Letters to a Young Protestor, 5: The Conscience and Racism

Jan 08, 2015 | Thabiti Anyabwile

Dear Niecie,

How are things since we’ve last written? Are you doing well in class? How are your friendships? Catch me up on your life outside the protests. I assume you have one! You’ve heard it say, “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.” Well, “All protest and no play makes Niecie a bitter girl”! Don’t forget it.

I thought about you as I read this morning’s paper. Tomorrow is the one-year anniversary of the death of Franklin McCain. Now if you’re going to continue the struggle, you’ve got to know something about those who have gone before you. McCain was one of the “Greensboro Four,” the four young men who in 1960 began the sit-in movement at the Woolworth’s lunch counter in Greensboro. February 1 will mark the anniversary of the actual sit-in, which caught on like fire and spread throughout the country. Those sit-ins—and the disgraceful way those students were treated—pricked the nation’s conscience and began the slow sawing of segregation’s legs. In just six months the Woolworth’s lunch counter desegregated!

I hope this encourages you. You and your friends have a lot in common with McCain, Joseph McNeil, Ezell Blair Jr., and David Richmond—the other three who sat-in that day. First, they were college freshmen, just as you are. Never underestimate the power of students to change the world—from Soweto to Tiananmen Square to the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee and others during the Civil Rights Movement. You stand in a proud tradition as you and your classmates take to the streets to protest the injustices of the police and criminal justice systems.

Second, they suffered indignities during their protests too. I remember the sense of shame you wrote about in your last letter, and the anger. These students at sit-ins had ketchup and mustard smeared over their heads and clothes, were sometimes physically beaten and bashed, were jeered and mocked, had their drinks—when they could get one—spat in, were called all kinds of names and labeled “troublemakers,” and on top of all that arrested and carted off to jail. Peaceful protest has always drawn violent and unsympathetic reaction from those in power or with advantage. You really shouldn’t feel ashamed, though. The shame belongs to those who mistreat you as you peacefully call for justice. The end of the shame will come, as it did with McCain and others, as you keep your head up and persevere to victory. The dignity is won in your demeanor, not lost in your defeat.

But this all got me to thinking about why a peaceful call for justice and fair play should ever draw such visceral and ugly reactions from people—especially from people today who all the while claim they believe in justice and equality. Such reactions make more sense in 1960, when hate is the official civic religion of the country, and bigotry was not only socially accepted but reinforced and rewarded. Up through the 1960s, whites were as imprisoned in racial dogma and practice as African Americans. If they broke ranks, they were forced back in line with a well-placed “Nigga lover” or worse. But that was the 1950s and 1960s, and one wonders why so many react so swiftly and angrily today when the social mores have changed so much and the equality of persons is taken for granted by so many.

There’s a university professor, a philosopher named J. Budzizewski, who some years back wrote a little book called The Revenge of Conscience. It’s an excellent book you should pick up. Here’s one of the things that really stuck with me when I read that book nearly 15 years ago: The conscience doesn’t act the way people tend to think it does. Most people think that once the conscience is pricked, it automatically moves us to do what is right. But J. Bud (that’s what some people call him) shows that actually the conscience sometimes double-downs. Instead of leading to repentance and contrition, it takes “revenge” by suppressing the knowledge of righteousness and pressing deeper into the problematic behavior. And I think that understanding of the conscience helps to explain some things.

The reaction you got from some people at the silent vigil strikes me as suppressing the conscience on racial justice issues and driving head long into the behaviors that demonstrate racial injustice. The name calling, racial slurs, threats and intimidation suggest their consciences were pricked and rather than repent they sought a kind of revenge. I think some people protest too much at the mere mention of racism or that somebody somewhere might be a racist. I would never say that everyone who disagrees with us about Ferguson, Garner, etc. is a racist; but I would also never say that none of them are. The truth is in the middle, and I fear a lot of pricked consciences that react in strong opposition would be better served if they’d stop and ask, “But why am I so angry? Why am I responding as if personally attacked? Why am I being disagreeable when I simply disagree?” They might see that they feel implicated because they should feel implicated for some of the attitudes, thoughts, words and actions that are upon closer inspection racist.

Don’t forget that participating in these protests isn’t simply about your conscience; you’re trying to stir the conscience of others too. There’s a great line in the new movie Selma where Dr. King makes this very point. He’s not worried about awakening the Negro’s conscience, but white America’s. Don’t forget you’re doing that, and don’t forget that’s dangerous business. People don’t like it because people don’t really like to look deep into themselves for the ugliness that may be there.

But ugliness is inside us all—including the ugliness of racism. Racism is a stubborn stain. Reminds me of your momma’s scrambled eggs. When we were kids, she used to fix breakfast for the rest of us children. We had a cast iron skillet that we used to fry most anything in. That skillet weighed about 300 pounds, and we always knew when your momma was fixin’ breakfast because she could slam that skillet on the stove—boom!—and it felt like the whole house sunk a foot into the ground. She’d scramble eggs so hard that they’d stick right down into the metal of that pan! Man, Lou Ferrigno couldn’t scrape the eggs out of that skillet when your momma was done!

Racism is like your momma’s eggs. It gets fried right down into the metal of the human heart. And you can’t scrape it out with sheer force. The last pan we’d wash after your momma finished cooking breakfast was always that iron skillet. We’d finish all the other dishes then leave the skillet in hot sudsy water to soak. Only a good long soak would bring that egg up out of the pan. You could see it loosening and waving like sea grass up from the pan. Once it softened and loosened we could take a Brillo pad or a dish rag and smoothly wipe the dregs from the pan—but not until to that thing soaked.

The human heart needs to be soaked in love for a long time before racism comes out. And the best love is the love of God in Jesus Christ His Son. Gospel love conquers racism and renews the conscience. But that love ain’t cheap, Niecie. It cost the Son of God his life, and it will cost you and me a great deal too. The thing about soaking is that it takes a long time and a lot of hot water! That’s the thing about the gospel, too. In our spiritual growth and sanctification, some things take a long time and a lot of hot water before God boils it out of us. Then when you consider you’re trying to soak a nation’s conscience—well that can take a while and a whole lot of prayer. And that time and hot water are the difference between trite Christian platitudes pretending to be gospel and real gritty gospel ministry.

Some of the people you face in these protests don’t know what’s happening to them. They know they’re angry, but they really don’t know why. They know they feel things, but they don’t know where they come from. And sometimes they know the things they feel and say are not right, but they can’t bring themselves to face it and deal with it. So it’s easier to blast you and the other protestors, to stereotype and lump everyone together as “looters” and “rioters,” to shift the blame by pointing the finger at other issues in the Black community, or to ignore it altogether. Your goal is to keep at it until they deal honestly with you, which won’t happen until they deal honestly with themselves. So don’t be surprised by the vitriol. Holding a mirror to a man’s conscience is an invasive and spiritually violent act. We don’t like it even though we need it.

Stay strong. Stay focused. Stay at it. And be sure to have a life beyond the protests.

Your loving uncle,


P.S.–Does your momma still fry those hard eggs in that black skillet? :-)

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Letters to a Young Protestor, 4: Never Hate

Jan 06, 2015 | Thabiti Anyabwile

A Letter from My Niece

Wassup Uncle Thabiti?

How’s it going? How are Aunt Kristie and my cousins doing? It was good seeing y’all over Christmas. I gotta say, I miss y’all already. I need more time with my cousins because I can’t believe how big they’ve gotten! The girls are young women!

With all the people around Granny’s house, we didn’t get to talk like I wanted. But I want to tell you again how much I’ve appreciated getting your letters. They’ve been helpful in some ways as I think through things. But just hearing from my big unc’ has been the best part!

Especially over the last week. It’s been really rough. First, momma found out last Tuesday that she might have cancer. Three days after Christmas. That just rocked us. There’s a lot of testing to do still, but already this feels life changing. Momma is in good spirits. She says she doesn’t feel sick. But you know momma. Even if she did feel sick she wouldn’t tell you. She’d just keep working and cleaning and fussing about everything! We’re trying to keep it together with prayer and thinking positively about things. We have our moments. But the hospital has been full of visitors and the doctors and nurses have been great. I know you’ll keep praying for us.

And if news of momma’s possible cancer wasn’t enough, I had the worst experience at our New Year’s rally for justice. We planned a silent vigil on New Year’s Eve. We wanted to bring the New Year in remembering those who lost their lives this past year. And we wanted it to be peaceful, so we thought a silent vigil that focused on both the officers who lost their lives in NY and Florida and those killed by officers would keep things balanced and quiet.

Things started well. We marched down Main Street with candles and signs. We tried to work on the slogan stuff you were suggesting, but right now we’re still using “Black Lives Matter” and “End Police Brutality.” We added “Police Lives Matter” and “Respect the Police” for this rally. Everything was going fine until we got down to City Hall. It was around midnight when we got there, and we didn’t think about the tons of people who would just then be hitting the street from their parties and stuff.

As you can imagine, things took a turn. As more people flooded the street from the New Year’s parties, they began to slow down at our vigil, then stop. Some were respectful, dropping their voices and even nodding in approval. But then people began to comment. Some were saying things like “F- the police!” Others then joined in with “F- Mike Brown.” Before long what started as a peaceful silent vigil turned into an ugly shouting match with drunk people staggering around and a lot of people getting in each others faces.

But the worst part was some of the racist things that were said. We were called all kinds of names. “Black monkeys.” “Nappy-haired B-.” “Go back to Africa!” One man in his 50s shouted, “Black lives only matter if they’re picking my cotton!” He called us “obsolete farm equipment.” One girl about my age went on with “Nigger” this and “nigger” that. It was bad enough being called that, but the way she spat the words was filled with the iciest hate. The mocking in fake “black voices and slang” was relentless.

The police stood by and watched. Except for a couple of them who looked like they were laughing at us and telling jokes of their own.

I don’t think the worst part was the name calling, though that was bad enough. The worst part was I didn’t know what to feel or how to respond. I was so mad I could’ve hurt somebody. But then I was so scared that they would hurt us at any moment. I was ashamed that I was afraid. But I couldn’t help it. When that girl my age called us “nigger B-,” fear shot through my body like lightning! I froze when I heard her voice. When people came up into our group, kicking over candles and knocking over signs, I didn’t know whether to run or to kick back. But if I kicked back, I don’t know what would have happened or what the police would have done. And this morning I woke up still burning mad and still feeling ashamed.

That’s the worst part. The shame. I feel like I did that time when I was six years old and wet myself in school and my mom had to come pick me up. I felt like I was standing there in my own urine, running down my leg wetting my stockings and dress, unable to stop it with my legs clinched at the knee or to cover it with my hands, alone while the faces of the entire whole world made fun of me. It’s so shameful. I feel ashamed because people treated us that way. And I feel ashamed that I didn’t respond to them. I should’ve said something—anything. But I took it. I froze. And when some of the people with us began shouting back, I felt ashamed at some of the stuff they said. I just feel like I wet myself with my own shame, then had the dirt of other people’s hatred thrown on me, and just muddied all over from the mix of the two.

Why do they hate us so much? What did we do to deserve this? What’s wrong with us that people can’t accept us? I hate white people. Since they hate us so much, I’m going to hate them right back.

Please keep writing back, uncle. I wish you were here. Love,



Dear Niecie,

I hope this letter finds you feeling better than you did when you last wrote to me. I hope the Lord has comforted you by His Spirit and helped you process all that’s been happening lately.

How is your mom? What’s the latest from the doctors? We’ve been praying for her and for the family there. I called her the other day and asked how she was coming. She said, “These doctors can’t kill me. They’re trying, but I ain’t letting ‘em.” That’s your momma!

I’m sorry to hear about the silent vigil, which ended with way too much talking and shouting, it seems. I want to write a lot more to you, but maybe it’s best to pass along one lesson I’ve learned growing up a generation ahead of you. It’s this:

There’s nothing wrong with you and me. The problem is in the racist.

Don’t ever forget that, beloved. Whenever you’re tempted to think, “What’s wrong with me?” when encountering racist people, know that that’s the wrong question. We all have our problems, but God making us who we are isn’t one of them. If people have a problem with your brown skin and want to make all kinds of irrational conclusions about you based on it, it’s really their soul that’s sick. Not yours.

I can’t emphasize this enough, Niecie. One of the wicked effects of racism is that the attitude of the racist sometimes worms its destructive way through the heart and mind of those being mistreated. We can—and very often have—internalized the attitudes of others and that’s led to all manner of self-hatred and self-destruction. When that happens, the racist wins the most significant battle. You cannot let the racist win this way. Let them have a thousand laws or revert to the 1950s if they want. But never let them have the pleasure of so thoroughly defeating you that you begin to believe about yourself what they say about you. Never.

The problem is the racist and their heart of hate—not you. And that’s why you must never hate them. Returning hate can feel so logical, so natural a response to what you’ve received. And you can feel so justified because you’ve been mistreated. But it creates a vicious cycle, an unending loop of barbarity between people. Racists are to be pitied and loved, resisted and instructed, but never hated. Don’t let them pass that along to you. Be angry about injustice without forgetting what you’re demanding—that everyone—the racist included—be valued as someone made in God’s image. I know it’s difficult to see dignity in persons spewing irrational and abominable hatred, but that’s the burden we bear as a people who through suffering should see the value of humanity more clearly than some others perhaps do. It feels like a heavy tax, and it feels hopelessly unfair, but it’s the only way to retain your own dignity and protect it in others. That’s your twin goal; don’t let hatred make you forget it.

I will write more soon. But right now, don’t let hate win. Hate is wrong. It’s sinful. Fight real hard to love, forgive and continue. And know that you momma, your uncles and aunts, and a whole bunch of friends love you with an everlasting love.

Wishing I were there,




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Letters to a Young Protestor, 3: Purpose and Perseverance

Dec 31, 2014 | Thabiti Anyabwile

Dear Niecie,

What’s good? I pray you’re well and staying strong in faith, hope and love!

I read something in the paper the other day that surprised me. Did you know that the protests stemming from the killing of Eric Garner and Michael Brown have become the second longest civil rights protest movement in the country since the Civil War??? Apparently, it’s second only to the Montgomery Bus Boycott. That’s what one of the organizers claimed. If so, this young movement has already achieved something significant: a little longevity.

The fact of the matter is that it’s difficult to build and sustain a local movement of any sort, much more difficult to do it in a number of cities all at once! Your generation, with its widespread and constant use of social media, has organized and acted with a speed and spread previous generations could not have imagined. Take it from an ol’ head; this is impressive.

If you can get a word to your organizers locally and nationally, please let them know they encourage many of us older guys. They really do. And please tell them not to quit. Keep it up. Press in and press on!

I’m sure they’ve discovered this already, but the key things right now are purpose and perseverance. The early success and the organic nature of the protests means a lot of people have “joined” who perhaps have different agendas or the same agenda expressed in different ways. There’s a sense in which you don’t want to weaken that dynamism with too much control. But at the same time it’s imperative that a clear message emerges. One that states the purpose of the movement in clear and compelling terms. You want the purpose statement to be so clear that no one can mistake your meaning and your goal. And you want it to be so compelling that no good faith observer could oppose it.

That’s more difficult than it sounds when you consider the sheer number of words available in the English language and the many folks whose instinct will be to oppose protest. You’re trying to communicate in a context that ranges from antipathy to apathy. So getting the purpose statement clear and compelling is tough.

But think of the Civil Rights Movement. The aims of that movement could be reduced to two couplets printed in huge black letters on two posters: “Equal Rights” and “End Discrimination.” That’s clear. Everyone understands “equal rights” on a gut level. If you have a right and I don’t, then we ain’t equal yet. And everyone understands the wrongness of discrimination and the rightness of ending it. That doesn’t take much thought as all and it taps into a sense of parity we’ve all had since learning to share in the sandbox. In fact, the Civil Rights Movement’s simple demands for “Equal Rights” and “End Segregation” put the segregationist on his heels. He had to defend his prejudice and his inhumane treatment of African Americans against the rising conscience of the country. Now any time your statements prick the conscience you have an effective purpose statement! When you think about it, those statements not only galvanized the Civil Rights protestors, in time they won over most of the country and, indeed, most of the world. You had people in Third World countries looking at the U.S. Civil Rights Movement saying, “That ain’t right” even when they had no rights of their own! The only people left supporting America’s apartheid regime were die-hard segregationists and virulent racists. The moral appeal and authority of the movement and the message has all but eliminated any legitimacy racism ever had.

So you gotta have that clear and compelling message. Tell them the hours and hours and days and days they spend on this will be more important than they might think right now.

And along with the message, tell them they’re going to need some perseverance. Settle in, but don’t settle down. Most of the cameras have left the scene and now there’s no light for the media fly to buzz around. Now begins the test of mettle. If we would have a lasting justice and a systemic reform, we must be prepared for the long fight. This is a 15-round bout. There won’t be a quick KO. The “opponent” is big, muscular, bruising in retaliation, cunning, quick and deadly. Like a heavyweight, he will try to lean on you, wait you out, and finish you when you’re tired. “Power concedes nothing without a fight,” and the most frequent way power “fights” is by waiting you out and wearing you down.Yyou can get so tired that you just want to throw in the towel, not answer the bell. But the race is not given to the swift or the strong. You must wait on the Lord to renew your strength longer than they wait on you to fail in strength.

Getting the purpose clear helps with keeping the perseverance up. You’ll struggle longer if you have a compelling purpose that reaches deep into the heart. Likewise, your persevering will help spread the purpose beyond yourselves to others. Think about the reactions to #BlackLivesMatter. Now, that seems like an entirely reasonable statement. It’s just true. And it needs saying when events make it seem as if it’s been forgotten, taken for granted, or even denied. When several unarmed Black men get killed by those in authority in a one to two month span, it makes you naturally want to say, “These Black lives matter.” You marvel that you ever must say it, since the truth of it should be apparent to all!

But the marvel you felt at having to say “Black lives matter” is nothing. That marvel gets overshadowed by the second marvel of hearing other people retort, “All lives matter” or “White lives matter” or “Police lives matter.” As if you were denying any of those things. All of a sudden what you thought was a simple clear slogan gets met with counter-slogans and charges that you are the racist for saying “Black lives matter”! People act as if those words hurt more than the bullets that killed Black men! They act as if valuing Black life necessarily devalues or overlooks other life. And all of a sudden you realize you’re on your heels. You’re clarifying and playing defense when you’re on the side of justice. And the whole thing feels like you’ve entered this bizarre would where everything is upside down and inside out.

Perseverance requires that you figure out whether there’s a problem with your core message or whether you’re simply dealing with the know-nothing, admit-nothing, see-nothing, do-nothing intransigence of ignorant people. If there’s a message problem, then you refine and restate. If there’s an intransigence problem, then you press on. Be undaunted by the sneers and stares of detractors pretending the high moral ground while demonstrating a willful ignorance. Every time you point out their ignorance or try helping them see your point more fairly, they’ll twist your words and keep you reeling on your heels. That’s their strategy. It takes the bright light off their own hearts, leaving them to go on unexamined and unimpeached. You have to know the difference between the genuine person working their way through important questions and the covert saboteur siphoning your energy to weaken your perseverance.

For my part, I think #BlackLivesMatter works  only in the way that “We Are All God’s Children” worked in earlier generations. That is, it says something true and general that forms part of the moral context for discussion. But it has the same failings of those other general slogans: It’s too abstract to inform action, communicate demands, or engender perseverance. It doesn’t quite aim at anything that can then be used to measure progress. So use it, but don’t think you’ve said anything that wins the day. We need our equivalent of “End Segregation” and “Equal Rights” applied to these policing and criminal justice issues.

I don’t know what the purpose statement should be. I’ll give that a lot more prayer and thought. And I’ll pray for the organizers as they work on this. It’s crazy how much of the movement’s success depends on getting untold volumes of pain, death, tragedy, grief, hope and pleading down to a few short words! But the right words will become boxcars freighting all that experience and more!

Hug your mama for me. I hope to see you over the holidays. If you have something going on then, I’d love to join you all!

Much love,


P.S.–I want to make something clear that I assume you would understand. Stay away from those whose messages contradict your own, call into question your motives and cause, and otherwise disrupt the positive efforts you’re making. Find ways to keep them out of your work, and certainly don’t join them in their destruction. Read the first 8-9 chapters of Proverbs for wisdom on this point.

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Letters to a Young Protestor, 2: Equality and Dignity

Dec 30, 2014 | Thabiti Anyabwile

My darling Niece,

It was good to receive your letter the other day. Letter writing must be among the lost arts of our time. That you would take the time to actually hand write a letter rather than sending me a series of instant messages, tweets or emails made hearing from you all the more special. You imparted grace to me simply by scribing.

But you shared so many things in your letter it’s difficult to know where to begin. Rather than try answering your entire letter, let me start with a general observation and burrow into it.

Equality is too slim a basis for human relationships.

Don’t get me wrong; legal and social equality is a good and necessary goal. And, you’re quite correct to say this country never intended the African American to have such equality. That you and I should have the same rights and privileges of white men was never the design. So you correctly see that the fight for equality has been uphill all the way and that the fight is necessary. But I think that’s at least partially inaccurate and unhelpful. It’s unhelpful because there are at least two defects with equality—(1) if it can be given with the stroke of a pen, it can be taken by another; and (2) people only want equality with their superiors. Fundamentally, seeking and granting equality are acts of power and pride. Power because it locks “superiors” and “inferiors” in battle for a perceived scarcity. Pride because the disenfranchised only want more while the privileged never think to lower themselves as a viable path to equity. “Ever upward” is the motto of protestors seeking equality, and we usually want it at the expense of others.

For all intents and purposes most laws in the country now require equal treatment. We cannot underestimate how the Civil Rights Movement radically changed our standing in the eyes of the law and eventually our standing in the eyes of all fair-minded Americans. The removal of legal barriers in housing, employment, transportation and every sector of society has brought with it freedoms and opportunities your grandmother only dreamed about!

So here’s the key question: Why do so many African Americans still feel unjustly treated in the country?

Well, I think it’s because “equality” as a legal and social goal isn’t as helpful when we can no longer point to obvious signs of discrimination and oppression. Equality loses it’s body, it’s tangible substance when inequality isn’t as visible as “Whites Only” and “Colored Only” signs, or as divisive as segregated seating in public places. What is “equality” when you’re no longer faced with visible forms of inequality?

Honestly, I hope we can find ways of keeping “equality” out of your protests. That framing is really counter-productive and misses the point. If our concern is an end to police shootings of unarmed people, what “equal” result would we want? Is “equality” fewer African Americans killed by police officers, or more white Americans killed to even the proportions? (What a ghastly thought that is!) And who do we now want equality with, and why them? The value of Black life can’t be tabulated in comparison to White lives. Black life has a value all its own. Unless we have lost our collective minds, we know the best possible result is the elimination of deaths altogether. But how will that happen?

As I said, equality is too slim a basis for human relationships. What we need is that deeper, sturdier basis for human relationships on which equality rests: dignity. Dignity roots itself not in human law but in a decision God made before the world began—to make all people in His image and likeness. An end to police brutality and the valuing of Black life won’t happen until African Americans receive that dignity that comes from realizing we, too, bear the image of God. That’s a challenge because a great many people called to champion the idea of “equality” still find it difficult to embrace the dignity of Black life.

Have you paid much attention to how police officers describe the unarmed men they killed? The victim is always a “big Black man,” even when it’s tiny little twelve-year old Tamir Rice. Or, Black men are ascribed “superhuman strength” while being shot several times. Sometimes they pull out a raging animal metaphor like “charging like a bull.” Since Ferguson, all you hear is “thug” this and “thug” that. Have you ever wondered why the “thug” label and narrative stuck so quickly and proved so stubborn? If these folks ever met a real thug they’d think Brown a boy scout. But if you listen carefully, what you’ll hear in these labels is age-old fear and anger. And all it takes are a few well-placed coded phrases like “big Black man” to conjure enough fear in people to dehumanize and terrify.

This “thug” perception isn’t new either. You’re too young to remember this, but in the early ’90s high-ranking officials like Presidential advisor William Bennett began to describe Black youth as “super-predators.” Writing the phrase shocks me even today. And I can’t help but think of the movie Predator. It featured a dreadlocked alien! Can you believe that? This alien killed humans for sport, which was effectively what Bennett was saying about young Black men in the 90s. He argued that a certain percentage of Black men were “natural born killers” who needed to be stopped with large government investments in prisons, tougher sentences, and funding for more police officers. We were dreaded if not dreadlocked aliens who needed to be rounded up and imprisoned. Bennett fueled a lot of hysteria.

Go further back, to the late 1800s, and you’ll find that a lot of people who lynched Black men justified it by saying they were “rapists.” Again, hysteria and falsehood. From “rapists” to “super-predators” to “thugs,” we’ve been in a long fight not merely for equality but for human dignity. All these tags dehumanize African American people. That’s their purpose. And they’re trotted out like show dogs in order to make acts of injustice palatable, even justified in the eyes of some people.

So, African Americans have not been fighting these four long centuries for something as ephemeral and impermanent as “equality.” I know it’s commonplace to think of the struggle in those terms. But we’ve been fighting for our humanity, and trying to fight the most humane way possible. Our repeated appeal has been to be recognized for the human beings that we are. During slavery the signs read, “Ain’t I a Man?” Those who came along later, during the Civil Rights Movement, didn’t leave the question open. They answered with another sign that read, “I Am A Man.” Now your generation feels compelled to shout, “Black lives matter.” Those are not appeals for equality, but for something older, deeper, more precious—the full flowering of our humanity as people made in the image of God. Those are calls for dignity, a common dignity shared by everybody made in God’s likeness. There’s a logic and force even in the sequence of slogans.

But some of our white brothers and sisters sometimes fail to see us for who we are. The fail to see we are people made in God’s image, that we are therefore full of dignity and worth. Rather, too often, and often without thinking about, they look at us and see something subhuman, animalistic, and therefore something undignified and often something dangerous. The killings won’t stop—nor will the defensive justifications and the shrill denunciations of protestors—until something changes in the way some people see us. Rare are the people like Commissioner William Bratton. Did you catch what he said a few days ago?

“The police, the people who are angry at the police, the people who support us but want us to be better, even a madman who assassinated two men because all he could see was two uniforms, even though they were so much more. We don’t see each other. If we can learn to see each other, to see that our cops are people like Officer Ramos and Officer Liu, to see that our communities are filled with people just like them, too. If we can learn to see each other, then when we see each other, we’ll heal. We’ll heal as a department. We’ll heal as a city. We’ll heal as a country.”

I think he very nearly nails it. We need to see each other, and we need to see each other as made in God’s image. As a Christian, I’m tempted to say only the new life that Jesus gives can change this sight problem. But a good number of professing Christians perceive African Americans the same way as some who make no religious profession at all. I wish this were an anomaly, but seeing us as subhuman goes back hundreds of years. And to be completely honest, I don’t know what to do about that. If they’re not convinced by their own Bibles that we lay common claim to being made in God’s image and therefore deserve to be treated with the utmost dignity along with the rest of humanity, then I suspect this problem will only come out by prayer and fasting—and a whole lot of gracious influence by the Holy Spirit!

Don’t forget: You’re fighting for your own humanity and the dignity that comes from being made in God’s image. Do so in a way that confers humanity and dignity on others. It’s a heavy burden, and you won’t always feel like doing it. But it is, I believe, the Black man’s burden and a stewardship from God.

With my love,


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Letters to a Young Protestor, 1

Dec 29, 2014 | Thabiti Anyabwile

My darling niece,

I pray this letter finds you well and rejoicing in the grace of our Savior! The Lord Jesus is coming soon, and those who have this hope must purify themselves for His return. I trust and hope you’re seeking that beauty we call holiness, conforming to the image and likeness of God our Savior. Pursue holiness with great abandon, knowing that He who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion at the Day of Christ Jesus!

Your mama tells me the shooting deaths of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Tamir Rice in Cleveland, John Crawford in Beaver Creek, Akai Gurley in New York, and the choking death of Eric Garner in Staten Island have pricked your conscience and awakened you to injustices you haven’t really seen before. It’s not that the injustices are new. As you’re discovering, the suspicious and outright heinous murder of African-American men and women and even children has a long sad history. The name Emmet Till is perhaps the most famous incident, but read Ida B. Wells’ account of lynchings and you’ll see Till was no anomaly. It’s simply that these tragic deaths are new to you. And having seen them, so many other things also seem new to you.

Something has “dawned on you,” as they say. In my day, we called that rising of awareness “consciousness.” It is the cultural equivalent of being “born again,” if I can put it that way. You look at your hands and they look new. You look at your feet and they do, too. It’s like those resuscitations you see on the movies. The guy has been dead and the people are beating on his chest, performing mouth-to-mouth, and calling out to him to come back. Then all of a sudden his entire body convulses and heaves as life rushes back into him.

I’m glad you’ve awakened to things. You’ve been asleep a long time and, honestly, most of us—your mom, your aunts and uncles—have been content to let you slumber, unaware of many harder aspects of life. We’ve secretly hoped our not telling you about the ugly ways Black people have sometimes lost their lives might spare you some pain, bitterness, and confusion. We’ve very much wanted you to be able to live a fuller freedom than we’ve ever had. That’s been our heart. But if I’m honest, we’ve been unsettled by the prospect that “freedom” might mean an unconscious existence for you. While we’ve sought to spare you, it’s been no easy bargain because the cost of not telling you was your own self-knowledge or self-love and the cost to us was a nagging sense of betrayal or failure or cowardice or dignity.

But now you know. The lights have come on. So let’s talk, Niecie.

This “consciousness” is really quite exhilarating, even intoxicating. That’s why I wanted to write to you. To drop you a few lines about what’s happening—not only what’s happening around you but also what may be happening inside of you, too.

If you’re like me at your age you’re probably feeling nearly every emotion all at once. The winds of life fill the lungs of your soul and everything tingles with feeling. Anger usually appears first. Wrath asks a hundred questions. How could this happen? Why did no one tell me? What’s going on with all these other deaf, dumb and blind Black folks? Why aren’t they in the game? I’m not going to take it anymore! Your blood runs hot. But right on the heals of anger comes its first cousin: fear. You begin to wonder to yourself: If I’ve been asleep this long, what else have I missed? How often have I “betrayed the cause” or “failed my people”? Will this new me be accepted? What friendships will I lose and what strange place must now be my home? So you bounce between fear and anger until you resolve not to “sleep on things” again.

It’s a roller coaster, this consciousness. Alongside the anger and fear there’s the joy. You’ve awakened to an entire world of song and sorrow, dance and demonstration, blues and ballads, pain as old as the country itself, and triumphs unimagined just a generation before. Somehow you’ve finally discovered that you’re Black and that means something. There’s fresh pride in it. Your mom tells me “everything is Black” with you now. You buy Black. You talk Black. You dress Black. You would walk Black if you had a bit more ‘hood in you! Black authors line your shelves and Black art decks your walls. Go ‘head with yo’ Black self! LOL

But here’s the first thing you need to know about what’s happening with you right now: You think you’re discovering yourself but you just might be losing yourself.

What do I mean? Well, take, for example, the anger you feel. You can lose yourself in that anger. You interpret it as righteous indignation. You feel justified because you feel mistreated. And all the mistreatment of all Black people has become “yours.” You voluntarily own generations of undocumentable mistreatment. Of course it’s right to be angry at injustice. But, Niecie, some people are addicted to anger. They’re not happy unless they’re unhappy. And the flame that burns them up will soon burn up everything around them. Some of the looters in Ferguson didn’t just throw Molotov cocktails. They were Molotov cocktails. They simply needed a match to explode, and the kangaroo court that was Ferguson, MO was one giant strike of the match for them. So they burned, and they burned things, and if they’re not careful they’ll get burned. Anger is a volatile master. Don’t serve her or she’ll incinerate so much of your humanity.

And you can also lose yourself in the heady romanticism of Black culture. You can so focus on the greats of African and African-American history that you see neither the grime of the same history or the glory of other cultures. The irony with this is you become what you’re protesting. In my day, we marched and chanted for African-American cultural centers on major university campuses. We rejected as oppressive the Eurocentric canon along with all its patriarchs (for they were all men; you’d think white women weren’t even a part of white history and culture). We wanted a Black canon and Black patriarchs (sadly, we ignored Black women as astutely as white men ignored white women). We gave ourselves so fully to this movement that the rest of the world—Asian, European, Latin American, Caribbean, and so on—simply vanished from consideration. In the end, we effectively traded one hegemony (European) for another (African-American). We thought we were emerging, becoming, awakening… embracing an Afrocentric ideal, but really we were losing ourselves in ourselves.

The ways to lose yourself in this protean period are legion. Can I tell you one other? You can lose yourself by letting other Black people define you. There are a lot of us waiting to tell you exactly what it means for you to be Black, and then judge whether or not you are “Black enough.” They’ll want to “keep it real” for you by telling you what Black people do and don’t do. We do have family reunions but we don’t go skiing. We do vote Democratic—and maybe independent—but never Republican. We do eat chicken but not around white people. And on it will go until you’re like a shoestring tied into so many knots your life cannot lace the holes that God made for you. My dear niece, it’s entirely possible to be enslaved by Black people who think themselves the arbiters of what it means to be Black.

Here’s the paradox in all of this is this: Blackness isn’t one thing. Truth be told, it ain’t even a thing. Blackness doesn’t exist ontologically. There’s no essential essence, no irreducible nucleus around which all the other elements revolve. Blackness is a “thing” seductive yet elusive. It’s a shape shifter. It’s like nailing jell-o to a wall. The quicker you discover Blackness does not exist objectively (though the discovery can’t be rushed) the sooner you’ll be able to be Black without trying. There is a sense in which the persons who try most to be Black wind up being the “least” Black among us. They try to demonstrate something that cannot be demonstrated, only received from the all-wise Hands of Providence. Blackness is a gift, a stewardship, a fractal design fashioned by Omniscience.

Right now your life is one big assertion when you stop to think about it. You’re crying out along with everyone else. Your hope disguises itself as a demand to be seen, heard, acknowledged, and respected. Those are good things. But first you have to demand it of yourself for yourself. Can you see yourself? Can you hear yourself? Have you yet acknowledged and respected yourself? To do those things, you must not lose your self. You gotta know who you are.

You’ve no doubt come across the ancient saying, “Man, know thyself.” I can’t help but laugh as I remember how we used to fight with our classmates and even professors over whether that was an ancient Greek or ancient Egyptian saying. Then we’d have to fight with some people about whether the ancient Egyptians were Black or as one writer put it, “white Africans”! Seems Hollywood is still provoking that argument. But in my day knowledge of self was the summum bonum, the highest good. It was the touchstone of cultural consciousness and to be sought above all things.

My dear niece, you will discover this in time: Your cultural or ethnic identity can become an idol. It seems a silly thing to say to you now. It may even seem like a betrayal of self-knowledge and a betrayal of our people. To say that knowledge of self and cultural pride can become idolatrous may even have the ring of self-sabotage, a kind of suicide in a world seemingly bent on destroying Black people. If you can, trust me on this. If you serve this idol it will, like all idols, first control you, then destroy you.

Remember this: You cannot know yourself truly and properly until you know God your Creator. We only partially know ourselves if we lose sight of God. And that partial knowledge is so imperceptibly small and even deceptive that it can barely be called “knowledge.” What you must not lose is a clear grasp of who God is and how knowledge of God defines, shapes, and colors all other knowledge. If that’s true of you then you cannot easily be lost.

My hope is that the fire that drives you is the fire taken from the altar of God, a purifying fire that makes good all your protests for justice. I pray that it’s God’s fire “shut up in your bones.” And I pray that your zeal would be according to knowledge. I’m glad you’re finding out things about yourself and our people. Cherish that knowledge. But cherish even more that these things are not accidental; they were determined by that God who made all people from one pair of parents and determined the times and the borders of our habitation. You’re coming into the knowledge of something done by God; only don’t let it undo your relationship with God.

There’s so much more to write. I trust the Lord will give me an opportunity to write again soon. But for now, don’t lose yourself in either the protests or the awakening consciousness you’re experiencing.

With undying love and hope,


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Today Is a Time to Mourn

Dec 21, 2014 | Thabiti Anyabwile

I went to bed last night heartsick and distressed over the shooting deaths of two New York Police Department officers. Officers Wenjian Liu and Rafael Ramos were sitting in their cruiser unsuspecting when an African-American gunman opened fire on them. The gunman made his way from his home in Baltimore, where he shot his ex-girlfriend earlier in the day, to the Bed-Stuy area of Brooklyn where the officers were on duty. After killing the officers the man fled into the subway where he took his own life. Judging from his social media account, he was a deeply troubled man bent on killing officers. His actions were more than cowardly or tragic; they were evil.

There is no biblical, logical or social justification for such violence and wickedness. None. This shooting must be seen for what it is: a heinous and evil act. The damage done is incalculable and irreparable.

Officer Wenjian Liu was a 7-year veteran of the NYPD. He was married two months and before the honeymoon was over his wife finds herself a grieving widow.

Officer Rafael Ramos served the NYPD for two years. He, too, leaves behind a wife and a 13-year old son. Ramos was also a faithful member of his local church. He was to the Christian more than a public servant. He was a brother in the Lord. His wife will mourn today and for a long while to come. His son will grow through his most formative years without the strong hand of his father to guide him. His church will worship this morning feeling the pain of this amputation from the body of Christ.

Getting Justice Right

The wicked and unjust action of a lone, disturbed shooter will result in incalculable loss. Those who protest in favor of the valuing and protection of life, if we would not be hypocrites, must protest just as loudly in support of faithful officers serving our communities. We must not champion a one-sided “justice,” for that’s just favoritism pretending to be righteous. It’s merely a grab for power wielded unevenly.

Dr. King once spoke of the relationship between power and justice, saying, “Power at its best is love implementing the demands of justice, and justice at its best is power correcting everything that stands against love.” That’s what we want in all of this: power implementing justice, justice correcting everything against love. We must get this right or we will only perpetuate all that’s wrong, all that’s partial, all that’s life and soul destroying.

We cannot let the acts of a lone and disturbed gunman define the protest, whether we find ourselves on the side of protests or against. If we allow this to define anyone, then we’re misrepresenting ourselves or misrepresenting our neighbors. We’re further entrenching our caricatures of self and others, and thereby further entrenching the divide we so badly need to cross if power will be used justly, and justice will correct everything against love for one another.

Compassion Requires Feeling and Action

Today is a time to mourn. But it’s also a time to act appropriately. We cannot call for action in the cases of Garner, Brown, Rice, Crawford and others, then fail to call for action when officers are murdered. That won’t do. Since the shooter took his life, there’s perhaps the sense that there’s nothing to do. But we cannot let that last cowardly act of the shooter rob us of the capacity to do more than speak. We’ve wanted more than talk when we’ve felt wronged. We must give more than talk now that officers have been wronged.

I don’t have it all figured out. I’m still processing my own sense of grief—which seems to keep coming in waves death after death. But compassion is love with work clothes on. Compassion is the work love does or shows. So our posture has to include more than appropriate remarks of sadness and loss. We have to act.

Here are three things that ought to be done by moved observers, especially those like myself who believe in and have called for lawful protests.

1. Moratorium on protests.

This is not the day for debate. This is not the day for making political points. This is not the day to joust with those who have wanted an argument all along. This is a day for solemn reflection, for mourning. For everything there is a season. We have called for empathy in other cases. Let us be quick to show genuine empathy in this matter. That empathy requires a season of silence and mourning with those who now mourn.

2. Refine the message of the protests.

Perhaps in the quiet of mourning, it’s a good time to reflect on the messages that have found their way into some demonstrations. Though the bulk of protests and protestors have been lawful and peaceful, there have been reprehensible comments, chants and actions in some of the demonstrations. If we value life, we cannot have mingled in our protests calls for anyone’s death. Chants for the death of officers are sinful and wicked. They do not come from God who ordains authority and calls his people to respect and pray for those in authority. Protestors must not only distinguish themselves from this but also denounce it.

Though a part of the dynamism of the protests have been their organic, decentralized nature, that’s also a significant weakness when it comes to a consistent, moral message. Organizers must stand against anything that fails the best ideal of protecting and honoring life. And those who take the other view of these matters must not misrepresent lawful protestors by spreading the wicked chants of some as if that’s representative of the lawful. Spreading that message can be as contributory to a toxic environment as being undisciplined and careless as protestors.

3. Get training in non-violent civil protest.

I don’t know what training, if any, has gone into these demonstrations. During the Civil Rights Movement, leaders provided a great deal of training in non-violent methods. Though the gunman doesn’t represent those who call for peaceful protest and those who abhor violence, his method does require we examine and work harder on our method. As I’ve written earlier, an unjust method can destroy a just cause. So we can’t let a knee-jerk defensiveness over wrong attempts to associate this shooter with any marches or an appropriate concern about distinguishing between the lawless and lawful overtake the opportunity to be more disciplined, more orderly, more lawful so that the righteousness of the cause isn’t lost.


As a pastor, I’m well acquainted with moments like this, when words seem hollow and flat and grief seems to swell like a tsunami. I’m well acquainted with the powerlessness we feel when events outsize us. The temptation is to speak when we should listen, to hastily “fix” when what is broken cannot be replaced or easily repaired. Even Job’s friends sat several days in silence. We all should do the same, and when we speak again we should try to speak a better word than Job’s “comforters.”

But right now, I want to mourn the lives of Officers Wenjian Liu and Rafael Ramos. They deserve our respect and our compassion. Today is a time to stand together and to mourn together. I pray that at some point we will be able to do that across all the divides that threaten us.

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Veteran White Female Police Officer Says We Need Policing Reform

Dec 18, 2014 | Thabiti Anyabwile

Here’s a perspective worth considering from someone working both inside the system and for its betterment. This is 12 minutes or so well-spent.

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A Model of Charity, Clarity and Courage in Pastoral Care

Dec 17, 2014 | Thabiti Anyabwile

We pastors often find ourselves speaking during troublesome and difficult times. We address biblical texts with thorny truths that offend people. We appear at bedsides to comfort the dying and the grieving. We sometimes get called upon to help the wider community navigate calamity and crisis. Pastors speak. And there are times when not speaking amounts to a dereliction of duty.

But that doesn’t mean we always know what to say or how to say it. Sometimes circumstances defy easy speech. Add to that the fact that we pastors have not finally mastered our tongues, that there’s a world of fire in our mouths too, then we understand that not only must pastors speak but they must do so while warring against the flesh and facing the lions. You cannot be a pastor without courage.

That’s why I appreciate these pastoral comments from Sandy Wilson regarding events in Ferguson. Sandy serves as senior minister of Second Presbyterian Church in Memphis, TN and as a council member of The Gospel Coalition. Over the years that I’ve known Sandy, he’s been nothing but gracious, thoughtful, earnest and desirous of God’s best for all people. He’s a model of charity, clarity and courage in pastoral care.

Watch these five minutes as Sandy addresses his congregation and let us all grow in grace:

Sandy Willson on Recent Events in Ferguson from Second Presbyterian Church on Vimeo.

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3 Reasons Why I Stand with the Protestors

Dec 15, 2014 | Thabiti Anyabwile

“If the foundations are destroyed, what can the righteous do?” (Ps. 11:3)

That’s the haunting question the psalmist asks in light of Israel’s social deterioration. The psalmist lives in a time when the wicked under the cover of dark fire their arrows at the hearts of the righteous (11:2). It’s open season on the just.

The psalmist appears befuddled, overwhelmed with the extensive decay of society. So he asks poignantly, “what can the righteous do?” But as a person of faith, the psalmist places his hopes of righteousness beyond the reach of the wicked. He resolves:

The Lord is in his holy temple;
the Lord’s throne is in heaven;
his eyes see, his eyelids test the children of man.
The Lord tests the righteous,
but his soul hates the wicked and the one who loves violence.
Let him rain coals on the wicked;
fire and sulfur and a scorching wind shall be the portion of their cup.
For the Lord is righteous;
he loves righteous deeds;
the upright shall behold his face.

The Lord reigns from heaven. Righteousness provides the foundation of His throne. From His throne, the Lord sees and He proves the righteous. The Judge of all the earth “hates the wicked and the one who loves violence” (v. 5) and will “rain coals on the wicked” (v. 6).

To that dual vision of upholding the righteous and casting down the wicked, the faithful shout a loud “Amen!” We rejoice that righteousness will finally triumph—even if it appears it may not happen in our lifetimes.

Yet though He looks to the Lord, the psalmist refuses to retreat into escapist faith claims. The Lord’s heavenly reign does not absolve us of tangible action when injustice threatens the foundations. So the writer concludes, “For the Lord is righteous; He loves righteous deeds; the upright shall behold His face” (v. 7). God remains righteous (“For the Lord is righteous”); God regards righteousness (“loves righteous deeds”); and God rewards righteousness (“the upright shall behold his face”).

It is in this way that the psalmist finally answers the question that forces itself forward: “what can the righteous do?” Those who believe in God cannot forgo the righteous deeds our God loves. Especially when the foundations of justice, righteousness and truth are under assault.


I stand with the protestors because they better demonstrate what genuine faith looks like.

They take action in the wake of the long list of women, men and children killed during interactions with law enforcement officers under uncertain, suspicious or unjust circumstances. They say to us with each step that, “Faith without works is dead.” They disprove the easy-to-believe lie that we can regard ourselves faithful Christians while remaining unmoved when we see a man left for dead in the street, on a sidewalk, shopping at Wal-Mart or playing in a park. They make us to see whether or not we’re the Priest and Levite who passes by on the other side of the Jericho road or like the Good Samaritan who felt compassion and acted.

I believe God requires we find ways of standing for justice—even if it’s a way different than marching. I believe God requires it of His people because it reflects God’s own goodness and love for justice. To protest injustice is a righteous thing to do—even a gospel thing to do (Titus 3:8, 14).

The Bible is filled with godly persons taking their place in protest against government-sanctioned injustice. Sometimes they secretly collaborate to do good, like the two Hebrew midwives, Shiphrah and Puah, who risked their lives to save children doomed to slaughter (Exodus 1). Among those saved was a deliverer appointed by God, Moses, who would stand before Pharaoh and demand release of his enslaved countrymen. Sometimes the faithful act alone in great courage, like Esther appearing before a pagan King on behalf of her people when doing so could cost her life. Or, like Daniel or the three Hebrew boys who refuse to bow to idols and choose rather to suffer the unjust punishment of pagan power in order to keep covenant with God, that is, in order to live righteously. Or consider Paul’s appeal to Roman citizenship in protest against his mistreatment.

We are not left without biblical examples of men and women who resist injustice from governments ordained by God in order that lives might be saved. Such protest is faith in God, for none of these put their hopes in earthly officials unsympathetic to their cause. They took their stand because they believed, like the psalmist, “the Lord is righteous; He loves righteous deeds; the upright shall behold His face.”

What Are We Doing When We Protest the Protests?

I stand with the marchers because they are the ones protecting the foundations.

Some Christians oppose the marches and the activists. They have argued and continue to think that Christians should not be involved in protest. They tell us that Christians should only focus on “the gospel” and “spiritual themes.” This, they say, is most true of pastors. They are quick to say, “Ferguson is not the right case to use for justice.” But even when a plain case appears on the screen—like John Crawford shot in Wal-Mart, or Eric Garner choked to death, or Tamir Rice shot while playing—they can’t find it in themselves to say “Here’s the case!” Their failure proves their insincerity. They act as if the gospel has nothing to say to the poor, the oppressed, the marginalized and the mistreated—and that’s why their “gospel” remains a cruel delusion to those who need it in such trying times.

Some who tell us Christians have no responsibility in protest come dangerously close to assuming that because God ordains a government that the government must be right in what it does. At the very least, forgetting the indwelling sin that affects all without regard to uniform, they think God’s ordination of government ought to tip us toward believing the word of government officials. Of course, they don’t make that assumption when the things threatened are the people and things they cherish. Then government is too big, a senate hearing needs to be held, a call to arms is right, and even the formation of separatist militias makes sense to them. Such persons have lost the plot in more ways than one.

Here’s the thing: the ability to protest is among the rights guaranteed to U.S. citizens. It is framed in the U.S. Constitution by those who themselves protested against their government and came to see such protest as necessary to the resistance of tyranny. The First Amendment reads in part, “Congress shall make no law… abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”

If you love the country, you should not miss this: the right to freely assemble and to protest lies at the foundation of our constitutional democracy. Assembling to protest is the legal way the righteous leverage change in our country. That’s why when we protest against lawful protests we are actually committing a second transgression of civil rights. Those who protest lawful protests are, in fact, the ones destroying the foundations of a democracy God has ordained and we have cherished. Lawful protestors don’t threaten us; those who silence and censor do. Every law-abiding citizen–including every law-upholding officer–should protect this right.

The unwillingness of some people to distinguish persons who riot and burn property from those who peacefully demonstrate threatens the freedoms we cherish. If we cannot honestly recognize the difference between criminal activity (looting, etc.) on the one hand and democratic appeal (legal marches) on the other, then we create a civic culture where police brutality against lawful citizens is not only possible but such brutality is also unidentifiable as injustice. If we can’t or refuse to tell the difference when we view marchers on television how do we expect law enforcement officers to do any better when they’re in the trenches? And, consequently, how do we hope to hold them accountable when they fail?

We’re kidding ourselves if we think we can remain willfully blind about injustice and hope that our law enforcement officers will see what we refuse. For they are us.

A Gift from African-American Christians

I stand with the marchers because they are the ones pursuing a just goal with a just means.

The ends do not always justify the means. A just cause can be undermined by unjust methods. For righteousness to prevail, we need both a righteous method and a righteous result.

When I watch these young people across the country lie prostrate or march energetically in protest, I’m reminded that this gift of non-violent civil disobedience is, in fact, a gift from African-American Christians to the country. The constitutional freedoms that guaranteed the right of assembly were not always guaranteed to African Americans. Slave codes and other laws restricted the assembly of African Americans to numbers you could count on one hand. When those codes were violated, all the power of law enforcement could be brought against African Americans who gathered—even to the point of whippings and killings.

The genius of the Civil Rights Movement was that it peacefully used a right once denied some citizens to prick the conscience of other citizens until justice was won. It was non-violent civil protest that changed the country without destroying the country. That method did more to change the hearts and minds of the country than any other method used in any other protest before it and has defined protests since. Civic protest succeeded so wonderfully because a preacher understood that suffering and love could be redemptive where violence could not.

Dr. King’s strategy and the courage of the many thousands who joined him gave to this country a redemptive language and method for addressing grievances. If Dr. King were alive, I feel confident we’d find him marching, proclaiming, “Hands up! Don’t shoot!” To the extent that any protestor embraces this approach, I stand with that protestor.

King Hands Up

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The Final Civil Rights Battle: Ending Police Brutality

Dec 10, 2014 | Thabiti Anyabwile


Several days after news broke that Officer Darren Wilson shot and killed unarmed teen Michael Brown, my shipping container from the Cayman Islands arrived. We’d been about two months without any of our possessions, “camping” in our new home, and adjusting to life in DC. The arrival of our container meant hours of unpacking and reassembly. As I began putting together what would become my home office, assembling bookshelves, unpacking and ordering books, I tuned into a Spotify channel that had escaped my notice. It was a channel dedicated to the sermons and addresses of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. I spent the entire Saturday driving nails into shelves while Dr. King drove the message of the Civil Rights Movement into my mind and heart.

One thing in particular stood out to me in light of the then-recent events of Ferguson, Missouri: Dr. King often mentioned police brutality. In all my reading and years of listening to Civil Rights speeches and addresses, the theme of police brutality had somehow escaped my notice. Perhaps the symbolic value of the right to vote and the massive social rearrangement of integration had overshadowed it. But with re-tuned ears, I could hear Dr. King ringing that bell over and over again.

So for the last couple of months I’ve had this thought: The ending of police brutality is the final civil rights battle.

Our televisions broadcast to us stunning and haunting scenes straight out of the 60s. Homemade placards announcing “Black Lives Matter” is today’s version of “Ain’t I A Man.” This generation holds “die ins,” while their grandparents held sit-ins. And the recrimination of lawful protestors and the opposition to justice remind us of those entrenched immoral attitudes and perceptions that arrayed itself against the marchers and freedom riders calling for justice.

The Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s achieved almost unthinkable success in ending segregation in public facilities, overturning housing and employment discrimination, and in time changing American attitudes. But reforming police practice had not been codified in legislation and continues with us today. We have the painful reminder in the unjustifiable deaths of so many unarmed African-American children, women and men along with the inexplicable grand jury inaction in many of the cases. Add to it the systematic over-policing, arresting and incarceration of African Americans and we see how pressing a civil rights issue reforming police and criminal justice agencies is.

Why Ending Police Brutality Is a Civil Rights Issue

What is a “civil right”? A civil right is a class of rights that protect the individual’s freedom from being infringed upon, taken or denied by government, social organizations or other individuals. Civil rights protect our ability to participate fully in society. These civil rights are, in fact, human rights protected by government, not in the first place conferred by government.

When we speak of ending police brutality as a civil rights issue we’re speaking of ending the ways that law enforcement infringe upon the legal movements, freedoms and rights of all citizens—but in this case the disproportionate way this affects African Americans. We are declaring that certain practices and policies like profiling, “stop and frisk,” “verticaling” in apartment buildings, “curbing,” chokeholds, unlawful searches and seizures and the criminal proceedings that assign more severe punishments to African American defendants when compared to other groups.

I take it for granted that a reasonable person understands that in calling for criminal justice and law enforcement reform I am not suggesting that all officers and staff involved in this system are racists or wicked or anything like that. The people who work in these systems have the most difficult jobs, often without the best resources and with little thanks. This is not a screed against those persons in uniform who put it on the line day-in and day-out for our collective well-being. This post is a jeremiad against those officers and practices that betray the many good women and men who serve in Law Enforcement and who rob the service of its dignity and respect by their corruption. It’s those unfaithful officers and administrators who make this a pressing and lethal civil rights issue.

The debate about police brutality and law enforcement gets complicated for some people because we must all acknowledge that criminals exist and should be punished to the appropriate extent of the law. It gets further complicated in our perception because while segregation and the denial of voting rights were once universal and easily recognized, police brutality appears to us episodic and difficult to ferret out case-by case. But the truth is police brutality can only occur in a culture that at least permits it and perhaps even has ways of sanctioning it. The infringement of civil rights occurs in a general context of disproportionate arrests, searches, and punishments based upon the widespread suspicion of African-American criminality.

Right now the country debates how significant and widespread these issues are. But we need to be reminded that this same country debated whether or not segregation was a problem. The country debated whether or not women should be enfranchised. The powerful and unaffected have a long history of debating injustice and they look with suspicion on the Department of Justice’s investigations of civil rights abuses. They tend to think that an over-reach of Federal power and a kind of “double jeopardy” loophole when you “lose” the criminal trial. While they carry on their debates, the affected must protest and mount sustained efforts to create a more just society. And we must keep in mind that we wouldn’t need the intervention of the DOJ if justice were a more stout reality in our local interactions and laws.

Talking About All of This

If we are going to have a sustained movement toward justice and the protection of civil rights, then there are some ways of speaking and thinking that we must all abandon. For example, it’s often said that African Americans and white Americans “live in different worlds” when it comes to this issue. I know what’s meant by the phrase. We have very different experiences with police officers. That’s a well-intended sentiment, but it blunts the reality that we do in fact inhabit the same world and sometimes the forces one group lauds work unspeakable pain and suffering in another group. We won’t effect the kinds of coalitions and collaboration we need if we go on thinking our worlds are different. Our worlds are the same and your world has a lot to do with my enjoyment of the same world.

We probably should stop saying and thinking, “I can never understand what it’s like to be African American.” Yes you can. It only requires some imagination. I understand that if you’re not an African-American that there’s a depth of understanding and experience that’s simply not yours. But that’s true of any African American trying to understand white Americans. It’s true any time we try to cross an ethnic barrier. But this sentiment disenfranchises people. It places empathy and understanding beyond the reach of even the most sincere conversation partner. And that’s bad for people who want to see reconciliation spread more broadly. It’s bad for churches that want to see the reconciliation of the cross lived out more faithfully. We need to do a lot of listening and imagining so that we can benefit from entering one another’s circumstances. And, just to be clear, African Americans need to work just as much and just as hard and just as honestly and humbly to understand white Americans as white Americans need to do so to understand African Americans. This cannot be a one-sided empathy or a one-sided conversation.

And there is a sense in which we need to stop basing our discussions and work on the statement, “I’m hurting.” That’s not to deny serious and deep hurt. It exists. But we can’t build a movement on woundedness. We have to build it on a deeper appeal to biblical understandings of justice and mercy, compassion and truth. Saying “this hurts” gets a conversation started and ought to illicit attention, but it doesn’t fix the fundamental problem of rights being violated. And saying “We should listen to our hurting brothers and sisters” poses a curious problem of its own. It allows the listener (usually white) to feel as if he/she has done their duty simply by listening and requires them to do little else. It also allows for a sneaky pride, a condescending assumption that African Americans are “so emotional” and we are the enlightened, reasonable ones who listen patiently though it’s all really an “emotional fuss,” a “bother.” No, beloved, when people are hurt—in some cases in physical and life-ending ways—it’s no time to feel good about listening. It’s time to turn listening into sustained, passionate action on behalf of the oppressed.

We’re going to have to learn to “talk better” if we’re going to be better.

The Need for a Broad Coalition

As I watch events unfold, I’m struck by the power and enthusiasm manifested. I’m also struck and encouraged by the broad multi-ethnic concern and action demonstrated in die-ins and traffic disruptions. Look the Civil Rights Movement in its heyday, there’s a broad concern for justice. The faces are red, yellow, black and white—and I believe it’s precious in God’s sight and in mine.

We need this coalition to correct injustice. And we need this coalition to escape the circular blame game that erupts in discussions of criminality and injustice. These issues can reduce us to school children circling one another on the playground, trying to look tough while fearing a fight may be necessary, but inside hoping the bell rings to end recess before it does. That constant circling and biding of time may prevent another flare up of violence, but it does not reconcile people or cure the problem that began the war dance.

Some people mocked the near universal condemnation of the grand jury’s decision in the Eric Garner case. They tell us it will be short-lived. They tell us it’s a faux unity. They may be correct—unless people of good conscience can build a foundation for common cause deeper than our shared sense that one decision was morally grotesque. We need each other for that. We need this to be a movement that’s sustainable, focused and principled—something that can be shared by everyone of good conscience.

This needs to be a Federal level agenda. I mentioned this in a previous post and someone chided me for my “big government” ideas. But they certainly didn’t hate big government in the 1980s when Clinton and others promised more funding to put more officers on the street or when mandatory sentencing was passed and now leaves us with over-incarceration.

And they seemed totally unaware that every right that African Americans possess has come at the intervention of the Federal Government. Not a single civil right has effectively been protected by a movement of state governments leading to the universal protection of that right across the country. Not one! Slavery was ended by Federal intervention. Reconstruction began by Federal intervention. The passage of the Voting Rights Act and the ruling of Brown v. Board were federal-level interventions. The ending of housing discrimination and employment discrimination came as a result of federal legislation. When states rights prevailed Black rights failed. Every civil right we have and it seems likely that every civil right we protect will come as a matter of Federal intervention. Understand: African Americans don’t love “big government” as a political philosophy. We simply know that historically the lever of political change and protection has been at the Federal level, not the state.

The Need for Local and National Action

We need the movement to have a national agenda with local implications. I don’t speak for this movement, but if I were king for a day, here’s the four-point plan I’d begin with:

  1. Call for Federal legislation requiring body cameras for all local police officers. Recently the Brown family started a petition for just such a bill.
  2. Call for a national review of grand jury procedure, especially a review of the role of prosecutors in hearings involving police officers.
  3. Call for a national review of policing procedures that appear to infringe upon the civil rights of citizens policed, including a review of acceptable uses of lethal force.
  4. Immediately end the militarization of local police departments and identify appropriate resources and armaments necessary for local policing.

While we’re at it, we should not forget the specific cases of injustice like the choking death of Eric Garner. We should call the Governor of NY to convene a new grand jury with a special prosecutor. He has the statutory authority to do that and should show the moral courage by doing it.


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