Two Pastors–One White, One Black–Reflect Together on Ferguson
As we’ve watched the events in Ferguson unfold, I (J.D.) have honestly been unsure exactly how to respond (as I’ll explain below). We have talked about it among our pastoral team and prayed as a church. But after talking with Chris Green, Sam Fisher, and Chuck Reed, three African-American pastors at our church, and Jerome Gay, one of our African-American church planters, I wanted to go ahead now and put before you a few thoughts that I hope might guide your thinking, Summit Church, in the gospel as you process this. Chris Green has helped out immensely in helping to process this.
First, meet Adon (age 4), son of J.D., and Caleb (age 13), son of Chris Green:
Let us suggest four guiding principles as we approach this situation:
1. To love someone is to try to understand their pain from their perspective.
J.D. Greear: There is no question that the black and white communities view this situation through different lenses.
I would encourage fellow white Americans, particularly those of you in The Summit Church, to try to understand why a situation like this provokes such a reaction in the black community. Before we get to disputing the facts, think about it from the perspective of the black community. Think of Michael Brown as if he was your own son. If my son Adon had lost his life through what turned out to be excessive, unnecessary force in an encounter with the police, I know my heartbreak would be compounded with a nearly uncontrollable yearning for justice. And if I learned that such force had been used solely because of his color, I would be furious. And if, no matter how many times things like this had happened in the past, I felt like the justice system had turned its head and didn’t acknowledge the wrong, I would feel nigh unto rage. Would any parent feel differently?
At the same time, Darren Wilson is also a man made in the image of God, and could be any one of the many policemen in our congregation who daily put themselves in harm’s way for my family’s safety. And so, I ask myself, “What if Darrell Wilson was, in fact, not racially motivated in his response, and his teenage son sat before me wanting to know why everyone was calling him a murderer for doing what he needed to do to protect his life.” I would want to see justice preserved for him and his family as well, with all the rights and privileges granted by the due processes of the law. I would not want to see him slandered, either outright or by implication. If he is guilty, I would want to see him prosecuted. If he is not, I would want to see him protected. Would not any of us want the same for our fathers?
Chris Green: I agree fully. And just to make it personal with the first scenario, as a parent of a 13-year-old, African-American boy, I am constantly reminded that we are approaching a crescendo in his adolescent life. Seemingly overnight, Caleb has out-grown the boyish cuteness that compelled strangers to smile and pinch his cheeks and he has morphed into a tall, chiseled, young man that puts them on edge. Some in society will assume a boy of his age and size, with brown skin, is not merely mischievousness and foolhardy like other boys, but that ought to be carefully observed through a lens of suspicion and guilt.
This is the conversation that black parents have to have with their sons, in particular, regarding how they are perceived by American majority culture (and therefore have to govern and prepare themselves accordingly). I have to explain to him that the consequences of his actions may render a different outcome than his counterparts, that guilt is usually assumed should he have any confrontations with the law, that there are places he shouldn’t go, clothing he should not wear (ex: hoodies, doo-rags, etc.), and that in the event of an encounter with law enforcement, he should concede arguments and avoid physical movements that could be misinterpreted. If my son objects that this is unfair, I will explain to him that that though may be so, this is the world he lives in.
2. We should, as much as we can, give the due processes of the law a chance to work.
J.D.: The court system, with all its redundancies, checks, and balances is a gift of God to our country, and usually our best attempt for earthly justice. Can it be abused sometimes, especially by the powerful? Absolutely. And when that happens, we must be vigilant to bring the abusers to justice. But our justice system is built on the principle to be “swift to hear, slow to speak, and slow to wrath,” and, though imperfect, it’s our greatest earthly hope in cases like these.
The due processes of the law, including the slow deliberation and careful examination of accusations of guilt, and the principle of “innocent until proven guilty,” protect us from countless injustices. These principles ought to be cherished and respected, as without them, injustices abound exponentially. The alternative to our justice system—rule by enlightened dictators or mob rule—have historically led to the gravest injustices known on earth, even if they gave a particular group the justice they wanted at the moment.
If we assume Wilson’s guilt before the due process of the law has taken its course, we, in some ways, are guilty of the same injustice some accuse Wilson and the Ferguson police force of—assuming guilt before it is proven. And when we say, or imply, that Michael Brown’s death is yet another example of “white privilege” or “racial profiling,” we are assuming guilt before it is proven.
In this vein, perhaps it is not wise to say, “Well, even if this event turns out not to be racially motivated, this whole situation just illustrates white privilege.” As we’ll explain below, white privilege most certainly exists in our culture, but to prematurely turn this situation into an illustration of that—or the basis of a call to action—before it has been proven is to create a scapegoat out of potentially innocent people. In so doing, we would be tarnishing the justice of this situation for this family by coloring it with (however rightful) anger over injustices committed by others—but which these particular people had no part in. That would be neither fair nor just. We must pursue justice justly. Acting unjustly in the name of justice will yield only further heartbreak in the future, even if it makes us feel good in the short run.
But what do you do when you are convinced the justice system has failed you? We know that sometimes, sadly far too often, it has failed our African-American brothers and sisters. When we see evidence that the powerful are corrupting the judicial process, we should speak out. And protest. And we all must pray for kings and all in authority that they might preserve our neighbor’s right to live peacefully (1 Tim 2:1–4). We must act, whether we personally are affected or not.
Of course, there is a sense in which true justice will never be accomplished here on earth, and, Paul tells us, we have to wait for eternity for ultimate justice. At the throne of God, no one gets away with anything. This is not to excuse inaction in the face of injustice, just to say that all earthly justice systems will fail us. But to answer injustice with more injustice cannot be the answer. While we fight against injustice here, we recognize that ultimately heaven alone settles all scores, which is sometimes the only thing that can help us sleep at night.
Chris: I understand that the American justice system is not perfect. In fact, I fully acknowledge that African Americans have been adversely impacted (often failed) by the American judicial system. Nevertheless, it is our governing authority on the creation, interpretation, application, and evaluation of law. Thus, we must allow due process. An “unjust” judicial system is not a new phenomenon. In fact, our brothers and sisters in the early church commonly dealt with unjust judicial systems. Jesus was persecuted under one, as were most of his disciples.
Romans 12:14-21 counsels us on how to deal with this:
“Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another. Do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly. Never be wise in your own sight. Repay no one evil for evil, but give thought to do what is honorable in the sight of all. If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” To the contrary, “if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals on his head.” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”
While we should continue to fight to ensure that our judicial system is indeed just, we must remember that we have, as J.D. reminds us, a Father that will judge every crime perfectly. There will always be things that we must leave to the wrath of God. This is why we can bless those that persecute us. This is why we will not let anger possess us and drive (or deter) our mission.
3. There is no doubt that minorities (and black males in particular) start life from a trust deficit.
J.D.: It is true, my son Adon, blond-haired and blue-eyed, will likely never face the same assumptions walking down the street that the sons of some of our African-American members will face. That these young men—full of goodness and promise—have to face unwarranted prejudice is deeply saddening and frustrating, and we in the majority culture should share that burden with our brothers and sisters in Christ. And when those negative assumptions lead to brutality or violence, the situation goes from sad to unspeakably tragic. We should be outraged.
Were those factors at work in this case? Careful investigations should be made to determine if indeed they were. And if so, for the sake of the victim, we should work to see the full measures of justice pursued. Of course, if they weren’t, we should not complicate a tragic situation with unfair or untrue accusations that serve only to incite further injustice and deepen the wounds. And that’s partially why being slow to judgment in these cases is always wise.
Regardless of the outcome of this case, we in the majority culture should work as hard as we can to see injustices of privilege and prejudice removed. We know they are there, sometimes in subtle and sometimes in more overt ways. Each young man and woman in our country should have the same rights, privileges, and opportunities afforded to us all.
Chris: As believers, to remain silent on this issue would be devastating. Martin Luther King, Jr., said, “Society’s punishments are small compared to the wounds we inflict on our soul when we look the other way.” Unfortunately, we have a history of being silent on many issues concerning race, especially those that have been marginalized. Underneath the surface of these types of events lies an immense by-product of this fallen world. We cannot afford to be silent, when we have the only answer.
4. This event exposes the superficiality of “racial harmony” in our culture and shows that we need a more powerful solution.
J.D.: We are grateful to serve in a church and on a pastoral team in which numerous races serve together and have become close friends. Among our eight campus pastors, we have four ethnicities represented. I have seen these men demonstrate the gospel in our community and lead our church in service and humility. They have taught me to listen before I speak.
The gospel produces a unity between people that simply nothing else can. As the Apostle Paul says, the gospel removes any hostilities between us: it teaches us that we have the same problem, sin; and the same hope, the resurrection of Jesus. We are equal in every way before him—in our creation, our condemnation, and our hope of salvation. I pray the church rises up during this time to demonstrate the unique hope we have in the grace of God, and that we can display the manifest wisdom of God by our unity in diversity (Eph 3:10). I am grateful to be part of a church fervently pursuing those ends, to the glory of Jesus Christ.
Chris: Here’s what we can do:
ACKNOWLEDGE: that people are hurting, that our country is broken, that our judicial system has often disproportionately failed African Americans, and that racism is still pervasive in our society. Have you simply asked the black families that you know, how are they dealing with these events?
LISTEN: patiently, intently, seeking to understand (not to offer an explanation or counter-argument). To this end, Bryan Lorrits’ article offers a good perspective: http://www.christianitytoday.com/edstetzer/2014/august/its-time-to-listen.html?paging=off
Have you considered the value of being a listener to gain new perspective?
REFRAIN: from rushing to judgment and from making premature, ignorant comments. As Pastor J.D. reminds us, the Bible commands us to be “swift to hear, slow to speak, and slow to wrath.” That principle undergirds our justice system, and it’s our greatest earthly hope in cases like these.
It is important that we don’t place ourselves in the place of judge and jury, relying on every detail of this case in order to draw our own verdicts. The details of the case often blind us or paralyze our function as salt and light in our community. We must refrain from the discord of divisiveness that paints this as “us vs. them” matter; and rather, see this through the lens of the gospel as a by-product of living in a fallen world.
While we should continue to fight to ensure that our judicial system is indeed just, we must remember that we have a Father that will judge every crime perfectly. There will always be things that we must leave to the wrath of God. This is why we can bless those that persecute us. This is why we will not let anger possess us and drive (or deter) our mission.
PRAY: for the grieving family, the accused officer, for the hurt, for the angry, for the oppressed, for our country and it’s brokenness, for our judicial system, for justice to prevail, and for healing for our country. Have you offered up a gospel-centered prayer (for everyone impacted by the Ferguson tragedy)?