I wish they hadn’t marched because of the anger and the rhetoric present in the protesters. Though we are very well connected in the African-American community, none of our participants saw anyone they knew. Most of the BLM protesters appeared to be outsiders. That observation is confirmed by another major leader in our community who also happens to be African-American.
They also noted that no mention was made of the five police officers murdered in Dallas while protecting Black Lives Matter marchers. Though the Dallas tragedy occurred two days before the Augusta march, only two balloons were released in a solemn remembrance of the recent deaths of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile.
I’m glad we marched partly because many in our congregation have asked our church leadership, which is black and white, for direction on how to enter into the raging debate over the much-publicized deaths of young black men like Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, along with Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Walter Scott and others at the hands of police officers.
Since Ferguson, I have felt the burden as senior pastor to provide some biblical and theological guidance. Frankly, I’ve been overwhelmed. Every time I sit down to write something insightful, another tragedy occurs and I feel like I must figure out how to address that situation too. While considering what to say about Philando Castille and Alton Sterling’s death, I heard the news from Dallas. While writing about Dallas, I watched the report of a gunman dressed like a Ninja who lured in and slaughtered three officers in Baton Rouge. The shooter was black, two of the officers were white, the third officer was black. Today as I am preparing finally to publish, I’m forced to wrestle with the latest shootings of Terence Crutcher in Tulsa and Keith Lamont Scott in Charlotte. Though BLM was represented at the center of the September 20 and 21 riots in Charlotte, the fact that the police officer who shot Scott and Charlotte’s police chief are black make it impossible to explain the tensions only in terms of race. How does all of that fit together? I’m not sure, but all of that is to say that I share my parishioners’ confusion. It is not just young black men and women who are confused about this disturbing era we are in—we are all confused.
My black and white pastoral colleagues who marched with their young African-American parishioners on Saturday seemed to have these overriding thoughts, “These young men are confused. They are hurting. They are scared. And they are showing up at this march. I’m not going to let them go through their pain alone. I’m going to stay with them, even if it means walking in a march whose premise I fundamentally disagree with. I will march because I’m not here for BLM, I’m here for these my sheep and I can’t lead them to a more constructive response if they don’t know that I love them enough to do something out of my comfort zone with them.”
We learned that principle not just from the Lord Jesus, who incarnated the Father’s love to us in the midst of a corrupted world. We also learned it from another key leader in our church and community who happens to be black. As a judge, he reviewed the Michael Brown case in exhaustive detail and concluded that the police officer did exactly the right thing against a criminal who was attacking him. He realized from the record of the case that Michael Brown never said, “Hands up! Don’t shoot.” He was trying to kill the officer.
Yet, there was another set of facts being presented, that the report was tainted and misrepresented the officer’s behavior. And there was also another federal report that showed some discrepancies. So the outcry was not just an emotional one, but also built on a distrust of the facts provided, though the “hands up, don’t shoot” theory was clearly debunked.
In his initial conversations with other African-American leaders, this judge was criticized as an “Uncle Tom” for “supporting the police.” He was incensed that friends would dismiss him that way until he realized a very important principle.
He said, “I finally understood that folk can’t hear the facts until they know you care. I had to begin with compassion, with understanding, with sympathy for their fear before I could gently lead them to consider the facts of the case.”
On Saturday our black and white staff leaders had to show they cared in order for us to lead our community to consider the facts of what Christians are called to do, say and think in this hour of national crisis.
I’m also glad we marched because of the words of one of the patriarchs of the Presbyterian Church in America, Dr. Carl Ellis:
On one hand, ‘black lives matter’ (all lower case, ‘blm’) is a truth. This truth encompasses the healthy concern for matters that touch black lives—criminal justice reform, racial justice, just policing, better community relations, crime reduction, urban homicide rates, discipleship, mass incarceration, abortion rates, poverty reduction, education, employment, ethnic reconciliation, accurate representation of our history, etc.
On the other hand, ‘Black Lives Matter’ (capitalized, ‘BLM’) is an ideology with clearly stated goals and presuppositions. I would go so far to say that the original ‘BLM’ ideology, which started as a rally cry and grew into an entity, has given rise to a cult with its own doctrines and demands for faith. It now extends beyond the original entity, blending with other belief systems in a syncretistic manner as it exports its own iconography, its own language, and its own heroes for veneration.
Dr. Ellis also happens to be an African-American who has personally experienced some of the worst of America’s racist history, while remaining anchored in the love of the gospel of Jesus Christ revealed in inerrant Scripture. His thoughts on this matter then, powerfully inform my perspective.
I’m glad we marched as an expression of loving commitment to a truth that black lives matter. But I’m also glad we marched so that from the inside we can explain why we will not in the future march with Black Lives Matter. Rather, we will continue to give ourselves to efforts that contribute to the flourishing of black lives.
I wish we hadn’t marched because of other words from the same man. Dr. Ellis delineates the tenets of this new religion that has become captivating to some Christians:
Honestly, I am more concerned about this syncretistic subculture than I am about the original “BLM.” It is an infection that is finding its way into Christian communities. Some things I have observed about this subculture among Christians:
- It comes dangerously close at times to binding consciences by conflating holiness or true Christianity with grievance on the singular issue of police brutality as defined by “BLM.”
- It flirts with binding consciences by subtly emphasizing public proclamation of commitment to “BLM” as evidence of commitment to black people—ignoring the myriad of other issues that Christians might be addressing in their own personal and cultural spheres.
- It borrows a language of exclusivity that suggests some Christians enjoy a deeper knowledge of reality than others (e.g., ‘woke’ vs. ‘not woke,’ commonly accepted by many in the movement for Black lives as an ‘existential state of being’). This transfers into the experiential, as when a Christian ‘gets woke,’ one is now an acceptable part of a spiritual elite. This kind of language unwittingly draws unnecessary dividing lines in the Body that Christ died to unify.
I question the underpinnings of such language; it creates division based on a temporal standard for inclusion. Those within the Body who express concern or disagreement with this doctrinaire approach, or who lack public displays of support for the ‘BLM’ movement, can have their authenticity questioned, be rejected, or ostracized. Surely, just policing is a legitimate pursuit for the Christian activist. However, it almost seems that for some, advocacy for just policing alone is becoming the Gospel, and awareness of the issue its Pentecost.
Others have already pointed out that ‘BLM,’ the entity holds presuppositions regarding human flourishing that are at odds with much of biblical truth. In our land of free thought and speech, it is their Constitutional right to hold these beliefs. Their de-centralized form of leadership, however, has opened the movement to chaos and uncontrolled rogues who aim to dehumanize others under their banner, even at the most peaceful of protests. Couple this deficiency in the leadership’s structure with their presuppositions of what constitutes human flourishing, and the Christian is presented with an obvious dilemma that cannot be glossed over with persuasive, yet simplistic pleas for “solidarity around a common cause.”
It has become increasingly apparent that the differences between these two—‘blm’ and ‘BLM’—do not co-exist as ‘tension to be embraced,’ as it is touted by staunch ‘BLM’ advocates in the Body of Christ. Rather, it seems for a number of Christians, the two are incompatible and for some, the two present an irreconcilable confusion. These concerned brothers and sisters should not be judged or marginalized for the courage of their convictions.
I am deeply conflicted over these issues. I’m sure I am not alone. These are issues that deal with men and women created in the image of God, and that alone makes them important.
It is clear from our attempts at entering into this important issue in a helpful way that it is no easy task and will certainly not be received well on all sides – that is the nature of conflict. Therefore, it is important to hold to a few guiding truths as we continue to move forward into this uncertain landscape, still trying desperately to bring vestiges of the hope we profess in Christ Jesus.
Commit to the Truth
We must begin with a commitment to the gospel of Jesus Christ, which refuses to allow itself to be assimilated by “a side.” Instead, Christians must be radically committed to truth, which in the end, is good news.
An unapologetic commitment to the gospel also means we must be more generous and self-sacrificial than any other competing worldview. In this situation, it means that we must attack all sides of the problem with truth regardless of what it costs us politically, financially, socially, or physically.
As another civic leader frequently says, “All politics are local. At the end of the day these are social issues in our community that must be addressed by all social institutions—families, churches, schools, police, homeowners’ associations, etc.—because we can’t lock-up our way out of a social problem. We have to get to the roots of those problems. Everybody has to be proactive, not just police.”
Lead With Repentance
When you don’t know what to do in a relational struggle, repentance is always a good first step. Given our fallen natures, none of us is ever innocent in any relationship. Anyone can be only relatively right in any conflict especially by the majority or person with most power. Leading with repentance is always disarming because it is so unusual, even for Christians.
In a recent CNN forum, the power of saying, “I’m sorry” was displayed. Former Police Superintendent for the Chicago Police Garry McCarthy volunteered concerning police departments’ enforcing racist policies in the Jim Crow era, “That’s on us. I’m sorry.” The host Don Lemon called the audience’s attention to the significance of that apology and strongly urged them to validate it as a right first step.
Similarly, a black police officer said to a mom whose son was killed by another officer, “I want you to hear from a civil authority, I’m sorry.” He didn’t blame anyone, nor did he implicate all of his fellow officers. He validated that woman’s pain and expressed genuine sorrow that her son was gone and showed a willingness to improve as an officer, which by definition of being imperfect, is always an appropriate posture.
Show You Care
The story I relayed earlier about my friend who is a judge (and happens to be black) who got into a heated debate over the Michael Brown case is a great example of why this is so important. The judge shared with me that his friend could not hear him until he knew that the judge cared. As the Bible says, truth must be spoken in love. The Bible actually indicates that the words are not wholly true until they are spoken in love.
At our church, we have recently held a series of public forums on race, politics, and policing. After observing several of these, a missionary psychiatrist in our congregation who has spent most of his career treating victims of trauma and shame offered his insight. He came forward after one of the events in which a victim of police abuse and a representative of law enforcement were talking past each other in a rather heated way.
He said, “You can’t have a logical conversation until you properly validate that someone has been traumatized.”
In a recent interview, Bishop T.D. Jakes said, “Forty million blacks who don’t agree on anything, agree there is tension over police brutality. We need justice, but justice is not revenge.” That is a good example of sensitively acknowledging the reality of a perception on the one hand and calling for the right treatment of all (young black men and policemen) on the other hand.
All the data in the world will not help a trauma victim think clearly through a situation. That victim must know first that the counselor, authority, official, or researcher cares about how he or she feels. As a church community, we are having to learn how to listen to each other’s experience or perspective before we pronounce judgments. As a rapidly diversifying congregation, the majority white population is learning to listen to their black brothers’ and sisters’ experiences and perceptions.
That perception includes one promoted by popular media that young black males are being hunted by police. Of course, the data proves otherwise, but that does not obviate the way they are being made to feel.
Dr. Brian Williams, a black surgeon at Rees-Jones Trauma Center at Parkland Hospital in Dallas who treated the recently wounded officers, said he lives in fear of the police. Even though he understands police are not the problem and though he has only experienced mild intimidation personally, he has been made afraid by his culture. “The issue,” he said, “is the failure to have open discussions about race.”
Given my experience with my African-American brothers, I would say that Dr. Williams is saying, “I know what to think, but I also know what I feel and I need someone to listen to that.”
At some point we have to talk facts. Activism based on feeling will only lead to greater chaos and endangerment of the weakest members of our society.
For example, while the prevailing medical and political opinion maintained that toxic fumes caused yellow fever among those building the Panama Canal, 21,000 of the 26,000 workers were hospitalized with the illness. But when Colonel William Gorgas prevailed with his politically incorrect fact that the disease was actually spread by mosquitos, he was able to reduce the death rate to less than one percent, saving the project, boosting Central America’s economy and eventually saving an untold number of lives worldwide.
The facts about homicide rates, police violence, and young child deaths must be articulated and grappled with. Otherwise, many more children, many more police officers, and many more helpless citizens will die needlessly.
Heather Mac Donald, a fellow at the Manhattan Institute and editor of the City Journal, has done extensive research on the question of racism among police. Her research is published in two books: Are Cops Racist? (2010) and The War on Cops (2016). She recounts a time when she interviewed a cancer amputee in the Mount Hope section of the Bronx who said, “Please, Jesus, send more police.” She said the only time she felt safe picking up her mail was when the police were present; otherwise, she had to weave her way through trespassing teens, smoking weed in the lobby.
Similarly, an elderly African-American woman attended the town hall meeting at our church and publicly praised the sheriff for increasing patrols on her street known for decades as the most dangerous and drug infested area in the region. A judge on the panel (also black) reacted to this lady’s comments, “If police are villains, why is this dear lady so happy when they show up?” He went on to lament the “appalling lack of respect for authority” by young men and women (black and white) he observes in his courtroom and is reported in many police stops that turn violent. As a partial cure for our cultural crisis, he urged leaders to teach everyone with whom they have influence the importance of respecting all authority. He also proposed spreading the facts about the genuine good police are doing, which will make law-abiding citizens feel more at peace and lawbreakers more uncomfortable.
Proactively Seek the Good of the City
Those with resources, including a relationship with Christ, social capital, and economic resources, must leverage those for the public good. Those who can should move closer to distressed areas and reclaim them for the glory of God and the flourishing of those made in his image.
It seems to me that it is increasingly becoming clear that at least where tensions escalate into riots a major factor is economics. We must understand that some are so desperate in their economic and social malaise that crime seems to be the only option. As George Joseph with CityLab has recently written,
Riots reflect fury not just at the police, but at the constraints of the ghetto’s retail economy, where the poor pay more. In places where there are few legitimate jobs, the underground economy makes up the difference. Payday lenders and pawn brokers are the tip of an illicit iceberg, of which the drug trade is a major part. Fighting this the illegal economy has resulted in police becoming an occupying force. Policing an economy with a handgun, needless to say, is an impossible task.
Resourceful Christians must find ways to demonstrate the economic good news the gospel offers by creating ways for the poor to flourish as image bearers of God by becoming providers and givers (Ep. 4:28).
Our members who have moved downtown have, despite threats, displaced numerous drug dealers by their presence, by calling the police, by buying the homes the dealers were renting, and by direct confrontation. One Halloween these new homeowners hosted an outdoor “Trunk or Treat” party and invited the whole neighborhood. An elderly woman stood with others around the fire-pit where kids were roasting marshmallows and singing hymns and said, “I been praying for this for forty years! I been longin’ for the day when I could go outside at night with no fear and talk about the Lord with my neighbors.” About a decade ago, before my church had such a significant presence downtown, I asked a woman who led a daycare ministry in the city how she dealt with the drug dealers. A black lady, she said, “I see one hanging out at the corner of my playground and I take my purse and beat his back until he get out here. He there to deal drugs, not play with the kids!” She refused to be a victim. She refused to surrender her portion of town to bullies. And she gave hope to the black boys in her little school that there could come a day when thugs no longer made life dangerous for them by their drug dealing, violence, or misperceived threat.
The solution is not to pretend there is no skin color (that is dishonoring) or stop questioning anyone of color (that’s dangerous). Neither is the solution to reduce the tensions to race (that’s simplistic) or to stop at running off drug dealers (that only creates a vacuum). The solution is to attack the root of the problem–spiritual oppression with practical applications of the gospel to every systemic oppression of image bearers of God. While that list could be infinite, for the sake of this discussion, the priorities must be racism, youth delinquency and poverty. Stepping into these pockets of hell involves building relationships with at-risk kids as early as possible, and in the context of those bridges of friendship, providing sports teams, youth ministries and digital resources, as well as teaching reading skills, art, music, sex education, job training, and especially the good news that Jesus loves them. Coaching them to live by biblical principles will produce readers who turn into students who turn into college graduates who turn into employees who turn into husbands and wives who turn into parents who teach their children to follow their example. Even better, when these children commit their lives to Jesus, they end up not only blessing their immediate family but they have so much love to give away they bless other families too.
The tensions in our country between black and white, rich and poor, police and activists are too complex to be resolved by “insiders,” those co-opted into a party line of any kind. They can only be solved by “outsiders,” specifically Christians who identify with Jesus, the outsider who bore disgrace in order to conquer sin. Jesus was literally crucified outside the city gates of Jerusalem in order to save a group of people who would become citizens of a spiritual kingdom. As citizens of that kingdom we are liberated from the limitations of this world (politics, finances, social mores, prejudices, even the human will). We are able to call down resources from the throne of Jesus to bind evil spiritual powers, change human hearts, break negative generational patterns, and turn haters into loving peacemakers. To follow Jesus “outside the camp” will take us into the heart of human brokenness, and armed with the hope of the gospel, we will bring rejoicing to our cities with Shalom. (Proverbs 11:10; Jeremiah 29:7)
As follow-up to this blog post, watch the “Round Table Discussion on Racial Reconciliation” video posted on October 25, 2016