“Staring down a stand-off:” Learning What We Didn’t Know we Didn’t Know

In the early morning hours of January 11th, 2020, I began to drive the roads between Perkins and Stillwater, OK. I had scheduled a training at my church for the people who were nominated to serve in leadership for that year. It had already been rescheduled once. That morning, it began to snow! I did not want to reschedule this event again. I had a good number of RSVPs and if my Mazda 3 would make it alright along Perkins Road and 80th Street, we would take whomever would brave the weather and come.

At 6:45 a.m., I arrived at Wal-Mart. I was going to buy some breakfast items, water, juice, and snacks for the training that day. In these early hours, it was easy for me to get parking close to the front of the store. I saw a couple of police cars in the lot, but did not pay attention to them. I was myopically focused on getting these items and getting to the church before too much snow collected. I walked into the entryway and collected my cart. I looked over my shoulder and saw two police officers coming in behind me. I entered the Wal-Mart as the police officers passed me on either side and a Wal-Mart employee started walking toward me. I heard loud arguing to my right, and turned to face the self-checkout area. I was shocked. A man was pointing a gun at three police officers who were pointing their guns back at him. They were all yelling as shoppers and staff were ushered into a back room near the produce and seafood.

I would like to stop here for a moment and reference the title of the article: we don’t know what we don’t know, but we can learn what we didn’t know we didn’t know. As I look back on this intense situation, I have some reflections:

  1. I froze. There was a woman waving me to the storeroom and I did not immediately go. I had my eyes fixed on the situation at self-checkout
  2. I was immediately upset. Specifically, I was upset that the officers who came in behind me allowed me to go in at all!
  3. I had a “Well, this is a silly way to die” moment. I imagined being a part of a news story for being caught by a stray bullet.
  4. I regretted not cancelling the training because of the weather! Those RSVP’s immediately became less important to me.
  5. I finally “snapped out of it.” I pushed my cart (why did I keep the cart?) into the back room and looked through the plastic windows in the double doors to see what would transpire. I texted my wife, Aly, to let her know what was happening, that I felt safe, but to keep her phone with her.

I was fascinated by the responses of the people in the room with me. When I stood in the safe room of Moore First United Methodist Church on May 23, 2013 as a tornado was headed right for us, we all resolved to hold hands and pray. There was no such unity in this room. One of the people left and continued shopping. Another was in tears. Still others were engaged in a debate about permitless open carry laws and gun control legislation. I did my best to console the woman who was scared and offered to pray for her.

After about ten minutes, the situation resolved. The man dropped his firearm and was arrested. As it turns out, he was intoxicated and had walked to the Wal-Mart from the Whataburger he was kicked out of for some snacks.

I checked out in a daze and realized the roads would be too icy to expect people to come to church for a half-day training. I slipped and skidded home with a car full of breakfast and snacks for twenty-five people.

We don’t know what we don’t know. Yet, we can learn. I learned about the man’s context, what led him to the moment of pointing a gun at police officers. Quite frankly, I’m astounded he is still alive. I learned that anything we say about being heroes or peacemakers in situations involving life and death are greatly exaggerated. Many have fantasized about being in a room, theater, or plane where someone pulls out a gun – we imagine how we would respond. My response did not live up to the fantasies. I froze, got upset that the police behind me let me in at all, and then thought, “Well, this is not how I wanted to go out!”

Learning what we didn’t know we didn’t know is called unveiling/betraying ignorance. Once we learn what we did not know we did not know, we have two options:

1. Choose to change attitudes, thoughts, and behaviors based on new knowledge (betraying ignorance)

2. Choose to continue living as though we still do not know (willful ignorance)

You may remember a famous quote from former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. During the U.S. invasion of Iraq following the events of 9/11, Rumsfeld responded to questions about evidence linking Saddam Hussein’s regime to terrorists being supplied with WMD’s, or weapons of mass destruction. Pressed with these questions, Rumsfeld responded:

Reports that say that something hasn’t happened are always interesting to me, because as we know, there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns—the ones we don’t know we don’t know. And if one looks throughout the history of our country and other free countries, it is the latter category that tends to be the difficult ones.

Former Unites States Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld

This quote has been critiqued by journalists, psychologists, and philosophers in the years since the quote (2002). While the backlash against the quote was immediate, over time it has received some praise. Slavoj Zizek, Slovenian philosopher and psychoanalyst, added a fourth category to Rumsfeld’s quote: “unknown knowns.” These unknown knowns are our decision to ignore people, beliefs, and systems that form the basis of who we are and what we enjoy so that we do not have to address them. For instance, there were 400 years of slavery in the U.S. During that time, the primary driving economy was the plantation economy, fueled by humans purchasing and owning other humans. Living out the “unknown known” would mean choosing to pretend this did not happen. Therefore, the “unknown known” is a step beyond even willful ignorance.

Something I am seeing more and more of is people in my sphere of influence learning about things like the Tulsa Race Massacre of 1921 and the UpStairs Lounge arson of 1973 and reflecting – in one way or another – “I hadn’t realized this happened,” or “I never learned about this growing up.” These were things not in our history books and not openly discussed by those responsible for our public education. They therefore qualify as “unknown unknowns-” the things we did not know we did not know.

Yet we can learn.

It is what we do with the knowledge that has been given to us that puts us on the right side or the wrong side of history, of the Gospel, and of the moral arc of the universe, bending ever so slowly toward justice.

You will be given more than one chance in your life to learn things that you didn’t know you didn’t know. Do not waste those chances, and do not pretend that you did not learn. This amounts to sin – missing the mark.

You may not be in a Wal-Mart during a stand-off; but you might learn about an evil, an injustice, or an oppression. That is your opportunity to live into your baptismal vows and resist with your betraying ignorance, putting to death willful ignorance.

It is not easy, but it is worth it.

Also, if it is snowing . . . cancel the training. I know that now!

2 comments

  1. Hello Pastor! I enjoy your thought provoking posts and would like to continue to receive them. Next month my current email will no longer be supported and would appreciate you updating to my new address: jodyalong75@gmail.com

    Blessings to you and family, Jody

    >

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