Black and White

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It’s the end of a week full of horrible events.

The shooting death of African American Alton Sterling by police officers in Baton Rouge, Louisiana… The shooting death of African American Philando Castile by police officers in Falcon Heights, Minnesota… The shooting deaths of five white police officers by a single African American in Dallas, Texas, apparently as retribution for the week’s two previous events and for so many other shootings of African American men by police….

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Sometimes it feels as though the history of the U.S. reads like an advertisement for different ways to separate ourselves from people who are different from us. I’m not talking about people who are wicked, or dangerous, or evil, or truly frightening. Just different.

It seems evident that there really are people in the world whose actions play out as evil in the eyes of those affected by those actions. And yet, I think it’s reasonable to say that on the whole, the intent of the perpetrator is seldom along the lines of, “I think I’ll do this thing because it’s evil.” 

I also think it’s likely that many acts perceived as evil are, in fact, mistakes made without the intent of hurting anyone.

The challenge before us is to identify which “evil” acts are genuinely evil and which are either mistakes or are acts with unintended consequences. And our responses should be in keeping with reality rather than perception.

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“An it harm none, do as ye will.” This short sentence summarizes the Pagan/Wiccan rede, or credo. I see it as an order of magnitude more profound than the Christian “golden rule,” which says “Do unto others as you would have them to unto you.” The golden rule puts the speaker at the center, and it makes the speaker’s perception the priority. The Pagan rede reverses this priority.

“An it harm none…” This phrase precedes action. It asks the question, “Is there any harm likely to befall someone if I do what I’m thinking of doing?” And how would we know the answer? Only by seeing things, as thoroughly and as thoughtfully as possible, from a perspective different from our own.

There’s that word again: Different. If we apply it in ways that keep us apart, this word means Other. Not me. Not like us. Foreign. Alien. Scary. Frightening. Terrifying.

How often do we strike out from a place of fear and tell ourselves the reason is something else?

... from a poem about killing a harmless spider: "I don't think I'm allowed to kill something because I am frightened."

... from a poem about killing a harmless spider: "I don't think I'm allowed to kill something because I am frightened."

What we have, in the shootings of this week and so many others like them, are in essence reactions of fear. Good versus evil. Us against them. Familiar versus foreign. Understanding versus ignorance.

The lack of understanding that engenders fear is not all on one side or the other. While it seems that Philandro Castile was a law-abiding, peace-loving individual, the naked fear in the voice of the officer who shot him is palpable. Maybe he was afraid because Castile was black and for no other reason. But that seems too simple.

Maybe the officer had just nearly died from an attack by a black man who was nothing like Castile. Maybe most of the officer’s encounters with black men were nothing like the encounter with Castile would have been if the officer had not already been terrified. I am not exonerating the officer; however, most of us will never know what it would be like to go to work every day in the knowledge that today, doing our job could get us killed. I am not exonerating the officer (yes, that’s a repeat); but as civilians, we expect police officers to put themselves in harm's way on our behalf every day.

Life is not black and white. It is not good and evil. It is never all one-sided. It is shades of gray... and shades of blue and yellow and green and purple and orange. It is nuance and compromise, not absolutism and rock-hard stubbornness. Or, it should be. "An it harm none, do as ye will." Here in this country, we have become profoundly bad at that. This is what must change.

Disciple: How are we to treat others? Ramana Maharshi: There are no others.

Disciple: How are we to treat others?

Ramana Maharshi: There are no others.