Tuesday, December 10, 2019

Safety In The Wilderness

On Saturday night here in Fayetteville, a police officer, Ofc. Stephen Carr, was murdered while sitting in his patrol car at the police station waiting on his partner to join him. Within a minute, officers came out of the station, engaged the suspect, and shot and killed him. In so many ways, our community is reeling from that tragedy. Anytime a police officer is killed in the line of duty--shot during a firefight or surprised and killed by a burglar--the community responds in shock and disbelief. In this particular case, however, when the officer is executed for no other reason than wearing the uniform and sitting in his vehicle, we don't know how to make sense of either the death or the vulnerability of being a police officer. We all know that accepting the responsibility of protecting and serving in that way comes with risks, but we don't expect someone to be a target for murder just because they are a police officer.

Although often in the line of fire, police officers aren't usually the vulnerable ones. They carry firearms and wear bullet-proof vests. They are members of a community colloquially called "the force." The law understands that they may have to use deadly force, and, although the balance has recently come under scrutiny because of the number of unarmed black people who have been shot by police officers, it tries to take into account the nature of making split-second judgments in potentially deadly situations and give officers the benefit of the doubt. We need police officers to be strong and tough because many of us can't be. Victims of crimes are called victims for a reason. We need police to be invulnerable because so often we are vulnerable, and, when the one who is charged with keeping us safe is himself the victim of senseless violence, we are all touched by that loss. It forces us to acknowledge the limits of our own safety and security.

There are many people among us who live in the kind of wilderness that biblical prophets such as Isaiah use as an image for vulnerability. The city or town or village is that place where people and families have pooled together their resources to make things safer. You may have a stray deer or coyote in your suburban back yard, but, for the most part, lions and tigers and bears belong somewhere else. I don't worry about getting jumped on the way to my mailbox at the end of my short subdivision driveway. But that's a privilege I enjoy. In the summer, I may check my kids for ticks when the come in from playing outside, but I don't ever call out to them, "Watch for snakes!" when they're throwing the football in the front yard.

For prophets like Isaiah, the wilderness is an almost uninhabitable place where no one wants to dwell. It is territory that must be crossed when going from village to village. And, in Sunday's reading from Isaiah 35, it is the place through which God's people will need to travel when returning from exile. Only, in Isaiah's vision, God has come to make even the unsafe wilderness a place where anyone can walk without fear: "The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad, the desert shall rejoice and blossom." Isaiah writes of a day when God will rescue God's people from disaster, destruction, and danger, and, to express this, he envisions a time when the hot, desolate wilderness will become a flourishing swamp. The lions and jackals that wait to attack whatever walks through it will not be found there anymore. So safe and clear will the path be that even fools won't get lost.

Of course, Isaiah isn't only talking about geographical wilderness. The wilderness journey back from exile in Babylon may be likened to the wilderness journey from slavery in Egypt, but the prophet has a fuller sense of transformation in mind: "Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; then the lame shall leap like a deer, and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy." We may have a fuller appreciation for the full place of differently abled people in our community, but the prophet's idea is that even those who are physically vulnerable among us will have reason to celebrate. The prophetic wilderness, therefore, is more than a landscape. It's a life of insecurity that comes from any number of causes. When God comes to save God's people, everyone who dwells in insecurity will be secure, and it is those who live on the margin--pressed toward the edge of civilization--who feel that need most acutely.

Tragedies like this one remind me how grateful I am for those who accept vulnerability for the sake of the vulnerable. They also remind me that, no matter how important the security that is provided by police officers is to us, until God's transformation of the world is complete, there will always be vulnerable people in our midst. Sometimes they are the ones we least expect to be at risk. The prophets teach us to hope not for isolated places of security, which provide only illusions of invulnerability, but for the transformation of insecurity itself. Our gratitude goes to the ones who risk their lives for the sake of others, but our hope remains in the one who promises to make all secure.

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