Instead of “another day, another dollar,” today we could say, “another month, another sad story of conflict between police and citizens.”
In recent weeks, we have seen news reports from Texas, where an African-American woman named Sandra Bland was arrested by a Hispanic male state trooper named Brian Encinia. Thanks to today’s technology, we have seen video footage of the conversation, altercation, and arrest. That footage gives us reason to consider our lives and our choices.
This story gained national attention when Sandra was discovered dead in her jail cell a few days after the arrest. While sad and troubling on its own, Sandra’s death is not the focus of my thoughts. Neither am I thinking about this situation primarily as an incident of police brutality or of disrespect to public servants. Instead, my mind keeps turning to the moments just before the altercation escalated.
Everything was going smoothly in what seems to have been a routine traffic stop, which was prompted by Sandra’s failure to use her turn signal. Things like this happen every day, all over the country, to all sorts of people, without incident. But something turned this traffic stop into a tragedy.
Actually, two things did.
They were the decisions of the two people involved in the conflict.
Brian had the opportunity to release Sandra, to give her a warning, and to let her go on her way. For a couple of seconds, marked by silence in his dashcam footage, Brian thought about what to do and say. He decided something that changed the story. He chose to say, “Do you mind putting out your cigarette, please?”
Now, it’s debatable why he chose to say that to her. It could have been an attempt to exert his authority. It could have been that the smoke was bothering him (but I doubt that). In the end, it doesn’t matter much. What does matter is that Brian’s decision prolonged the conflict and escalated the tension in this relationship.
Sandra had a decision to make, too. For a few seconds, she thought about how to respond to Officer Encinia’s request. In those moments of silence, Sandra was making a choice about how this event would play out. She decided something that changed the story. She chose to say, “I’m in my car; why do I have put out my cigarette?”
Now, that’s a perfectly valid response, on the face of things. There are no laws that restrict smoking while seated inside your own vehicle. It could have been that she simply didn’t want to extinguish her cigarette (but I doubt that). Sandra’s words weren’t just idle words. They were her aggressive response to Brian’s aggressive question.
Immediately after this exchange, the conflict between the two erupted, and the rest is, sadly, history.
I have been thinking about this incident for a couple of weeks now. And the more I think about it, the more am I struck by just how important these two choices were. If either decision was handled differently, then the story would have had a different outcome. Both Brian and Sandra were responsible for the conflict that ended in her arrest.
It is altogether too easy for us to point the finger at other people when things go wrong in our world. It is much more difficult to own up to our responsibilities and make appropriate decisions that heal instead of divide.
I am reminded of two stories from the New Testament. Judas Iscariot, one of Jesus’s twelve chosen disciples, betrayed Jesus to the Jewish religious authorities. That decision led directly to Jesus’s arrest and ultimately to his crucifixion. Judas realized his mistake, went to the religious leaders, and said, “I have sinned, for I have betrayed innocent blood.” “What is that to us?” they replied. “That’s your responsibility” (Matthew 27:4 NIV).
About two months later, Peter, another of the twelve disciples, was preaching about Jesus on the Day of Pentecost. Jesus had died, risen from the grave, and ascended into heaven. The Holy Spirit of God was empowering Peter to speak the truth about Jesus. So Peter said to the people of Jerusalem, “This man [Jesus] was handed over to you by God’s set purpose and foreknowledge; and you, with the help of wicked men, put him to death by nailing him to the cross” (Acts 2:23 NIV).
Who was responsible for Jesus’s arrest and death? Certainly Judas Iscariot was. But the Jewish religious leaders and the people of Jerusalem who shouted “Crucify him!” were responsible as well. At so many points in the story, all of these people made choices that could have changed the story, had they acted differently.
What conflicts are in your life? What has gone wrong in your world? What responsibilities do you bear for these things? What choices can you make about how to handle disagreements, injustices, prejudices, and other wrongdoings? How can you work toward healing rather than division?
You may not be like Sandra Bland, Brian Encinia, or even Judas Iscariot. But you are responsible for some of the things that are not right in your world. (Otherwise, you would never need forgiveness.) It could be that you participate in systems and economies that oppress people far away from your home. It could be that you pick fights with people when you don’t really need to. It could be that you quietly harbor negative assumptions about people that affect how you relate to them or talk about them.
“Brothers, what shall we do?” “Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. . . . Save yourselves from this corrupt generation!” (Acts 2:37-40 NIV)
“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven.” (Matthew 7:21 NIV)
What is God’s will for the decisions you make?