Ferguson and Justice
Written by: Josh Mathews
This post is a follow-up to Vergil’s sermon on justice last Sunday. If you weren’t there you can listen to it online here, and you can read Vergil’s column in the Gresham Outlook last week here. Vergil asked me to write and address some of the tensions and pushback you may be feeling in response either to the sermon or to the situation in Ferguson more generally.
To be honest, I’ve been wrestling through this kind of tension myself. Some tension, and even disagreement, is probably valid. It isn’t necessarily rooted in racial prejudice, apathy about justice, or lack of compassion, though it might be. I hope you can read along here and think, “yeah, I agree with that point and that’s how I think and feel about it.”
But what I really hope and pray is that you can move beyond having your perspective validated and come to the point of humbly responding. I’m convinced the tensions and pushback do not negate the core challenge of Vergil’s message. And so the two responses this post is shooting for are the same as Vergil’s message: 1) understanding and compassion towards those who are hurting and those with different perspectives than ours, and 2) conviction to strive for justice and correct injustice. The goal here is to build unity and affirm what Vergil preached.
Issues of Tension
There are several difficulties that could be raised, more than this post will address, but let’s start here.
What about the facts?
Maybe the most confusing tension, which underlies the other arguments, has to do with the specific details of the situation in Ferguson. The fatal encounter between Michael Brown and officer Darren Wilson and the ensuing grand jury decision not to indict Wilson are what set off the powder keg of emotions and outcry from the black community. But what about the facts? We don’t know what happened that day, or what exactly went down in the courtroom. What if Wilson was acting in self-defense, like it seems he was? Doesn’t that matter? Shouldn’t facts and truth be considered?
In response to these questions, we hear things like, this isn’t just about Ferguson. This is about the broad issue of injustice towards black people. But this is about Ferguson. This intense, even violent, outrage occurring across the country has indeed been instigated by the shooting of Mike Brown and the grand jury decision last Monday. In the interest of giving voice to the larger narrative of systemic injustice, am I supposed to disregard the details of this individual case? That is hard to understand.
I don’t think anyone knows exactly why it was this tragic situation that sparked such an explosive and polarizing response. Perhaps it’s because of the volatile racial tensions in the St. Louis area, or because of the recent killings of other black men, like Oscar Grant and Trayvon Martin (and now Eric Garner), by law enforcement (or wannabe law enforcement) officers. I don’t know why, but the truth is, for some reason, people seem to align very strongly with either one perspective or another. Some are powerfully impacted by the general issue of racial injustice Ferguson represents, regardless of the facts of the situation itself; while for others it’s impossible to separate the facts of Ferguson from the outrage and demands for empathy and justice.
It would probably be helpful for those of the first perspective to acknowledge that the facts do matter to some degree. Nevertheless, I’m addressing here those who have a hard time separating the facts from the response. The primary responsibility falls on us to do the hard, humbling work of putting ourselves in the shoes of those who are hurting, even if their hurt doesn’t make sense to us; because it does make sense to them, and that is profoundly important.
One way that has been helpful for me to think about this is using an analogy with marriage. Stacy and I have had arguments where I think logic, facts, and truth are on my side, while she feels very hurt or misunderstood on her side. (Sometimes the situation is reversed.) I’m still learning this lesson but, even on the rare occasion that I am right, it’s often best for me to forgo a logical, fact-based argument in order to listen to Stacy’s heart, and work really hard to understand what she’s feeling. This inevitably opens the door to moving forward in the conversation and in our relationship.
This is the kind of sacrificial love we’re called to in the marriage relationship (Eph 5:25–32; 1 Pet 3:7). And if the principle applies to marriage, it certainly applies to relationships with other Christians as well (Phil 2:1–11). To take it a step further, in marriage, a spouse should address feelings graciously even if they’re not based on truth. This issue of race is different in an important way. The emotions are based on truth. There is real basis and a vast resource of facts—from history, today’s culture, and every minority individual’s life experience—supporting the feelings of injustice. In this situation, there is most definitely a truth-based foundation for deep emotion.
Like the marriage analogy, we must be the ones to take the sacrificial step of really listening to those who are feeling hurt and misunderstood right now. We must engage in the deep-seated sense of injustice and systemic oppression that the African American community is feeling so strongly. We might talk about the facts more later, but for now let’s accept this as an opportunity to listen and empathize with the pain of our brothers and sisters in Christ.
[See this article by Bryan Loritts on facts and feelings. And also look at Prov 18:13; James 1:19; 1 Cor 12:26; Heb 13:3.]
What about the other side of justice?
Closely related to the tension between facts and feelings is the question of different aspects of justice. The focus of the conversation, again from the perspective of those who are hurting, is on the racial injustice evidenced by another white police officer killing an unarmed young black man and then not being accused of a crime. But, as Vergil said, justice is complex (Lev 19:10, 15; Prov 10:4; 13:23).
What about the side of justice from Darren Wilson’s perspective? Again, we don’t know the facts, but to many it seems like what people are protesting is that Wilson wasn’t wrongly accused of murder. Or even more troubling it might appear that the grief and anger is because the struggle for Wilson’s gun didn’t go the other way, that Wilson isn’t dead instead of Mike Brown. What message about justice is this sending to Darren Wilson and his family, or to all the police officers of all colors and races in our country? I think this is the kind of tension many of us are feeling. Whether we’re close to someone in law enforcement or not, we wonder, if we’re going to talk about justice, what about that side of it?
As Vergil said, we care about justice because God is just and He cares about justice (Isa 61:8; Prov 14:31). Perhaps that is part of why Christians feel very strongly on both sides of this situation. A few days ago it seemed to me like the only options were either to uphold the justice of this individual event, or to take a stand against broad, systemic racial injustice. And since justice matters to us because it matters to God, it’s very troubling to feel like we have to reject one aspect of justice in order to uphold the other.
While that kind of tension is real, and much of what is being said on both sides contributes to it, it’s not an impossible choice we have to face. We don’t have to relinquish our sense of justice for Darren Wilson, or for police officers across the country (or for the residents and shop owners in Ferguson who have been impacted by riots and looting), in order to engage with genuine, sacrificial effort in the painful sense of injustice this grand jury decision has triggered.
As Christians, we must admit that racial injustice is a still a very real and very sinful problem in our world today. We can and must pray and work to correct that injustice, and contend for justice, because the Lord is just. And we can, and must, do this without needing to let go of our sensibilities about the justice that may have indeed been served in the Brown-Wilson interaction and legal proceedings.
Again I think people, Christians especially, on both sides of this justice tension would do well to consider the other perspective. But again I’m primarily addressing those who have a harder time focusing on racial injustice. Like it or not, we are the ones who should feel the weight of responsibility to engage the other perspective and do the soul-searching work of striving for justice towards the downcast and oppressed. If we’re honest it is a lot easier to deny, or at least overlook, the reality of racial injustice. We often don’t have to think about it and this is an opportunity to let it sink in, to have our hearts changed, and to heed the challenge to care, correct, and contend for the Lord’s justice towards those who are treated unjustly.
Isn’t racial injustice a thing of the past?
Moving to the next tension, you might be wondering whether racism and racial injustice are really even a problem today. Because of where and when we live, it might seem like racial oppression is a thing of the past. We have a black president and really, around here in the progressive Portland area especially, we don’t see much outright racism, at least we don’t notice it.
Maybe you’ve even experienced the other side of this complex matter, or run up against seemingly unfair attempts to advance the cause of diversity. Many white people, myself included, have been overlooked for education or employment because of explicitly stated policies to favor minority applicants. If we’re honest though, that kind of unfairness is nothing like the systemic injustice they have experienced and are experiencing.
First, the reality is, racial injustice is still an issue. If we would resist the urge to be dismissive and defensive, I think we’d have to acknowledge this is true. And now there’s the news of Eric Garner, another black man who died at the hands of a police officer. Earlier this week we found out the officer would not be indicted. There might be arguments for why the grand jury did not indict him, but the video makes it tough to see from that perspective. It’s about time we admit there’s a problem, and at least the possibility of widespread racial injustice.
Second, even if you don’t admit there is still a problem, it doesn’t make sense to say, “It’s in the past. You need to get over it.” As one writer has pointed out, I doubt we’d deny the damage and scars that still remain for Jewish people from the holocaust. As embarrassing as it is, slavery and Jim Crow segregation are not very distant memories.
And third, even if somehow you still think there shouldn’t be feelings of injustice, it is still our responsibility as Christian brothers and sisters to listen, to labor to understand, and to have compassion. We must strive to be one as the body of Christ (Eph 2:11–22).
What about the rioting and looting?
You might also be thinking, “How am I supposed to respect or listen to people who are rioting and looting?” First, the vast majority of the black community, and those who are empathizing with their pain, are neither participating in nor condoning in any way the destruction we’ve seen on the news. We must be very careful to distinguish between rioting and peaceful grieving or protesting, even if that distinction isn’t always easy to see.
[Carl Ellis, jr. offered some helpful thoughts on this distinction in response to the initial situation in Ferguson in August.]
Second, without in any way excusing or overlooking the rioting and looting, we need to try to see through those wrong responses and get a sense of the pain and helplessness. The feelings of being wronged by those in power is raw, and it’s something white people in America have never experienced in anything close to the same way. Sure, there have doubtless been instances in which a black officer killed an unarmed white person, and you could probably think of other examples too. But as white people in America, we’ll never fully know what it’s like, as a race, to be in the minority. As we attempt to empathize, not just quickly but in a sustained and deliberate way, I think we can begin to understand the helplessness, fear, distrust and despondency of our minority brothers and sisters.
There might be other aspects of tension you are feeling, questions like, “Why the demand to understand when it seems like I’m being misunderstood too?” or “Can I have a different perspective without feeling accused of racism?” But let’s conclude this already too long post by thinking about tension related to the gospel.
With the Advent season upon us we rejoice in the gospel. We exult in knowing that Jesus came and defeated sin, including injustice, on the cross, and that He’s coming again to consummate His justice and His kingdom finally. It was appropriate that we sang these words last Sunday:
O come, Desire of nations, bind
All peoples in one heart and mind
Bid envy strife and quarrels cease
Fill the whole world with heaven’s peace
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Yet, as Vergil pointed out powerfully, we have failed to grasp the gospel fully if our joy and hope in Jesus’ coming stops short of longing, praying, and acting as Christ’s body, for His kingdom and His justice to come here on earth as it is in heaven. Gospel action and gospel hope are not competing against each other. It’s not either-or, it’s both-and.
In times like these in our world today we must labor to represent Christ. We must rise up and defend the oppressed. We must be arduous in our efforts to oppose the sin of injustice and defend God’s perfect justice, displayed ultimately at the cross. And we must also anchor our hope and joy deeply in the saving and sin-defeating work of Jesus on the cross, and in the certainty of His coming kingdom.
As a mostly white church with a black pastor, we’re in an uncommon situation at GBC. And it provides us with a distinct and exciting opportunity, an opportunity for which we should be very thankful. As a church, let’s embrace this opportunity and respond by repenting of apathy and inaction if we need to and by heeding the challenge to correct injustice and contend for justice. Let us show compassion and empathy for those who are hurting, whether we understand them or not. And let us grow in unity as we strive to love one other sacrificially and as we learn how to talk, and especially listen, to each other when we see things differently.