Thursday, June 29, 2017
I have been consciously in the struggle for racial justice since I was in high school. I believe strongly in and strive for racial reconciliation in the way I live my life. I am a white American male married to an African American woman. We both come from Newark, NJ and were teenagers at the time of the Newark riots in 1967. We both grew up watching the news of Civil Rights marches, Dr. King’s speeches, his murder, and riots in the streets. We have felt the intensity of racial hatred from Black Muslims in Newark and arbitrary white people in the south.
We have felt the smug equivocation concerning injustice from fellow Christians when it absolutely was not ambiguous. We have seen the retreat into denial and the determined avoidance of engagement from truth and justice by far too many Christian leaders. These are matters that demand engagement and require repentance, the risk of love and forgiveness, and determined change. Many simply want nothing to do with repentance if it deprives them of their self-righteousness or their anger.
My wife and I have both read and studied African American history and culture, we have helped to start and I have pastored an intentional cross-cultural church, pursued various reconciliation ministries and initiatives, and fostered a national movement of cross-cultural congregations. We have had to be apologists for justice within our own very conservative Presbyterian denomination. We have sometimes had to be apologists to an untrusting and incredulous black community concerning sincere white folk who wished strongly to see justice come and experience love and peace from people of color. We have had to answer countless questions about race and culture, explaining and teaching the value of diversity and difference while pursuing and living out unity.
Neither of us has a degree in racial reconciliation, cultural diversity, cross cultural communication, or racial justice. We do have experience. We have been in some tight spots and scary situations, sometimes fearing the possibilities for ourselves or our children. We have experienced some shunning, been falsely accused of nefarious agendas, assumed to have a confused racial identity, purposefully left out of certain opportunities, and when we have achieved had those dismissed as if things were simply handed to us. In short, to some degree, we believe we have paid our dues in the struggle.
All of this being said so the reader might understand why we find it a bit problematic when people who are also in the struggle chose to be needlessly provocative, insulting, and divisive as they claim to pursue social justice. My problem isn’t so much with the purpose and attitude of their hearts; obviously only God can accurately assess that, and I tend to give those that I know the benefit of the doubt that they mean well. My problem is more with the current language in the quest for racial and cultural justice.
I would imagine that there are those who have heard me speak on racial or justice issues that felt slightly beat up by the time I was through. It is difficult to honestly and humbly listen to the shameful racial history of our country, or of American Christianity, and to see the facts of current prejudice and disparities and not feel ashamed, disturbed, and even angry. I know those feelings because I have certainly felt them as I became more and more woke to the reality of our fallen world in regard to the issues of race and justice. I cannot read of slavery, Jim Crow laws and segregation, lynching, race riots, and a history of intentional economic discrimination that has helped to create poverty, humiliation, and injustice without deep emotional anguish; I have often been reduced to weeping. I know it is difficult for my wife to even watch a film or television documentary that will throw in her face one more time all that her people have suffered in this land.
Yet, we seek peace. We follow Jesus the Reconciler, the One who brought us the message of reconciliation from God the Father and accomplished reconciliation at the cross. We believe that we are called to be peacemakers; it is simply part of what it means to be a Christian. So how do you tell uncomfortable truths to people and make peace?
James answers that this way, “But the wisdom that comes from heaven is first of all pure; then peace-loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial and sincere. Peacemakers who sow in peace raise a harvest of righteousness.”(3:17-18) So, peace isn’t simply my goal or end, it is the very means by which I accomplish my end and achieve God’s goal. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. articulated this many times, and he practiced it.
The consciousness of racial injustice and its attendant social, economic, psychic, emotional, and physical realities are like a punch in the gut. We have no alternative but to spell them out, to both the ignorant and the resistant. Yet, if we allowed hate to fill us, these truths could inflame our hearts and push us to be fiery-eyed zealots and avengers, we instead seek to speak the truth in love; as Ephesians 4:15 teaches us to do. This is not always easy to do, to speak hard truths in love. We cannot be flippant about what love means (claiming we love people but producing no demonstrable proof) in our communication, especially not in having read the James passage in how the “wisdom from above” is to be imparted. In other words people who hear hard truths from us must also hear and feel the love as far as it may depend on us.
It is way too easy to be self-righteous in this work, especially if any of us ever lose touch with our own sinfulness. Self-righteous zealots are both dangerous and boring. They create more division and give people an excuse to stop listening. I may have taken too long to get to my point, which is simply that we need to watch our mouths and our pens if we want to stay true to Jesus as we pursue the justice we believe is inherent in his own character and which he demands from all of us.
There is a lot of racial rhetoric (from various ideological perspectives) and the Christian has to navigate their way through words and phrases that are sometimes intemperate, out of proportion, historically inaccurate, blatantly false, almost totalitarian in their attempt to control the narrative, and just plain mean. We must never sacrifice our commitment to truth nor our commitment to love, and for that we will need a lot of help from the Holy Ghost.
Let me try to give some suggestions in the quest for peacemaking:
· Tell the truth while being humble, and with as much kindness as possible.
· Is the purpose of your communication positive change in others or an excuse for you to vent your anger? We should all be angry at injustice, but none of us should be sinfully angry.
· Watch out for gross generalizations and provocative slogans that are needlessly offensive. Do you simply want an “amen” from people who agree with you or understanding from those who are still in ignorance?
· Articulate racial concepts with explanation and alternative strategies and try to avoid leaving people in and with ambiguity.
· Watch out for simply spreading guilt, even to the guilty, without the Gospel alternative.
· Have some sense of balance concerning your reactions to things which are annoying or make you feel insulted as opposed to those threats and situations which are actual physical assaults on life and liberty.
· Choose your battles, for there will be times you will need real courage against dangerous foes. An insulting mouth will give you enemies you don’t need to make.
· Denouncing the mistakes and cultural obliviousness of the dominant majority culture can be helpful, but it won’t keep them from being the dominant culture, so how can these various cultures live with justice and love in their current reality?
· Lead us to some positive change, model it, and love your enemies, or else your articulate explanation of what is wrong and unjust might simply leave us all frustrated.
· Proportion your perspectives and passions: keep in balance the reality of living in a fallen world that will always have a limited ability for change, keep fervent your eschatological hope that a new heavens and new earth is coming, keep fervent your passion and call for justice, love and peace (and belief in its possibility) in the name of Jesus and by the power of a resurrected Christ.
Tuesday, June 27, 2017
One of the greatest things we have in our Western system of justice is trial by jury. One of the most frustrating things we have in our Western system of justice is trial by jury. One of the best things we have as American citizens are our rights under the U.S. Constitution and one of the most mischievous parasites upon it is the way the criminal justice system seems to manipulate it to create perverted ends.
Surely most thinking citizens have at times been frustrated when someone who has clearly broken the law seems to get off with little or no punishment. At other times most thinking citizens have been scandalized when someone who is innocent, or actually a victim of unusual circumstances, is slammed with a heavy- fisted punishment due to the written code of jurisprudence. In all of these situations the reflective question of, “What if that had that been me, or someone close to me?” is worth asking. What if I had been railroaded and sent to prison for a crime I did not commit and spent years in prison? What If I had lost my family, my youth, and my fortune because of such injustice? Maybe those questions would motivate our sympathy, our sense of outrage at injustice; maybe.
What if my wife, son or daughter, someone I love had been murdered, raped, beaten, robbed by someone who had been clearly identified and that person managed to get away with murder? Surely if I thought that the victim of crime on the news could have been me or mine my empathy might become engaged; maybe. I remember all those vigilante movies, (remember the ones with Charles Bronson?) and I am a bit sympathetic.
Our American history reveals how the jury system is not infallible in determining guilt or innocence, especially when the culture of the jurists is resistant to justice, predetermined to protect the accused because of a communal prejudice. It is one of the great protections for defendants to be tried by a jury of his or her peers, as it allows defendants, and especially those who are ably and well defended by competent and zealous attorneys, to elicit sympathy even in the clear and demonstrable evidence of their complicity and guilt. We have seen racism in juries during the Civil Rights movement allow clearly guilty killers and bombers walk out of the courtroom as free men. The words of Native Americans, African Americans, and Mexicans just didn’t carry the same weight as white men when in court.
Many poor defendants never get a jury trial, and therefore many of them end up in prison serving long sentences. The process of plea bargaining, the heavy handed stacking of charges, and incompetent representation deprives many of a sympathetic jury and only a “by the book” mathematical precision of sentence by penal code. Again, when a person of color went before a white jury the results were often predetermined.
We are currently facing such a cultural injustice in our jury system. It has a blue color over it, but it is not the fault necessarily of the police departments or systems whose individuals come to trial. It is a fault in our citizenry, and thus in our culture. We are prejudiced for law and order, we are prejudiced for the uniform, we are prejudiced for authority and it is a prejudice that is both ignorant and dangerous. We are finding it almost impossible to hold officers of the law responsible for their crimes. If they cannot be held accountable sooner or later all of our rights, and our lives, are at risk.
What is interesting is that in several cases the police departments themselves have repudiated the actions and behaviors of their officers and fired the incompetents or malefactors. What is also interesting is that in case after case whole cities and communities have had to pay exorbitant settlements in wrongful death suits. In short, the very citizens who let these officers go free pay for the crimes they have committed by higher taxes, or less policing since the city budget can no longer include it.
Does this tell our citizens anything? Does it educate them that when officers go off the reservation as it were and kill citizens whose guilt has in no way been proven or established, nor have given any real threat to the officers, that these officers need to be held accountable for their failures in executing the law they have sworn to uphold? The jury system allows for feelings, and the biggest feeling such officers submit in their defense is fear. Fear now seems to be the trump card that an officer can offer as to why they shot the deceased in the back half a dozen times or so, and why they shot the man who was walking away from them, or the man who was telling the officer he had a gun but also had a permit, etc. etc.
Can we change the culture of juries so that they understand that fear might make any of us sympathetic but is not an excuse for cowardice? Cowards are those who are afraid but don’t know how to master their fear. Fear is something that training is supposed to help those in uniform services know how to confront in themselves so that they can function effectively and lawfully. Fear is understandable, and so is anger, but it should be no defense for those who respond emotionally and not with self-control.
If you cannot learn to control your fear you should not be a police officer, or a soldier. Fear is a constant in confrontation, it can make people do stupid things and it surely has, but it cannot be an excuse for killing innocent or non-convicted citizens. Despite what police unions say (that seem to excuse all kinds of bad behavior and make incidents political) police departments are trying to hold their officers to a higher standard and all of us as citizens need that higher standard.
So, if you ever have the opportunity to be on a jury that must judge a police officer who has been accused of hurting someone unjustly, think not just of that officer’s fear, think of the victim, and think of them as if it had been you or yours. We must have sympathy for the abuse and danger officers face every day, we must pray for them, love on them, support them, and absolutely let them know that we understand that the challenge they face is greater than just another day at the office. However, we depend on them not to respond with their fears, but with wisdom and justice. And we will and must hold them to such standards, if for nothing else than for the safety of our very own children.