I GET SAD every May 4th.
It’s because I remember what happened outside the Kent State University building where I took most of my classes. Taylor Hall.
I was a news journalism major there. That’s where I learned how to write and where I learned how to take pictures.
It’s where I learned to do what I do now: write books about the Bible, but in a journalistic style.
I learned all this at Kent State, within a few yards of where National Guardsmen shot four students to death and wounded nine others.
A couple of years difference and it could have been Stephen M. Miller instead of Jeffrey Miller lying dead in the School of Journalism parking lot.
I’m sadder than normal this year.
It’s because of a déjà vu sense I’m experiencing.
More protests in the news. More shootings by people in authority. More dead innocents.
“Slaughter of the Innocents” comes to mind. That’s the theme of paintings that show soldiers under the command of King Herod the Great (reigned 37-4 BC ) butchering Bethlehem’s baby boys in the hopes of killing Baby Jesus.
Herod gave the order because of a perceived threat.
Wise men from an eastern country, possibly Iraq or Iran, told him that a sign in the sky – an unusual star – convinced them that a future king of the Jews had just been born. Herod’s Bible scholars said prophets predicted the birth of the Jewish Messiah in Bethlehem.
I don’t know why the National Guardsmen shot all those kids…or why they got away with it. No one was charged.
Perhaps some of the Guardsmen perceived a threat.
But is a camera a threat?
John Filo, the journalism student who took the Pulitzer Prize winning photo of 14-year-old runaway Mary Vecchio kneeling in horror over the body of Jeffrey Miller (inset above), said when he raised his camera to take a picture of a Guardsman, the guy shot at him.
In an interview on CNN, Filo said, “As his rifle went off, a halo of dust came off a sculpture next to me, and the bullet lodged in a tree. I dropped my camera in the realization that it was live ammunition.”
Filo said the Guardsmen didn’t seem to care what they had done.
“That was evident in that the squad that came over to examine the body of Jeffrey Miller was armed – six or seven of them. No one even bent down to get a closer look. The sergeant who did not have a rifle rolled the body of Jeffrey Miller over with his boot. That incensed some people.
“A group of students, I would say several hundred…sat down on the commons and asked: ‘Why did they shoot?’ The reply that came back, from the leader of the National Guard, was ‘Disperse or we’ll shoot again.’ And no one moved. And that was the most afraid I was that day. That is the situation that was diffused by some really great professors.”
In time, most people familiar with the facts of the story – instead of the rumors and propaganda – came to realize that the Guardsmen overreacted. Some stones were thrown at them. But the punishment didn’t fit the crime.
In the last several months I’ve gotten weary of seeing videos of people who are supposed to be defending us shooting us.
- Sometimes we’re a kid in the park.
- Sometimes we’re a teen in the dark.
- We’re unarmed. Shot in the back. And we’re usually black.
The reason I get sad on May 4th isn’t just because of the injustice. It’s because I remember how grindingly angry and intolerant people were with each other over the Vietnam War.
There were lots of people who defended the government’s decision to press on with the war. Some of them quoted the Bible and called protestors traitors to God and country.
“Everyone must submit to governing authorities. For all authority comes from God, and those in positions of authority have been placed there by God” (Romans 13:1).
The National Guard shoots at us and we’re supposed to take it lying down?
Dead. In a pool of our own blood.
Heck with that.
Paul was then. We are now. That’s one take on the matter.
Paul lived in the Roman Empire. We live in the US of A.
Perhaps, some say, we need to allow Paul to tell us about life in his day and then allow God’s Spirit to help us deal with life in our day.
Perhaps there’s a point at which submission to the authorities, in our day and culture, needs to give way to loud and persistent objection.
We may be Bible-revering Christians. But ethics profs in seminaries remind us that we are also Constitution-embracing Americans. We have the rights and obligations of American citizens – just as Roman citizens had theirs.
One right is to say “What the dickens?” when Guardsmen or police officers shoot unarmed citizens they’re supposed to be protecting. Or break their spine. Or beat them up off camera. Or target and harass people of color as though skin works like a scrap of paper in a litmus test. White, all clear. Brown, warning. Black, something’s wrong; look until you find it.
- There were protests.
- There are protests.
- There will be protests.
- There should be protests.
Many say that we the people of God and the people of the United States should not be afraid of those in authority.
They should be afraid of us.
- We pay their salary.
- We outnumber them.
- We’re better looking.
“Where the people fear the government you have tyranny. Where the government fears the people you have liberty.” John Basil Barnhill (1914, a smart writer with some good ideas like this one)
Our leaders at the front of the boat don’t steer this canoe. We do.
If armed protectors shoot some of us dead and get off free, that’s not the fault of politicians in authority. It’s the fault of the people the politicians should fear.
There’s a time and a place to protest injustice, intolerance, and dumbheadedness.
I believe that one such time and place was May 4, 1970 at Kent State University, outside Taylor Hall, in the School of Journalism parking lot.
Today, perhaps, the place is wherever we are when we see the good guys being bad guys and getting away with it.
As I said, the heck with that.
There’s a time for everything that is done on earth.
There is a time to be born.
And there’s a time to die. (Ecclesiastes 3:1-2)
But it shouldn’t be while running away from a traffic stop for a bad taillight and getting shot dead in the back. Nor while getting suffocated under a pile of arresting police officers. Nor while shackled in the back of a police van.
Granted, in this country we’re innocent until proven guilty. That goes for accused cops, too.
But in this country as elsewhere, sadly, sometimes the people of God need to stand up for the people shot down.
“Justice, only justice, you must pursue” (Deuteronomy 16:20).