Sermon In Response to the Dallas Shootings

Photo: David Worthington

This is different, isn’t it?
We’ve been here before. We’ve been in church, the Sunday after some mass shooting…somewhere…and we’ve viscerally felt the horror and the shock. You’ve heard me preach on those Sundays.

But this is so different.
This is our home. Our city. Violence toward our police. In our downtown, where some of us live, and some of us work. Places we visit often.

The grief is great.

And, even closer that that, our two Northaven members who are part of the Dallas Police, Carrie Wise and Marty McManus. Affected in painful and personal ways that you and I cannot imagine.

In this room right now, we have Northaven members and friends who were at the protest, and Northaven members and friends who are a part of the police. So, all of this feels incredibly close.
Close to the surface…close to the bone…close to the soul.
Too close, and with no comfort.

How to make sense out of the senseless? How to make sense out of innocent officers whose lives and futures have been taken from them? How to make sense of an army veteran killing fellow army veterans?

You cannot make sense out of it. It makes no sense. It has no rationality. There is no reasonable justification or excuse. I think perhaps all we can do is name it…FEEL it…begin to move through it slowly and with tenderness and care.

Now, the fear that we have spoken of so often, in sermons after mass shootings, that fear spreads out, to our city; to those whose life calling it is to protect us all.

And we very quickly remember a year ago, when a crazed gunman in an armored vehicle attacked police headquarters.
We remember how many officers are killed in routine traffic stops.
And we realize and confess that while this attack on our police is the most horrible ever, it is most definitely not the only attack, or even the first in recent memory.

The police feel under-siege. They don’t just feel it. They are under siege. There was a beautiful prayer vigil Friday that I was honored to attend, representing you all., and standing with interfaith clergy and city leaders. Chief Brown mentioned at that rally how the police move through most days understanding that they don’t expect to be thanked for what they do. They know what they do is a thankless job. They just don’t expect…or deserve…to be targeted by an assassin.

Friends, I must confess something….
I don’t believe that I, personally, have done enough to thank our police for what they do. I don’t believe I have done enough to appreciate their sacrifice and their selflessness. And I certainly now believe that our society does not value their service and sacrifice either.

We take them for granted, all of us do. We just assume they will be there. And, so often, so many things go right that we never get to see the depth of their training and commitment…because they never have to use that training to the fullest.

And then, we see events like this…
Where they selflessly thrust themselves into harms way…
Where they run toward the shots…
Where they put their bodies between the protestors and danger…

Protestors, who by all accounts, been speaking very harsh words…about the police! Protestors who were there, protesting what they see as police misconduct elsewhere.

Our police not only protected their march….they also shielded those protestors…before they realized that they were the targets that night.

Friends, that kind of heroism and sacrifice is truly rare, and should make all of our knees buckle with gratitude and thanks.

Friends, I have been a part of dozens of protests here in Dallas. I was not there Thursday night, but I have been in so many marches, I long ago lost count…
Rallies after Charleston…
The two great MegaMarches for immigrant rights…
The large march before the first Iraq War…
Anti-Islamophobia marches last December…
Several “Occupy Dallas” marches…
And all of our Good Friday Walks for, what…a decade? Fifteen years?

As I’ve said, I’ve lost count the total number.

How many of you have been a part of marches too? Many in this room, then, know the thing that I am about to say…

You know how much pride and how much care the police take to insure that we have the ability to exercise our free speech rights.

I am thinking of some of the Good Friday Walks. Our group is so small that it stays on the sidewalks and does not ask for police escort. But very often, by the time the Good Friday Walk is over, we find Dallas Police…on bikes or in cars….stopping traffic and walking along with us to our destination at City Hall.

Flash foward to two recent events, right here at Northaven: The Pride Shabbat service with our Jewish Friends of Congregation Beth El Binah, and the Iftar Fastbreaking gathering with our Muslim friends.

In both cases, there was extra security arranged…patrol cars and a plain clothed detective who were onsite throughout those events. Those nights, just last month, the police actively worked to protect diverse groups of Muslims, Christians, Jews, Blacks, Whites, gays and straights, who had gathered together.

At the end of both events, I walked over to the patrol cars in the parking lot, and said “Well, things couldn’t have gone more smoothly tonight…”

And the detective beamed back at me, and said, “That’s all any of us want, right?”

I could see the pride the police officers took at being able to protect all of our citizens. Wanting nothing more than for us to be able to assemble peacefully, and worship, talk and discuss across lines of race, religion and orientation.

It’s time to begin to correct the ways in which we take our police for granted, friends.

Just as we (meaning: us here at Northaven) supported African Americans after Charleston…
Just as we have supported Muslim friends who have been targeted by hate…
Just as we have supported LGBTQ community after Orlando…targeted just weeks ago…
So too now must we show our support for the police, who are hurting deeply.

They see as their calling to provide this kind of basic protection. So, when they cannot —when that protection is shattered, and especially when some of their own are killed— they take it very hard. Therefore, the aftermath of this shooting calls us to a time of support for the police, in their grief and anguish….which is a unique mix of the personal and professional. We can, and must, do this.

And friends, how many years….how many sermons…have I preached, where I have said the following words, “Violence begets more violence?”

We say these words….We understand them…

And yet, as a society, as a whole, time and time again our culture shows itself to glorify the idea that violence can be redemptive. That vengeance through violence is possible.

Theologian Walter Wink calls this the “Myth of Redemptive Violence.” He points out how many of the world’s great religions have stories of great sacrifice and death, leading to some kind of greater good.

But there is a fatal, if you will, flaw at the heart of this kind of theology. Because it is never possible to fully atone for the sacrifice of one human being through the sacrifice of another. Because to live that way is to live such that blood always demands more blood.

In the twisted mind of the Thursday night’s assassin, apparently innocent White Dallas cops were to pay for the alleged sins of cops in another city. (And they weren’t even all white, of course…)

In the twisted mind of the Orlando shooter, LGBTQ people were meant to pay for whatever wrong he was feeling.

In the twisted mind of the Charleston shooter, African Americans were to pay for simply being Black.

In the twisted mind of suicide bombers around the world, innocent men, women and children pay for the sins of far off governments and wars.

But, friends, through the heart of our faith, and the teachings of Jesus, we know that this is NEVER ENOUGH. It is never over.

Therefore, it is not morally right….ever…for we human beings to bring this kind of retribution and death to others. Violence always leads to more violence. And we must keep saying this, with the heart of faith, until our blood-thirsty world believes it.

Friends, another thing that must be said…

This week, I also thought back to the shooting of Gabby Giffords, the Congresswoman from Arizona. And in a sermon after that shooting, I suggested that violent political rhetoric could have contributed —not caused, but contributed— toward inspiring a crazed gunman to shoot her.

I find myself feeling a similar place today. Just as after the Giffords shooting, we must also be increasingly mindful of rhetoric that erodes the public’s trust in public institutions such as the police.

Call for, and work for, justice *within* those institutions. Yes. Absolutely.

But polarizing our citizens such that it creates hostility toward elected officials and law enforcement? This is very dangerous.

Demonizing public officials…whether they be police, judges, or a clerk at the DMV…this is a dangerous public trend.

Yes, I understand the justifiable anger when public officials break the public trust. But we can do so without creating hostility toward them, as a group.

Without censoring ourselves, we must ask how our rhetoric and actions might be perceived by lone wolves, and the mentally unstable, who might be looking for moral justification to commit violent acts.

This is an incredibly challenging line to walk, but it’s exactly the same thing I have said after almost every mass shooting in America for the past four years, and justice-seekers are called to walk it.

And so, I hope and pray that in coming weeks, that we all understand that vigilante violence against police because of alleged abuses somewhere else is horribly wrong.

And violence against African-Americans, because of these shootings…I hope to God that does not happen….would also be vigilante violence and deeply wrong.

Friends, Jesus died on the cross not to glorify the idea of death, but to SAVE us from it! God’s resurrection of Jesus was not so we could become MORE violent, but so that we would reject violence as our choice of living with each other.

God does not want death, the death of anyone, by violent means. God can bring new life and resurrection from death. But God is not bloodthirsty, demanding death, through the myth of redemptive violence. We are.

It is too early to talk of what good might be born out of this tragedy…but I am sure that some good will. Because God is the God who can bring new life and hope from even the darkest of situations.

I’ve joked for the past several weeks about how strange it is to be reading from the Book of Job during the hot, sunny, and cheery days of summer.  I’m not saying that today.

Job understands the kind of desperate feelings we are all feeling today. Having lost his close loved ones, having lost all his possessions, having lost all his health. But even at this, in today’s reading Job says this:

“But I know that my redeemer is alive
and afterward he’ll rise upon the dust.
After my skin has been torn apart this way—
then from my flesh I’ll see God,
whom I’ll see myself—
my eyes see, and not a stranger’s.”
Even in the depth of Job’s personal torment, when everything has been taken from him, Job still has a hope in a life that is to come…that he will see God out of the ashes of all the pain and suffering that has come to him.

In this we hope today as well.

I end with some hope for us today, through the things we have heard the past few days in the media. I want to observe some hopeful signs about who we are here in Dallas…

Over and over in the media these past days, commentators have remarked about just how horrible it is that this has happened here…because the Dallas Police have worked so hard to change their ways of policing…because they have worked so hard to be responsive to the public…to reduce complaints of police over-reach. The Dallas police are incredibly diverse, in terms of ethnicity, gender and sexual orientation.

One of the horrors of this situation is that they have tried to be responsive to the community, they have allowed for free speech and marches. President Obama even commended them in this way, just yesterday.

So, in ways they could never have wanted, this new attention likely means they will continue to lead other police forces in changing their tactics too.

But think about our city too. Think back to more than 50 years ago, to the Kennedy assassination…another great horror with a sniper, not two blocks from Thursday’s shooting…

For those who do not recall, Rev. Bill Holmes, Northaven’s preacher at the time, preaching on the Sunday after that event, suggested that Dallasites bore some responsibility to examine the angry and hostile attitudes here. Not that they caused that tragedy, but that the hateful attitude of Dallasites of the time aided and abetted the assassin’s goals.

In those days, Dallas was run exclusively by white men, and was so ultra-conservative that it was a hotbed of the John Birch Society.

Over many years, and through much genuine struggle, Dallas has reshaped itself into a much more inclusive and progressive city and county. Our city council, commissioners court, and judiciary are incredibly diverse.

Our police chief is an African-American. Our sheriff is a lesbian Latina. None of this is to suggest that we are perfect. But it is to say this: Violence that intends to divide us by race, religion, sexual orientation and culture is not likely to work here.

In a sense, the gunman could not have picked a worse city to try to divide by race, religious, orientation and class. Dallas has, quite intentionally, elected progressive and diverse leaders for more than decade now, who are *not* perfect…but who work together. Our faith leaders support each other in times of crisis.
And finally, as we have already said, the gunman could not have picked a worse city to target a police force….because of all the hard work we’ve already mentioned…because of its diversity in race, gender and sexual orientation….and because our chief personally knows the pain of gun violence more than any other major chief in America.

We are not perfect here in Dallas. But Dallas is not many other cities we could name, which have been rocked by scandals, and whose leaders and police are not nearly as diverse. And, we are certainly not the Dallas of the time of Kennedy….thanks be to God.

And, have you noticed this? Instead of being blamed for what happened Thursday, it seems to me there has been an outpouring of support and compassion for our city…have you felt that too? That’s new to us, who grew up with a national blame for Kennedy. And I know we all appreciate it, yes?

This, it seems to me, is a recognition that perhaps we have things we can teach other cities too. I hope and believe this is so.

Dallas, if I might use our Methodist language, is moving toward more “perfection.” Wesley said our calling was to work toward more and more perfection in our faith and life, knowing it may never get there, but seeking to be the best we can be.

Friends, our calling is to continue to model this diversity to the world, and to continue to speak of peace and non-violence in all things. We must not allow violence that intends to divide us, to make us fearful of each other, to win.

We must not OTHERIZE other races….religions…sexual orientations…or the police and public servants. We must find the path to compassion for all. We must, as our mission statement says, seek to follow Jesus in breaking down all the walls that divide us.

Friday’s rally at noon at Thanksgiving Square speaks to that very diversity and hope I am speaking of here. It was a very hopeful sign. it was beautiful to see such a diverse group of religious, and civic leaders…many of whom I’m pleased to call friends.

At the prayer service on Friday noon, our friend, Rabbi David Stern of Temple Emanu-El quoted this text from Jeremiah 29:

“But seek the welfare of the city…and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.”

Let us be those compassionate people to all our neighbors and friends. Let us be those faithful and hopeful people who break down the otherizing walls.

Even as we grieve, let us continue to hope God shapes us into these people.

Friday’s Prayer Vigil

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Eric Folkerth is a minister, musician, author and blogger. He is Senior Pastor of Kessler Park UMC United Methodist Church in Dallas, Texas. Previously, he was pastor at Northaven UMC in Dallas for seventeen years. Eric loves to write on topics of spirituality, social justice, music/art and politics. The entries on this blog reflect that diversity of interests. His passion for social justice goes beyond mere words. He’s been arrested at the White House, defending immigrants and “The Dreamers,” and he’s officiated at same sex weddings in his churches, in defiance of what some believe is Methodist teaching. Eric is an avid blogger and published author, and 2017 recipient of the prestigeous Kuchling Humanitarian Award from Dallas’ Black Tie Dinner. (Human Rights Campaign) Eric has led or co-led hundreds of persons on mission trips around the globe, to places such as Mexico, Haiti, Russia, and Nepal. He has worked with lay persons to build ten homes, and one Community Center, in partnership with Habitat for Humanity of Dallas. He’s a popular preacher, and often tackles challenging issues of social justice in his writings and sermons. His wife, Judge Dennise Garcia, is a State District Judge for Dallas, County. As judge of the 303rd Family District Court, she consistently gets high ratings from area lawyers, and was named “best judge” by The Dallas Observer. First elected in 2004, she was the first Latina ever elected to a county-wide bench in Dallas County, and is currently the longest service district judge in that district. She was re-elected for a fourth term in 2018. They have the world’s best daughter, Maria, and an incredible dog, Daisy. Find links to Eric’s music-related websites, at the top of this site’s navigation menu.

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