A reading from Isaiah 5
I’ll sing a ballad to the one I love,
a love ballad about his vineyard:
The one I love had a vineyard,
a fine, well-placed vineyard.
He hoed the soil and pulled the weeds,
and planted the very best vines.
He built a lookout, built a winepress,
a vineyard to be proud of.
He looked for a vintage yield of grapes,
but for all his pains he got junk grapes.
“Now listen to what I’m telling you,
you who live in Jerusalem and Judah.
What do you think is going on
between me and my vineyard?
Can you think of anything I could have done
to my vineyard that I didn’t do?
When I expected good grapes,
why did I get bitter grapes?
“Well now, let me tell you
what I’ll do to my vineyard:
I’ll tear down its fence
and let it go to ruin.
I’ll knock down the gate
and let it be trampled.
I’ll turn it into a patch of weeds, untended, uncared for—
thistles and thorns will take over.
I’ll give orders to the clouds:
‘Don’t rain on that vineyard, ever!’”
Do you get it? The vineyard of God-of-the-Angel-Armies
is the country of Israel.
All the men and women of Judah
are the garden he was so proud of.
He looked for a crop of justice
and saw them murdering each other.
He looked for a harvest of righteousness
and heard only the moans of victims.
I am writing (or more accurately, rewriting, and even more accurately rewriting again) this piece a day after Loretta Lynch, the standing Attorney General, was in Cincinnati. AG Lynch is the same person who issued a statement to “condemn the senseless acts of violence by some individuals in Baltimore” while at the same time urging the need for careful examination of the police force who bears the responsibility for killing Freddie Gray. Today is also the day that a group of my colleagues had a press conference in which they were inviting Major League Baseball’s commissioner to enter the #BlackLivesMatter conversation, a press conference that was interrupted by protestors who equated diversity with “white genocide”. Moreover, I am writing in the immediate aftermath of the White House releasing its blueprint for local police reform along side the decision that federal government will no longer sell certain militarized weapons to local police agencies.
The attempt to equate #BlackLivesMatter to white genocide, the swift and unambiguous condemnation that fell on an oppressed community who actions cost no one their life, while promoting diligence in examining the only actions that cost a human life, and a conversation about reform that has highlighted by cosmetic changes (drones instead of militarized aircraft, police body cameras) instead of serious substantive change; lead me to believe that there is a deep-seeded misunderstanding of the injustice that is occurring in our time, of how this injustice is impacting the United States as a whole (we as Black people are not the only ones being beaten and killed by police needlessly) and a corresponding inability to talk about what real justice and real reform is and should be.
I will admit that prior to last August, when #Ferguson blazed its way onto the national stage after police officer Darren Wilson shot and killed Michael Brown, I had become lulled to sleep by cynicism. I knew there was a need for police reform. I have my own stories of being pulled over needlessly, held for hours, illegally searched, and disrespected for being Black. I have also heard the stories of other brothers, many much worse than any of mine, that speak to the vastness of this problem in major cities, small towns, and rural communities all across this country. I just did not think it would ever change. If cynicism put me to sleep, apathy held me there. Believing that nothing would change, it became easy to stop caring. Yes, I would be mad when something happened to me, or to someone I knew, but this was life in the United States. Keep your pants up and your music down and try not to draw attention to the fact that you are… well that you are alive…because a wrong encounter with a police officer could easily end that. This is what I told myself, and possibly others in the deepest stages of my cynical-apathetic slumber. It is one of the reasons #Ferguson so important to me personally, it jarred me out of sleep and reminded me that the need for change was more important than the feasibility of change.
The writings of Isaiah make room for the suggestion the prophet may have also at one time been lulled to sleep by the nationalistic claims of Judah and the promise and charisma of King Uzziah. Perhaps the focused proclamations and writing that led to this now canonized text were the result of Isaiah’s waking up, and his call to the people, and the leadership of Judah that they needed to wake up as well. Isaiah saw that Judah was proclaiming itself to be the embodiment of God’s justice that they should be, while ignoring the tragic disappointment that they actually were. Their founding narratives, their core beliefs, their “pledges” and “declarations” all bespoke a people who should be committed to justice, to the protection of the oppressed, to making sure that no one suffered from extreme poverty or isolation. Their practice however seemed to be very different. Isaiah paints the picture in this passage of one who has sown seeds looking for a crop of righteousness, only to see people murdering each other, one who is looking for righteousness, only to find the rich and powerful forcing the poor into further poverty. Something fundamental has gone wrong, and it has caused the entire system to become corrupt, and while reading of the scrolls and feasts and fasts could highlight the dissonance, they could never fix it. The fixing could only come from a reform so drastic that it must be called revolution. There were other prophets who believed that timely and strategic reforms could preempt the coming judgement, Isaiah’s writing do not seem to indicate this possibility. Isaiah seems to only see judgement, the destruction of the vineyard, the burning of the tree.
I lift up this passage in Isaiah in the light of recent events in hopes that there may yet be time to fix what is broken, but deeply believing that our current course and conversation will not take us there. Increasing the surveillance capabilities of the state will not protect the lives of Black people. Body cameras may document the problem but they never solve it. Demilitarizing the police may reduce the levels of terror that can be visited upon people and communities, but it never eliminate it. If the nation, and every community that makes up the nation, wishes to pay more than lip service to the spirit of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” that is embodied in the rallying cry #BlackLivesMatter, then we have to talk about, and ultimately take more transformative steps.
I want to propose a possible step. I propose that police officers be banned from lying while in uniform, carrying a badge, or in any way performing their duties. I want to suggest that police officers, in effect, be considered under oath for the entire time they are engaged in carrying out their important, and at times sacred duty. I would additionally propose that the punishment for breaking this oath would correspond to the punishment for lawyers who commits the crime of perjury. Should not the people we entrust with the task of protecting our lives, even to the point of being able to take life when necessary, should not these people be held to the highest standard of truth possible? How can we hope to build positive police-community relationships when the police are taught to use lies and deceit as a part of their policing practices? The justice system only works when people have faith that it is actually using just means in the pursuit of justice. Why have we allowed the frontline of our justice force to adopt a lesser standard?
This proposal is by no means intended to the final word on what needs to happen. On the contrary it is meant to challenge all of those who are paying attention and participating in these important conversations to elevate the thinking that is going into them. It is offered in the same spirit of those who have called for justice throughout the ages, in the hope that we can replant our vineyard of justice before our gates have to be knocked down and our vineyard let go to ruin.