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.
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:
“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:
4 The Lord is in his holy temple;
the Lord’s throne is in heaven;
his eyes see, his eyelids test the children of man.
5 The Lord tests the righteous,
but his soul hates the wicked and the one who loves violence.
6 Let him rain coals on the wicked;
fire and sulfur and a scorching wind shall be the portion of their cup.
7 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.
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:
- Call for Federal legislation requiring body cameras for all local police officers. Recently the Brown family started a petition for just such a bill.
- Call for a national review of grand jury procedure, especially a review of the role of prosecutors in hearings involving police officers.
- 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.
- 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.
Yesterday following the morning service a dear and faithful brother approached me at the door. In his customarily intense way, he looked me in the eyes and thanked me for the sermon. He expressed his appreciation for how the gospel was present throughout the exposition. Then he moved from appreciation to loving critique. Not about the sermon, but about my posts on Ferguson-related themes. He asked if I thought the gospel should run throughout Christian comments and responses to Ferguson.
Of course, I agreed. We are gospel people. We ought always make the gospel plain. He leaned in a little tighter and asked if I thought I’d done that. My honest answer was “no.” Not because I don’t believe in the gospel’s constant relevance, but because I believe escapist appeals to “the gospel” actually allow Christians to forsake Christian responsibility to be engaged socially and politically in remedying injustice in this life.
A few other people were beginning to bunch up in the line, so my brother graciously moved on. I think we both knew the conversation wasn’t finished. For my part, I’ve been thinking since then of how to speak about the gospel in a way that’s rooted and applied. When I told my wife about the conversation she looked at me with that “I’ve been telling you that” look. So, here goes. An attempt to apply the gospel in actionable ways to these Ferguson—Staten Island—Cleveland—New York kinda times we’re in.
- Stick Close to Jesus Personally
I received a reminder of this from a fellow elder just as I was writing this post. The reminder came in the form of a quote from chapter five of The Bruised Reed, where Sibbes writes, “That age of the church which was most fertile in subtle questions was most barren in religion; for it makes people think religion to be only a matter of cleverness, in tying and untying of knots. The brains of men inclining that way are hotter usually than their hearts.” We must recognize the danger of entrapment in “subtle questions,” whether they’re the subtle questions of theology or of sociology. Those dangers include—to paraphrase Sibbes—hot heads and cold hearts. A quick visit to most twitter feeds and Facebook pages will supply ample evidence that this heating of the crown and cooling of the chest is well underway among many Christians.
We have it on the greatest Authority that, “Whoever abides in [Christ] and [Christ] in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing” (John 15:5). Apart from Christ we can do nothing. We become unfruitful in spiritual knowledge and barren in our activism. Nothing could be more vital in Ferguson-like times than we sing and pray, “Jesus keep me near the cross.” To put it another way: We must first apply the gospel to our own lives by immersing ourselves in the truth of God’s word, warming ourselves with the Spirit’s fervency in prayer and keeping ourselves in the love of God. We begin here and never finish this delightful duty.
- Actually Share the Gospel with Someone
The gospel is no one’s hope if the gospel is not shared. If we are escapists, we say “the gospel is what’s needed” only to go about our merry way without actually speaking to anyone in need of it. So, if we would be Christ’s ambassadors in this time, we should join a protest line, drop by a police station, or knock on doors to ask if we can tell others about the Son of God’s death, burial, resurrection and return to redeem people from their sins and to renew the cosmos. We should position ourselves to actually call people to repentance and faith in Jesus Christ. We should always be active evangelists, but these life-and-death, edge-of-your-seat times of conflict should heighten our pleading with the world: Be reconciled to God.
- Avoid the Condemnation of Others
The angel instructed Mary to name the Savior “Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins” (Matt. 1:21). Christ did not come into the world to condemn the world, but to rescue it from the judgment that is coming (John 3:17). Ours is not a message of condemnation but of clemency. That’s why any talk of the just judgment of victims, while true in some very general sense, cannot be mistaken for a “gospel-centered perspective.” If we say, “Brown got what he deserved,” or “Garner died because he was overweight and asthmatic,” or “The officer ought to be _____,” we are not speaking the language of the gospel. We have reverted back to our native tongue: Law. We have begun to require eyes and teeth in recompense for eyes and teeth. That, beloved, is decidedly not the gospel. That is not grace. That is not the forgiveness and redemption our Lord offers.
So the last people who should write and speak to finally condemn others are Christians. Of all people, we should be the ones who genuinely weep at life cut short because we know mercy is new every morning and a sinner just might be saved the next day! After the loss of life itself, the most lamentable thing I’ve seen in these times are the significant number of Christians who feel perfectly justified in reductively totalizing a person with a label like “thug,” proclaiming their death “just desert,” and who do so in the name of “the gospel.” Their condemning words and attitudes betray the most essential element of the gospel—grace. Though judgment, wrath and hell are necessary aspects of the gospel–the bad news the good news answers–if we stop there then we have actually stopped short of the gospel itself.
- Commit Ourselves to Act
A justified people must act justly. I realize that there’s difficult work to be done in defining “justice” in individual cases. But that’s work we must do if we claim to be gospel people. For Christ was crucified and resurrected as an act of righteousness. God was vindicating himself at the same time He was justifying sinners (Rom. 3:24-25; 4:25). So saving faith and temporal justice are not at odds. The scripture tells us of the man of faith, Abraham, “For I have chosen him, that he may command his children and his household after him to keep the way of the Lord by doing righteousness and justice, so that the Lord may bring to Abraham what he has promised him” (Gen 18:19). The most natural desire in the world for the Christian who understands the centrality of justice to the gospel ought to be to obey Micah 6:8—“He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” This is what is good. Let us not miss the emphasis on taking action—do justice. And it is gospel good. Notice how the apostle Paul finishes those beautiful statements of the gospel in Titus 2 and 3 with an exhortation to good deeds. He says, we who believe ought to be “zealous for good works” (Titus 2:14) and “careful to devote ourselves to good works” (Titus 3:8).
What might doing justice look like? Any number of things is possible. Not all Christians are called to the same actions. But here’s a sample: join an area protest, write to your elected officials, support an advocacy organization, get involved in the political process, join a discussion group on these issues, do evangelism in a “Ferguson” and a gated community. Let us commit ourselves to act not just where Fergusons are concerned but everywhere there’s injustice.
- Develop a Special Regard for the Fatherless and Poor
As I’ve engaged various persons in discussions we frequent theme is the fact that Michael Brown’s parents were not married. People pointed with great zeal to the breakdown of African-American families and the absence of fathers as an explanation for the behavior they thought they saw in Brown and justification (even if sad justification) for the officer’s actions. In so many words they were saying, “We wouldn’t have had this problem if Black families were intact.” And that they offered as a “gospel perspective.”
But the scripture calls us to a different posture. Not so much different as if family stability and marriage do not matter. They do. Different in terms of how we position ourselves for justice in such cases. Consider Deut. 24:16-18—“Fathers shall not be put to death because of their children, nor shall children be put to death because of their fathers. Each one shall be put to death for his own sin. You shall not pervert the justice due to the sojourner or to the fatherless, or take a widow’s garment in pledge, but you shall remember that you were a slave in Egypt and the Lord your God redeemed you from there; therefore I command you to do this.” Mike Brown doesn’t deserve death because his father sinned against his mother. And if we regard him as “fatherless,” then we shouldn’t be sneering and condemning but actually more eager to see that justice for Brown is done. Psalm 82:3 declares, “Give justice to the weak and the fatherless; maintain the right of the afflicted and the destitute.” Isaiah declares that we should “learn to do good; seek justice, correct oppression; bring justice to the fatherless, plead the widow’s cause” (Isaiah 1:17). James tells us this posture lies at the heart of true religion (James 1:27).
Why should we think this an application of the gospel? Is it not because we who were sinners were adopted by God the Father through Jesus Christ the Son? We were orphans, separated from the love of our True Father. But we were not finally rejected or vilified. We were loved. We received a Mediator. Jesus became our Advocate. Our adoption was completed and we became the family of God. If we want to live our the faith and the gospel in trying times like these, we need to be the people who adopt the Michael Browns (literally and figuratively) rather than condemn them or justify any injustice based upon their fatherlessness.
- Cultivate Gentleness in Conflict
In our day and age, few things could be more sapping of Christian activism and encouraging of conflict than many of the so-called “news outlets” we consume. Good journalism remains hard to find. We can find it, but it means turning off the constant blare of talking heads, pundits and political hacks masquerading as journalists. It means avoiding the rapid-fire opinions of blogs—perhaps including this one. These sources flood our minds with worldly thinking. They stir us up to greater levels of fear and anger. They keep us from reacting and speaking as we ought.
Instead, “the Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome but kind to everyone, able to teach, patiently enduring evil, correcting his opponents with gentleness.” Why? “God may perhaps grant them repentance leading to a knowledge of the truth, and they may come to their senses and escape from the snare of the devil, after being captured by him to do his will” (2 Tim. 2:24-26). If we care about gospel fruit in the midst of Ferguson-Garner situations, we need to learn what our mothers tried to teach us as children: kindness, patience and gentleness. Our effectiveness as witnesses depends on our avoiding that quarrelsome spirit of the age while replying with gospel-inspired kindness. Maintaining this posture requires we turn off the TV and the talk radio so that we can renew our minds and refuse the squeezing pressure of the world (Rom. 12:1-2).
- Lean In for the Long Term in the Messy Times
When news of Michael Brown’s death spread, the world—including the Christian world—found itself quickly polarized. Most people considered the Brown situation messy, unclear and a “bad case” for establishing justice. A week later the Staten Island grand jury failed to indict an officer in the choking death of Eric Garner. The video evidence and the illegality of the evidence led parties long divided to chorally decry the injustice.
Here’s the thing: Bible-believing Christians have a repeated mandate to “not pervert justice,” especially on behalf of the victimized (Exod. 22:16; 23:2; etc). If we are to prevent the perversion of justice, then as Christians we need to be most involved in the least clear situations. If we believe we have the mind of Christ, if we believe we bear the message of hope, if we believe ourselves to be salt and light in the world, then we must reveal that mind, deliver that message and spread our salt and light where and when others are least likely to do so. We cannot retreat to the convenience of “neat” cases when the very nature of injustice is its messiness, its defiance of order, it’s stubborn insistence on not conforming to goodness and righteousness. Restricting ourselves to the tidy cases provides us more comfort and convenience but it does nothing for the poor, oppressed and mistreated whose cases go unnoticed by video cameras or whose testimonies are challenged. I most want Christian minds and sensibilities where the world is most likely to get it wrong.
It’s good to partner wherever you can with whomever you can if in good conscience you agree. But sooner or later, there’ll be another messy case and this temporary unity will revert to the deeper disunity beneath. We had better have a deeper, biblical theology of humanity, love, justice and mercy to sustain us when it’s messy and when we disagree on this or that particular.
The Christian life, if it’s a truly gospel-centered life, is a life of constant repentance. Sometimes the Lord uses the megaphone of suffering to turn us to himself once again. Luke 13:1 records an incident not too unlike Ferguson, Missouri. A representative of the state, in the person of Pilate, killed some Galileans and mingled their blood with the sacrifice. Pilate desecrated both life and religion.
When asked about this horror, the Lord Jesus informed his followers that such tragedies were a call from God to repent lest they likewise perish. If we would have a “gospel perspective” on the tragic deaths Michael Brown, Akai Gurley, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice and others at the hands of police officers, then we must read these situations as cautionary tells. We must ourselves turn again to God recognizing that apart from His grace and mercy it could be us perishing in similar situations. As the Lord makes clear, Brown, Gurley, Garner and Rice were not worse sinners than us. We are, like them, like everyone, in desperate need of grace to repent of sin and turn afresh to God. Our involvement in these tragedies will give us plenty of opportunity for such repentance.
There is more that could be said. But I hope this provides some ways to think through the application of our message in these trying times. We really must avoid the escapism that so often plagues our witness to insert ourselves waist high in the messiness of life.
Editor’s Note: Today’s post is a guest post from Isaac Adams, who serves as an editor at The Front Porch. You can keep up with Isaac on twitter @isickadams.
Amidst abounding blog posts, memes, articles, and tweets,
Amidst burning buildings and peaceful protesters’ stomping feet,
Amidst Heaven’s citizens: some outraged, some satisfied, some in ignorance complete,
We’re confused about how we think we should feel, and how we feel we should think,
When black bodies only further into the ground sink; And Lady justice?
She ain’t do so much as blink.
Let me make it clear: I have no exhaustive sociological analysis or physiological remedy for the convoluted, emotional, and deep-seated milieu surrounding Mike Brown and most recently Eric Garner. What I do have is a heavy heart, a Bible, a brain, a mouth, and the Spirit of the living God residing in me by the Father’s grace, and this was bought at the heaviest of costs: his Son’s blood.
And all of that informs the other thing that I do have: a suggestion (see my others here). I suggest that we use our imaginations as the means for genuinely empathizing with those who mourn; this mourning isn’t an option, but a command (Rom. 12:15). I’m not calling for a faux, Lennon type of happy-go-lucky imagination but one that’s Spirit-empowered. Here’s how I came to this thought and what I mean by it.
A Great Gift Most Everyone Enjoys
As I sit here on my couch, looking at my new Christmas tree, I’m reminded that this time of year is when most folks are keenly attuned to what they’ll give and more eager for what they’ll receive. And what do we use to scheme up that good gift we might give? What do we use to daydream about that even better gift we might get? We use the gift so many of us have from God: our imaginations. We imagine how that new coat might feel, or how that new computer might aid our work; we imagine our joy abounding. This isn’t necessarily wrong by any means, but of course, like most gifts, we easily turn our imaginations inward in selfishness.
But what if we used this God-given gift of imagination to try and think of what it might be like to be someone else. It may sound child-like, but it’s not childish. God’s Word encourages the former and after all, isn’t this what we did as children? We imagined what it would be like to be like Mike, to be the astronaut or the gymnast or the president. Of course, you never knew what it was like to be your hero. But that didn’t stop you from mentally taking their shoes and trying them on. And this imagining was a lengthy meditation some times, wasn’t it? Time was no factor, as we’d twirl our imagined hopes around before falling asleep, drifting off into dreams that could lift our imaginations to new heights.
A Great Gift Most Anyone Can Employ
But what if we used our imaginations also for new depths? What if we used them not simply for our own joys but to dwell on those perceived differences we have with others? And this for the joy of the church! What if this God-given gift was exactly what we could use to begin to walk in someone else’s shoes, to meditate on what it may be like to be “them” so we might have some genuine, grace-fueled mediation between “us” and “them.” Just imagine what some imagination could do.
If all this sounds ethereal, let’s get real practical and connect head to heart, so that our hands might move in love. Try to imagine the following:
- Imagine how you might feel when a person you pay to protect you kills your spouse. And they walk away, for the time being, free. That’s but one-way Mrs. Garner, now a single-mother of six, is feeling.
- Imagine looking to your [biological] brothers and sisters and thinking, “Dad was killed on YouTube, and his killer won’t go to trial.” That’s but one thought of Eric’s surviving children.
- Imagine what you might say to your 8-year-old boy who asks, “Who stops the police when they do something bad, daddy?” These are a clip of conversations black fathers are having.
- Imagine being white and every cop who surrounds you is black. The cops pulling up in their car to your once-peaceful scene? They’re black, too. You’re the only guy who is white. One of the cops just descended on you. Two of them. Three of them now pin you down. Imagine that. You wouldn’t think twice about if race were a factor?
- Imagine saying, “I can’t breathe! I can’t breathe!” only to have your face further pressed into the unforgiving sidewalk. These are the cries of a man who sought mercy.
- Imagine having not only seen the slaying of 12-year-old Tamir Rice but the brutal murder of 14-year-old Emmett Till; seeing not only Eric Garner’s neck wrung, but Rodney King’s face smashed. Might you be even just a little bit weary of the police? A little discouraged?
- Imagine what it would be like to forgive the killer of your child. And imagine how happy the Lord may be still to welcome this killer into his kingdom if he repents and believes, but how difficult that might be for you to comprehend.
- Imagine being accused of hyperbolic speech or being dismissed with a “of course you think that,” or a “you’re being too political,” because you express outrage at an outrageous situation.
- Imagine what it’s like when that last reporter leaves your town and the national attention has turned away. But the whole in your family always haunts you.
- Imagine being that beaten Samaritan (a despised race) and left for dead. You see a priest and other religious folk walk right past you. That’s how those who feel emotionally trodden feel when Christians mentally walk past them, talking about what now seem to be trivial matters, not noticing that some of their black counterparts are breaking under the weight of these issues.
- Now, imagine what it would be like to be all of that, and not even getting a, “Wow — I am sorry for how you are feeling; I can’t imagine what this must be like. I’m trying. How can I help?” from your white counterpart.
It’s not too much to ask for a little thinking on the part of Christians. This is but one way a redeemed conscience connects a redeemed heart to feel with those who feel and then to do something, too. But one cannot act right if he’s not first thought right. And make no mistake — the Scriptures command our right thinking (Rom. 12:3; Col. 3:2). There’s many more verses to choose from but at a time like this, none other than this text may be more poignant to the connection between our faith in the Lord, our joy, our unity, and our minds:
“So if there is any encouragement in Christ, any comfort from love, any participation in the Spirit, any affection and sympathy complete my joy by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men.” (Philippians 2:2-7 ESV, emphasis added)
The Fergusons of the world are opportunities for Christians to image Christ by trying to take on the likeness of others for the sake of a Holy Spirit-wrought, Christ bought, comforting love and unity. But it takes a little imagination to get started. We must do more than imagine, but we cannot do less. You can do this, and imagine the cost if you don’t imagine at all.
A poem I wrote entitled, “Poor, Brown, Eric”
Last night I had a twitter exchange–one of many–with an assertive brother insisting that I was biased in my view of the events in Ferguson and in my assessment of the grand jury process. We pressed each other on various points until we agreed that we could no longer hear one another and should stop for the night. I’m grateful we talked. And I’m grateful we stopped.
The stopping allowed me to process one part of our exchange in particular. My interlocutor at one point mentioned that it is government’s job to bring justice in the case of lawbreaking. I asked if he would give me a definition of “justice,” to which he replied “the virtue which consists in giving everyone his due.” My friend was certain justice had been served in the shooting of Brown if Wilson acted in self-defense. Brown, in that case, had received “his due.”
One Man’s Justice
On the drive to school this morning, the children and I rode mostly in silence as I thought a lot about our exchange. I thought a lot about the iron-clad certainty some people have in judging Brown’s shooting “just.” And I thought a lot about how that certainty is informed not by their knowledge of the events of that morning (my partner was honest enough to admit he wasn’t there and didn’t know) but by the menacing portrait of Brown and his family developed and spread in some quarters. Our conversation began with my friend asking me to comment on this graphic:
For some people, “justice” depends as much on seeing Brown and family in this light as it does on any true evidence from the scene. We need a boogeyman Brown to assuage our collective conscience about what happened to Brown. And if we can calm the inner voice of righteousness in Brown’s case, then we give ourselves permission to conveniently forget that Michael Brown’s name is one in a long list of unarmed men killed under suspicious circumstances by police officers.
It’s not just “the media,” the major networks and outlets, that put together these portrayals. Everyday citizens and professing Christians do the same. Even law enforcement officers get in on the act. As in this photo posted by Marc Catron, a Kansas City police officer who mistook the Oregon man pictured for Michael Brown:
The officer later posted a picture of the O.J. Simpson trial and wrote, “Remember how white people rioted after OJ’s acquittal? Me neither.” Last I read, the Kansas City officer was “under review” for violating the police department’s media policy. One wonders why this isn’t a more troubling and serious infraction.
One Man’s Nightmare
So here’s why I’m resolved to contribute to this discussion and others like it. What some people think of as “justice” based on these crude portrayals of human beings really represents a nightmare for people who look like me. Before you judge that an over-reaction, let me simply ask that you compare the sentiments in these posters and posts with the bullet points of my own life.
- I am the youngest of eight children.
- My early years we lived in a 2-bedroom apartment. My folks had one room and the eight of us slept on two sets of bunk beds in the other.
- I am the only child born to my mother and father; my other siblings have a different father.
- My parents never wed.
- For a time, my grandmother raised me.
- I grew up when hip hop blew up. So I rocked Kangols, shell toes and gold chains.
- My favorite piece of clothing was a “hoodie” before we called them hoodies.
- The only high school picture I remember was a year book photo of me in the hoodie posting up against a wall throwing up “duces” (or a peace sign in my generation).
- I experimented with marijuana in high school and drank beer though underage.
- I was arrested at 16 for embezzlement, a class-H felony misdemeanor at the time. It was the only time I’d been in trouble.
- I was an A student while sleeping through classes and at 18 (Mike Brown’s age) was headed to a major university.
I am Mike Brown in so many ways. Our lives are not that different.
And, like Brown, I’ve had my encounters with the police. Many of them were fine. But they were always tense. Even the way an officer at a high school basketball game would afterward speak with us players, hand sometimes casually resting atop his holstered weapon, felt as if it could go terribly wrong in a second. I never mouthed off at an officer that I recall. But I wanted to–especially when I knew I was being unfairly treated, when I felt my dignity was being trampled and my humanity swallowed each time I had to reply, “Yes, sir” or “No, sir.” Like the time campus police shoved me in the back of a patrol car so a female student–hidden from my view–could take a look at me as the possible suspect that assaulted her. It didn’t matter that there were twenty university faculty who could testify that I’d just spent the last hour playing basketball in the gym with them. My life could have been very different at any point during any encounter with officers.
And here’s the kicker: The headlines would have focused on the bullet points above. They would likely have covered my “checkered past” and family life while leaving out my grades. The benefit of the doubt likely would have been given to the officers while I was vilified. And far too many people would have concluded based on the media profile that “justice” had been served. They would have repeated the notions as easily as greetings pass between friends. They would say, “I got my due.”
President Obama was not wrong nor wrong to say that he could have been Trayvon Martin. As hard as it was for some people to hear it, a lot of us simply thought, “Absolutely.” I could have been Mike Brown. And so could all of my nephews: Kendrick a.k.a. “Duke,” Derrick a.k.a. “Scooter,” Parris a.k.a. “Fat Daddy,” and Robert a.k.a. “P.J.” Their nicknames, given to them as toddlers, would have been enough for some to speculate gang involvement and to twist into partial “justification” for whatever treatment they received.
I’ve tried in conversation to figure out why the situation with Brown and Ferguson has erupted into a national debate and not some other situation with a “cleaner” victim and “dirtier” officer. I don’t know why God in His providence chose this situation. But perhaps it’s to expose to us–if we’re willing to see–the prejudices and biases we harbor and pass around without thinking. Perhaps it’s the messier situations that bring to surface the deeper matters of the heart.
None of this is to suggest I know exactly what happened on that sad day. It is to suggest I know what happens in a lot of situations that begin as that day did. I’ve been in them and you’ll hardly find an African-American man who hasn’t.
So I think to myself, It could have been me. It could be my son one day. Do I want a future where such things continue to happen?
What things? Police shootings?
Well, yes, but something more fundamental than that. Do I want a future where African-American men and women are not seen first as men and women made in the image of God? Do I want a future where our humanity gets reduced to social media and television snapshots picturing us as menacing and criminal rather than unique souls bearing the glory of God? Do I want a future where we view one another with suspicion and deep distrust because we fail to view each other as human?
As I listen to the debate and consider Wilson’s testimony about what he was thinking during his conflict with Brown, the one thing I don’t hear from many of those who think justice was served is “Michael Brown was made in the image of God.” As I listen to protestors calling for justice, I don’t hear many of them reminding themselves that Darren Wilson is made in the image of God, too. I don’t hear those persons lamenting the potential always there for a person to be different than portrayed or better than he was. I don’t hear many of those persons decrying that this lost potential gets multiplied through an entire community, and for that community the death of Michael Brown is the death of a better life hoped for, a God-given potential tragically unrealized.
And I wonder, at what point might realizing Brown bore the image of God have made the difference between life and death. How far back in the encounter might another outcome have been possible with this single piece of understanding? Was it when Brown turned to face Wilson 150 feet away from the cruiser? Was it when Brown fled the cruiser with one sandal? Was it when Wilson exited his car and began a pursuit? Would it have made a difference when Wilson reversed the cruiser to confront Brown, or when he first spoke to the young men about walking in the street?
If at the beginning of their encounter Wilson saw Brown as one made in the image of God would Brown be here and would Wilson still be an officer, neither man harmed in any way that day? I don’t know. It could have all gone terribly wrong because Brown didn’t think Wilson was made in God’s image. I don’t know.
But I do know this nightmare usually features the demonizing of persons rather than celebrating the fact that they’re image bearers. And I know that when society does that it’s not justice for the demonized; it’s a nightmare.
I am an evangelical. That statement needs explanation.
I am a theological evangelical. I believe the Bible is the divinely-inspired word of God. I believe it is inerrant and sufficient. I believe a person must be born again in order to enter the kingdom of heaven. Apart from this spiritual resurrection, we die in our sins and we suffer God’s eternal wrath forever. Christ Jesus, the Son of God, atones for our sin in his death on the cross. He provides our righteousness by his perfect obedience. There is no salvation from sin and judgment apart from that Christ offered in the gospel. None. But by repentance and faith, all that Christ is and all that Christ has done is ours. Evangelicals at our best are “gospel people.”
But being “gospel people” comes with a peculiar pitfall. It’s possible to be the kind of “gospel people” who use appeals to “the gospel” as a way of escape rather than engagement. Let’s call this “gospel escapism,” that attempt to flee from either the banality or brutality of life by superficial recourse to the gospel. These “gospel people” use the word “gospel” in their writing and speeches a lot. They think simply mentioning the word is the same thing as applying the various truths of Jesus’ life and work to the exigencies of life. It’s escapism because it fails to see in any deep way how Jesus’ Incarnation, active obedience, sacrificial and substitutionary death, resurrection, heavenly session and imminent return for sinners speaks to the troubled life of the sinner in any way other than deliverance into another world.
Let me try to illustrate with four comments that sometimes indicate “gospel escapism” is at work.
“The Problem Is Sin”
We hear this all the time. And, of course, it’s a true statement. Mankind’s most fundamental or radical problem is sin, our bent and rebellion against God and His holy commands. So far, that’s good Christian theology.
But when we hear “The problem is sin” as a way of actually dismissing sin or turning our eyes from the variegated brokenness that multiple forms of sin produce, then it’s not good theology. It’s escapism.
We’ve heard people say “The problem is sin” a lot over the last couple weeks. A handful of people spoke of the sins of all involved, though they rarely got specific about what they meant. But usually it was Mike Brown’s sins that received attention. We were reminded in so many ways that Brown was “no angel,” a “thug” who deserved what he got. His problem was sin. That’s it.
But that’s escapism. It’s running away from a more complex view of Brown, of the history and systems that produce a Ferguson, and the many other persons involved. It’s escapism through reduction.
And it’s tragic. It’s really a strange thing when Christians point out another’s sin without remembering what Christ did to atone for that sin. It’s a sad day when Christians who know the horrors of hell fail to lament that a sinner may have met Christ as Judge rather than Redeemer. And it’s an almost criminal day when those that dared lament this horrible possibility are scolded by those who refuse to weep over a lost soul.
“It’s sin. That’s it. Leave it there. Don’t bother me with empathy, compassion, suffering with those who suffer or anything of the sort. It has nothing to do with injustice or systems or the like. It’s just sin.” To be sure sin is always at work. But when was sin ever a mere thing?
“What People Really Need Is the Gospel”
There’s a second form of “gospel escapism” at work in the church. It’s more hopeful than the “The problem is sin” variety. This form of escapism focuses not on the problem but on the solution. We may encounter it when we hear people say, “What people really need is the gospel.”
Well, again, who could argue that? Everyone needs the gospel. All the time. Christian and non-Christian alike. The non-Christian to be rescued from the wrath to come and to know the love of God through Jesus Christ His Son. The Christian, prone to leak like a sieve, needs the gospel to remember what Christ has done for him/her that life might be marked by the Lord’s companionship.
Yes, the world really needs the gospel.
But if we find ourselves making that statement as a final rejoinder to real life problems, then we had better ask ourselves if we mean it. Do we mean it enough to actually share the gospel with someone? Do we mean it enough to go into “those communities” where the gospel “is really needed”? We may not live in Ferguson, Missouri, but we may be sure there’s a “Ferguson” somewhere nearby. It could be the inner-city neighborhood that we fear and loathe and stereotype until we drive wide circles around it. Or it could be the trailer park that we hide from the main thoroughfares of our towns so that obscurity and despondency overwhelm it. It could be the Native American reservations into which we’ve clustered the country’s first peoples and in which they drown in alcohol and gambling. When we hear ourselves saying “They really need the gospel,” do we see ourselves going to take it to them?
If so, I praise God for you! Chances are you’re in a significant minority.
Far too many of us talk of the world’s need for the gospel but then we bottle it up in our private devotions, small groups and Bible studies. We seldom find ourselves talking to actual people in actual communities of need giving them the one thing we confidently claim they need most. So our appeal to “the gospel” is really a happy pill, a sugar pill, a feel good placebo we administer to ourselves while people made in God’s image barrel toward the cliff of God’s judgment. It’s the pill we take in order to remain hooked up to the matrix of an Evangelical dream state. That statement, usually said to other Christians, never even makes contact with the real world.
“There Won’t Be Justice Until Jesus Comes”
Then there is the eschatological escapist mantra: “There won’t be justice until Jesus comes.” This person is pessimistic about the entire society, not just individual sin. They hold no hope for lasting justice or peace or anything else in this life. Only when Jesus comes will things be set to rights, paradise restored, Eden transformed into a city where evil has no apartment.
And, as is the case with the other statements, this comment is true. The government shall be on Jesus’ shoulders. His everlasting kingdom is the only perfectly righteous kingdom. When Jesus returns, there will be no courts, grand juries, prosecutors, defense attorneys, nor even defendants. All will be settled and we will behold His glory. This gives hope to all Christians everywhere.
But does that mean there’s no real and difficult work to do now, in this life, for the lives that matter here? Our blessed hope becomes our escapist dream when we make what Jesus will perfect an enemy to what we can improve. We’re guilty of gospel escapism when what should purify us (1 John 3:2-3) and motivate us to greater righteousness actually makes us lazy, cools our zeal, and turns our eyes from the grittiness of neighbor love. If that happens, we’re not dealing with life as it really is. We are lost in the clouds. Our feet are planted firmly in mid-air.
I have often mentioned my disdain for the old phrase, “Don’t be so heavenly minded you’re of no earthly good.” I’ve often said that the only way to be of earthly good is to become more heavenly minded. But now I see the cliche holds truth and my retort needs qualification. There are folks who think of heaven as an answer to all earthly problems so that they don’t have to deal with those earthly problems. Those folks need the warning the cliche gives.
The heavenly mindedness that makes us of earthly good sets its mind on things above (Col. 3:1-4) then immediately puts to death the things that are earthly (Col. 3:5-11). True heavenly mindedness dresses in virtue–especially love (Col. 3:12-17). It eliminates ethnic, religious, cultural and class hostilities by the power of a sanctified Christian life (Col. 3:11). If we have this kind of heavenly mind, we change the world. We don’t flee it.
Finally, many professing evangelicals have an easy button, an escape hatch of all escape hatches. They simply blame President Obama. The situation doesn’t matter. The President’s actual powers don’t matter. If all the other escape routes are closed off, there’s always the trap door and sliding shoot that carries far from real life. His name is Obama. Say that name at just the right point and–poof!–any real world discussion or problem requiring genuine Christian witness and engagement vanishes from sight.
I pray we work against any form of escapism that keeps us from being salt and light. I especially pray we work against escapism in the name of “the gospel.” If we would be “gospel people” in the best sense of the phrase, then we must be honest people. We must have that good Samaritan honesty that sees the situation accurately and enters it compassionately. When we’re in the situation, we may have to point out sin, we hope to actually do the work of evangelism, and we may have to point people to the world to come because “inconsolable things” break us in this life. But let none of that be superficial or trite. Let it be true and engaged.
From Mortimer J. Adler’s classic, How to Read a Book: The Classic Guide to Intelligent Reading:
“State in your own words!” That suggests the best test we know for telling whether you have understood the proposition or propositions in the sentence. If, when you are asked to explain what the author means by a particular sentence, all you can do is repeat his very words, with some minor alterations in their order, you had better suspect that you do not know what he means. Ideally, you should be able to say the same thing in totally different words. The idea can, of course, be approximated in varying degrees. But if you cannot get away at all from the author’s words, it shows that only words have passed from him to you, not thought or knowledge. You know his words, not his mind. He was trying to communicate knowledge, and all you received was words.
To do this is not only a test of intelligent reading, it’s also necessary to intelligent conversation, especially difficult or tense conversation.
One of my absolute favorite books is Zack Eswine’s penetrating and healing work, Sensing Jesus: Life and Ministry As a Human Being (Crossway, 2013). I think this book should be required reading for every seminarian, new pastor and veteran pastor. I first read it about 2-3 years ago and I’m now revisiting it with a dear brother and friend. As we slowly read through it–and it needs to be read slowly for the rich depth and reflection that’s there–I’m helped with my heart and outlook in all kinds of ways. Last Saturday I read chapter 4 in preparation for our lunch discussion. There was a section there that prepared me generally for those moments of human brokenness that defy pastoral strength and for the specific news out of Ferguson that defy good explanation.
Eswine meditates on what he calls “inconsolable things.” I’m quoting the section at length, and I pray it helps you in life and ministry as it helped me.
“Inconsolable things” are the sins and miseries that will not be eradicated until heaven comes home, the things that only Jesus, and no one of us, can overcome. We cannot expect to change what Jesus has left unfixed for the moment. The presence of inconsolable things does not mean the absence of Jesus’ power, however. Rather, it establishes the context for it. There in the midst of what is inconsolable to us, the true unique nature and quality of Jesus’s power shows itself to be unlike any other power we have seen.
This is what I mean. Jesus teaches us that the faith of a mustard seed can move a mountain. “Nothing will be impossible for you” (Matt. 17:20). So we bring faith to what troubles us. And according to Jesus it would seem that there is nothing in the world that we can’t fix if we just have the smallest seed of faith.
But this is not the conclusion Jesus draws for us. This challenges our Herodian ideas. Though nothing will be impossible for us with faith, “you always have the poor with you,” Jesus says (Matt. 26:11). The paradox emerges. When it comes to poverty, there is no knockout punch or decision in your favor. You must step into the ring with faith, knowing that you will not win in the way you want to. Faith takes its stand amid an unremoved trouble.
The inconsolable things, therefore, are identified first by the “cannots” of Jesus’s teaching. These things he identifies as impossible for any human being. For example, no matter who we are, “no one can serve two masters,” no one (Matt. 6:24). Even if we are wise and knowledgeable by his grace, there are still things and seasons in our lives that we “cannot bear… now” (John 16:12). No matter how strong a will a person has, “the branch cannot bear fruit by itself” (John 15:4). No matter how many oaths we take or how much we spin words into boast, we “cannot make one hair black or white,” Jesus says (Matt. 5:36).
These cannots from Jesus teach us that sickness, death, poverty, and the sin that bores into and infests the human being will not be removed on the basis of any human effort, no matter how strong, godly, or wise that effort is. The power to give this salvation is inconsolable as it relates to us. We cannot give people the new birth with God (John 3:3-5). We cannot justify someone, make her righteous, sanctify her, give her adoption, convict her of sin, or change her heart (Luke 19:27; 1 Cor. 12:3).
This presence of inconsolable things reminds us that healing is not the same as heaven. Miracles are real and powerful, but they do not remove the inconsolable things. Those whose leprosy Jesus healed coughed again or skinned their elbows. Those who were blind but now able to see could still get a speck of burning sand stuck in their eye. The formerly lame could still fall and break their leg. Lazarus was raised from the dead only to find his resumed life filled with death threats. Moreover, the raised friend of Jesus would die again someday, along with this company of the healed. Bodily healing in this world is not heaven. Sickness and death are inconsolable things. Their healing reveals Jesus but does not remove sickness or death from life under the sun. A soldier survives combat only to die in a car accident on the way home (or forty years later of cancer). Miracles never remove our need for Jesus.
In my first pastorate we began to make ourselves available as elders once a quarter on a Sunday evening. Our intention was to invite people to what James teaches us in his letter about coming to the elders when sick for prayer and anointing with oil (James 5:13-15). During those seasons of prayer and worship nearly everyone was nourished and encouraged in their faith. A handful of them were even healed. I remember a young girl whose eyes were fading into blindness. The doctors that week were astonished to learn that the cause of the trouble had disappeared. We all rejoiced in amazement and gave thanks to Jesus. I still do. The peace he gives is a sign, as we will see in a moment, that he is here.
Yet, Joni’s healed eyes did not remove eye disease or blindness from the world. Healed eyes humbled us into tears of gratitude, but this did not mean that Joni’s life was no heaven or that ours was. She was still a middle-school girl within a lovely but broken family, with all the realities of a fallen world and an untamed heart. So were we. It’s like being a hero. the moment the hero rushed into the burning home to save a young boy resounds with a sacred dignity. At the same time, we know that buildings still burn. The little boy still has a whole life ahead of him of grace and joy but also of ache and inconsolable things. The hero himself still lives on too for another forty years. But heroes aren’t always so, as a long life of broken moments reminds each of us.
Inconsolable things reveal and refer to the ache that exists in every created thing and within even those who have the Spirit of God (Rom. 8:18-23). There is an ache within us that will remain even if what ails on the porch is blessedly mended. Jesus demonstrated there are some things he did not change but left as they were for a time, until he comes. We minister the peace of Jesus amid the troubling unremoved. He walks there with us and leads us through. Jesus empowers us to resist both adding to the damage and hastily trying to do what only Jesus can.
I love this for its honesty. There are things in life we can neither change or soothe. But Jesus can. Let us all hold fast to the fact that He will hold us fast.