[Episcopal News Service] On Sept. 23, just a few hours after the announcement that a Kentucky grand jury declined to charge the police officers involved in the shooting of Breonna Taylor with her death, Kentucky Bishop Terry Allen White presided over a penitential Eucharist at Christ Church Cathedral in Louisville to mark the occasion.
Standing next to a candle and a sign reading “Justice for Breonna” with the number of weeks since her death (now 27) – which has been displayed prominently in the cathedral’s livestream services for months – White preached on Matthew 10:32-42, which contains the much-examined line “I did not come to bring peace, but a sword.”
True peace, he said, is hard to come by now – because of both the racist violence taking place in America and the urge to respond out of anger.
“I confess to you right now,” he said, “evil is tempting me to commit evil actions. And part of that reason is feeling angry.”
White was feeling angry over the grand jury’s decision not to file homicide charges in the death of Taylor, a 26-year-old Black EMT who was killed in her Louisville apartment by police. Just after midnight on March 13, three officers executing a “no-knock” search warrant broke into Taylor’s apartment, exchanged gunfire with her boyfriend and shot her eight times.
The officers and one other witness have said they knocked and announced themselves; Taylor’s boyfriend, Kenneth Walker, has said he did not hear them. As they broke into the apartment, Walker said, he fired a warning shot, which hit an officer in the leg. The three officers then fired 32 shots into the apartment, killing Taylor.
In the months since then, Taylor’s killing – along with that of George Floyd and other African Americans – has come to symbolize the crises of systemic racism and police brutality in the United States. Taylor’s name has been invoked by many in The Episcopal Church, including Presiding Bishop Michael Curry, who said last week that her death “exposed the death-dealing depth of racism and white supremacy deeply embedded in the soil and in the soul of America.”
The grand jury charged one of the officers, Brett Hankison, with three counts of “wanton endangerment” for firing 10 shots indiscriminately into Taylor’s apartment, thereby endangering lives in a neighboring unit, but none of the officers was charged with killing Taylor. Kentucky Attorney General Daniel Cameron said that is because they acted in self-defense.
“Our investigation showed, and the grand jury agreed, that [Officers] Mattingly and Cosgrove were justified in their return of deadly fire,” Cameron said.
Protests against Taylor’s killing and the lack of charges in the case have been underway in Louisville since May 28. After yesterday’s announcement of the grand jury’s decision, protests escalated in Louisville and various cities around the country, and two police officers were shot in Louisville.
In his sermon that evening, White reexamined the meanings of concepts like justice and peace, though he did not directly address the specifics of the grand jury’s decision. Citing the passage from Matthew’s Gospel, White said peace is not merely the absence of violence.
“You might say that Jesus doesn’t sound very Christian here,” White said. “At least that’s the way it sounds to my white ears,” he said. “Much of that has to do with how I was formed in understanding the meaning of peace, and then how I live out that definition in my life. My own definition has emphasized peace as the absence of disagreement.”
Acknowledging his privilege as a white man, White said that for him, “peace usually meant the status quo. I was fine with that because I had status. I need to change, and I am trying to change.”
As he called for deep societal change to reflect the kingdom of God, White also urged listeners to resist the temptation to respond to evil with evil. At “the end of a day like this one,” he said, Christians must turn to faith instead of anger.
“That must be what we rely on, and not returning evil in the face of evil temptation. Now, I will continue to struggle with resisting that response at times, and beloved, I need your help and example. Indeed, we need each other now.”
– Egan Millard is an assistant editor and reporter for Episcopal News Service. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.