“F&*# tha Police:” When Poetry Says What we Can’t

I’m still angry.

 

The events in Ferguson, Missouri that began with the shooting and killing of 18 year-old Michael Brown are, in some ways, beginning to settle, and in others are only escalating.

 

And it will happen again.

 

This is the 3rd time in last few years that an unarmed black teenager has been killed by a white person and the 4th time in the last month that an unarmed black teenager has been killed by the police. This story is not unique.

 

And it will happen again.

 

So much has been written, and will continue to be written about what is happening in this Missouri suburb and its greater meanings.  People will continue to point to America’s broken history regarding race and its continued repercussions. Others will speak to the “self-justifying language of force” and the growing militarization of our police forces. Still others will use Michael Brown’s mistakes to legitimize his murder reducing the event’s complexities to something easier to conceptualize. Even more will speak from personal experience and conviction, from the families of police officers to the parents of black youth. There is no doubt that the events are complicated and require continued conversation. To ignore this would be irresponsible.

 

But I’m still angry.

 

There comes a point when even the most well-written and profound commentary can’t adequately respond to this kind of raw, irrational emotion. And I’m a middle-class, educated white girl. So while my anger is certainly valid, it only reflects the much deeper and internalized rage of so many of my neighbors.

 

But I’m still angry. I’m angry about redlining and the school-to-prison pipeline. I’m angry about the War on Terror and the War on Drugs and what they’ve done to our communities. I’m angry that so many police officers value their gun more than their badge. I’m angry that in places like Ferguson or West End, Alabama people contribute to this violent cycle with their own weapons. I’m angry that protestors in Ferguson are using violence and that that is going to become the story and the excuse. I’m angry about the sin of the people and my own sinful contributions to sanctioned, structural racism.

 

And so thank God for the Psalms.

 

And Dr. Dre.

 

There are times when the reality of Sin is so close and overwhelming that all we have is poetry.

 

There are times when any notion of an alternative reality where The Kingdom of God reigns supreme seems so absurd that any hope is absolutely paralyzed. 

 

I’m glad the Bible certainly does not shy away from this truth.

 

Biblical scholar Walter Brueggemonn likes to reveal this, especially in the Psalms, by using Paul Ricouer’s philosophy that life is characterized by maintaining balance between disorientation and reorientation.

 

And here we are. Disoriented. At least I am. Right now I can only hear the language of disorientation. Language that, as Brueggemmon explains “is extreme, rarely hopeful, and usually marked by the underpinnings of resistance.”

 

The psalmists knew this pain. The lament/imprecatory Psalms express the pain and confusion of being disoriented and the resentment of those who have seemingly caused it.

 

Save me, O God,

            For the waters have come up to my neck.

I sink in deep mire,

            where there is no foothold;

I have come into deep waters,

            and the flood sweeps over me.

I am weary with my crying;

            my throat is parched.

My eyes grow dim

with waiting for my God.

 

Let their table be a trap for them,

            a snare for their allies.

Let their eyes be darkened so that they cannot see,

            and make their loins tremble continually.

Pour out your indignation upon them,

            and let your burning anger overtake them.

May their camp be a desolation;

            Let no one live in their tents.

For they persecute those whom you have struck down,

            and those whom you have wounded they attack still more.

Add guilt to their guilt;

            may they have no acquittal from you.

Let them be blotted out of the book of the living;

            let them not be enrolled among the righteous. (Ps. 69: 1-3, 22-28.)

.

 Modern psalmists know what’s up too.

 

F*&# the police comin’ straight from the underground.

A young nigg# got it bad ‘cause I’m brown,

and not the other color so police think

they have the authority to kill a minority.

F*&# that shit, ‘cause I ain’t the one

for a punk mother*&#er with a badge and a gun

to be beatin’ on, and thrown in jail

We can go toe to toe in the middle of a cell.

F*$#in’ with me ‘cause I’m a teenager

with a little bit of gold and a pager,

searchin’ my car, looking for the product,

Thinkin’ every nigg# is sellin’ narcotics.

You’d rather see, me in the pen

than me and Lorenzo rollin’ in a Benz-o.

Beat a police out of shape

and when I’m finished, bring the yellow tape.

To tape off the scene of the slaughter

still gettin’ swoll off bread and water,

I don’t know if they f&$# or what,

Search a nigg# down, and grabbin’ his nuts.

And on the other hand, without a gun they can’t get none

but don’t let it be a black and a white one,

‘cause they’ll slam ya down to the street top

Black police showin’ out for the white cop.

 

(N.W.A., “F*&# tha Police, “ Straight Outa Compton.)

 

Both psalmists are angry. Both psalmists are so blinded by their own rage that they can’t see beyond their own experiences. Neither psalmist takes the time to stop and think about the situation from “the enemy’s” point of view. Both psalmists want their enemy thoroughly destroyed at the hands of violence. And though N.W.A. doesn’t say it explicitly, I’m willing to bet that both psalmists believe they have God on their side.

 

Luckily, we have a God who does not shame us for these very real emptions. We have a God that listens to our laments. We have a God who hears our name-calling and blame-passing and our cries for killing and narrow executions of justice. We have a God who can take our hatred and misunderstanding of God.

 

We have a God of transformation.

 

The funny thing about the Psalms is that they don’t stand alone. There are not just imprecatory psalms. There are psalms of praise and psalms of new life and psalms of restoration. There are psalms of reorientation. Even Psalm 69 doesn’t remain in the anger. By its end it moves from its anguished pleas to praise. In fact, Brueggemonn would argue that the state of disorientation is required for the psalmist to reach a new state of reorientation. This marks, he says, “a turn from resentful remembering to a fresh anticipation of an equilibrium that is a gift from God, genuinely new and not a reinstatement of the old.”

 

So today, I’m grateful for the poetry of the Psalms, and N.W.E, and of so many others who are angry and hurt and have lost all hope. We need to express our anger and utter confusion. We need the time and space to sit and truly experience this disorientation. We need to be angry and irrational about injustice and we need to rage about it because, as Brueggemonn explains, “The cry mobilizes God in the public arena of life.” This cry allows us to implicate God in the covenant relationship that has been promised. This cry reminds us of our part in that relationship. This cry, as it has before and will again, will eventually move us to praise. Not a false praise that comes from choosing to ignore the feelings that these disturbing realities elicit, but authentic praise that can only come through the experience and horrifying remembrance of our disorienting realities.

 

I’m not there yet.

 

But there is hope in a God who honors our rage and disorientation. It’s only through authentic rage that we can get to authentic hope in a God who will restore and renew our broken realities.

 

Here’s hoping that there will be a day when I can read the rest of the psalm:

 

I will praise the name of God with a song;

            I will magnify him with thanksgiving.

This will please the Lord more than an ox

            or a bull with horns and hoofs.

Let the oppressed see it and be glad;

            you who seek God, let your hearts revive.

For the Lord hears the needy,

            and does not despise his own that are in bonds.

 

Let heaven and earth praise him,

            the seas and everything that moves in them.

For God will save Zion

            and rebuild the cities of Judah;

And his servants shall live there and possess it;

            the children of his servants shall inherit it,

And those who love his name shall live in it. (Ps. 69: 30-36)

 

Required reading: 

Walter Brueggemann, Finally Comes the Poet: Daring Speech for Proclamation, (Minneapolis, Fortress Press, 1989).

Walter Brueggemann, The Psalms and the Life of Faith, ed. Patrick D. Miller (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1995).

*Thanks to Dr. Brent Strawn for introducing me to Brueggemann and to Todd Salmi for giving me that C.D. a long time ago.*

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To my daughter on the day after Robin Williams’ suicide

Dear NK,

You’re probably too young to understand this, but then again what do I know? I don’t remember what it was like to be 1 5/6 year old. I bet you know more than I think you do.

Last night when I got home I had a text message from Aunt K. Here’s how it started: “I have some bad news. You may want to sit down.” (That is a terrible way to begin a text message, by the way.) Because the internet has made it impossible for me to savor words anymore (that’s what They’re saying anyway), I automatically took in the words in their entirety in one instant.

There was no time to sit down. (Thanks, Internet.)

Here is what the message read: “I have some bad news. You may want to sit down. Apparently Robin Williams killed himself.”

I did, indeed, need to sit down.

And I can only assume what you’re thinking. “Mom, I don’t even know who that is. He’s not in our family. He’s not our friend, right? Why does it matter?” And that is an excellent question, especially for a 1 5/6 year old. And honestly, I’m having a hard time answering it. Many people have been trying to answer that question today. Some say it’s because he touched so many lives through his unsurpassed television and film career. Others say it’s because so many were inspired by his comedic and improvisational genius. Still others talk about how it’s the suicide that is so devastating—and point to the need to de-stigmatize mental illness and put more resources into its study and treatment.

These are all true. And, as you’ll learn, this is not an original story. Pop icons, great creative minds, and transcendent artists die. Too many times in tragic ways resulting from depression, addiction, and other mental diseases. And society mourns. And we naively think, “How could someone loved by so many want to die or numb out to the point of death?”

I thought this today.

And I thought about the times in my own struggle with mental illness that I have just known that if I did something important, if I were recognized for something wonderful that touched thousands of lives, I would be happy. I would finally be happy. But then these deaths betray the utter fallacy of that logic. It’s a false conditional. (I’ll teach you more about logic someday, NK.)

I’ve learned that often when logic fails, you have to tell a story. So I’m going to tell you a story.

Once upon a time there was a knight of King Arthur named Percival. He wandered around the land doing all that knights did and one day came upon a place called The Wild Mountain. The king there was known as Amfortas, or, The Fisher King. Legend tells us that God had charged The King to protect The Holy Grail. The King, however, had been terribly wounded. The Grail had wondrous powers that sustained the life of The King, but just. Percival marveled the Grail’s powers, but was quickly thrown out by a page screaming, “Damn you!! You did not ask The Question!!”

The Court disgraced Percival. His entire family was disgraced. (NK, don’t worry. I will love you and stand by you even when you make mistakes.)

After a long time Percival stumbled upon The Wild Mountain again. He found it just as it had been when he was younger. The King still suffered, but even the magic of the Grail could not heal him. But this time, at once, upon seeing the King, Percival asks, “What ails thee?” (That’s a fancy way of saying, “What are you going through?”)

That was the right question.

The King rested and Percival became the new guardian of the Grail. And so the legend goes, the true owner of the Holy Grail is the one pays attention to the suffering of others. THE END.

This story is actually much longer and this is only one iteration. (I promise I’ll share more with you when you get a little older.) In fact, one iteration is none other than the Robin Williams movie, The Fisher King. (We’ll watch that later too.) The movie, a modern retelling, teaches the same lesson. Happiness, meaning, magic, “the Grail,” can only be possessed by she who pays attention to the suffering of others.

Recently, I’ve been re-reading an essay by Simone Weil, a 20th century French philosopher and political activist. The essay is titled, “Reflections on the Right Use of School Studies with a View to the Love of God.” In this writing, Weil makes the case for paying attention. In fact, she believes that our everyday tasks require the utmost attention because they train us to be able to pay better attention to each other. She writes, “Every time that a human being succeeds in making an effort of attention with the sole idea of increasing her grasp of truth, she acquires a greater aptitude for grasping it, even if her effort produces no visible fruit.”

She likes to use geometry problems as an example (I’ll teach you about geometry later, too). She says that even if math problems are absolutely loathsome, pay attention. It doesn’t even matter that at the end of the effort you don’t have the solution or understand the proof. What matters is the genuine effort of the attention. It’s never wasted because it makes you better at paying attention.

This is crucial, right? Our story just revealed the Truth. A Truth that often logic can’t uncover. Happiness, meaning, magic, “the Grail,” can only be possessed by she who pays attention to the suffering of others.

Weil continues with these powerful words: “Those who are unhappy have no need for anything in this world but people capable of giving them attention. The capacity to give one’s attention to a sufferer is a very rare and difficult thing. It is almost a miracle. It is a miracle. Nearly all those who think they have this capacity do not possess it. Warmth of heart, impulsiveness, pity are not enough.”

And, my dear daughter, I think this is all that I can tell you on the day after Robin Williams suicide. Pay attention. Remind me to pay attention. Let’s practice paying attention. So many suffer around us and, like Percival, we keep failing to ask the right question.

“What are you going through?”

We cannot possess the Grail without paying attention to each other.

We cannot survive without paying attention to each other.

Love,

Mom

(P.S. – I’ve been meaning to start a blog for a very long time. I’m glad I got to start it with you.)