It has been ten days since a police officer shot and killed an African-American man in St. Louis, and there have been increasing calls for pastors to speak up about it. In fact yesterday morning I saw one of the Ferguson protest leaders on CNN lamenting the relative silence from pastors on what happened.
The question though: what should pastors say? For whom should they speak up? Pastor Thabiti Anyabwile (who pastors a church about 15 miles away from me) pleads with pastors to break their silence and speak out against the injustice of using lethal force against an unarmed teenager. Meanwhile Pastor Joshua Waulk wrote a compelling post urging pastors to “stop using language that is unduly sympathetic to the pro-Brown narrative, without regard for the potential innocence of PO Wilson, such as repeatedly calling Brown an unarmed teenager.”
In fact, when you read those two blog posts—which I strongly encourage you to do, as they are both exceptionally well written—you come away with two very different concerns. To Anyabwile, the idea that a police officer can use lethal force on an unarmed teen marks just about the worst element of our society. It demonstrates that ethnic differences run deep, it shows an accepted prejudice against African-Americans, and it is a clear manifestation of how sin has gripped our culture. He looks his son in the eyes and is afraid for his son’s life. To Anyabwile, it is very easy to see this story happening to those he loves.
On the other hand, Waulk sees Ferguson as an example of how our culture harbors prejudices against law enforcement, how we depend on police to protect us but then quickly turn against them when they actually do. Our culture has a systemic problem, Waulk writes, in that groups of people will fabricate fiction for the purpose of getting police officers sanctioned, or even imprisoned. He looks at the legacy of his father (himself a police officer) and knows how quickly people will lie to get good cops in trouble. To Waulk, it is very easy to see Ferguson as an example of or society dishonoring those that are worthy of honor.
Obviously both Waulk and Anyabwile view this story through their own experiences. Waulk is Cuban-American and a former police officer in South Florida. Anyabwile is black, and lives in a neighborhood where having a family member shot to death is a person’s greatest fear.
Consider Waulk’s declaration:
That a 28 year-old, six year veteran with a clean history would suddenly decide to ‘execute’ and ‘assassinate’ anyone in broad daylight, and in the presence of witnesses is simply a horrible narrative to construct…All told, it smacks of prejudice, simpleness, and amateur thought on the part of some of the alleged witnesses, and certainly Michael Brown’s accomplice, who has apparently testified to a story like this to the police.
And then Anyabwile:
Deadlier [than racism] are the many persons who…carry on without pause, who empathize with the shooter rather than the shot, who express concern for the family of the living but little to no regard for the family of the deceased, who talk of obeying lawful authority while witnessing the unlawful use of authority, who keep resetting the conversation to call into question the teenage victim while granting the benefit of the doubt to the grown up perpetrator. Whatever else teenagers are, we all know they can be incredibly stupid at times. Whatever else a grown up is supposed to be, we all know we’re supposed to be responsible and level. It is the adult who should have put away childish things. But we ask of the teenager what we should ask of the adult, and we accord the adult the latitude only stupid teens should receive. When the teen is large and ‘Black,’ then he’s not a teen any more. He’s a menace. The calculation is faster than a speeding bullet. And it’s deadly.
— Anonymous (@occupythemob) August 18, 2014
With these differences, it is not surprising that both Anyabwile and Waulk differ on what role theology has to play in this issue. Anyabwile says that if evangelicalism can’t muster enough courage to speak on Ferguson, then it is a dead theology—dead in the sense that it has ceased to interact with the world. Whereas Waulk writes:
My seminary education would not have served me well in hand-to-hand combat during my career, so far as all this is concerned. It’s hard to imagine slugging a guy with Calvin’s Commentary on Ephesians, or calling on a fleeing felon to stop because of his total depravity. The two occasions I was shot at, and the one occasion I discharged my firearm in the line of duty could only be prepared for at the range, and on the streets.
So how is a Christian supposed to know what to say about Ferguson? Here are three biblical principles to apply:
First, Anyabwile is correct, and Christians cannot remain silent in the face of injustice.
We live in a world filled with injustice, and God uses common grace to limit it. Just as one form of common grace is law enforcement, another form of common grace is the voice of Christians who speak out to defend the oppressed. Both are true, both are necessary, and both require Christians to participate. It is indeed a Christian duty to expose and condemn injustice in society.
In fact, the final charge in the book of Proverbs (before the description of a godly wife) is this:
Speak up for those who have no voice, for the justice of all who are dispossessed. Speak up, judge righteously, and defend the cause of the oppressed and needy (Proverbs 31:8-9; cf. Prov 17:26).
By shining a light on injustice, it is exposed. Any time Christians cross paths with oppression, they should stand against it. Our family, friends, neighbors, and all who are listening should know that God does not approve of injustice, and that the Lord himself will be the avenger of the wronged. By condemning injustice, we show the world how God is just, and that allows us to speak with integrity when we declare that he is not only just, but also the justifier.
Second, both Waulk and Anyabwile are correct in that Christians should not defend the unrighteous.
It is a serious sin to speak in the defense of a person who was in the wrong. We are to “hate evil” (Prov 18:12), and “it is not good to show partiality to the wicked” because doing so will ultimately end up “perverting the justice due the innocent” (Prov 18:5). The bottom line:
Whoever says to the guilty, ‘You are innocent’—people will curse him, and tribes will denounce him; but it will go well with those who convict the guilty (Prov 24:24-25).
But in this case, how are we supposed to know who is guilty and who is innocent?
That leads to my caution to both Anyabwile and Waulk: Don’t make a judgment without facts from both sides. To some extent I understand the desire to pass judgment on a case with which we have emotional ties. If you come from a background where racism is part of the typical experience, you read about Ferguson and you can practically write the story yourself. It seems obvious that it was a case—like so many others—where law enforcement jumped to deadly conclusions and acted foolishly in a way that took the life of black victim who did not deserve to die.
On the other hand, if you are in law enforcement then it is likely the Ferguson story is viewed through the familiar lens of being put in an impossible situation by a violent criminal much bigger than you. It seems obvious that the officer was attacked and followed his training which resulted in him using lethal force as a last resort. Even one of the protest leaders yesterday granted that he can see how from the officer’s side of the story, he is the victim.
So in this kind of situation, what does the Bible say? It says that “The one who gives an answer before he listens– this is foolishness and disgrace for him” (Proverbs 18:13). And again: “The first to state his case seems right until another comes and cross-examines him” (Proverbs 18:17).
Obviously for some (eg. Anyabwile and Waulk) the situation is so charged that they feel like they have to speak out before the facts are in. After all, isn’t it as obvious to others as it is to them?
But the danger here is that when Christians put their wisdom on the line, they are often putting the gospel’s wisdom on the line. And then three days or three weeks or three months later new evidence comes to light, and suddenly those who spoke without having both sides end up sounding…well, “like fools” is the phrase Solomon uses.
If there is injustice, speak against it. If there is someone acting unrighteously, don’t defend him. But please…in a case where facts are complicated and presented through the intentionally inflammatory lens of uneducated and half-baked news reports (or even Twitter!), silence on the issue is wisdom, not weakness.