Until They Have Faces

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I’m borrowing the title of a C. S. Lewis novel, Till We have Faces. Though it held my interest, the novel itself ultimately disappointed me by leaving me in much the same place I find myself at the end of the biblical book of Job – silenced before the ineffable splendor of the divine. Being silenced by superhuman majesty is for me neither persuasive nor salvific.

Christianity is incarnational. For us, truth has a face because the nature of biblical truth is covenantal – that is, relational and communal, personal but not isolating. It is never just God and I apart from the community of faith, and it is never just God and the church apart from the world God loves and longs to heal.

Issues without faces divide us. We take sides and fight for our side to win. We refute the other side’s concerns as well as their arguments because the situation has become win or lose. We do not hear each other’s pain. We do not respect each other’s dignity.

Issues argued as issues divide churches. They make us feel we must choose to be in the right group or the wrong one. Often the dividing line is drawn between respecting standards or respecting people, between order and compassion. The truth is we need both and most of us care about both, though we differ on which we favor. But as we debate the issue as a principle, we lose sight of the humanity on the other side. We cease to see the faces of the others, and they become for us a type – the type who oppose what we stand for and believe.

Cops are people, and they are also people empowered far beyond the norm to do good or evil in our society.

I am not suggesting we take the issues out of justice and just make nice. Neither should we dilute the offensiveness in cruelty and injustice. If what happened in Ferguson, Missouri was disturbing and the actions of the prosecutor there deeply troubling, what happened on Staten Island is alarming and the grand jury’s refusal even to send the killing to a trial is outrageous. The police should not get a pass because they are, all together, a glorified type; neither should they get blanket condemnation because they are, all together, a vilified type. Cops are people, and they are also people empowered far beyond the norm to do good or evil in our society. Police power can be comforting or frightening, protective or destructive. Racial prejudice skews that power toward evil, and so does a macho culture of “Don’t mess with me, punk!” Young men (and women) in gangs have always been dangerous, and keeping the police from becoming a gang requires constant vigilance. After all, the police are trained to be violent so they can overcome the violent, and they are disrespected and taunted regularly. Young men in gangs preserving their honor and exerting their superior force have always been dangerous. When the gang mentality takes over a police force, it becomes very dangerous.

When I was in seminary I heard William Sloan Coffin preach in Princeton University’s chapel, which incidentally got me into the files of some government agency we assumed to be the F.B.I. whose agents filmed the congregation. That was a tense time as the war in Southeast Asia became increasingly controversial here at home. Bill Coffin said something in his sermon that may have surprised some of the university’s students and others, especially as he was there as part of a draft resistance weekend. Referring to the disturbances and police actions outside the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago, he echoed the complaint that the authorities had acted brutally against the nation’s own sons and daughters, but then he reminded his listeners that some of the nation’s sons and daughters also out there on the street were dressed in blue. He wanted all of us to remember and see that cops are people, too. Not pigs but people. With faces. 

The results can get ugly very quickly

Labeling people as a type to which we attach insulting labels is shaming, and such shaming pushes macho people toward the “attack other” response to felt shame. The results can get ugly very quickly.

The issue remains. Police brutality must not be tolerated, and the targeting of certain groups of people in our society (non-white, homosexually oriented, poor, immigrant) must be stopped and, when necessary, prosecuted. If there is conspiracy between prosecutors and police to evade justice and wink at brutality, we all together have an extremely serious problem.

But faces make a great and much needed difference.

I have counted police officers among my friends, one in particular as a good friend and comrade in the ministry of the church I served for twenty-seven years. I cannot paint him with any broad brush of “cop” as a type, and my knowing him would prevent me from discussing police officers as a type without faces even if I were tempted to do so.

Further, I will contend that changes in the way our police see themselves vis a vis the public, regard and treat non-white people, and carry out their work will not come effectively and helpfully unless they develop in conversation with the police themselves as well as conversation with the public and especially the non-white people in the public. We must see, hear, and respect each other so we can stop working against each other, covering for the people on our side, and further tearing our society.

There is strong backlash against seeing people’s faces and recognizing their humanity. People driven by their prejudices become infuriated when someone re-humanizes the people they have dismissed as subhuman. After the publicizing of the story of black men in Ferguson protecting stores owned by white people, other voices hastily sought to shout down any thought of positive motive on the part of the black men by painting them as hired goons rather than concerned, decent people.

People are not types; they are persons. With faces. Labeling and treating them as types is shaming, and it fuels the inevitable backlash. “He’s just a thug.” “He’s a gang banger” (and so is presumed to deserve whatever violence is done to him). “He’s just another racist pig.” “She’s a drugged up whore.” No, they are our sons and daughters, some in hoodies and some in uniforms. From faith’s perspective, they are God’s daughters and sons, not to be treated permissively but definitely not to be brutalized, either. But the violence against “them” will not stop until they have faces we see, human dignity we recognize, and for people of faith, the image and likeness of God we respect.

One Comment on “Until They Have Faces

  1. Jennifer Burgess

    Thank you so much for writing this. Everything I’ve read thus far felt like it was missing something. All the opinions were firmly planted on one side of the fence. No one seemed willing to weigh each circumstance with balance, or those involved, individually. Thank you for giving each participant their own face.

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