Today is December 18th, 2014 and I am late to comment in-depth on the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner. I wish I could tell you that this was because I wanted to be careful and I was busy over the last few weeks doing in-depth fact finding. The truth is I didn’t know what to say. Certainly I have read a lot over the last few weeks and I tried to read from sources that were all over the left-right thought spectrum so as not confirm my own biases. That does not take away the fact that I do bring some bias to these stories. Since I am not alone, for we all have biases, my conscience is clear to offer some help to our congregation through my reflections.
Since I am a pastor, my primary aim with this post is to shepherd the people of Agapé Chicago. Thus my comments will be aimed a bit at clarifying how I feel about these two tragic events because the race issues, justice issues, and the tension surrounding these deaths affect many in our congregation and neighborhood. Most of my focus, however will be in equipping the people of Agapé Chicago to think and work through issues of injustice now and in the future.
First, let me make my position clear. I believe that the murders of Michael Brown and Eric Garner were handled unjustly. I am not saying Darren Wilson and Daniel Pantaleo are guilty, for that would have been for a jury to decide. Rather I believe that their grand jury proceedings were irregular and unjust. Grand juries, as far as I understand, are supposed to see if enough evidence exists to make a trial necessary. The prosecuting attorneys are supposed to present evidence for the case to go to trial, and it seems like those cases were not presented justly by the prosecuting attorney, especially in Ferguson. With the information available it seems to me that Wilson likely, and Pantaleo obviously, should have gone to trial.
My hope in telling you this is to let you know I did not want to ignore the basic issues of these cases. At the same time my main focus here is on how Agapé Chicago will need to prayerfully think through and respond to injustice in the future. Thus I don’t want to deal further with those particular cases, but rather, with how we might respond to future injustices. I offer five arguments related to the Gospel that ought to guide our practice in the future:
1) Jesus Is King: That statement has political ramifications. Jesus has authority over all earthly powers and we are told something about how Jesus reigns and rules over us. That means that every other ruler is below the true King (1 Corinthians 15:24-28, Matthew 28:18-20) and those rulers are given authority over us that we are to accept (Romans 13:1-7) except when their authority would lead to disobedience to God (Acts 5:29). To those that belong to the King, these must be aspects of our political practice and stewardship of the power and responsibility Jesus gives to us. Yet this also has transpolitical implications as we are to pray for all rulers and government officials irregardless of party (1 Timothy 2:1-4). We also must get our notions of justice, righteousness, and love from the King before any political party or media outlet(s) that we might prefer.
2) Prayer and Seeking Justice Must Go Together: One friend of mine posted something like this on Facebook: “If your only response to Garner’s murder is prayer and there is no action you have missed the point.” There is some truth to the way this was said, but I get the feeling that many Christians forget prayer is the most effective means of action! Many accidentally make prayer and action enemies instead of friends. For the believer in Christ, prayer is the foundation of fighting against injustice—because of just how powerless we all truly are, and because of the power of Jesus. If I am not praying, I am ignoring who God is and who I am, and not really doing my best to seek justice. At the same time, those who seek justice by action in the name of Jesus will be way more likely to pray because they will be confronted with their powerlessness, even in the midst of protests, political action and the like. Prayer and Spirit reliance is also the foundation of any move we might make at Agapé Chicago to seek justice. If we are to act as a church in a unified fashion, prayer must undergird our decision-making.
3) Attacking Idolatry Is Attacking Injustice: Again, many people I know suggest that what we do “in church” (meaning the worship gatherings) is fine and all, but it means nothing if we do nothing about injustice. My reply to that is that every single Sunday we are fighting injustice precisely because we fighting the sources of injustice. These sources would include, but are not limited to pride, greed, lust for power, lust for others, hatred of others, selfishness and the like. We do a great disservice to everyone, as the church, if we believe that the faith and repentance encouraged as we gather has no positive ramifications on justice in our world. Churches battle injustice in more powerful ways than simply standing on the streets. Standing on the streets has its place, but it does nothing of ultimate significance so long as our idolatry goes unchecked. Idolatry and injustice always go together.
4) Direct Action Against Injustice Is Important: There are so many ways that I could go about combatting another error I see in many (mostly biblically conservative) churches and that is to minimize the work of justice. There are so many ways I could go about combatting this; I could argue the importance of justice, mentioning the close relationship between the Hebrew words for “justice” and “righteousness”. I could quote many scriptures (James 1:26-27, Proverbs 29:7, Galatians 2:10). Here, instead, I will mention the golden rule, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” It takes little imagination to know that if I were a whole group of people, poor, black, or Hispanic, for example and was being treated unjustly—I would want others to help me get justice. The church’s entire existence is based on Jesus keeping the golden rule: He did unto us, as we would have Him do, namely saving us from the penalty and destruction of our sins. We were not capable of saving ourselves and are rarely capable of saving others, but we are capable of thinking deeply and seriously about what our neighbors might want from us and seeking to do that very thing. Thus, there will be times where we will make tangible actions as a church.
5) You Are Not God: Yet there are only so many hours in the day, and you only have so many hands and feet, and only so much money. The same is true for every church. Every cause and every movement and every protest cannot always be our cause, movement, or protest. In my experience trying to make every important cause your cause will only lead to fatigue, burnout, and cynicism. Churches, neighborhoods, and individuals must choose their battles. Some people I love called others wrong for not protesting or blocking traffic last weekend in Chicago, accusing those that did not of being callous. Gentler friends encouraged me to ask Agapé Chicago to go stand in the street with them. That is a fine request and it is good to make a case for the seriousness of a particular issue. We all must make those judgments and ultimately God knows when we should or should not act. However we need to be careful when others do not see our fight as their fight. Guilt is a bad motivator of good deeds, we must be careful not to motivate or be motivated by guilt lest we lose people’s will to help. We cannot do all things, for we are not God.
Secondly, since you are not God, you do not know everything. I am speaking as a white pastor to many white people that need to question their suspicions of so many black neighbors in our country who are telling us they face injustice all the time. If we believe that we are not God, that means we believe we have a lot to learn, especially from millions of neighbors of one race telling us they are constantly facing injustice! To refuse to learn and listen from black neighbors about the injustices they face is folly and dishonors the fact that God alone knows all, and gives insight to all people.
For Agapé Chicago to be an inviting place we must be a listening place. No one wants an invitation only to go hear from someone else and never to be heard. As a church that seeks to be multi-ethnic and is working hard towards peace between races and classes, we must prayerfully listen to God and listen to others as we consider justice issues moving forward. God help us!