Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Nine Reflections In the Light of Ferguson, Eric Garner, and Advent Candles

Recent days have been marked by division and confusion as two grand juries in two locales, dealing with very different cases, chose not to indict police officers for their actions that led to the deaths of two African American men. Even as we move into our second full week of Advent, we do so with uneasiness over the cultural divisions that have erupted once again. Even among Christ's people there have been some hard words toward those on opposite sides. So as we at Grace think of the second candle, the Peace Candle, let me offer some thoughts during this time where peace seems so elusive in America and even in the church.

First, I am not Solomon, nor can I dig through all the testimony given in each case with unerring evaluation. I think the two grand juries were both wrong--that's my opinion, not fact. The Ferguson grand jury was not properly conducted with a prosecutor making a case and asking them to weigh it, but rather with a prosecutor handing all sorts of evidence to them and saying, in essence, "figure it out." That is not the role of a grand jury. In the Garner case, I cannot understand how the videotaped choking to death of a man thought to be engaged in a non-violent crime, by an officer using a maneuver banned by his department does not supply "probable cause" that a crime occurred. Both juries missed the mark, in my opinion.

Second, the cases are not equal, and should not be treated so. In one, a young man seen on video earlier robbing a store struggled with a police officer within the police car over the policeman's weapon with some level of "violence" and subsequently was shot--and while some witnesses say his hands were up at the moment, the autopsy results indicate they were not. The police officer's actions may be questioned, but a case can be made that they were within the scope of his authority--and again, I am not saying he was right, but that he might have been. In the other, a non-violent offense is being confronted, the suspect resists but not in a life-threatening way, he is subdued using unauthorized force, and can clearly be heard to say "I can't breathe" before he loses consciousness. Resistance to arrest that is not a threat to an officer should not be met with potentially lethal response.

Third, the feelings of many (most?) in the black community that these cases provide evidence of the continuing reality of racial inequality in treatment by police are not just real feelings, but justified on many levels. Black male friends of mine have, at various times, relayed their stories of being pulled over, stopped on the street, questioned, and even taken into custody on suspicion of a crime simply for being present in a setting. One friend in our own small village was stopped by police and questioned because someone observed him walking down their street in broad daylight: WWB--"walking while black." That is not a reality most white men can identify with.

While recently published statistics have been used to say that only one fourth of police shootings that resulted in death involved black victims, we should remember that only 13% of the population is African American. Compared to white victims of police shooting fatalities, blacks are killed at twice the white rate. While there are all sorts of factors to add in to this (are more violent crimes committed by blacks or whites, for example), the fact is, in the black community there are a lot more funerals due to police shootings, relative to the population, than in the white community. And in the case of Eric Garner, being thought guilty of the crime of selling individual cigarettes made his wife a widow, his children orphans, and left a community outraged as well as mourning.

Fourth, some public comments by prominent voices, including some evangelical Christians, have not been helpful. Statements by some whites and blacks that dismiss concerns about injustice show a lack of sensitivity, and in some cases, simplistic thinking. And broad condemnations of American culture (as systemically racist), of police actions (as typical), and of conservatives who question the innocence of a particular suspect/victim (as racist) are equally detrimental. Some FB friends have been sadly predictable in their postings demonizing or lionizing of each side. One friend wrote, "Silence is consent." I know what he means in one sense, because I've watched people assume you agree with them if you don't say otherwise. But I would argue that sometimes silence may indicate trying to think before speaking, or listening well, or remembering that with many words, transgression is unavoidable--all biblical restraints on speaking without clear understanding.

Fifth, I am thankful for voices like Dr. Al Mohler, Dr. Russell Moore, Thabiti Anyabwile, Trip Lee, and others who have tried to reflect on the current situation carefully, thoughtfully, honestly, and biblically. These and others have shared truth and also perspective that has been helpful.

Sixth, it is past time for white American evangelicals to acknowledge that we have largely failed when it comes to racial reconciliation. While we may honestly say we feel no prejudice toward blacks or other races, we are the church people and children of the church people that largely sat on the sidelines during the civil rights movement and were often more interested in our own neighborhood safety than we were equal protection under the law, to say nothing of caring about the spiritual condition of neighbors of color. Our churches fled the inner cities along with all who could, rather than face the challenge of becoming multi-cultural. And we still (with a few exceptions) don't know how to do "multi-cultural" unless it means people of other cultures adapt to ours. When we say we have no prejudice, we may be ignoring the stereotypes we believe, the now-instinctive reactions we have to situations and the pervasive power of the environments we have accepted as normal.

Seventh, as Christians, and especially those of us who are white Christians, we need to learn from our black Christian brothers and sisters, and even defer to them as more "expert" in their situation than we are. We sound foolish (or worse) trying to tell Christians in the black community that they are imagining prejudice and patterns of mistreatment. If we have honest questions to ask in humility and love, our black brothers and sisters are willing and ready to answer them. And we need to repent of any thinking and attitudes that have been dismissive and unconcerned about what these brothers and sisters who live in predominately black neighborhoods experience. If we care about Christians in Iraq forced from their homes by ISIS, we should also care about and stand with Christians in poor neighborhoods who live under radically different experiences and expectations in "the land of the free and the home of the brave."

Eighth, the "morphing" of protests into a more general anti-police sentiment is wrongheaded and sinful. Government is given power by God to protect human flourishing. The sins of individuals within power structures are wrong, but so is drawing conclusions that these individuals represent the structures themselves. Police officers choose to serve and protect their communities, knowing that as they do so, they will inevitably curtail some people's ideas of personal liberties. And at times they must use force to do so, which will never look pleasant. Protest a society's inequalities, but not against those seeking to protect the very existence of society. My acquaintance with police officers has shown me that most seek to be those who are "peace officers"--protectors of community safety so that people can live without fear.

Ninth, expectations of a society marked fully by "shalom"--God's peace--are equally wrongheaded in this fallen world, although every time believers in the Prince of Peace gather together and corporately worship, serve, and minister, they can have a small taste of what that peace means and will be in its fullness when that Prince returns. So we groan in a world without peace even as we offer its message to those who need it. We mourn with brothers and sisters in the black community whose suffering is not the same as ours and who deserve our concern and efforts. And in this time of Advent, we long for the coming of the One who will be the righteous Judge and the Prince of Peace.