Our church has at least two sets of pastoral needs. About half of those in worship on a given Sunday are African, and about half are American (mainly white), but right now, none are “African-American” – American-born black. I’m writing this note mainly to my church. I want to give you things to remember when you see ugly things happen as they have in Missouri (and, since I started writing this post, in New York City) over the last few weeks. Ferguson, Missouri and Staten Island are all over the news, and if you use Facebook or Twitter, all over them, too. Recent events – the refusal of two grand juries to indict police officers in the deaths of unarmed black men – bring to our attention some of America’s most shameful problems and ugliest history.
First, there is systemic racism in the United States. We all know about the horrible crime and sin of black slavery, which ended in the United states about 150 years ago. And we all know about the exclusion of blacks from the political process, mainly (but not only) in the South, which lasted until the 1960s Civil Rights movement. We know about the lynchings, the beatings, the firehoses turned on peaceful protesters, the police dogs, the firebombed churches. We rejoice in the advances of that decade: the end of segregation, the protection of voting rights; and in the powerful voices and sacrifices of Martin Luther King, Jr., Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, and many others.
But not all of us realize that there is still significant racial discrimination built into the law and order of the USA. Racism is not just something that occasionally comes out of an uneducated or drunken white person’s mouth. Enforcement of drug laws is extremely uneven, with arrests and imprisonment for drug charges disproportionately affecting black communities. For instance, federal penalties for crack cocaine possession and selling have been far harsher than comparable powder cocaine charges – a disparity that may have been intended to help alleviate the 1980s “crack epidemic” but actually served to put a disproportionate number of black men behind bars for long sentences. Although twice as many whites as blacks report that they have tried cocaine, and whites use some other categories of drug more than blacks as well, and although blacks make up only about 12% of the US population, 45% of Americans incarcerated for drug charges are black, and only 30% are white.
The high rate of imprisonment feeds into the massive issue of fatherlessness in black communities. In turn, blacks often do not trust the police and therefore do not cooperate with their investigations. Why would they? Laws have multiplied and people are often not tried by “juries of their peers,” leading to very high conviction rates (compared with crime a century ago). The research of the late law professor William Stuntz (an evangelical Christian) tracks this change. Successive waves of immigrants to the United States were able to successfully integrate into American cities, Stuntz says, but blacks have not: they have been effectively excluded from the judicial process. The less inner city blacks serve on juries, hold public office, etc., the more likely they are to be on the receiving end of mass arrest and imprisonment. The more they are arrested and imprisoned, the less likely they are to serve on juries, hold public office, etc. – and the more likely they are to seek criminal employment.
High crime and dysfunctional city schools mean that it is especially difficult for black men to find legitimate work. Middle class movement to the suburbs has meant that poor people (of whatever race) often have no nearby examples of functioning, hardworking families, and little reason to leave the welfare system. All of these problems feed into each other. We live in a society and legal system that profoundly disadvantages blacks. Refusing to recognize these interlocking issues, refusing to address them, shrugging and saying “Not my problem” – this is itself racism. Many conservatives (including many evangelical Christians) take a blame-the-victim approach, dismissing dead men such as Michael Brown and Eric Garner as troublemakers, drug users, fatherless, or shiftless.
I’m a white guy who grew up in a county where you could probably count non-whites on the fingers of one hand. But from 2002-2007 I taught at a school in Boston that was (and is) arguably the most racially diverse Christian high school in the United States. And when I taught high school I heard stuff from my students. A couple had witnessed murders in their own neighborhood (one kid’s family was moved around by the state to protect them from reprisals). One boy reached into his jacket – his school uniform jacket, mind you – and a white woman across the subway aisle screamed. Another, as a young adult, has suffered an ordeal of brutality at the hands of the Pittsburgh PD that almost killed him. None of them (I stopped teaching in 2007) thought there would ever be a black president of the United States. All of them knew the drill when it came to talking to police: cooperate, yes sir, no sir, or risk a beating – or worse. A 2011 video depicted refugees from Sudan – boys in their teens and early twenties – being warned against going to a convenience store in groups, since they were making the owner nervous, simply by being a group of young black men. These are not unusual stories. They are things that happen all the time all over the country. What kind of expectations for life do you have, growing up like this? What view of the police do you have? Do you think your society and legal system are on your side?
White Americans, this is what you don’t have to deal with every day. New folks from Africa, these are things which your black American neighbors are dealing with every day. And I’m very sorry to say that you and your children are likely to face them too. Everyone, this is not okay, this must not continue. If we have power to change things, we should. Whether or not we have such power, we need to pray. I would like to offer a program for healing what sick and fixing what is broken. I actually do have some thoughts on this. I would like to offer a program – but I won’t, because we are Christians, and our “solutions” must take a back seat to God’s true answer to human injustice and suffering. So here are a few aspects of that Answer, to think about in times like these.
Jesus Christ suffers with authorities who are falsely accused of wrongdoing. I won’t pretend to know “who’s right” (if anyone is) in the specific case of Michael Brown’s death at the hands of policeman Darren Wilson, nor Eric Garner’s death in police custody in Staten Island. Police are under massive scrutiny for racial discrimination, and have been since at least the 1991 beating of Rodney King by Los Angeles police. This may be right (see above!) but it has got to make being a policeman difficult. Further, police are viewed with suspicion by many, many people in the black community (and some outside it). How would it feel to give your life to making your city a safe place, only to have most of the people you interact with scowl at you most days, and threaten to riot when they don’t get the court results they want? And how would it feel to hear self-righteous protesters and internet pundits accuse you of racism? How about the media industry, always hungry for an exciting story, regardless of the effects of their reporting?
I completely understand why people are angry that police get such a hard time while doing their jobs. These same folks don’t understand how anyone could justify rioting, looting, or violence – such as happened in Ferguson last Monday night after the grand jury’s decision was announced. Christ suffers with authorities who are doing their best, knowing that their job is crucial but (on some level) impossible. The Scriptures cannot often be made to justify revolt, lawlessness, insurrection, or revolution: they just can’t. The Scriptures teach us that government has a limited but genuine, and very difficult, role to play in the world. It is God’s minister to carry out justice, legitimately wields the sword, and must be respected as a servant of God (Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-17). Being in authority is hard. It is tricky, it is stressful, and it can end disastrously.
And in case you’re wondering this applies even to terrible governments! Paul and Peter were writing about the Romans: the authorities who crucified the Lord himself. It’s very easy to be critical of those “in power;” very easy to forget that those in authority over us (whether parents, presidents, or pastors) answer to God first and to us only later; very comfortable to think of ourselves as righteous victims. But we must realize that our criticism of authority is almost always mixed with a rebellious spirit; that we are called to obey without grumbling; and that God hates rebellion (1 Samuel 15:23; Psalm 68:6). Away with empty talk of “speaking truth to power” and “standing in solidarity,” if what we really mean is loud complaining and a refusal to listen to explanations. Our approach to those in authority must be dignified and respectful, truthful without being hateful, as the Lord’s was and as Paul’s was.
Right now, Jesus is patient with rebellious and ungrateful people – you and me. He cares for us, he loves us, he provides for us even as we turn our backs on him.
Jesus Christ suffers with the victims of racism and racist violence and oppression. Black people in America (and many non-blacks) are right now experiencing again that old, helpless anger. Anger that the familiar script has been followed, another young black man dead, another white cop acquitted. There are millions of people in the US who, correctly, don’t believe that the democratic process or the justice system treat them, their neighbors, or their sons fairly. Moms who warn their sons never to visit a convenience store with more than one friend, and give them a script for when they are stopped, questioned, or searched by the police. Dads who see their sons caught between the rock of the streets and the hard place of police mistreatment and suspicion. Jesus is in authority, and held authority among his disciples. But he was also under authority – both his heavenly Father’s terrifying but ultimately benevolent authority, and the proximate, corrupt, self-serving and viciously violent authority of the Roman state. Pontius Pilate was recalled from his post as governor of Judea n0t long after Jesus’ crucifixion, because he was brutal even for a Roman.
What all first-century Jews talked about, every day, was how to deal with the occupying Romans. Many, many wanted to revolt – and some had tried (and would try later). Some believed that targeted assassinations were the way to go. Some were collaborators, happy to make nice with the Romans if they could turn a profit from doing so. Jesus had both ends of the spectrum among his twelve closest disciples. All were looking for a Messiah, a king who would lead the people in armed revolution against the Romans.
But Jesus didn’t come and do that. Instead, faced with unjust authority, vicious and oppressive, he voluntarily died at their hands. He suffered for the oppressed, but he also suffered with the oppressed – identified with them, voted for them, threw in his lot with them. “He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he opened not his mouth … By oppression and judgment he was taken away; and as for his generation, who considered that he was cut off out of the land of the living, stricken for the transgression of my people? And they made his grave with the wicked and with a rich man in his death, although he had done no violence, and there was no deceit in his mouth,” (Isaiah 53:7-9). When faced with the Beast, Jesus did not simply slay the Beast: he was eaten by the Beast, and slew it from within. His triumph comes on the third day, by the sovereign action of God. This is how, in the end, justice comes for the oppressed.
Jesus Christ will certainly bring just judgment. The Gospel – the announcement of Jesus Christ’s coming, death, resurrection, and ascension – is very bad news for those who are doing well in this world. The kingdom he announces is an upside-down kingdom, where the poor, those who mourn, those who hunger and thirst become the “blessed” or “happy.” Jesus is the Risen Victim, the Just Judge, the One with a sword coming out of his mouth. He does not rise, then go on vacation. He rises to rule. From his place of rule he welcomed Stephen, he rescued Peter from prison, he healed and commissioned Paul, he struck the proud Herod to the ground, dead. The creed tells us that Christ is at the right hand of the Father, and “thence he shall come, to judge the living and the dead.” Justice is coming for Americans and Africans, blacks and whites. Justice is coming to those who cry out, “Our soul has had more than enough of the scorn of those who are at ease, of the contempt of the proud,” (Psalm 123:4).
This is the good news. This is why, as Cornel West has said, there is no black Al Qaeda. Christians trust Jesus to make things right. Black Christians live out the hope of the gospel in a more tangible and powerful way than anyone else in precisely this way: by their near-total refusal to take up arms against their oppressors, they have demonstrated not weakness but faith in the God who judges justly. I want to be clear: this trust in God’s just judgment does not replace righteous action, the quest for justice in this world. Rather, it is the only proper foundation for justice-seeking: it shows us what justice looks like, whether we are in charge, or under authority, or both.
So what we should do, if we believe these things? Well, that’s a bigger conversation, and maybe another pastoral letter. In the meantime, let me suggest some more reading. Pastor Thabiti Anyabwile, a black Reformed pastor and respected author, has been writing a lot at the Gospel Coalition website. Start here, then here, here, here in response to Voddie Baucham, here, here, here, here, and here. Rapper and outspoken Christian Lecrae spoke here to white silence on the subject of police oppression of blacks. (His music, by the way, is outstanding.) Finally, a Facebook post by New Orleans Saints football player Benjamin Watson.
God bless you. Peace be upon the people of God.