by Rev. Matthew Best
I am colorblind. I can’t properly distinguish between certain colors – red and green, blue and purple, gray and pink, orange and yellow. These may not seem similar to you if you have normal vision but, for someone like me does not have the genetic capacity to tell the difference. I do appreciate having family members and friends who can help me out and point out color differences in loving, caring, and sometimes humorous ways.
But one doesn’t have to be color blind to experience this. Sometimes when we are so close to something, when we have seen something only one way, we are blind to what is right there in front of our face. We aren’t even aware that there are other possibilities because they go beyond our imagination and experience. We just don’t see the differences. Sometimes we don’t have the capacity to see them.
That was true for me when it came to our justice system here in the U.S.
Before I go on, I will state this: There’s always a danger in talking about the justice system in the US. Too often, we have come to believe that there are only two sides to the conversation and that they are in complete contrast with each other – two sides that can’t possibly hold anything in common. We are either fully supportive of the police or we hate them. How sad. Why do we settle for this false dichotomy? When any issue is cemented down to two options that are hostile to each other, there is no room for growth, for compromise, for listening, for progress, for community. Our primary concern becomes being right.
That should never be our primary concern. People should be our primary concern.
From summer 2014 to summer 2015, my family and I took advantage of doing an exchange year of seminary studies in Finland. It was an incredible experience and a great learning opportunity. And the learning went way beyond what was taught in the classroom. Stepping away from American culture opened my eyes to being able to see things differently. The separation from American culture gave me the capacity to imagine differently. I didn’t go Finland to study the criminal justice system but it’s one of the areas I certainly learned about.
Finland isn’t perfect. It has many challenges. It’s not the same as the US. The culture is different. It’s a pretty homogenous population. It is small nation that doesn’t expect anyone to know the language. But it offered me a view of a different way of seeing the world that I didn’t know existed.
When it comes to the criminal justice system, some of the things I learned were that there are no unmarked police cars in Finland. In the U.S., unmarked cars are a part of many police forces. Rather, Finnish police cars are clearly marked with bright colors. They want to you know where they are. Finnish police do not spend a great deal of time trying to catch people in the act of committing a crime, expecting that many will be committing a crime. They don’t hide waiting for people to commit crimes. They are out in the open looking for ways to assist people.
This doesn’t mean that Finland is crime free. It isn’t. There are challenges with the Finnish police and certain foreign populations, like the Roma population. When cultures intersect, there are always challenges. Overall, Finland takes a different approach that works for them and their culture. And it has an impact on the relationship between the people and the police.
And speaking of culture, it is the foundation of Finnish culture that drives the way that the police do their jobs. Finns have a trusting relationship with their government. Their government exists to serve the needs of the people. Considering there are only five million people in the country, their elected officials, at every level of government, are closer to the people they serve. I heard many stories of Finnish presidents being spotted in grocery stores. They weren’t campaigning. They were shopping, like everyone else. And people don’t hound them like a celebrity.
My own encounter with this foundational cultural idea happened where our children attended school while we were there. One of the ministers of the Finnish government, who would become Prime Minister while we were there, sent his children to the same school where our kids went. It was a public school. When this official would come to school events, he was treated like everyone else. There was no extra security. No flock of people hounding him. Rather, he was just another parent there to see his kids. That was healthy.
And it raised many questions for me about our American culture. There are many good things about America. And there are many challenges that we face. Our criminal justice system is one of those challenges. Stepping outside of the culture I was raised in – the only culture I knew – allowed me to see things differently. While tinkering with our criminal justice system may produce some limited results, it is my hope that we explore deeper concerns that can have lasting effects on our nation, our justice system, and our people. This benefits everyone – all races, all economic levels. I hope that we can explore our level of trust with one another and our relationship to our government. I hope that we can explore assumptions that we make in the way we operate – do we assume that people are breaking the law? I hope that we can explore why our police forces are becoming more militarized and what impact that has on the communities that they are called to serve. I hope that we can explore so much more, so that we can be transformed and have a positive impact on all people here in the US.
We owe it to ourselves to explore these things. We owe it our citizens who have real concerns and have been treated unjustly by our justice system. We owe it our children so that they can live in a more just world. The way forward isn’t comfortable. I’m sure those who have lost a loved one to the justice system are not comfortable – that would be true for both victims of police brutality and officers who have died in the line of duty. The way forward doesn’t come without challenge or change.
Lastly, I have a message to my fellow white Americans. Can we admit that we have a problem that goes beyond simplistic sayings like “Well, if they just followed the law, there wouldn’t be a problem.”
Simplistic sayings aren’t helpful. They blind us to the Image of God of others and their real, actual experiences. There is no they. They are us. And we are them. And the sooner we recognize that we are in life together and that our wellbeing is tied to one another, the sooner our justice system will transform and move towards justice for all – something we claim to believe in.
These aren’t just empty words to give lip service to in order to continue going on our way. Rather, if we believe in them, then we have an obligation to live into them.
And if we believe them, then we are obligated to make the necessary changes in our lives and our culture to make the words true.
Pastor Matthew Best serves as the pastor of St. Stephen Lutheran Church, New Kingstown. He is a member of the synod’s hunger initiative task force and president of Emmaus Village, a Cumberland County nonprofit seeking to build a tiny home community to support those experiencing homelessness. He also blogs at www.PastorMatthewBest.com.