There is a prominent belief out there that is contrary to all moral teaching. The end justifies the means. We’re taught in moral theology that the end does NOT justify the means. We can never justify an immoral action for the sake of gaining more for ourselves even for the purposes of good.
Police may use this argument in restraining possible suspects. They’re doing what they need to by any means necessary for the sake of law and order. Some might say they have a license to kill.
This last week the verdict was passed regarding Derek Chauvin and the murder of George Floyd. We all saw the horrifying film of Chauvin with his knee on the neck of Floyd for over 9 minutes and 28 seconds. We all heard the calls from the crowd begging the officer to spare the life of Floyd who cried that he could “not breathe,” and pleaded for his life.
We saw Chauvin and the other officers refuse to administer CPR when Floyd was unconscious thus violating the “in your care” tenant where officers must protect the well-being of someone who has been apprehended.
I cried as the verdict of “guilty” was read. There was a sense of relief that there would not be rioting and possibly more death in the streets that night. I cried because I felt as though there may be hope for accountability for those who commit injustice.
Just moments after the verdict was read, an officer shot and killed an African American teenager wielding a knife in Columbus, Ohio. It was a very different scenario but a scenario that poses more questions as to what a policeman’s role is in protecting the public. Did he have the right to shoot someone as he attempted to save the life of another while that person was being attacked?
I talk a good game. I would like to think that I would do the right thing in a situation and work in my pacifist way to deescalate the situation, but it is never that easy. We can throw out scenarios as to what we would do, but we never know until we get there.
When I raised this in class, some of my students of color understood this. On the other hand, there were those who objected and passionately defended through anger why they objected to the death and the way it was handled.
I failed to realize as a teacher that those students see that 16 year old African American, and they see themselves in her. They all too often see themselves on the side of injustice and the rawness of this situation elicits an angry response to someone who just doesn’t understand that.
In the past I’ve raised the question in class, does the end justify the means? My affluent students have justified doing whatever it takes and saying that it does. The thinking is that “If I can help others by doing things through illegal activity and get away with it, more power to me. I can help people through my accumulation of wealth.” In other words, get yours while you can.
My students who come from humble beginnings in neighborhoods where some would term it the “ghetto” would say, “the end justifies the means because it is the law of survival. Get them before they get you.”
As a theology teacher we don’t always hear the answer we want to hear in the classroom. It’s hard for me to have those come to Jesus moments when individuals of color are on the front lines and face kill or be killed moments on the street.
I stood dumbly at my angry student as I tried to make the point and found myself fumbling for words to help her recognize that I understood her passion and express why we need to rise above. One of the greats would have a powerful comeback. All I could do is quote MLK and say “darkness cannot drive out darkness, only light can do that.”
One student got it. She said, “Fear is the vehicle driving the situation. People responded out of fear and the police responded out of fear.” Someone running into the situation is responding to the situation rather remaining above the situation. It was music to my ears, as she understood the lesson of the past that we’ve discussed and applied it.
My African American colleague heard the argument, and joined the discussion. His wisdom and his judicious perspective sounded like Maya Angelou as he poetically helped my students recognize the disturbing nature of an unfair world and expressed that “It’s the feet on the ground that allowed for justice to manifest.” Nonetheless, we need to abide by doing the best from a power position of love.
It was the greatest class of the year. The end does not justify the means. It never does.
Teach that to someone who has faced injustice his whole life. Teach that to someone who has been denied justice and wants a fair shake. Not an easy lesson to teach when faced with the law of survival that lives on the streets.
We arrived at the conclusion that the hard work of justice cannot be done if we don’t have these discussions. Justice cannot win out if we are not willing to call it out. We need to listen to one another. Once again, as a teacher, I’ve learned that I need to shut up and let the wisdom of truth present itself. It’s there for the taking and arrived not a minute too soon to help me save face in the classroom.
Thank God reason can be seen in this world. Although it’s come late, it is there to prove that it exists and accountability in our actions is alive and well.