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What Does Pepper Spray Do? | Provoketive Magazine
23 Nov 2011

The Author

I’m the associate pastor of Burke United Methodist Church and lead pastor for our Lifesign contemporary service. My wife Cheryl is a certified candidate for ministry in the United Methodist Church as well. She’s served as a hospital chaplain in the past, but is currently taking some time off to stay home with our two boys Matthew (5) and Isaiah (2). I’m a broken person whose brokenness is what qualifies me to love and serve other broken people. I’m learning to be less ideological and subordinate everything else that I believe to trusting in God’s love. I’m very passionate which can turn into arrogance when I don’t have enough loving friends around to call me out. Above all, I seek to be saved from the prison of self-justification that Christ died to help me overcome. The more that Christ liberates me from the need to be right all the time, the more that I grow capable of love.


What Does Pepper Spray Do?

Like millions of others, I watched a disturbing video last weekend of UC Davis students getting pepper-sprayed by campus police lieutenant John Pike. The most surreal part of the video was the casual nonchalance with which Lt. Pike sprayed painful toxins into students’ faces. It was as though he were spraying Roundup in a garden, and it made me think of an experience I had in my garden.

I like to harvest my own jalapeño and poblano seeds. The first time, I didn’t use gloves. My hands were soon covered with a burning that made it impossible to think about anything else. Then I did something very stupid. I itched my nose. This made me sneeze repeatedly. So my eyes got itchy, and before I knew it, I had spread the evil pepper juice to my eyes as well. Every time I tried to wash a part of me that was on fire, it made the burning spread. It took several painful experiences before I caved and made the very unmanly move of buying some latex gloves to handle my peppers with.

Pepper spray is made of concentrated capsaicin, the chemical that makes peppers hot. The difference between my painful pepper seed harvesting experience and what the UC Davis students felt who got pepper-sprayed last Friday is that they got a several hundred times more intense version of my pain sprayed deliberately into their faces from point-blank range. Though I’ve never been pepper-sprayed, I have some idea based on my painful experience what pepper spray might do to a person physically. But what else does it do?

What does pepper spray do to the person spraying it? Since Lt. Pike is a cop on a college campus (and not in the hood), this might have been his first time using pepper spray. What does it do to your humanity when you watch other human beings suffer intense pain because of what you sprayed into their faces? I suspect it’s different if you’re caught in an adrenalin rush when someone physically attacks you. Wouldn’t it mess with your head to spray people who are sitting on the ground and the most threatening thing they’ve done is to link arms and try to hide their eyes underneath their sweater when they see your pepper spray can?

When you do something like that, does the memory haunt you? Do you have bad dreams about it? Or do you change the story in your mind and conjure up a way that your victim was attacking you? This sounds like what UC Davis campus police chief Annette Spicuzza is trying to do. She said the police were surrounded by a crowd and felt “threatened.” The only problem with that narrative is that, in the youtube video, Lt. Pike actually steps over the seated protesters right before spraying them (so it’s pretty hard to argue that they were an obstacle to his passage).

This brings us to another effect of pepper spray: the perception of the public who hear about the story. Since pepper spray is what you use on a guy in a dark alley who’s about to mug you, the assumption is that if people get pepper sprayed, they must have done something violent. It’s been interesting to watch university officials try to redefine the boundaries of nonviolence in response to to these incidents. UC Berkeley chancellor Robert Birgeneau wrote that “linking arms and forming a human chain to prevent the police from gaining access to the tents… is not non-violent civil disobedience.” So linking arms has now become violent? When most people reading these stories see pepper spray, they assume that whoever was on the receiving end must have deserved it, so nonviolence is allowed to be redefined in popular discourse.

Still, there’s one positive thing that happens to people who get pepper sprayed. When you suffer for what you believe in, it’s the ultimate validation of your faith that inspires you to fight for your cause all the more zealously. This was what the Roman Empire could not understand about the early Christians. Every time they threw another one to the lions, they added lighter fluid to the fire they were trying to stomp out which eventually burned their empire down. The Jewish religious authorities had a similar experience in Acts 5:40-42:

They called the apostles in and had them flogged. Then they ordered them not to speak in the name of Jesus, and let them go. The apostles left the Sanhedrin, rejoicing because they had been counted worthy of suffering disgrace for the Name. Day after day, in the temple courts and from house to house, they never stopped teaching and proclaiming the good news that Jesus is the Messiah.

The flogging of the Sanhedrin made the apostles rejoice because it validated their faith. I’m not saying it makes the UC Davis students’ opinions “right” just because they got pepper-sprayed. I’m ambivalent about the Occupy protests in general, because I believe the way to change the world is through the long, boring process of Christian discipleship.

But I do wonder what it means that few Christians in our country today “have been counted worthy of suffering disgrace for the Name” (unlike Christians in Pakistan and other places). What does it say about Christians that we aren’t getting pepper-sprayed? Jesus tells His disciples that the world will hate us because it hated Him (John 15:18). I have really hated it every time I’ve had pepper juice on my face, but maybe one day God will count me worthy of suffering for the name of Jesus.

1 Comment
  1. When I was twelve, hear me twelve years old, I was camping, and something happened and I got BEAR SPRAY on my face, eyes, hair, shoulders, neck… It was the worst pain I had ever felt (obviously) but the reason I am mentioning this is that while pepper spray is rated at about 2 million Scoville units, Bear spray is rated at 3.3 million. I was blinded and felt like I was on fire… from now on I don’t care WHO attacks me I will NEVER buy any kind of defensive spray.

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