On April 20th, 2021, the day after the Derek Chauvin trial concluded, an Ohio police officer shot and killed 16-year-old Ma’khia Bryant. Although Bryant had a knife in her possession, this latest shooting, coming on the heels of the highly emotional Chauvin trial, caused many to take to the streets to protest, lament, and offer their critique.
NBA basketball player LeBron James was among those to comment, tweeting with the hashtag “accountability.” Just as the shooting of Bryant had outraged many, James’s tweet also sparked an incendiary response from those who felt James was out of line.
James has since removed his tweet but went on to lament about how angry he was to see “black people killed by the police.”
What do we make of this situation in which both sides feel very visceral pain and burning anger? Whose anger is justified? Is either side right or wrong? Both sides present valid points: LeBron James has never worked as a police officer and the pressure of an NBA playoff game does not equate with what police officers face in life or death situations. Yet James also has a valid point: many officers of the law (still a predominately white male profession) do not have the lived experience of being black and may possess little understanding of where black people are coming from.
A divide arises, pitting two communities against one another, with the police and their supporters on one side and James and his supporters on the other. Each argues their point of view. Each criticizes the other for not understanding. Both sides communicate, but they seem to communicate past each other. Their communication doesn’t resolve the issues, instead it leads to an escalation of anger, accompanied by fiery rhetoric, blatant character slandering, and the pointed accusation that the other side is stuck because they are obviously ignoring the evidence. We tend to think “if only the other side saw the evidence, then they would understand.”
What if access to more evidence and data was not the central problem? What if our central problem boiled down to a reluctance to humbly enter each other’s world? I contend our problem is not merely an issue of evidence, it is an issue of incarnation.
As an African-American who works in law enforcement, as I converse with others specifically about this incident and in general about race; this point becomes clear: many talk, few incarnate. Many defend their position, few actively listen. This is not entirely our fault. Every human sees the world from their own “social location.” Every. Single. One. Each person naturally views the world through a lens that is forged by gender, race, social class, age, religion, and geography. As much as we claim to be objective, disinterested, and fact-minded, the reality is that our social location tells us how to interpret the facts. We can’t help but be subjective.
Some time ago, my wife and I were having a conversation on whether my brother (our legal dependent) can safely walk to the store at night. I saw no issue. She saw a grave concern. “There are dangerous people out at night,” she reasoned, “it’s not safe.”
“He’ll be fine,” I said, “the chances of something bad happening are slim.”
If both of us are presented with the same facts and data about the danger of nightly walks, how do we come to such different conclusions? Is she simply a “worry-wart,” or am I simply “naïve”? Perhaps the difference in how we view this endeavor is based on our social location.
As a young male, I have never been afraid to walk my street at night. My worst-case scenario involves being robbed, to which my brain has calculated a thousand different (unlikely) scenarios in which I make a daring escape. My wife, however, has different thoughts. She sees the night wrought with strange men who want to do the unthinkable. I have never been concerned about being kidnapped. She has. This is the effect of social location. Measuring the safety of a nightly stroll is not such an objective conversation since we view the data from our own points of view. Would it be fair for me to judge her for this view? Would it be fair for her to dismiss me for mine? The problem here is not that one person lacks the data regarding the issue at hand, the problem is that we fail to understand each other’s world.
In the same way, we approach conversations about race from our particular locations. The lack of understanding the location of the other is the single biggest barrier in this conversation. The race and law enforcement conversation is less about facts and figures and more about the lived experiences of the individuals and the people groups on both sides of the conversation.
LeBron James saw the officer-involved shooting and interpreted it through his lens as a black man. I invite you to suspend any disbelief and try to picture that experience. Picture what it would be like if, for the entire history of this country, your people had a negative relationship with law enforcement. Imagine what it would be like to cry out “injustice!” only for your voice to be dismissed and ignored. Visualize the psychological tension that comes from existing in a world where your people are often perceived as criminal, violent, and not as smart as others. All of this shapes how James and many other black people interpreted what they saw–and they desperately need police officers to see their experience.
Police officers saw the shooting through their lens as (mostly white male) officers. I invite you to suspend any disbelief and try to picture their experience. Picture what it would be like if your daily routine included a job where death or serious injury was an actual possibility. Imagine the pressure of knowing you may be judged world-wide for a decision you make in a split second. Visualize the psychological tension that comes from observing scenes of human depravity that no mortal should ever have to witness. Imagine being blamed for the entire history of racial injustice in America, a history you were mostly not alive for. All of this shapes how many in the law enforcement community interpreted what they saw–and they desperately need the African American community to see their experience.
What hope do we have? If each of us sees and interprets the world through our social location, does that mean we will never understand each other? Are we doomed to reinforce our position and ignore others because we simply cannot see it another way? Providentially, we have an example. A roadmap. A path forward. Namely, the way demonstrated by Jesus Christ.
John 1:14 contains perhaps the most profound statement in all of Scripture: “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.” Jesus shows us the way forward in not only our racial conflict, but in all human conflict. Jesus left the realm of heaven and entered the realm of humanity without losing himself in the process. He grabbed onto humanity, held onto his divinity, and navigated that place of tension existing in between his world and ours.
By entering the human struggle, Jesus is able to viscerally understand the pain of humanity. Therefore, the Scriptures contend that “we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin,” (Heb 4:15). The incarnation was not an academic study from an ivory tower, far removed from the scene. This was up close and personal. Jesus felt, in his body, the oppression of his people by the Roman government. He felt the human experience of pain, temptation, loneliness, fatigue, hunger, thirst, loss of close friends, betrayal, torture, and death. By entering our world, Jesus not only sympathized with his first century followers, but is able to sympathize with us now.
“As the Father sent me, so I send you,” Jesus said at the end of the gospel of John, and so we also are to enter the stories of each other. Who is “other” from you? Who sits across the table? The one who is white. Black. Asian. Wealthy. Poor. Male. Female. Baptist. Atheist. Non-religious. Any “other” not our own. We must learn to model this incarnation to others, as Peter Scazzero calls it. We move to do this in the following ways:
First, acknowledge the reality of our social location. Instead of considering our view to be the “only right” view in any conversation, we must be open to the possibility that the world is much bigger than what we see. We can and do exist in the same geographical space with others who live in completely different worlds. Instead of digging in our heels while we argue facts and figures, a way forward comes when we humbly acknowledge that there are other ways to interpret the data.
Acknowledging our social location also means acknowledging our blind spots. For example, I am not attuned to the everyday struggles unique to the Hispanic community regarding the southern border. It is not that I do not care, but since I do not have family members who are Hispanic, this simply is not an issue that I think about daily. We all have blind spots, much like the spot that exists outside a car. While driving, the only way to eliminate a blind spot is to shift position and look from a different angle.
Second, lay down our judgments and criticisms. The Scriptures remind us that in humility we are to “count others more significant than ourselves,” (Philip. 2:3). When listening to the perspective of another, we must suspend our viewpoint, disbelief, scoffing, and judgment. We sit at the other’s feet, in the posture of a learner, opening ourselves to hearing something that we may disagree with or which may make us uncomfortable. Despite the discomfort, we put their stories before our own.
Third, we enter their world, actively listening to their heart and soul. The Scriptures say we must be “quick to hear, slow to speak, and slow to anger,” (James 1:19). To put this as a question, are we actually listening to the person with whom we are speaking? Or are we simply looking to poke holes in their argument? Do we look for the first sign of logical incoherence or a questionable data point and use that as a reason to discredit everything they are saying? The book of James gives us different advice. It says that we must be quick to attend to the speaker and not be quick to give our response. They speak. We listen. Then we meditate, savoring the words of God’s imager who has just graced us with a piece of their soul, trying to imagine a day in their shoes.
As we employ these three incarnational strategies, something mysterious happens. Their experience comes upon us like a heavy cloak. Our eyes become open, and we see the world as never before, with an inability to “not see” it. We are filled with a cocktail of swirling emotions in which we lament our own ignorance and try to figure out what we can do.
The pain of their struggle washes over us. It becomes like a riptide, pulling us into the deep. We come face to face with our lack of ability to fix the problem that we are just now seeing. We slowly feel our own identities slipping away as their pain becomes clear, and we embrace the dark truth that our newfound brother/sister has been afflicted for all this time and we have done nothing about it.
This is where we practice incarnation strategy four: we enter their world without losing ourselves in the process. We enter their pain without allowing it to swallow us whole. Again, we look to Jesus as our example. He entered the dark and gritty world of humanity but did not lose himself. He felt the pain of first century Jewish oppression without striking out violently against the Romans. Jesus entered the world of humanity yet held onto his deity. Herein lies the tension. We must enter the world of another while still holding onto ourselves. In equal parts, we must embrace our responsibility to love our brothers and sisters, and our responsibility to relinquish the final outcome to God.
The rift between communities of color, law enforcement, and the white community can neither be resolved quickly, nor tackled simply with legislation. Though legislation would be an important step, our hope of bridging the racial gap requires something more. It will take people who will model the incarnation and willingly step into the shoes of each other. In Christ, we have both the example and the tools that show the way.
 National Council on Family Relations.” Inclusion and Diversity Committee Report: What’s Your Social Location? (Saint Paul, MN, 2019), www.ncfr.org/ncfr-report/spring-2019/inclusion-and-diversity-social-location#:~:text=An%20individual’s%20social%20location%20is,same%20for%20any%20two%20individuals.
 Peter L. Scazzero, The Emotionally Healthy Church: A Strategy for Discipleship that Actually Changes Lives, (Grand Rapids, Michigan, 2010), 180-200.
This article is a good model of “lived theology.” I appreciate the way you ground this important strategy of understanding and communication in the doctrine of the Incarnation. Does this imply that, when Christ took on “human flesh,” he also assumed the limited perspective of a specific group of humans (first-century Palestinian Jews), and hence had to transcend those limitations in real time? Otherwise, would it be true to say that Christ became “like his brothers and sisters in every respect” (Hebrews 2:17)? Does the story of Jesus and the Syrophoenician woman (Mark 7, Matthew 15) hint in this direction?
Thanks for engaging with the article. I find your question interesting. In my personal view, I believe the Scriptures show evidence that even though Christ was familiar with their limited mindset, I don’t think his incarnation was one where he adopted it totally and had to transcend it. He was undoubtedly Jewish (thought and spoke in 1st CE jewish terms) but still maintained his God perspective. Regarding the Syrophoenician woman- that’s a good observation. It seems to me that how he responds in that encounter (in which he seems to use racial and gender biased language) is not because he possesses these attitudes himself, but I would wager that (in like manner of a Jewish teacher) he is doing that because he knows the disciples are watching and they possess these attitudes. In other words, Jesus is demonstrating the biases that the disciples have in front of their face as a teaching tool. This, to me, is why Jesus ends the encounter by flipping the cultural norm on its head. He bestows upon this woman honor for “passing the question test” as if she were his student (even though she’s non-Jewish and female) and may explain why she didn’t immediately leave when He appeared to dismiss her- she probably understood that he was engaging her like a student (by giving her these “test questions”).
Thanks for your very helpful article and Christ-centered, grace-filled approach to mutual understanding across our country’s dividing lines. Our society places law enforcers on a terrible ledge, that most of us get to conveniently arbitrate from the sidelines, where we demand they act with a double-consciousness: Enforce compliance vs. Protect and serve. I am heartened you are a police officer in seminary. Negotiating this double-consciousness will require, in addition to reformed procedures, spiritual training, or we will continue watching officers perpetually collapse on the side of privileging compliance.
Very instructive essay. Thank you!