Sunday, April 18, 2021
Bearing witness to the pain
Every year at orientation, when we’re explaining to our new law students the importance of disclosing their past arrests and citations, I share the story of when I was arrested for trespassing as a senior in high school. A friend and I had entered an abandoned factory to investigate a story we were working on for the school newspaper. It’s sort of a funny story, and I tell it so students know it is possible to overcome past infractions they are concerned about as they start law school.
There’s another story I don’t share.
A couple of months before my trespassing arrest, my friends and I stopped at a liquor store to buy beer with our fake IDs. As I walked in, a teenager I didn’t know approached me in the parking lot and asked if I would buy alcohol for him too. I agreed, and when I came back out and was handing him what he asked for, a uniformed officer who had been watching the whole time walked up and told us to “stop right there.” I turned and ran to my car, got in, and drove as fast as possible out of the parking lot. The officer had taken down my license plate, so I was picked up later that evening, booked, released, and eventually fined after a court appearance.
There was no question that I had committed a crime – the officer saw me hand liquor to someone who was obviously underage. There was no question that I had failed to comply with the officer’s order – I ran from him after he told me to stop. And still, I was given the chance to sleep in my own bed that night, to grow up and get my head on straight, to go to college and law school, to be certified as having the requisite character and fitness to practice law, to teach hundreds of aspiring attorneys, to marry and have kids, to watch my daughters grow up – in other words, to lead a full life that has been shaped but not defined by my many mistakes.
I share this story now because it is too easy for many of us to disconnect from the pain that surrounds us. Many white Americans – including me – like to build our life narratives in terms that have nothing to do with race. Whether or not you’ve had interactions with law enforcement, race has shaped intergenerational wealth, geographic mobility, access to education, job opportunities, the likelihood of building home equity, exposure to race-based trauma, and myriad other realities of American life. We may not agree on the labels we should attach to the role that race has played in our lives, and we may not agree on the most prudent path forward. But if you live in America – and especially if your parents and grandparents lived in America – race has been part of our stories, whether we’re ready to acknowledge it or not.
This past week has been a difficult one in the Twin Cities. The coming week may be much, much more difficult. As Christians, we are called to bear witness to the pain, even if we do not feel it as deeply or as personally as others do. I encourage us to redouble our commitment to the empathy that is made possible by truthful stories about ourselves and the world. Empathy is essential right now because it is a fertile ground for love, and love, in the words of Martin Luther King Jr., “is the only cement that can hold this broken community together.” We are therefore “commanded to love . . . to restore community, to resist injustice, and to meet the needs of my brothers.”