If you as an American needed to consider how to evaluate the recent events in Ferguson, Missouri, would you go to the Gospel Coalition? But what if you wanted to think about it in a Christian manner? Would you go to the New Republic? Say hello to the world of 2k.
Well, in point of fact, American Christians may go to both websites for perspective on the Mike Brown shooting. As an every-square-inch Christian, Thabiti Anyabwile of the Southern Baptist variety thinks evangelicals need to advocate justice as much as the gospel if they are to avoid going the way of flowers of the field:
Around the country evangelical leaders participate in “racial reconciliation” conversations and repeatedly ask, “How can we diversify our church?” or “How can we attract more African-American members?” Why would diverse groups want to belong to an evangelicalism that does not acknowledge their diversity where it hurts when it matters? You want diversity in your membership roles? How about forgetting your membership statistics and further diversifying the picket lines and protests thronged by the disenfranchised in their just fights? We don’t want to be your statistics—whether wrongful death statistics or church membership statistics. We want a living, breathing, risk-taking brotherhood in the gospel lived out where it matters. Until evangelicalism can muster that kind of courage and abandon its privileged, “objective,” distant calls for calm and “gospel”-this or “gospel”-that, it proves itself entirely inadequate for a people who need to see Jesus through the tear gas smoke of injustice.
It can no longer be the case that to be “evangelical” means to care about either the gospel or justice. Evangelicalism must come to understand that justice and mercy flow inextricably from the gospel—both at the cross of Christ as well as in the daily carrying of our crosses. Micah 6:8 is still God’s requirement of us. And it will not do to position one injustice against another, as if to say we need only focus on one thing, or as if to say until this one “greater” injustice is dealt with then all “lesser” crimes need not be attended. Don’t place abortion in opposition to persecuted Christians in Syria or persecuted Christians in Syria in opposition to the Mike Browns. Can not the evangelical heart and mind expand to care about and act against all these things? Should not we risk a bursting heart in order to live a vibrant Christian life? If we can’t, then we should confess and repent of our hypocrisy and partiality, else be done with calling ourselves Christians. True religion cares for widows, orphans and the like.
But over at the New Republic readers discover not a threat — do this or go extinct — but hope. Similar circumstances in Cincinnati in 2001 to those recently in Ferguson led to reforms of law enforcement that have substantially reduced racial tensions:
After the riots, the ACLU, Cincinnati Black United Front, the city of Cincinnati and police union settled the suit with the Cincinnati Collaborative Agreement, which made numerous changes to police protocol. Officers are now trained in low-light situations, like confronting a suspect at night in an alley, as was the case in Thomas’s death. The agreement also created the Citizens Complaint Authority to investigate incidents when officers used serious force. Most importantly, it instructed officers to build relationships with the community by soliciting feedback with residents and using all available information to find solutions to problems before necessarily resorting to a law enforcement response. The ACLU of Ohio, which was one of the signatories of the agreement, hails it as “one of the most innovative plans ever devised to improve police-community relations.”
These new policies have not fixed all of the racial injustices in Cincinnati, but they have improved them. In 2010, the Rand Corporation conducted an analysis of the Cincinnati Police Department and found “no evidence of racial differences between the stops of black and those of similarly situated nonblack drivers.” The report also found that some individual officers “stop substantially more black drivers than their peers do.” But that’s still a big improvement over 2001, when one analysis found that black drivers were twice as likely as white ones to be cited for certain traffic violations.
“Now we have a police department that goes around and talks about it in a positive way and they talk about community-oriented policing,” Iris Roley, who was intimately involved in crafting the Cincinnati Collaborative Agreement, told the Cincinnati Enquirer. “They brag on working with the community and being transparent. We can look backwards and say we did something, we didn’t just complain and moan. As hard as it was, we did something. The police and the community sat at the table and hammered an agreement out.”
“We didn’t realize it at the time, but we accomplished something historic,” Pastor Damon Lynch III, who was one of the leaders of the 2001 protests, also told the Enquirer.
The contrast between the two posts confirms my suspicion that the church does not have the answer to what ails Ferguson (and lends support to the notion that outsiders must think Christians are daffy about politics). That is, the church doesn’t have a solution based on Scripture to curb police violence or change patterns of police surveillance or alter the court’s treatment of African-American criminals (and a lot of people say that policing policies are a pretty darned important factor in African-American perceptions of their communities and sense of injustice). The church does have the gospel. And if everyone in Ferguson repented of their sins, trusted in Christ, were baptized, and joined a gospel-preaching church, the problem of law enforcement might be only less acute. After all, Massachusetts Bay, a colony dominated by the godly (whom the Obedience Boys love), was not free from conflicts between authorities and civilians or from crime or from witches. But the church does not have the manpower, resources, or even the jurisdiction to tackle race relations in Ferguson, the United States, or planet earth.
Anyabwile is not without a plan of action, though:
So here’s my call: Let there be the founding of a new conservative evangelical body with the aim of (1) providing clear, understandable, biblical theological frameworks for the pressing problems of the marginalized coupled with (2) organized calls to action and campaigns consistent with that framework. Let there be a body tasked with answering, “What does the Bible say about justice and mercy for the vulnerable and weak (of which there are many such groups)?” and stating, “Here then is a biblically-informed campaign for a genuine evangelical church living out that faith.” Let the leaders of the movement stand as leaders in this moment.
This is an odd call even on Anyabwile’s terms because in response to readers who wanted him to wait for the facts in Ferguson to emerge, he doubled-down and said we don’t need to wait for the facts:
Third, even though we don’t know “all the facts,” we do know enough facts to speak. Here are four simple facts to consider for all those who think silence is the response. Fact: Mike Brown is dead. Fact: We will never hear his story or see him speak for himself. Fact: His parents are left to grieve. Fact: He has now to face an eternal Judge and receive recompense for deeds done in the body, never again to have opportunity to hear the gospel and be saved.
Well, if he wants us to follow his call for justice, don’t we need a few more facts? Is it not on the border of unfairness or injustice to try to settle disputes or prosecute crimes without the specifics of the case?
But why he thinks a body of conservative evangelicals can come up with the right response to social crises like these is neither obvious nor persuasive. Roman Catholics have a church that is the biggest in the world, with untold resources thanks to the
Vatican Bank Institute of Religious Works and related wealth, and an officer who is not bashful about speaking to pressing areas of human suffering and calling the faithful to prayer, empathy, and even action. And what comes of all those papal pronouncements? Not even the church’s theologians teaching at Roman Catholic universities appear to be willing to follow the Holy Father.
So what would come of Anyabwile’s Alliance of Gospel Justice and Mercy? Without a law enforcement agency, not much. The church does not bear the sword. When magistrates were Christians and worked for Christian states, the church could expect someone to enforce its morality (no chance of enforcing sanctification). But without Christian emperors, kings, or city councils, the church only has church discipline. Pretty important in the grand narrative of things. Pretty weak for the here and now, you know, vessels of clay.
So for now, I recommend letting the authorities in Ferguson, Jefferson City, and Washington D.C. sort this out in consultation and empathy with the people of Ferguson. That does mean having to be patient and trust others who may not look trustworthy. But if the Bible teaches us anything, it is the need to persevere.
Postscript: for additional sources about the Michael Brown shooting, readers may go here, here, and here (thanks to Robert Greene). But be advised — all this world, no world to come.