(RNS) I feel ambivalent about my hometown of Baton Rouge. I feel ambivalent about the killing of Alton Sterling, and I feel ambivalent about the loss of the lives of the three officers — Brad Garafola, Matthew Gerald and Montrell Jackson — gunned down Sunday (July 17).
In my work with the New Baptist Covenant, an organization that advocates for racial justice and racial reconciliation within Baptist communities, I feel ambivalent that I had to return to my hometown, not just for a friendly visit but to be present in the midst of crisis.
In popular usage, the word “ambivalent” is often thought to refer to a state of not really caring. In actuality, it describes feeling discordant emotions about the same thing at the same time. It is the word used to describe how one intimately close with God and far beyond understanding can feel.
The fallen officer Montrell Jackson expressed this sort of deep ambivalence in a Facebook post before he was killed:
“I swear to God I love this city, but I wonder if this city loves me. In uniform I get nasty looks and out of uniform some consider me a threat.”
Jackson, who was African-American, expressed anger toward a city he loved, hope for a country that makes you want to despair, and a love so strong that it envelops even the people you fear.
A friend from Baton Rouge expressed her ambivalence after the death of those officers on Sunday: “On one hand you want to keep protesting and reminding people that Black Lives Matter. But we don’t want to be insensitive to those in mourning and we don’t want them to feel like their pain doesn’t matter because we know what that feels like.”
Another friend there in the city who is an African-American man and brother to a police officer expressed his fear for his brother, who went on shift soon after the shooting occurred, saying, “Can you imagine having to go to work on patrol the SAME DAY three of your colleagues were gunned down in cold blood?”
My ambivalence is that I want to ensure that all those who would set out to kill a police officer are stopped before they have the opportunity. But at the same time I don’t want the injustice done to police officers to stop the pursuit of justice against police officers who have done wrong.
In the midst of crisis, it seems that everyone offers their prayers. There are times when I look upon these offerings with a cynical eye. Prayers can be a cheap substitute for action and justice.
In the Gospel of Luke, Jesus’ disciples ask him to teach them how to pray. It is my hope that in Baton Rouge, Dallas and Minnesota, we might once again ask Jesus to teach us how to pray, because it is in prayer that we learn to hold the ambivalence and find the deeper truth beneath all of our varied responses.
I want to make sure that I can mourn with all who have been hurt and pursue justice against all who have been wronged — black or white, badge or none.
Prayer is not just a place where we petition the divine for justice and peace; it is the place that we prepare our hearts to be agents of justice and makers of peace.
Baton Rouge is a city that feels the great weight of ambivalence. Black or white, police or protester, Protestant or Catholic, rich or poor, I hope that this a moment when we can all learn how to properly pray.
The officers who were slain on Sunday had committed themselves to justice and the common good of the city; their families deserve justice and I pray they receive it. At the same time, we would dishonor the men who lost their lives in service to justice if we did not also seek justice for Alton Sterling.
Lord, teach us how to pray so that your justice might actually roll down like waters, your righteousness like a mighty stream, so your kingdom on earth may be like it is in heaven, and all of your children know that you hear us, love us, and how to hold our ambivalences in your hands. Lord, teach us how to pray.
(The Rev. Elijah R. Zehyoue is an ordained Baptist minister and director of programs and communication at the New Baptist Covenant)