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Polarized By Grace

By Rusty Nelson

Grace is primarily known to Americans through several manifestations. A little girl or older woman, mindful or not of her nominal description. A large, graceless company, finally called out for manufacturing wealth from the last gasps of workers and neighbors decimated by asbestos. A ritual mealtime moment, rote, heartfelt, or forgotten, reminding us not to take our daily bread for granted. An amazing hymn, whose sound is sweet for reasons as varied as its singers and hearers. The prayer we’ve sung, asking God to shed grace upon America.

Aware or not, we all search for grace, for ourselves and those we love or feel compassion for. The search often seems futile until we find a way to impart some of our own, perhaps some grace we considered outside our capacity as realistic, down-to-earth people. Then, from some unlikely source, like a courtroom in Dallas, grace strikes. It’s unavoidable. In our faces.

Prosecutors and media, alike, emphasize the pain of survivors in murder cases. Members of the immigrant family had their chance to justify harsh punishment for the police officer who stripped them of their pride and joy, son and brother. The victim’s younger brother took his turn and described his loss and torment, but discarded the opportunity to demonize the young woman at the defense table or to point out she would probably be back in uniform if she’d shot his brother in the street, or if she’d been black and his brother white, she might face death in this country’s busiest execution chamber. Perhaps the first in that courtroom to recognize justice would not be achieved by punishment, he noticed her humanity. Darkness cannot be overcome by darkness. He asked permission to give this killer a hug.

In the spotlight or not, such a gesture of kindness and reconciliation should inspire Americans to consider our values of justice and security. It’s a gift we should embrace, just as Amber Guyger did. Until she rushed into the arms of Brandt Jean, words of forgiveness from the Jean family and encouragement from her attorney must have seemed pale and puny beside the mountain of hatred towering over her.

Jean’s grace reminds me of the family decimated in a traffic crash, 14 years ago. All five children were killed by a pickup that crossed the median and struck the Spokane-bound pickup driven by their father, Jeff Schrock, who was badly hurt. Their pregnant mother had already arrived in Spokane from their home near Chewelah. The story became a media sensation, a “man-bites-dog story.” The Schrocks, part of an isolated Mennonite community, wanted neither prosecution nor punishment for the seriously injured driver of the errant vehicle. Befriending and defending him from popular hostility seemed the faithful response, part of their own healing and dealing with pain and loss.

As a Mennonite, who probably had little in common with the social, political, or spiritual metrics of the Schrocks, I prayed I would have such grace under similar pressure, and I pondered the curiosity, bafflement and anger of so many Americans. Can people of faith choose when and where to be faithful? When and whom to forgive? It was 2005. People who enjoyed calling themselves Christians basked in the glow of their “born-again” President Bush who could never forgive Saddam Hussein for trying to kill his daddy, or whoever made him look bad on 9-11-2001, no matter the cost in collateral damage and creation of enemies. How could I dislodge this judgmental timber from my eye so I could help alleviate the splinters of vengeance clouding my country’s vision?

What is the 2019 reaction to Brandt Jean’s cup of cool water for the likely-racist, uniformed, privileged killer of his brother, the hope of an immigrant family in a precarious environment? Perspectives abound: How dare this kid disgrace his family so? How dare the black judge compound the affront to Black Dignity? Jean should have been raising hell about the light sentence. He may have felt police officers must be always prepared to serve, protect and defend with lethal force. The whole court was played by mealy-mouthed contrition, and Guyger got away with murder.

People who wish/pray/work for grace may be able to see this drama applied as an ointment to the most painful joints of our society’s aching body. Yearning for a physical fight, our nation is surprised or frightened and quickly puts aside any concern of proportional response or human rights. Untrained in grace or nonviolence, dismissive of past achievements of peacemakers, we rally around the tried-and-failed retaliation in force. We build walls and doomsday weapons. On a personal level, we are the bullied child carefully becoming the meanest, most relentless bully.

I suggest we gratefully accept little pieces of grace and build upon them to turn our country away from the violence that threatens to consume us. – RN

 Rusty Nelson a retired former co-director of PJALS and an active member of Veterans For Peace, Spokane Chapter.

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