Leadership is a privilege. It is not a right. I wonder when we will get that through our thick skulls.
Jesus said rather plainly, “To whom much is given, much is required,” which underlines the differentiated, increased expectations that come with being responsible for others. When endowed with such sacred confidence, the stakes of action or inaction, right or wrong, swell like Bruce Banner in The Incredible Hulk.
Justifiably, we want and need leaders who will lead well no matter what — and to do that one must be appropriately reactive and proactive, basically nonstop. Therefore, resolute devotion to do what is right, particularly when wrong is breathing down your neck baiting you to go along to get along, is of the utmost importance.
There are reasons why educators, cosmetologists, medical professionals, lawyers, accountants and social workers, for example, secure degrees and licenses to legitimize their work. That framed trade school diploma, ordination credential, accredited clinical counselor documentation or pilot’s license means something. From being a rookie to in the middle of your career to a seasoned specialist, being regularly evaluated is normal in every field.
We understand, however, that not all occupations carry the same weight, illustrative of a social contract that helps uphold core sensibilities of American life. Sure, you want whoever takes your order at Chipotle, installs your cable or troubleshoots an issue for you at Target to be polite and knowledgeable. But if they drop the ball in some way, even to the point of being rude or hostile, it isn’t the end of the world. You will make it home unharmed, able to argue another day and make customer service complaints until your heart is content.
Not so with law enforcement. To the point comedian Chris Rock made years ago in a routine: “I know it’s hard being a cop; it’s dangerous. But some jobs can’t have bad apples.”
As evidenced yet again with the fatal Jan. 7 beating of Tyre Nichols by five Memphis police officers and his subsequent death three days later. In that context, poor leadership is a matter of life or death.
“The video footage is a sickening front row seat to evil at work.”
The video footage is a sickening front row seat to evil at work. What you see is frightening, barbaric and indefensible, as those employed to care for the city’s citizens arbitrarily “jump” an unarmed, compliant man, releasing pepper spray on him multiple times while taking turns beating him to a bloody pulp. They were not tussling with a man high on PCP and pulsating with superhuman strength, who was trying to kill them. They were not fighting for their lives, scratching and clawing by any means necessary on behalf of their community’s well-being. Rather, they were mere bullies with badges and bulletproof vests that fateful night, determined to demonstrate self-hate, cowardice and lawlessness.
No matter what side of the political, theological or social aisle you sit comfortably on, you are in good company if righteous anger boils in your veins about this. It means you give a care, which in today’s age ought not be taken for granted.
It also may mean you are after God’s heart. That what grieves God, you want to be grieved by, and that you want to find pleasure in what pleases God. Again, this is nothing to sneeze at.
“We are incorrect to characterize anger as an emotion forbidden from those who love God.”
We are incorrect to characterize anger as an emotion forbidden from those who love God. To be incensed by the rampant wickedness around us, not to mention that is also in us, is appropriate. In Untangling Emotions, authors J. Alasdair Grooves and Winston T. Smith write: “The basic reason we need negative, unpleasant emotions is that we live in a fallen world. God made us to respond to things as they actually are. Human beings should be distressed by what is distressing, horrified by violence and abuse.”
As we authentically and soberly work our way through anger over time, we learn to respond with wisdom, accountability and faithful pragmatism.
Tyre Nichols should be alive, yes, but he also should be alive and well. And he is neither because five police officers failed him. They also failed us, the public, as their criminal acts spring forth from a system whose living history of justice delayed or denied, particularly concerning Black people, is well documented.
Law enforcement plays a decisive role in ensuring that our basic rights are not violated, so it is scary when they are the ones doing the violating. Without the litany of what you would hope is indisputable video evidence, Nichols’ assault would be relegated to the lies of his killers. And that is painful to consider.
“Without the litany of what you would hope is indisputable video evidence, Nichols’ assault would be relegated to the lies of his killers.”
Yes, policing is not a walk in the park. It is a perfect storm of high stress, criticism or even disdain, unruly hours, and recurring negative contact with the public. Although not alone in its groupthink or the ways it disrupts oneself and family, law enforcement can be a terribly thankless line of work. It is not for the faint of heart, that’s for sure.
Those who sign up to protect and serve are not superhuman. They are as finite, fallible and fickle as we are. But if there ever was a line of work where you must go above and beyond to confirm that competency and character are adhered to, law enforcement is it. These are essential to society not going to hell in a handbasket.
Police officers make mistakes, but this incident is not that. It is about a group of people who knew better, deviously using their badge as a license to torture and kill someone.
Although various hiccups and trauma will rear their ugly faces in our lives, they only amount to 10% of an iceberg that is easily seen, that is obvious and safe to tackle. However, what Peter Scazzero shares in his books about emotional and spiritual health is that 90% of our iceberg exists under the water’s surface, clandestinely wreaking havoc at its leisure.
And that’s how many of us live. We rarely scratch the surface of what needs to be confronted most in our lives, which then only leaves us lacking the safeguards, temperament and tools to lead with integrity in whatever we do for a living, as well as in the personal arena. This is a recipe for disaster of one kind or another.
The police officers responsible for assaulting Tyre Nichols should be fully prosecuted under the law, the same law they swore to uphold, along with anyone who turned a blind eye to the ugliness or who aided them.
Nevertheless, it is not lost on me that, if we are honest, under the right circumstances any of us could go from upstanding to no less than demonic in one split second. Pride is the prelude to destruction that is prone to overcome anyone. It births shyster businessowners, cheating spouses, unethical scientists, disgraceful soldiers and parents, and most certainly crooked cops.
I do not know if those in question have a track record of abuse, violence or misconduct. What I do know is that while holding them accountable without question, we might take a good, long look in the mirror to consider gaps within our own character and competence that if not remedied may lead us to becoming instruments of evil.
James Ellis III is an ordained Baptist pastor. He holds a doctorate from Western Theological Seminary, master’s degrees from Pittsburgh Theological Seminary and Baylor University’s George W. Truett Theological Seminary, and a bachelor’s degree in African American Studies from the University of Maryland. His latest book is An Inward-Outward Witness: Suffering’s Role in Forming Faithful Preachers.
Living into lament: A white response to the killing of Tyre Nichols by police | Opinion by Robert P. Jones
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