructive appeal at that.
The video itself appears quite damning. What I saw chilled me to the bone. In all fairness, the few and precious seconds recorded cannot possibly reveal the entire story – what happened in the moments just before? – and certainly none of the palpable fear and panic and confusion of the moment. But the video may well lay the groundwork for a reasonable claim of wrongful and excessive force triggering both criminal and civil liability.
Moreover, any attempt to portray Sterling’s prior police record as some sort of legal defense will serve only to bring down a heavy fist atop the scales of justice itself, smashing it to a thousand pieces.
It is both reasonable and prudent to wait for the facts before attempting to draw any conclusions about exactly what happened.
But, I submit, it’s not too early to understand the why of it, or to acknowledge a possible way forward.
A Catholic Framework For Action
In 1994, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops issued a pastoral message, Confronting A Culture Of Violence: A Catholic Framework For Action, that starkly laid out the moral crisis that is violence in America, and then set forth a possible framework for action:
Our families are torn by violence. Our communities are destroyed by violence. Our faith is tested by violence. We have an obligation to respond. Violence — in our homes, our schools and streets, our nation and world — is destroying the lives, dignity and hopes of millions of our sisters and brothers. Fear of violence is paralyzing and polarizing our communities.A culture that both celebrates and has become numb to the violence everywhere surrounding us – from mind-altering video games, to soul-crushing pornography, to an insatiable, profit-oriented, free-market economy imposing little or no restraint upon the abortion and euthanasia industries (perhaps the new alpha and omega of our age) – breeds only hatred, and bigotry, and contempt. And, perhaps most destructively of all, unbridled indifference to life and human suffering and death.
As the Bishops keenly observed, a nation born into “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” is now “haunted by death, imprisoned by fear and caught up in the elusive pursuit of protection.” We are, doubtless, on an ever-accelerating course towards complete self-destruction.
The actual facts surrounding the Alton Sterling case – whatever they turn out to be – likely won’t lead us into further destruction. But they will certainly confirm, once again, our undeniable race towards it.
But we, as people of faith, are not without resources.
We never are.
Not when we can look to the one who gave us life itself – the one who is, in fact, life itself.
And certainly not when we have already been given a road map back.
We need only open our eyes to see it.
Here, specifically, are some of the resources that the Bishops themselves enumerated in their pastoral message. I dare say this list is neither comprehensive nor exhaustive. But it is a critical starting point:
1. The example and teaching of Jesus Christ;
2. The biblical values of respect for life, peace, justice, and community;
3. Our teaching on human life and human dignity, on right and wrong, on family and work, on justice and peace, on rights and responsibilities;
4. Our tradition of prayer, sacraments, and contemplation which can lead to a disarmament of the heart;
5. A commitment to marriage and family life, to support responsible parenthood and to help parents in providing their children the values to live full lives;
6. A presence in most neighborhoods – our parishes and schools, hospitals and social services are sources of life and hope in places of violence and fear;
7. An ethical framework which calls us to practice and promote virtue, responsibility, forgiveness, generosity, concern for others, social justice and economic fairness;
8. A capacity for advocacy that cuts across the false choices in national debate – jails or jobs, personal or social responsibility, better values or better policies; and
9. A consistent ethic of life which remains the surest foundation for our life together.
Each of us, in our own special and unfailing way, has contributed to the destruction that we now see growing wildly all around us. If we harbor any hate, if we engage in any vicious gossip, if we bare any unwarranted or disproportionate anger towards our neighbor, or that other driver, or that idiot on the internet, we will not only find ourselves as victims of violence, but as its ultimate perpetrator as well.
That’s not just my theory or my pet peeve. That’s the message of why we are in constant need of unwarranted, unmerited grace; that’s the message of our never-ending quest for forgiveness and absolution.
So how do we start? How do we break the cycle of violence?
We can start by first looking inward. We can start by observing our own, everyday, race to the bottom. We can start by praying for those around us, our friends and our enemies alike.
We can mind, and mend, our own hearts and our own souls first. We can then reach out in faith, we can then reach out with love, we can then reach out with respect for the dignity and the salvation of every living soul created in the image of God Himself.
Of course it won’t be easy. It was never meant to be.
Not in this life, anyway.
But we hold, in our very hands and with our very faith, the ability to reverse the trend towards the violence that is destroying every single one of us every single day.
And we can combat it all by simply starting right here, right now, and from right where we stand.
So let’s try.
Image Credit: YouTube Screenshot, CBS News Video Located Here (Warning: Graphic)