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Do not be afraid

As we face relentless attacks on our rights and our lives, what role does fear play in our lives today?

Marchers calling for the indictment of two Sacramento, Calif., police officers who shot and killed Stephon Clark, make their way through downtown Sacramento on April 4, 2018. Clark, who was unarmed, was shot and killed by Sacramento police officers on March 18. (AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli)

(RNS) — Do not be afraid. To those of us rooted in Christian and Jewish traditions, these are familiar words. They often come from the mouths of angels who appear in human form. They understand that their presence might initially be overwhelming, disruptive and disquieting.

It is a phrase aimed at putting the one who sees them at ease right away so that they can then deliver their message. But as we face relentless attacks on our rights and our lives, what role does fear play in our lives today?

Last week, an independent autopsy revealed that Stephon Clark was struck by eight bullets fired by Sacramento police officers. Six of those bullets hit him in the back. Even at the revelation of such a disturbing fact, the officers will continue to testify to the fear they experienced when they shot and killed Clark.

And just last week, fear appears to have been at least partially at play in the killing of a black man in Brooklyn, N.Y. It has now become a predictable response for police officers to cloak themselves in claims of fear as they seek to justify shooting down black people.

Do not be afraid.

For people of faith and moral courage, fear is not an acceptable shield for law enforcement to hide behind to escape accountability. We all know that law enforcement is a difficult job. We also know that good policing is rooted in positive relationships and respect; it is not rooted in “othering” or thinking of some people as “less than” or “disrespect” — all of which make it easier to allow fear to become the prevailing driver during a confrontation.

As a clergyperson, who also experiences fear sometimes, I know there are coping strategies that help us in those moments. We can expect better from law enforcement. Fear should not have the last word. It undermines officers who are building positive relationships and respecting all people — no matter their race, ethnicity, gender or sexual orientation.

Do not be afraid.

There is another way. It is important to look at those who have turned things around. Prince George’s County, Md., has nearly eliminated police killings of unarmed civilians. This took hard work on the part of law enforcement, the judicial system, elected officials and community leaders working together to hold each other accountable.

Once local leaders saw that law enforcement was ready to make sure that officers who perpetrated such killings actually lost their jobs or were imprisoned, it sent a clear message to everyone that their government took the problem seriously. It was no longer business as usual. Local partners were then willing to put some “skin in the game.” Every police department in the country must implement programs and policies that result in successful, peaceful solutions. Fear cannot have the last word.

Do not be afraid.

I am tired of fear being used as a legally and morally acceptable excuse to gun down black and brown people. As a black Baptist clergyperson, who is also a father of two black teenage boys, I am deeply concerned that the tragedy of police shootings of unarmed black men and women continues unabated. As we commemorate the anniversary of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination, the tragic reality is that my sons and I are branded as threats to be feared rather than as community members worthy of respect.

We can and must stop the racism that is killing us. After commemorating the death and resurrection of Jesus in Christian communities on April 1, let this be another opportunity for us to live and believe that what seems impossible can indeed become possible. “God makes a way out of no way.”

Do not be afraid.

(The Rev. John H. Vaughn is executive vice president of Auburn Seminary in New York City. The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.)