He was twelve years old. It was late on a Saturday evening in Los Angeles and he was riding in a stolen car. When the police stopped the car, the boy got out holding an assault rifle. Police yelled. The boy began to raise his hands. One witness said it was a gesture of surrender. The police thought he was going to shoot; so an officer shot and killed the boy. The boy was black. His rifle turned out to be plastic. The name of the officer who shot and killed him was Rafael Martinez. The neighborhood exploded in violence.
The fictional scene is from Episode 8 – “Undecideds” – of the seventh and final season of The West Wing. It first aired on December 4, 2005. It was an election year (on TV,that is) and the Democratic Nominee is Matt Santos – a Latino from Texas. Scheduled to speak at an African American Church in LA on the Sunday morning after the shooting, Candidate Santos is having a crisis. Should he cancel? Should he go? What would he say?
I wish we could solve problems in real life the way they do on TV. No crime would go unsolved for more that 43 minutes and 22 seconds. Handsome and beautiful people would somehow find the right words to say. People would cry at the right time, clap on cue, cheer when appropriate, and demonstrate righteous anger and indignation when it was called for.
Staffers left him alone in the hotel room with his wife, Helen. There’s nothing I can say to those people, he is telling her. He is pacing. His voice is raised. She sits and listens to him until finally, when he is finished with his tirade, she says: “Speak from your heart.” He gives her a look that, under different circumstances, might have ended the relationship.
The congregation has gathered. The choir has sung. The preacher has warmed up the crowd a bit – and then Matt Santos takes the stage. The atmosphere turns hostile. How is it that a Latino is nominated before an African American? Santos is a practicing Catholic who is “pro-choice”. A bishop back in New Jersey has made it clear that he should not expect to receive Holy Communion at any liturgy in HIS diocese.
I wish we could put as many volatile and divisive issues on the table in real life – all at the same time – as they do on TV! How many prejudices can we deal with in 43 minutes and 22 seconds?
We are not targets for other people’s aggression. We are not “black” or “gay” or “trans” or “Christian” or “Muslim” or “Jew”. We are lovers! (Let us be lovers.) That’s what we ought to be – and if we’re not, then we need to learn to be.
God bless him … Matt Santos, our fictional “Mr. Perfect”, mounts the pulpit, looks at the black faces, and somehow digs deep within himself to speak of compassion. He connects. He manages to console and inspire. He comforts, even as he cajoles the congregation to renewed commitment to work for peace. Work for a world without blame, filled with love for one another.
It takes a real life prophet to do what Candidate Santos accomplishes on TV – that is, inspire us to live lives of compassion.