Every time, the news hits closer to home. Every time, either the boy seems younger, or my boys seem older. Every time, I wonder what I can do to keep it from happening.
I can feel that curly hair, because I cup my 11-year-old’s head in my left hand whenever I buzz his hair with those old clippers I use to buzz my own. I notice that scraggly hairline at the top of the forehead, because I trim my 9-year-old’s hairline every now and then, as I get closer to teaching him how to trim it himself. I see those shallow dimples, and I know they’d deepen if he flashed those teeth he’s hiding behind that comfortable smile. And I see the teenage acne, signs of that treacherous transition I long to see my own sons navigate well. I see Jordan Edwards, less like a man sees a stranger’s face and more like a father recognizes his son’s future.
I look into those rich, dark-brown eyes and I see my two African American boys looking back at me, with all the dreams of youth and all the dignity of the life I hope they’ll live deep into distant horizons.
Then I see that face in a coffin — the coffin of a 15-year-old from the Mesquite Independent School District east of Dallas, unarmed then and now — and I think, “Dear God, how is this happening again? How do I know mine won’t be next? Am I too going to end up at a press conference next to a lawyer hoping against hope that three fatal bullets or two weeping parents or one more brown body in the streets of whatever-city-is-next can finally wake us from the stupor so many struggle to even acknowledge?”
I see all of that, and I think all of that, because I love my own two sons. More than words can tell.
But will I speak for them? Will I speak for yours? Will one of us speak up, until all of us speak out, for the life of our sons?
Some of you are totally on board; you already agree, before I’ve even said anything. Others are already apprehensive, or annoyed, or downright angry; you assume you’ve already smelled the “narrative” right through your screen.
No matter where you stand, please don’t pull the trigger yet.
I realize I won’t do this perfectly — this act of speaking morally and publicly about the latest police shooting of an unarmed black teen, this time in Mesquite, Texas over the weekend. I know I won’t do it perfectly, because there’s no way to think or say or do everything just right in situations like these. We like our justice clean, but justice in a messy world is rarely clean.
Which often keeps us from speaking, and acting justly.
But we just can’t do that. So I’ll start with the usual suspects: the caveats.
I know it’s never simple, and a full investigation will take time. I know that police officers have an incredibly difficult job. And I know that body cams and dash cams never tell the whole story.
These caveats, and many more, I know well. I’ve heard them before, I’ve written them before, and I always believe that thoughtful consideration is warranted all around.
But here’s the thing: At what point do our over-caveated voices serve mainly to muffle the cry for justice, silencing her with the noose of a thousand qualifications?
I know Proverbs 18:13, and 18:17, and James 1:21. Each represents sacred Scripture, and together they articulate a vital principle for discernment: wait, listen, gather facts, and don’t rush to judgment. I try hard to do that, I really do. But there are other verses, too, like Proverbs 24:11-12:
Rescue those who are being taken away to death;
hold back those who are stumbling to the slaughter.
If you say, “Behold, we did not know this,”
does not he who weighs the heart perceive it?
Does not he who keeps watch over your soul know it,
and will he not repay man according to his work?
No one should rush to judgment, but everyone should push for justice, especially when people are running for cover.
Who are “those being taken away to death” and “those stumbling to the slaughter”? The wise man doesn’t say, because he’s wise. He knows how eager we can be to minimize injustice and avoid responsibility. He knows the question we like to ask first, a question that disguises its self-justification in so many ways: “And who is my neighbor?” (Luke 10:29).
I’d say a freshly killed 15-year-old, cut down by a now-fired officer, is a good place to start.
But we’ll never start longing for the justice God requires as long as Jordan Edwards is one of them. As long as he’s one of them, his plight remains their problem, his death their burden.
So we must ask ourselves, with ruthless honesty, how we really feel deep in our hearts: Is Jordan Edwards one of ours, or is he just one of theirs?
Is Jordan Edwards really my neighbor?
You see, we can’t us-them this thing. As long as these sons are their sons, as long as these streets are their streets, as long as these deaths are their deaths, we show that our majority-culture mindset has immunized us to the depths of tragedy and travesty playing out before us. Numbed in this way, we don’t feel what we ought, because we can’t, and we don’t do what we should, because we won’t.
No, until these sons are our sons — until their brother is our brother and their neighbor our neighbor and their friend our friend — we are all living in communities unworthy of the name.
When officers are gunned down in the line of duty, they are our officers, our sworn protectors, our bravest and finest who lay down their lives so that others might live. They’re ours, so we feel it, and we mourn it, and we marshall all our strength to make right what went wrong. This is good, and it is right, and we all know it.
And so it must also be that when an unarmed 15-year-old African American boy is shot in the head in Mesquite, Texas, he is our son, our student, our neighbor. And until he is ours, heart-wrenchingly ours, we are still — no matter how loudly and cleverly we protest — the priest, the Levite, and the lawyer, all rolled into one.
I did it months ago, and if I’m worth anything as a parent, I’ll have to do it again. I’ll tell my four black sons and daughters about the shooting of another young unarmed black man. I’ll do it because it’s parenting malpractice to send your minority children into a racially polarized society assuming that all is right with the world.
So we’ll talk: “No, son, you can’t wear your hood up unless it’s raining or freezing cold.” “No, son, you can’t go out in the woods behind the house and shoot your BB gun by yourself.” “No, buddy, just because you do what’s right doesn’t mean you’re safe. You need to do more.”
Every parent walks the line between scaring and preparing their children. I’m learning how to do it with my boys, and I’m asking my African American friends as many questions as I can so I can see the world through their eyes and prepare my children for the hazy grey ethics of black-and-white America. I’m asking rapid-fire questions because my children are growing up in a trigger-happy world, and they’re growing up faster than I can learn.
There are so many things to tell them, and most of it isn’t simple, which is hard for kids to understand. It’s hard for me to understand.
So I’ll tell them that we’re blessed to live in a nation where the police are mostly good people, because we are. I’ll tell them they should respect the police and obey the law, because they should. And I’ll tell them that they need to be really careful, in some really specific ways, because of some really sinful realities arrayed against them, because they must.
But what will I say when one of my boys turns to me (again) at the dinner table, his big brown eyes lit with fear, and asks, “Do you think that will happen to me?”
Well, I’m a word guy — I’ve worked with words my entire adult life — but I already know what will happen, because it’s happened before. I’ll stumble around in the recesses of my mind, rummaging through the English library I’ve supposedly stored up for teachable moments like these, moments when I’m called upon to prove a father’s worth. Then I’ll try to string together a few limp syllables and hope they can bear the weight of what I’m trying to say about the world my son will be entering, on his own, far too soon.
Clearly, I care about this incident, and about this issue. But not just because I’m a white father with black sons who sees their faces and their futures in Jordan Edwards’ yearbook photo. That’s the most visceral reason, of course. But that’s not the only reason or the main reason.
The main reason we must see every black boy not just as theirs but as ours is that every black boy is his. “Red and yellow, black and white, they are precious in his sight” is a line we must never stop singing, because every child — every person — is made in the image and likeness of God himself.
Sinners can only be saved from our sins and adopted into God’s redeemed family through faith in Christ. We are born sinners, and we only become his redeemed children through his forgiveness offered through Christ alone. But every human being born into this world is immediately and permanently God’s child through creation. As such, we share a common heritage, dignity, value, and purpose. As human beings, we’re in this together, and we’re his together.
Perhaps we need to stop the cleverness of saying imago Dei in Latin until we’ve rooted the truth itself deep in the soil of our psyches where it bears real fruit.
Until we believe that these sons are his, we will not mourn them as ours. As long as these boys are not ours, they will only be theirs. And as long as these boys are only theirs, we are violently separating what God has joined together: our shared humanity as image-bearers.
So I invite you to join in mourning, and praying, and reflecting, and responding, and strategizing, doing whatever good you can with whatever influence you have.
Why? Because humanity is one family, and these are our sons.