I’ll state up front that this is a reflection piece based on observations, conversations, on-line interaction and ruminations. It is a way for me to process the events and responses to events that keep swirling around in my head in the interest of being fair but also empathetic with concerns of injustice where it exists.
With yet more instances of police shooting of unarmed Black men, the lament and visceral reactions are understandable. And the more I consider the evidence of these isolated and tragic incidences, the more I ask what this is really about. The quick answer is racism, the devaluing and hatred of Black lives. Of course that is what the Black Lives Matter advocates will have us believe and nothing else.
And really, who can blame this response? Considering the lengthy trail of historical injustices against Blacks in this country, it makes sense to me that each incident is like a fresh reminder that all men [and women] have not been treated equal. In fact, I think its safe to say that reminders of sins past fuel fans on the fire of present grievances and contribute greatly to how these instances are viewed. For each police incident causes a sort of PTSD and demonstrates the toll of years, no make that centuries, of image bearing transgressions and the stain they left on too many souls.
The fear, though exaggerated, is completely normal under such circumstances. In fact, I think it’s to be expected and why empathy is so critical. When brothers and sisters see black bodies die at the hand of police, it is reasonable to hear the hyperbole of not wanting to leave the house, fearing for life, concern for fathers and sons and wondering if a routine traffic stop could end in death. Don’t be so quick to judge, correct or dismiss. There is pain involved.
But here is where my convictions kick in, especially as a Christian, Reformed and wanting to consider both the tragedy of instances and temperament of responses in light of God’s creation, work in it and reconciliation of men to himself. I’m not wanting to truncate the gospel by reducing it only to salvation of souls, completely devoid of anthropological or sociological concerns. But I also know that no matter how disheartening I may find those concerns all must be anchored in a lens of the Lordship of Christ. For healthy Christian faith and practice does not dismiss the implications of anthropology and sociology, but it cannot be governed by it.
And this leads me to maintain certain convictions about not only how I am evaluating the events of police shootings but also my response to it. I confess that when the Black Lives Matter movement took off in the wake of police shootings, I wanted to be on board. I wanted to be in the fray of Christians concerned with acts of social justice because after all, I believe in a holistic gospel.
But some things began to gnaw at me. Maybe it was the lack of consideration of how these incidences lined with all police activity with comparative analysis. Perhaps it was the undermining or even flat out dismissal of other factors that could be involved. Or maybe it was just the way so many grabbed hold of a simple narrative of racism and based on the fact that cops involved in these incidences are white. Though I fully concede there are indeed cases of racial profiling, the simple narrative began to take on a life of its own and almost to the point of racial issues becoming the predominant lens of Christian belief and practice.
I had to step back for a bit. Here are a few things I’ve been thinking about;
- Sin is at the root of the problem. No matter how hard we want for things to be right, for everybody to just line up and treat Black people right, do we really expect for racism to just go away and especially for Reformed folks who hold to total depravity? That’s not to say that the church should not be involved with social issues working for the good of its respective community. But we can’t let social issues dictate our Christian obligation. And that obligation is first and foremost to union with Christ and what his redemption is all about beginning with him. We can’t put justice before Jesus and sometimes I get the sense that we are in the interest of addressing issues.
2. We have an obligation to truth: As much as we want to quote Isaiah about justice and peace, we also have an obligation to the 9th commandment, to be truth tellers, fact finders and whole story tellers. If we ride the waves of media propaganda that blast images of a few black people getting gunned downed by police (as if no other race or ethnic group does) and declaring an epidemic of white cops gunning down innocent black citizens, then it is important to back that up with actual facts. Just do some digging and you’ll find that actual numbers don’t quite match the level of hysteria that has been warranted. I really appreciated this brother’s take on the situation. As tragic as the incidences are of shootings of unarmed black people, I am also disheartened when my brothers and sisters in Christ make uncritical assertions, hyperbole and then beat down anyone who tries to insert actual facts or at least temper the hysteria with acknowledgement of other factors involved.
And speaking of facts, yes there is something to be said of how many black people die at the hand of other black people rather than cops. While it’s good to examine what actually is an epidemic in places like Chicago, the problem I have with this comparison is that cops aren’t supposed to be criminals. Nonetheless, the comparison of numbers is still worthy of consideration.
3. Police are human too: and speaking of criminals, let’s not forget that it is the duty of police officers to deal with them. I would imagine that in the course of policing, if it is true that black people make up a larger percentage of law breakers, that does temper how police officers might respond, especially in high crime areas. No, that doesn’t mean they should treat suspects unfairly. But honestly, putting myself in those shoes, I would probably have a heightened sense of imminent danger, too. That’s not being racist, just real. I do live in a moderately high crime area and have been held up at gunpoint by a young black man. Truth be told, when my 18 year old son leaves his late shift at work, I’m much more concerned about his encounter with criminals than I am with cops (and no, I do not encourage him to fear law enforcement). I do have some concerns that the activism around these incidents are actually deterring police from doing their jobs and that’s not good for anybody, especially those in high crime areas. Where issues of crime exist, I think we really need to be honest about how that impacts things. But at the same time, I get that this also produces a cycle of distrust and suspicion that both police and community members feed off the other. There’s got to be a way to break that cycle (see point #5)
4. We have an obligation of forgiveness: I get that we black folks get mad when these events happen. And as noted above, I think the collective grief is more a reflection of unhealed wounds than actual incidences that occur. But I’ll be frank and not to sound dismissive, we really need to examine how much we keep fueling a segregated mindset. How much of our talk and actions to combat racial justice continue to fuel the divide? How much do we make our identity about being black over and above being Christian? Do we dismiss white folks who at least want to learn? It’s good to remember what has happened in history but how much do we lean on it in the interest of real conversations before it becomes an impediment to move forward? I don’t have answers or making accusations, but just asking questions in the interest of resolutions.
5. Our white brothers and sisters matter too: for Christians, our first obligation is to our brothers and sisters in Christ. Now I surely get and have encountered the recalcitrant and dismissive Christian, unconcerned and unwilling to examine how racial disparities and injustices have made a lasting impact. Such people are almost impossible to deal with. But in light of the mood that has arisen especially with the platform of the Black Lives Matter movement, I’m beginning to think that sometimes an undue burden is placed on them, even though it might be unintentional. I think this is especially concerning for the troublesome alignment with the Black Lives Matter movement, as I wrote about here and that guilt-ridden white Christians are jumping on the bandwagon of whatever seems to alleviate the concerns of racial breaches because they don’t want to appear indifferent. While it is good to educate, to want white folks to just listen to concerns and just “get it,” sometimes I wonder how much of a pound of flesh we want.
6. No simple narratives: we really need to avoid the false dichotomies and choices. That’s probably deserving of another post but suffice it say, these issues involve complexities that we really need to think through before punting to the tired cliche of “not caring about issues.” Sometimes folks just think there are other factors at work, other solutions than loud protests and have concerns of counter-productive methodology. I am increasingly convinced though that whatever complexities communities experience are best addressed at that level, that the church needs to be engaged with at that level. Leaders should be putting forth efforts there through the quiet work of community engagement rather than the loud conscience binding protests on social media.
Oh and one more point of conviction worth mentioning. We really do need to be having these conversations off-line, in presence, with people other than our own kind and race.
Well, this post is getting longer than I anticipated and I might hammer out some more thoughts. But my hope is that we can open up our hearts and mind to examine all factors involved in the persistent fractures we continue to experience. My hope is that we contributors of redemption not agents of division and that in the words of Rodney King, we can all just get along for the sake of Christ, his kingdom and our representation of it here on earth.