Headmaster Lee Burns '87 delivered the following remarks to the Upper School student body and faculty in Chapel on Monday, December 1, the first day of classes following Thanksgiving Break.
I hope each of you enjoyed a nice Thanksgiving. I want to take several minutes to share with you some thoughts about an important event that happened while we were on break and some potential implications for us as a community.
Around 9:15 last Monday evening in Ferguson, Missouri, a suburb of St. Louis, Prosecuting Attorney Robert McCulloch held a press conference to announce that the Grand Jury, a panel of 12 ordinary citizens, determined that there was not enough evidence to justify that charges of murder or manslaughter be brought against police officer Darren Wilson, who had shot and killed 18-year-old Michael Brown on the afternoon of August 9, 2014.
Outside of the courthouse in which the attorney was reporting on the decision of the Grand Jury and offering his explanation for why he thinks they reached the conclusion that they did, a large crowd had gathered to hear the announcement and, presumably, either to celebrate or protest.
The decision sparked protests -- some peaceful and some violent -- as well as riots and looting, and it served as a reminder of the fact that race, in many instances, is still a difficult and often divisive issue in our country. The police officer was white, the citizen he shot was a teenage African-American, and the circumstances and context of the shooting were viewed differently, generally along racial lines by many Americans.
I, of course, didn’t serve on the Grand Jury and as such wasn’t privy to the many weeks of reviewing the evidence as they were. I haven’t read all of the evidence that the prosecuting attorney released in the last week, so it would be presumptuous of me to make a pronouncement of whether or not I think they made a proper decision. Instinctively, I tend to trust our judicial system.
But I am a white male, and throughout our nation’s history, white males have had good reason to trust our government, their laws and their enforcement. It’s a different history and story for some minority groups in our country’s history, most especially for African-Americans, who were initially brought here against their will as slaves, who were denied equality and basic rights, who were sometimes killed because of their race, who were discriminated against in ways often obvious and sometimes subtle, who were systematically denied access to good schools and other opportunities, and who were not protected by the laws in the same ways as white people.
So in a society in which African-Americans are arrested in disproportionate numbers and are sent to prison for disproportionately longer terms, when an unarmed African-American youth is shot multiple times by a white police officer with some bystanders reporting that he was running away while his hands were raised, it is probably not surprising that the case would ignite the passion and even anger of a largely African-American community in Ferguson, with its history of tension between the largely white police force and largely white government and the citizens of that community.
While there were reports of Michael Brown having his hands in the air to surrender, there are other accounts and reports. He had just robbed a store. There are witnesses, and the officer himself, who say Brown was not surrendering or running away but attacking the police officer, charging into his patrol car and trying to grab the officer’s gun, rendering the officer’s use of deadly force a justifiable response.
What are we to believe and to make of all of this?
From what I’ve read and watched, it seems to me that Americans, for the most part, look at this through a racial lense. Many African-Americans tend to believe it’s yet another instance of insensitive or deliberate abuse of power in a white-controlled system they don’t trust, while many white Americans see it as proper self-defense appropriate in the particular situation and necessary to the upholding of laws.
To me, it is sad though not surprising that issues like this break so clearly on racial lines. While we fortunately live in a wonderful country, too many of us live in deep isolation from others whose backgrounds and stories are different from our own. I read an article the other day that says that the social networks of white people are 91% white and 1% black. Members of other races and ethnicities in our country have relatively few friends from other backgrounds as well, though they statistically have a few more. In most cases, we don’t really know our neighbors who aren’t very similar to us. And when we don’t know someone, it seems to me, we too often we can make incorrect assumptions about them, including assuming the worst about them.
That struggle isn’t unique to us. In the early first century, the apostle Paul confronted this in his own day. He and his fellow apostles reminded us that we are all children of God, created in the image of a loving God. He wrote the following in Colossians 3:11:
“Here there is not Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave, free; but Christ is all, and in all.”
The Old and New Testaments tell us many times that God does not show partiality. He looks at the heart -- not the outward appearance as humans are inclined to do. Jesus reached out to, ministered to, and loved people from a variety of races, religions, ethnicities and backgrounds. The Bible tells us many times that God calls us to promote justice and fairness and seek the well-being of the city. In a fallen world of imperfect and even broken people, it is a message of grace and reconciliation, a call to fellowship, unity and harmony. He calls us to love our neighbors, and even to love our enemies.
The great civil rights leader and preacher Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote that we are all caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. He said that we must learn to live together as brothers or perish together as fools.
Back to the response to the situation in Ferguson. I’ve read what a lot of people are saying about it, but what really struck me was what Benjamin Watson, an African-American and Tight End for the New Orleans Saints, said about it.
Here is some of what he posted on his Facebook page.
I'M FRUSTRATED, because pop culture, music and movies glorify these types of police citizen altercations and promote an invincible attitude that continues to get young men killed in real life, away from safety movie sets and music studios.
I'M FEARFUL because in the back of my mind I know that although I'm a law abiding citizen I could still be looked upon as a "threat" to those who don't know me. So I will continue to have to go the extra mile to earn the benefit of the doubt.
I'M EMBARRASSED because the looting, violent protests, and law breaking only confirm, and in the minds of many, validate, the stereotypes and thus the inferior treatment.
I'M SAD, because another young life was lost from his family, the racial divide has widened, a community is in shambles, accusations, insensitivity, hurt and hatred are boiling over, and we may never know the truth about what happened that day.
I'M SYMPATHETIC, because I wasn't there so I don't know exactly what happened. Maybe Darren Wilson acted within his rights and duty as an officer of the law and killed Michael Brown in self defense like any of us would in the circumstance. Now he has to fear the backlash against himself and his loved ones when he was only doing his job. What a horrible thing to endure. OR maybe he provoked Michael and ignited the series of events that led to him eventually murdering the young man to prove a point.
I'M OFFENDED, because of the insulting comments I've seen that are not only insensitive but dismissive to the painful experiences of others.
I'M CONFUSED, because I don't know why it's so hard to obey a policeman. You will not win!!! And I don't know why some policeman abuse their power. Power is a responsibility, not a weapon to brandish and lord over the populace.
I'M INTROSPECTIVE, because sometimes I want to take "our" side without looking at the facts in situations like these. Sometimes I feel like it's us against them. Sometimes I'm just as prejudiced as people I point fingers at. And that's not right. How can I look at white skin and make assumptions but not want assumptions made about me? That's not right.
I'M HOPELESS, because I've lived long enough to expect things like this to continue to happen. I'm not surprised and at some point my little children are going to inherit the weight of being a minority and all that it entails.
I'M HOPEFUL, because I know that while we still have race issues in America, we enjoy a much different normal than those of our parents and grandparents. I see it in my personal relationships with teammates, friends and mentors. And it's a beautiful thing.
I'M ENCOURAGED, because ultimately the problem is not a SKIN problem, it is a SIN problem. SIN is the reason we rebel against authority. SIN is the reason we abuse our authority. SIN is the reason we are racist, prejudiced and lie to cover for our own. SIN is the reason we riot, loot and burn. BUT I'M ENCOURAGED because God has provided a solution for sin through the his son Jesus and with it, a transformed heart and mind. One that's capable of looking past the outward and seeing what's truly important in every human being. The cure for the Michael Brown, Trayvon Martin, Tamir Rice and Eric Garner tragedies is not education or exposure. It's the Gospel. So, finally, I'M ENCOURAGED because the Gospel gives mankind hope.
Among other things, Watson seems to capture the range and complexity of the events, responses and debates, and he seems to recognizes its deep-seated causes and, from his perspective as a Christian, a framework with an eventual solution of healing and hope.
What does this mean for McCallie and for us?
First, be informed about current events. I hope we carve out some time on a regular basis each week to follow the events, ideas and issues of our country and world. Sometimes, students at great schools like McCallie can be so fixated on grades that they fail to see and understand the society around them. They can have more passion for a good grade than a good society. We can’t make a positive difference in the world, as our mission statement calls us to do, if we don’t know what is happening in the world.
Secondly, we all need to be better listeners. We live in a world in which people prefer to talk rather than to listen. When we do listen, we tend to listen for those stories and that information which reinforces what we already believe. Be skeptical and be open-minded. Listen for other viewpoints. Read and listen to people who are different from you...and who think differently than you do. Ask people to tell you their stories and their background, and know that it is natural that they will interpret and experience the world differently than you, consistent with their unique history and experiences.
Third, be humble and gracious. Our stories are different. We come from many cultures and countries. We are of different races and ethnicities and backgrounds. But one is not better. One is not right. Others are not wrong. Our differences, I believe, display God’s majesty and power, and they make our world a far more interesting place. And know that, despite our differences, what we have in common is even greater than the differences we have.
I take great delight and pride in the diversity of our school and in the fact that it is a more diverse school than when I was a student here. I hope and pray that each of you, regardless of your faith tradition or worldview, whether you were born in Chattanooga or Charlotte or China, whatever the color of your skin, feels warmly embraced and cared for and that McCallie is family for you.
Fourth, discuss, debate and disagree with dignity and civility. There will always be issues about which a school, a community, even a family, will disagree. But do so with respect, care and consideration for the other person and sensitivity to the community. Enter into conversations with a posture of listening and learning and with an open mind, though without feeling pressure to sacrifice your beliefs. Be kind and gracious, even as you discuss and share those things you most deeply and passionately hold to be true and important.
Fifth, be careful with labels, especially those that divide us. Sometimes, we can ascribe so much allegiance and power to a label or category that it hinders relationships and community. Liberal or conservative, Republican or Democrat, affinity or other groups of various sorts -- while they certainly have their value and uses, it seems to me that they ought to be secondary to that which unites us, especially our common humanity as children of a loving God. Be careful with labels and words. They matter.
Sixth, we should all examine our own hearts. How do we view others who are different from us? Are our hearts hardened to them? Are we indifferent to their stories and struggles? Do we harbor thoughts, attitudes or judgments of which we should repent?
Seventh and finally, take the initiative to develop friendships with fellow students and teachers whose backgrounds are different from yours. At lunch this week, sit with a classmate whose race, country of origin, religion, or ethnicity is different from yours. Most days, it seems to me, we self-select into lunch tables with classmates and colleagues who are most similar to us. As we develop a broader range of friendships, we will develop empathy and respect for people from different backgrounds. We will begin to see how they can view the world differently from us. We will be more compassionate, more helpful, and more trusting. And as difficult events, like those in Ferguson, occur in the future, we as a society will respond in better ways to the extent that we have trusting relationships with people of all backgrounds and for whom we have a deeper understanding and empathy and even love.
Later this winter, we will have a big table or forum on this topic. I hope and trust it will be an interesting and helpful conversation...and one which further unites us as a single school community. We are fortunate that we have in McCallie a school in which we value both the individual and the community. We are fortunate that we have the common value of treating everyone with respect, dignity and kindness. Yet strong communities like ours should wrestle with challenging issues and look to get better...and grow even closer.
I’m grateful to be here at McCallie with you and for the great community we share.