Lament and One Un-broken Moment

There are times when we hardly know what to say, when discouragement is almost overwhelming. 

This week, in particular, I have found myself turning repeatedly to the Psalms of Lament, such as Psalm 120, that great plea from the psalmist to deliver him from those with “lying lips,” “deceitful tongues” and threats of violence. This psalm follows, incidentally, the longest psalm in the Bible, which celebrates the Torah, the law of God, the fulfillment of which is Shalom, the wholeness that holds together peace and justice. 

During these long months of the novel corona virus pandemic, when we surely hoped that people might draw closer together in spirit to deal with a disease that has no political affiliations, nevertheless we found our country provoked into partisan divisions. And, in more recent days, we have witnessed scenes of brutality on television: black citizens killed by officers of the law, peaceful demonstrations in some places, but also wanton destruction in others. Sadly we have even seen peaceful demonstrations violently broken-up, apparently for political reasons. It has become difficult to find the right words to say, our natural reaction being more to weep than to speak. 

I confess that at points this week, I was so overwhelmed with sadness I felt nearly paralyzed with grief. And then something unexpected happened, something that changed things in one place in one unbroken moment. 

It happened here in New Orleans on Tuesday evening when peaceful protesters were met by the New Orleans Police Department on Interstate 10. The police were decked out in helmets, some in riot gear, the same outfits we’ve become sadly accustomed to seeing on television. 

As the protesters chanted and both they and the police urged their ranks to remain peaceful, into the potential maelstrom stepped Chief Deputy Superintendent John Thomas. As reported by Bryn Stole in the Times-Pic Advocate, Chief Thomas addressed the crowd with these words: 

“We feel ashamed for what this officer did to tarnish the badge,” ... referring to the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin on Memorial Day. “We support you.” 

“Not long after Chief Thomas said these words, the officers in riot gear all took a knee.”

Just when you thought that hope was a foolish dream, someone does something genuinely good and brave. Someone responds instead of merely reacts. Someone reaches for the humanity of compassion and higher reason, rather than letting the reptilian brain command their actions. In this case, a bunch of someones. 

Rather than taking sides in the usual polarized political debacle we see on endless news cycle, ordinary people took leadership and stood for the common good, for peace, justice and truth-telling. 

I am proud of New Orleans. How fitting that the city that memorializes the sacrifices of the men and women who served the cause of freedom in the Second World War is the same city where the freedom to assemble and protest is protected by men and women in police uniforms. The courage it takes to listen to hurting, frightened and, yes!, angry citizens surely ranks high in the annals of the brave. There is also, however, courage among those who convert their hurting, their fear and their anger into peaceful protests, rather than to hurt and destroy. 

There’s bad actors enough on every side. There are folks who, under the cover of civic unrest burn and loot. This is unlawful and those who commit such acts should be held accountable. There are also people in a variety of uniforms who, under the cover of those uniforms, disgrace the vows they have made to protect and to serve the public. They also should be held accountable. 

But, there is such good, also, to celebrate. There is more that unites us as a people than divides us. And this week, amid the violence and the vengeance, I believe we have seen glimmers of hope. Thank God!