Fear, Power, and the Non-Indictment in the Murder of Tamir Rice

Are we accountable for our fear?

This is a question that white people in particular need to consider.

Tamir Rice, a 12-year-old black boy, was shot to death on November 22, 2014. Yesterday a grand jury decided not to indict the white police officer who killed him. The primary reason given for the non-indictment is that the police officers “reasonably believed their lives were in danger.

In other words, the police officers were scared. So the shooting was acceptable.

Except a dead boy in the park is not acceptable. Tamir laying there bleeding for four minutes while the police officers stood by is not acceptable. A grieving mother being told that her son’s death is nobody’s fault–simply a “perfect storm of human error”–is not acceptable.

But acceptable or not, because the officers were “reasonably” afraid, the jury determined that this was not a crime.

Are we accountable for our fear?

“Do not be afraid” is one of the most common statements in the Bible. God speaks these words to Abraham, Hagar, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, Joshua, Elijah, Hezekiah, the Israelites (multiple times), Zechariah, Joseph, Mary, the shepherds, the disciples, the crowds that gathered around Jesus, the women at the tomb, Paul and John of Patmos.

“Do not be afraid.”

We tend to read these as words of consolation. We imagine a gentle arm around the shoulder, a calm and sympathetic voice. “There, there. It’s O.K. Don’t be afraid.”

We feel better when we read these words. But maybe we should feel worse. Because we are terribly fearful people. And what if these words are not consolation? What if these words are in reality what the ancient grammar suggests: commandments. Not gentle sympathy, but stern rebuke.

“Do not be afraid.”

The combination of fear and power is lethal. For black people, the combination of white fear and white power has proven deadly time and time again.

Are we accountable for our fear?

The grand jury for the Tamir Rice case said “no.”

But I think we are. I think we have to be. I think the more power we have, the more accountable we are for our fear—and for the damage we leave behind in the wake of our fear.

We may not be able to control our fear in the panic of the moment—we can’t untie the knot in our stomach or smooth out the goose bumps on our arms. But we can cultivate a life of fearlessness. We can take deep breaths and say deep prayers. We can befriend people who are different from us. We can examine our power and our privilege.

And we can love. Not a pop song love. A biblical love. The love of the incarnation which is solidarity with the outsiders. The perfect love that, according to the writer of 1 John, casts out fear.

We have to work harder to follow God’s repeated command: Do not be afraid. We see all around us the devastation that fear creates—not just the lifeless body of Tamir Rice and other victims of police shootings, but the mass shootings and terrorist attacks and political hate speech and . . . and . . . and . . .

Fear is deadly. And we are accountable for our fear–and the death it causes. The more power we have, the more accountable we are.

May God have mercy and move us toward the perfect love that casts out fear.

3 thoughts on “Fear, Power, and the Non-Indictment in the Murder of Tamir Rice

  1. Joanna, my name is Kevass, pronounced, Kevis, I’m a Pastor in Wichita, KS at DELLROSE UMC. Can I use your article for a sermon? I’ve alright begun a sermon on this topic. Your article will take it over the the top. Please advise. Rev. Dr. K.J. Harding

    • Kevass, thanks for being in touch. It’s always good to hear from a fellow Kansas pastor. I grew up at Meridian Ave. Baptist church in Wichita. You are welcome to use any material on this blog in your own worship context. Verbal or printed acknowledgement (either my name or my blog name is fine) is appreciated. Blessings to you and your ministry in the new year.

  2. Thank you so much for writing this. It is beautiful and profound. So much food for thought..it really resonates with me! (found your blog through post on the Mennonite site)

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