“I can’t imagine.” Yes, You Can.

Dec 04, 2014 | Thabiti Anyabwile

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.[1]

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.


[1]A poem I wrote entitled, “Poor, Brown, Eric”

View Comments

One Man’s Justice Another Man’s Nightmare: It Really Could Have Been Me

Dec 02, 2014 | Thabiti Anyabwile

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?

I don’t.

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.

View Comments

Spotting “Gospel Escapism” in Evangelical Circles

Dec 01, 2014 | Thabiti Anyabwile

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.

View Comments

The Best Way to Know You’ve Understood What You Read

Nov 30, 2014 | Thabiti Anyabwile

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.

View Comments

We Live in a World of “Inconsolable Things”

Nov 28, 2014 | Thabiti Anyabwile

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.

View Comments

Four Common But Misleading Themes in Ferguson-like Times

Nov 27, 2014 | Thabiti Anyabwile

The United States is likely to be discussing Ferguson-related issues for a long time to come. Television crews have pulled out of the small town and will no doubt chase the next story they think important and ratings worthy. But an awful lot of people will still be processing, talking and acting in ways they think are best. I certainly intend to continue thinking, learning, reflecting, retracting, restating and engaging as much as the Lord allows me and seems useful. Thus, this is my third post this week on these events.

In this post, I want to respond to three themes that tend to recur in Ferguson-like situations: fatherlessness, black-on-black crime, community apathy, and the problem isn’t racism but sin.

I first posted on the first three themes about two years ago. And many others have tried to reply in similar ways. As one writer has put it, these sentiments have become something of a meme traveling the internet with constancy. So, they require constant reply.

Affirming the Importance of These Concerns

But I want to begin with affirming the importance of these issues. The problem, to me at least, isn’t that these things are not problems, or that certain people are disqualified in raising the issue, or that these are embarrassing truths to embrace.

I affirm these as serious issues. I welcome persons of any and every ethnicity to speak into these things. And I firmly believe the truth sets free. There’s no advantage in being ostriches with heads buried in the ground on these topics. They need discussion, but they need accurate and loving discussion. For that to happen, we have to tell the whole truth about these things in proper context. When we fail to do that we actually foster falsehoods, further stereotypes, and give justification to those enemies of progress who think simply stating “the problem” is akin to solving it or washing their hands of it.

There’s More to Say Than Has Often Been Said

Let me attempt to address various statements as a means of advancing dialogue and perhaps challenging or correcting erring conclusions some might make.

The Chicken or the Egg: Fatherlessness or Policing?
Some people place a high premium on fatherlessness and family structure in discussions about Ferguson-like events. They maintain that the single most important issue is the absence of African-American fathers, low marriage rates, high out-of-wedlock birth rates and so on.

They are correct to stress the importance of these issues. They are correct to say that the social science evidence is clear: the single best predictor of child and family well-being is a healthy marriage between the biological parents of the child.

But they leave off the important qualifiers. For example, the marriage benefit to child well-being decreases if one of the parents is not the child’s biological parent. Moreover, there seems to be no benefit at all—sometimes harm—if the marriage is full of what social scientists call “turbulence”—things like abuse, chronic conflict, housing instability, etc. So marriage is no magic bullet. And it certainly isn’t a magic bullet in poor communities with long histories of distress.

So the appeals to marriage research become overstatements. And pitting marriage against working on systemic issues fails to recognize how systemic issues actually undermine the goal of family formation and stability. Working on the systemic issues that create a Ferguson (short version here) helps keep some African-Americans alive and out of the criminal justice system in disproportionate numbers. A good many belong in the system because they’ve earned it. But the data tells us a good many don’t or don’t for as long or for as severe a sentence when compared to people committing the same crime from other ethnic groups (see here).

To put it another way: We won’t have any men left to be responsible husbands and fathers if we continue with this systemic program of disproportionate arrest and sentencing. There is good in changing the way police and courts act and think when engaging African Americans.

Once Again: “Black-on-Black Crime”
Another familiar meme inserted into Ferguson-like discussions is black-on-black crime. In his post, my friend and brother Voddie Baucham writes: “In fact, black men are several times more likely to be murdered at the hands of another black man than they are to be killed by the police. For instance, in the FBI homicide stats from 2012, there were 2,648 blacks murdered. Of those, 2,412 were murdered by members of their own ethnic group.”

My concern isn’t what my brother writes; it’s what he leaves off. The stats reported are correctly reported. But they lack any context and they perpetuate the myth of black-on-black crime as an inherent social pathology. Click over to that report linked in the article. It’s actually a table and here’s what it records in the case of homicides among Whites: white victims (3,128) and white offenders (2,614). That’s a white-on-white murder rate of 83.5 percent. The African-American rate was 91 percent. I’d be interested to know if the 7.5 percent difference is statistically significant, but on the face of it the two rates look pretty equivalent to me. Yet people fall into spitting convulsions if you suggest there’s a “white-on-white crime epidemic.” So referring to black crime statistics without any context reinforces stereotypes.

Here’s the more complete truth: People commit crimes in their own neighborhoods against their neighbors. The statistics don’t reveal a “race” thing; it’s largely a zip code thing. Since the country’s poor neighborhoods are still pretty segregated by income and ethnicity, that means both whites and blacks disproportionately commit crimes against their fellow poor whites and blacks, respectively. It’s not innate criminal tendency or deep social pathology as the stereotype and bad statistical statements suggest. A significant contributor is zip code. Overwhelmingly people commit violent crimes against those they know. A fair amount of the homicide rate is “intimate partner violence,” or violence against spouses and girlfriends. None of this is excusable. All of the crime is too high. And that it’s committed against people you know, live near and look like make it all the worse.

But the relative comparison of Black and White in-group violent crime rates matters for properly adjusting our perceptions to the reality. African Americans are not that much worse than whites when their in-group victimization rates are essentially equivalent. Overall crime rates among African Americans is too high given our proportion of the total population—but so too are our stop, search, arrest and sentencing rates for the same crimes that others commit. We need to stop giving the impression that it’s as simple as African-Americans being more criminal by nature by telling more of the story for context.

“Nobody Is Working on or Protesting Problems Inside the Community”
A third familiar myth is that African Americans do not protest the black-on-black crime that exists. There are too many posts and tweets to cite here. Just Google the question: “Where are the marches against black-on-black crime?”

A rhetorical question of this sort has pretty good force, but it’s not really presenting any information to consider. The question leaves the reader hanging, suggesting that nothing is being protested or attempted. But that’s not true.

African-American protestors in New Orleans march against crime in their city.

The protest and personal responsibility themes in Voddie’s post, for example, are as old as the writing of Jupiter Hammon (1711-1806) and were the mainstay of African-American leadership (religious and secular) following Emancipation. Check the many addresses of men like Francis Grimke or Daniel A. Payne or W.E.B. DuBois. One could say their main speech was personal responsibility and not squandering newly earned freedom.

And these themes don’t die out with the passage of time. The last 2-3 decades have been filled with community-based, grassroots efforts like the Boston Ten-Point Coalition, 100 Black Men of America, the Stop the Violence Campaign, the work of the Children’s Defense Fund, and the plentiful youth programs that seem to be everywhere. Can we even count the number of youth groups and outreaches carried on by local churches all over the country? These things haven’t solved the problem by any means, but it’s just not true that no one works on or protests black-on-black crime.

And the protests go on. In March, African-American pastors in Jacksonville, FL protested to call for increased use of the death penalty to curb Black-on-Black crime. Yes, you read that correctly—increased use of the death penalty. Though the leaders of the Jacksonville march also seemed to think they were the only ones, in April youth in Charleston, SC organized and led their own protest against violence in their community. In January, two African-American men organized “Operation Counter-strike” to protest and curb violence in Montgomery, Alabama’s African-American community. Here’s a photo essay of recent vigils and protests in New Orleans. In the last five years, there have also been protests in Chicago, Harlem, Newark, Pittsburgh, Saginaw, Gary, Brooklyn (see here for brief descriptions) and too many other places to list.

The repetition of this falsehood simply proves (a) we aren’t doing our homework on this front and (b) media sources don’t get sensational about these efforts. Failing to realize that a lot of real unsung work is going on only perpetuates the stereotypes and stymies real action. If this isn’t happening where we live it’s because we haven’t organized it yet. But don’t pretend African-American protests against intra-community crime is not happening anywhere. It is. A lot.

“It Ain’t Racism; It’s Sin”
Finally, many people meet Ferguson-like situations with questions about whether such events are racially-motivated or simply unfortunate. Frankly, that’s a good and necessary question that in some sense has to be weighed on a case-by-case basis where the specific incidents are in view. People of good faith and conscience can look at individual cases and arrive at differing conclusions. After all, none of us can peer with omniscience into the hearts and minds of other people and conclude infallibly what they were feeling or thinking. We must leave that to God—unless the persons themselves confess such a motivation.

But does this mean we cannot suspect our systems of having systemic and systematic biases? After all, all of our systems were shaped and forged during long stretches of history where systematic bias was the stated acceptable norm and not the exception. Do we imagine that such systems change overnight or in a generation, or that they don’t bequeath to us a legacy of learned practice that still today sometimes carry unintended bias?

We are just plain wrong if we think such systemic bias is not possible and does not happen.

Further, to say the root problem is sin is absolutely correct. But to suggest sin does not manifest itself in systemic and systematic bias is absolutely false.

What is racism after all? Racism is a particular form of alienation and enmity that began with the Fall in Genesis 3 and was further entrenched with the curse of Babel in Genesis 10. Racism is a sin, yes. But racism is a sin with systemic properties. It’s predicated upon systematically recognizing a perceived difference and systematically assigning values and meanings to that perceived difference. To say “It’s not racism; it’s sin” is to fail to understand both racism and sin.

It is also to fail to understand the cross of our Lord and the extent of its power. The reality of racism is implicitly acknowledged every time the Bible tells us that in Christ “there is neither Jew nor Greek” or that we have been “reconciled” across ethnic lines. It is this alienation the Lord has destroyed in His body on the tree (Eph. 2). See this clearly: the defeat of that alienation called racism is accomplished not by denying its existence but by nailing it to the cross. This means the path to true unity is through the cross and through racism, not around it. Christ dealt with this sin. Now we too are called to deal with it by putting what remains to death (Rom. 6-8).

Of course we’re all sinners. But we have a duty to “repent of our particular sins, particularly,” as my good Presbyterian friends might put it. The kind of biases we see in stop, search, arrest, conviction and sentencing rates simply can’t be adequately explained or addressed with a general appeal to sin. It needs specific redress lest our theology becomes a form of escapism and leaves room for our continuing racism.

On Trees, Forests and Timing

Let me conclude by saying every tree can belong to a forest and every forest is inevitably made up of trees. In Ferguson-like situations, there are no doubt individual actors, personal responsibilities and personal accountabilities to consider. No doubt. Every time. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t also a forest to see, a pattern to question and study, a system to our behavior and policy that also is at play.

When people raise the personal responsibility theme as a way of denying any systemic issues, they really want us to believe there are no forests to see, to wander through, to cut paths through. On the other hand, some people want us to believe it’s only a forest, an undifferentiated glob of green leaves and brown bark but no individual trees. That’s wrong, too. We need to resist those kinds of selective argumentation and fight for a more complete understanding of the truth—not as a means of denying one or the other aspect, but as a means of rightly understanding both.

And I think it’s important that we consider when and how we raise these differing aspects of one problem: a fallen world. Sometimes our timing and tone really can be all wrong. That doesn’t mean we can’t and shouldn’t ever say these things. It just means there’s a time and place for everything. I think injecting the tropes discussed above when we’re addressing Ferguson-like events can be timed in such a way as to divert attention and stymie action. And I think it can be done in ways that are inconsistent with how we talk about other issues.

To illustrate, let me change issues for a moment to something else many of us reading this post would agree on: abortion. We believe abortion is an immoral practice, that laws allowing abortion are immoral, and that in many instances immorality (sin) places people in positions to desire an abortion. But when we talk about abortion, we don’t upbraid the mother seeking the abortion when a policy conversation is in view. No. We discuss the policy with all the force we can muster on behalf of all the babies we can save. If we want to talk about personal responsibility, chances are we do that in pastoral tones in pastoral settings, or we even volunteer and fund crisis pregnancy centers to create a safe productive place in which to engage the mother. As people who know there are multiple levels at which we must understand and address abortion, we always have personal responsibility in mind in some way but we seek a pastoral time and place to work on it. But when we are talking about Roe, we address Roe—it’s origin, it’s legality, the rights of states, the framing of the issue, etc. When we talk about the statistics on babies killed, we deal with the statistics. We don’t shift the topic and boil it completely down to a personal responsibility narrative, though we personal responsibility is a critical factor.

Whether discussing Ferguson-like events or abortion, conflating personal responsibility and public policy issues by insisting that only personal factors matter actually harms both personal and policy-level efforts at improvement. We force ourselves into a false binary, compelled to choose between two necessary levels of reflection and action. It’s a false choice, and in choosing to make one level of analysis the sole issue we afflict the afflicted.

View Comments

Why I Believe the Grand Jury Got It Wrong and Injustice Triumphed

Nov 26, 2014 | Thabiti Anyabwile

The United States continues to process the recent grand jury decision in Ferguson, Missouri. As protests gain steam across the country and interested persons pour over grand jury documents, the debate seems to only gain steam and the “sides” seem to further entrench themselves. As I’ve written and tweeted, a number of persons have said they don’t understand my position or they think I’m acting out of a bias. Because I think this is a moment for public discourse and that such discourse actually strengthens the public when it happens well, I want to lay out my view of the grand jury process and why it looks unjust to me.

Truth in advertising: I’m no legal scholar. I’m depending on the comments of some who are. I may have some things wrong and I’m happily corrected where I do. Again, that’s one benefit of a civil public discourse in times of sharp disagreement.

But here’s my perspective as clearly as I can articulate it. It revolves around what I understand of the grand jury process, the role of prosecutor and jury, and the definition of “probable cause” in determining if it’s possible that a criminal action took place. I’m not here arguing the facts of the case. Nor did the grand jury. I will refer to some of the established undisputed facts later, but only as a means of illustrating where I think probable cause existed, not as a means of saying, “This is what definitely happened.” I don’t know that. That’s not my claim. Please read with that in mind.

Grand Juries

The United States is currently the only country that uses grand juries as part of its legal process. Grand juries normally operate with high levels of secrecy or anonymity in order to preserve the integrity of the process. The grand jury is separate from the courts and is not presided over by the courts. They maintain significant independent authority to compel sworn testimony, produce documents, and conduct official proceedings.

The Prosecutor

The prosecutor is that agent of the state whose responsibility it is to present a charge for the grand jury to consider and evidence in support of that charge. Ordinarily, the prosecutor considers the laws of the state, considers the evidence and the likelihood of conviction on certain charges. This is informal and seems to be driven, in part, by some consideration of whether he or she can win the case in the court of law. But the prosecutors role is to lead the case against the suspected defendant.

Probable Cause

The grand jury, in a case like Wilson’s shooting of Brown, has the responsibility of determining whether there is “probable cause” that Wilson acted criminally in the shooting. Probable cause is a phrase that comes from the Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. It reads: “The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.”

Most of us legal neophytes are more familiar with the evidence standard used in the actual criminal trial: “beyond a reasonable doubt.” In criminal trials, the prosecutor must prove his case at this higher standard–no reasonable doubt. But in a grand jury, the bar for an indictment is significantly lower. The prosecutor need only present enough evidence to establish “probable cause.” Here’s a common definition of “probable cause”: ”a reasonable amount of suspicion, supported by circumstances sufficiently strong to justify a prudent and cautious person‘s belief that certain facts are probably true.”

There’s a lot of subjectivity in that definition. But notice how low the bar is. A prosecutor need only establish “a reasonable suspicion, supported by circumstances… that certain facts are probably true.” That’s all that’s needed for a search warrant to come into your house, and that’s all that’s needed to return an indictment in the incident of Wilson shooting Brown.

Why I Think the Ferguson Process and Decision Were Unjust

With that as a basic introduction, I want to lay out my perspective that injustice occurred on three grounds.

First, the prosecutor in this case failed to play the normal prosecutorial role. His job was to bring a charge for the grand jury to consider along with his case or theory for why that charge meets the probable cause standard. Instead, this prosecutor gave an untrained citizen grand jury (ordinary folks like you and me) five possible charges and inundated them with “all available evidence.” Without guidance or a prosecutorial case, he left them to sift through the mounds of information.

Now, there are a couple things that I happily admit at this point. I happily admit that this has the appearance of greater transparency when compared to what normally happens. And I happily admit that in the opinion and experience of many the more select presentation of evidence during grand jury leads to improper charges being filed. In other words, our current process also is liable to charges of unfairness.

But the departure from standard practice is significant. The failure to specify any charge or present any case, I would argue, is a dereliction of duty as an officer of the state whose job it is to either (a) bring charges for a grand jury to consider or (b) without a grand jury determine he has no case he can make. This prosecutor punted on first and ten. He simply did not do his job, in my opinion.

Second, as a consequence of the prosecutor’s failure to act, the grand jury was forced to do the work of a trial jury without the benefit of criminal proceedings. In other words, once the prosecutor failed to present a case–any case–the grand jury was left to examine “all the evidence” and reach a determination from a blank slate. But that’s not the grand jury’s normal role. It’s normally the role of a trial jury to hear both sides, weigh all the evidence, and reach “beyond a reasonable doubt” conclusion. But there were no defense attorneys and prosecuting attorneys present to argue cases. There was no judge presiding over the proceedings and giving instructions to the jury. This group of twelve citizens were left with an excruciatingly difficult task.

Moreover, they were presented with information that most grand juries would never have to consider because normally grand juries only determine if there’s enough evidence to establish probable cause regarding the prosecutor’s case. To put it plainly, by being presented “all the evidence,” the jury actually heard something closer to a defense attorney’s case or strategy than they did a prosecutor’s case. What we must all realize is that according to supreme court precedent, in an opinion written by Justice Antonin Scalia, the prosecutor is not under obligation to present exculpatory evidence, only enough to make his case, and that assumes he is making a case. Here’s the heart of Scalia’s statement from a tweet:

When the grand jury was to “enquire upon what foundation the charge may be denied,” they were left to construct an entire case. That’s an abuse of the grand jury process, in my opinion.

Third, I think there was enough evidence–properly presented–to establish probable cause. Again, I am not attempting to argue all the evidence or make a final pronouncement about what actually happened. I’m simply trying to illustrate why I think this decision was unjust by presenting an argument using the evidence that the prosecutor did not present.

Let me use three pieces of evidence and testimony: the blood and DNA evidence in/on the vehicle, the distance from the vehicle at which Brown died, and the officer’s testimony of fearing for his life. A case against Wilson, it seems to me, would have to challenge the claim that he feared for his life at the time he fatally shot Brown.

According to blood, DNA and a wound with powder burns to Brown’s thumb, there was a fight between Brown and Wilson at the officer’s car. Apparently Brown was shot two times at the car and fled. This, it seems, would have been a time for Wilson to justifiable act in concern for his life. I’m not sure any reasonable person (a standard for establishing probable cause) would disagree with this evidence or this conclusion.

But, no one appears to challenge further evidence that puts Browns blood 150 feet away from the officer’s cruiser and Brown’s body 135 feet away from the cruiser. Those facts seem to corroborate testimonies from several individuals. That Wilson exited the vehicle and fired his gun several (10, I believe) times at a fleeing Brown. That Brown at some point turned back toward Wilson and made some movement back toward the officer.

Now, here’s where a prosecutor could raise questions about probable cause if they wanted. Brown’s blood is 150 feet away from the cruiser, which is 50 yards, half the distance of a football field. Is it reasonable to suspect that the threat at the car had passed as a wounded man fled the officer? Was the officer justified in continuing to fire his weapon at that point?

The fatal shot to Brown’s head appears to have happened at some point between 150 feet and 135 feet. Witnesses describe Brown as turning with his hands up and saying, “Don’t shoot.” Other witnesses describe Brown as moving toward the officer or, as one witness claims, “charging” the officer. The autopsy reports suggest Brown’s arms were down when shot rather than up. But the witness accompanying Brown on that morning testified that Brown doubled over and clutched his body as if shot in the side. That could help explain why the fatal shot entered the top of Brown’s head. And if Brown were even walking slowly toward Wilson when he turned at 150 feet and was subsequently shot in the torso, the momentum of walking, doubling over and falling could explain the 15 feet distance between 150 and 135 feet. Anyone who has played football knows a falling receiving or running back can cover 3-5 yards, even with a tackler on his back. It’s possible that a man of Brown’s height and build, wearing only one shoe (recall the other sandal was near the officer’s car), doubled over with forward momentum and possibly trying to stay on his feet would have stumbled and fallen 15 feet.

So, we’d be left with the question: Did Wilson act in fear of his life or does the evidence suggest some charge would have probable cause evidence to support it?

But we didn’t get that proceeding. Instead we got what appears to be a grand jury overwhelmed with “all available evidence” without any theory for interpreting the evidence toward a charge from the prosecutor.

One more time: I an NOT saying this is what happened. I’m simply illustrating how the commonly accepted points of evidence could be fit into a theory to support a charge of manslaughter or something else. And I think we have grand jury proceedings to determine whether such charges are reasonable. But that didn’t happen here. For that reason, we are left with the specter of injustice.


Let me make one final point that the social science is abundantly clear on. Many of you know I’m a recovering social psychologist whose research interest included procedural justice. That’s the study of procedures (usually legal) and how the perceived fairness of those procedures affect satisfaction with the outcomes. The theory, over-simplified, goes like this: In situations where there are perceived winners and losers in a dispute, when people view the procedure for resolving the dispute as fair they have higher satisfaction with the outcome. So, if the process is fair, they tend to feel some level of satisfaction with the outcome even when they lose. That’s why this matters. It may not have averted the sinful aftermath of property destruction and looting, but it would have positioned many reasonable persons with greater confidence in the system and better footing to work with others.

Now, I don’t believe this situation is final. Justice–that perfect justice ushered in by the Perfect Judge and Lord–will be final. When He comes it will be good news for those who love His appearing, and it will be eternally devastating news for those who love unrighteousness. His justice will not be blind; it will be perfectly informed, comprehending all the facts and all the intents of the heart. His blazing righteousness will be the undoing of everything corrupt and in His kingdom there will be no evil. I wait with panting for that Day. Until then, I labor with the faith and resolve that comes from knowing such a Day is coming and we’re called to live in light of it.

View Comments

The Ferguson Grand Jury Has Given Us Our Marching Orders

Nov 25, 2014 | Thabiti Anyabwile

America has not failed us. We have failed America. “America” represents a set of ideals, a set of values organized into a polity and a promise. The thing about ideals and values is that we either live beneath them or we live up to them. What’s broken in the country is not the values and ideals, but the people who espouse but fail them. Last night Americans failed America.

We saw an American prosecutor fail the principle of “blind justice” by handling court procedure in a way most legal experts found a dereliction of duty. Over and over again we heard that the grand jury bar for an indictment is so low all it takes is a ham sandwich. Prosecutors who want to prosecute don’t “present all the evidence;” apparently, they present only that evidence that gets them the indictment and commences the trial. If that’s true, and I have to trust the majority opinion of legal experts since I’m not one, then Ferguson’s prosecutor failed to even live up to the low-bar ideals of his profession, much less America.

Shortly after President Obama took the podium, speaking from the bastion of American ideals and principles to all American people. Television broadcasts flashed the jarring juxtaposition of a President calling for peaceful demonstrations while tear gas canisters flew and angry protestors began the night’s destruction. President Obama began exactly where he should have: by reminding us that America is a country under the rule of law. It’s good for us to remember and respect that, the alternative played out in places like Syria and Iraq and the Sudan is too disastrous to entertain. The problem with Mr. Obama’s comments wasn’t the beginning, but the conclusion. With what did “the highest office in the land” leave us, but a few general admissions that “there is a problem” and an unhelpful rebuke aimed at media about riots making “good television.” In times of crisis our leaders must lead. That, too, is an ideal too many of us have not lived up to. The fact that the situation is difficult does not absolve us of leadership responsibility; rather, it heightens it.

Then there were those people in the Ferguson crowds who rioted. They, too, betrayed their own calls for justice as they fell well beneath the ideals of a country that protects civic protest as a right. A just cause may be destroyed by the use of unjust means. Watts, L.A., Harlem and D.C. still teaches us that burning down the communities in which you live can soothe unrestrained anger but it can’t produce justice. Those who live by the sword die by the sword. If anyone wanted to honor the life of Michael Brown and a lengthening list of others killed by police officers in suspect circumstances, they failed that ideal the moment the first match was lit or window broken.

And here we stand amidst smoldering flames, armored vehicles, television lights. Almost everyone angry–whether it’s the anger of riots in the streets or the quiet riot of the human heart. The question still remains: How shall those who believe in and love the country’s ideals respond?

Three broad courses are possible, only one righteous.

We may turn the television and turn our heads and continue the unusual business of business as usual. It’s an unusual business for anyone who claims to believe in American ideals, especially those who believe those national ideas at least resonate with deeper biblical ideals. Indifference is no option for the righteous.

Or, we may declare the matter resolved and proclaim from the burning rooftops, “The system worked.” It seems to me any robust measure of “the system” must include more than the verdict reached, but must also take an accounting of fair process and even the system’s response to its verdict. Even if we think everything happened as it should, that doesn’t mean our work is done. For that system needs nurturing and strengthening. It needs explication, inculcation, and protection. Our civic ideals require we remain involved in an open, honest discussion about what worked and what didn’t so that what we cherish isn’t slowly eroded by our inattention. That inattention is no option for the righteous, either.

The only course forward for all of us is that active engagement that applies and seeks to live up to our highest ideals. The debate about what constitutes “justice” is part of the process. The review of our systems and the amendment of laws is part of our highest ideals. The righteous must work to keep the foundations from being destroyed. They must walk by faith and they must do the good deeds that lead to life.

In this instance, I am a firm believer that Lady Justice miscarried. She lost the baby of righteousness in the first trimester, in the 100 days it took a grand jury to fail to find “probable cause” and the one hour it took a prosecutor to mutter his way through chastising television and social media on the way to prosecuting the evidence. Nothing about this situation seems just to me–from what we know of the shooting itself to last night’s verdict and riots. Nothing, except that we do have a legal framework and process and officials in that process sworn to uphold justice.

This means that from the miscarriage life may still spring. There’s recourse–even if historically it hasn’t always been offered to African Americans. There’s a way to honor our best ideals and to seek the elimination of similar situations, to seek a more life-protecting and just society, especially from its elected and commissioned officers.

What would that look like? Here are my first thoughts, admittedly offered in the groggy fog of a long night watching everything happen that should not happen. Feeling that strange sense of disbelief while knowing this would be the outcome. Here’s how I wish the President had ended his comments and what I pray the remaining movement in Ferguson, New York, LA and other  parts of the country would commit itself to.

A National Campaign to Protect Citizens and Police Officers

Forming a National Commission for Reviewing the Use of Deadly Force by Police Authorities. The aim of the commission would be to form a panel to (1) review the common factors leading to the deaths of unarmed persons in confrontation with or custody of police authorities; (2) review the grand jury process for ways to improve the representation of victims and further inform deliberations with juror legal education; (3) review definitions of imminent threat to officers and probable cause in grand juries; and (4) recommend effective community relationship and policing strategies with special focus on serving communities disproportionately detained, arrested, incarcerated and injured/killed in police interactions.

There really is no excuse why such a commission could not be formed today. The President could make this happen with another press conference and stroke of the pen.

Federal Requirement and Funding of Police Body Cameras

It’s no fix-all remedy. But the use of body cameras have been shown to improve interactions between officers and the persons they police. The technology is inexpensive and non-invasive. The Federal Government should require and fund the use of such cameras immediately.

Creation of a Mechanism for Appointing Prosecutors

According to most accounts, a grand jury indictment depends largely on the recommendation of the prosecutor. If he/she wants an indictment, they tend to get one. They present the parts of the evidence that lead to the conclusion. In this case, a prosecutor with a history of close affiliation with police officers and no record for ever bringing an indictment, “rigged the system,” according to one analyst, to get the result he wanted. He took the unprecedented steps of giving the grand jury “all the evidence” and allowing the accused to testify to the grand jury for hours instead of leading a prosecutorial effort with integrity. In this case, justice may have been served better by the prosecutor recusing himself, or, failing that, granting the aggrieved the opportunity to appoint a prosecutor better suited to lead the process. There needs to be a review of this part of the judicial process given the pivotal roles prosecutors play. There should be an ability to supplant a prosecutor suspected of conflicts of interest with an independent prosecutor.

The Demilitarization of Local Police Departments

In a country that cherishes the rule of law, there’s no good reason for small town police departments to be stocked with military surplus equipment–equipments whose sole use is the lethal restraint of enemy combatants. Ferguson is not Iraq. The African-American residents there are not ISIS militants beheading civilians. The possession and use of this equipment is immoral, unjust and provocative. Police departments have successfully quieted riots and looters without such equipment for decades now. In cases where more personnel and equipment are needed, the National Guard should be mobilized. The Federal Government should immediately remove weapons and vehicles from local departments where officers have zero training in its proper use.


I am no politician or elected official. I’ve been around public policy enough to know that it’s no cure-all. I’m not misplacing my hope. I have no sense that doing these things will fix everything or usher in the kingdom of God.

But this I do know: There is no way people of good conscience or people of Christian faith can look at the events in Ferguson and conclude there’s nothing left for us to do or nothing that can be done. No, both pure religion and good citizenship require we not settle for what’s happened in the shooting of Michael Brown and the aftermath of the grand jury’s decision. The Ferguson grand jury has given us our marching orders. They have ordered us to march for a more just system of policing and the protection of all life. We are obligated–if we love Christ or love this country–to find a way forward to justice, a way suitable to the dictates of our individual consciences and the word of God. Perhaps you don’t agree with my feeble recommendations above. Great! That’s freedom in action. Now propose something better and let’s get to work.

View Comments

Will Ferguson Be Our Transformative Moment?

Nov 17, 2014 | Thabiti Anyabwile

We’ve felt this feeling before, that sitting on the edge of your seat, stomach in knots, hoping to win but not hoping to offend feeling. We waited this way in 1992 to see what the jury would do when four officers were caught on tape beating Rodney King. The country watched this way as jurors returned a verdict in the O.J. Simpson trial. Again, we found ourselves leaning into our screens, clinching our jaws, straining to hear a favorable word in the George Zimmerman trial.

Now we wait for something to be said by the grand jury in Ferguson, Missouri. Most have taken their side, either in favor of Wilson or Brown or indifference. None of us are impartial, even if we’re simply partial for a world where such things didn’t exist or didn’t have to be reported and so divisive. Many want the moment to pass. To, as Rodney King put it, “all get along.”

But what if this moment could be different? What if this time something transformative could result?

To be sure, there will be “winners” and “losers” in whatever decision gets handed down. And no matter who “wins,” there will still be dissatisfaction on both sides. An indictment won’t bring Brown back and it won’t repair the breach of trust between those sworn to protect and those sworn to get justice. An acquittal won’t clear Wilson’s name and it won’t restore the integrity of a police department mired in ineptitude and scandal.

The transformative moment won’t be achieved with the jury’s decision.

The transformation will happen only with deep levels of empathy, repentance and love-inspired action. What if we began to feel again–not the feelings we always feel but feeling for “the other”? What would follow if we were able, for a moment, to share in the suffering or the shame of those facing us through police shields and across barricades? If we could identify with the officer’s anger, the marcher’s anger; the chief’s bewilderment, the parents’ bewilderment; or the child’s fear, there might be an opportunity to be larger than ourselves, more encompassing of others, and therefore compassionate enough to act differently.

Or, suppose we are able to tell the truth and shame–not the devil–but ourselves. Suppose we were able to bare all with the kind of moral nakedness rarely seen since the Fall of Adam and Eve. If we could but tell the truth about those suspicions, fears, doubts, hatreds, prejudices, manipulations, withdrawals, refusals, denials, threats, and maledictory wishes, then perhaps we could turn this into a moment–however brief–where truth made us free. What if our turning from our personal and national sins of racism, supremacy, bigotry and oppression meant the country’s turning into a shared freedom and reconciliation? What if we told the truth about ourselves–not our neighbors–for the first time? And what if we repented of our sins, of our contribution to the ugliness–if not in Ferguson then the ugliness on our blocks, in our schools, at our workplaces, even in our families? What transformations would happen in us and all around us?

And think for a moment about what might take place, having felt for others and freed ourselves in repentance, if we committed ourselves to love our neighbors and our enemies alike. Could this be a transformative moment if we stopped hating promiscuously, stopped blaming wildly, stopped accusing indiscriminately and started loving universally? Can we imagine an officer leaving the line, lowering his weapon, to join hands with a protestor? Can we conceive of a protestor quietly breaking ranks to approach an officer, kneel with bowed head, and pray for those in uniform? Could we join them? Could we be them?

If evangelicals cannot imagine such empathy, repentance and loving action, it might be because we’ve not yet appropriated the gospel deeply enough.

Some have not believed; some have believed only intellectually. Some have faith but no action. Such faith is dead. But true gospel faith calls us to be a purified people “zealous for good works” (Titus 2:11-14). The gospel rightly grasped issues forth in a people “ready for every good work” (Titus 3:1) and calls “those who have believed in God [to] be careful to devote themselves to good works” (Titus 3:8). Our problem isn’t that we have been so devoted to good works that we’ve forgotten the gospel. No, just the opposite. Our problem is that we have so lightly grasped the gospel we have not been careful to devote ourselves to the good the good news produces.

But this could be a transformative moment for the Church and for many who find themselves crushed, smitten and afflicted by a fallen and broken world. It could be a transformative moment if the Church–not only in Ferguson but around the country–would dare embrace its perceived enemies with love and endeavor to fight the cause of the poor and oppressed in that same love. The Gospel produces such people. The Lord expects it. The Spirit enables it. Are we willing?

We still await a response befitting our calling as Christians and evangelical leaders. The credibility of our profession and the gospel we cherish hangs in the balance, at least it does for those looking for hope and a way out of the Fergusons of the world. As stated earlier:

It can no longer be the case that to be “evangelical” means to care about either the gospel or justice. Evangelicalism must come to understand that justice and mercy flow inextricably from the gospel—both at the cross of Christ as well as in the daily carrying of our crosses. Micah 6:8 is still God’s requirement of us.

We gospel-believing Christians, preaching the crucified and risen Lord, are still this world’s hope for another world free from sin, death and injustice. The transformative moment comes when we live up to our calling.

View Comments

Barber Shop Grief

Nov 11, 2014 | Thabiti Anyabwile

I’m still moved by the story “Tara” told. A beautiful young woman full of an infectious bouncing joy that helps her glide rather than walk. Normally beaming with a face-wide smile, she was, for Tara, sedate. The story began optimistically. She relayed to us a conversation she had with a student the previous Friday afternoon. It was the first open conversation she’d been able to have with this student, who had taken her class before but hadn’t often shown up. This semester had been different. He made some effort, took interest in the subject, and began to build relationships.

The two of them sat working on a project together. As their hands molded materials and fashioned art, their words flowed effortlessly. He began to talk about his philosophy of life: “Live fast, die young.” Or was it “die hard.” Patiently, Tara asked why he took that view. As they talked, she began to hold out the hope of the gospel. For the first time, he seemed genuinely interested. In fact, he seemed hopeful. So Tara invited him to church with her the following Sunday.

Saturday evening she called to arrange time to pick him up. As she told the story, her face dimmed from its usual glow. If a light gray cloud could fill a face, I suppose that’s what it looked like. She explained that when she called to arrange for her student to come to church with her that Sunday, his mother informed her that he wouldn’t be going. Between Friday afternoon and Saturday night, the young man’s father had been gunned down in a barber shop. The family was distraught.

We sat stunned at the turn of events. And we prayed as a congregation for the student, his family, and Tara.

Several days later, I drove friends around the neighborhood, showing them the historical sites, giving them other landmarks so they might know their way around. I mentioned that one turn was near the barber shop where the student’s father was killed. My passenger said, “No. That’s a different shooting at a different barber shop.” We chuckled uncomfortably, aware of the absurdity.

Sunday night my mother called. She’d called a couple times which signals one of two things. Either I’ve been a bad son and I’ve not called recently enough, or something has happened back home that I should know about. I was guessing “bad son” because, to my shame, I hadn’t called in some time. I’ve come to recognize certain moods in my mom’s voice. Sunday night her voice carried that sound… the one where she tries to sound upbeat but she’s speaking too clearly and directly for it not to be serious. When I hear that voice I know the bad news isn’t long in coming.

Sure enough, she finished the pleasantries and said, “It’s bad news.” She continued, “Do you know Raunchy, the police officer? That’s your cousin, you know.” I vaguely remembered and confessed it’d been some years since I’d heard the name. “Well,” she said, “do you remember his son? Lil’ Ronnie?” I confessed that Raunchy’s son was an even fainter memory than that of his father. Undaunted, she asked, “Do you remember Marvin?”

Now she had a name I recognized. Marvin was one of my best friends from middle and high school. I can’t remember when I first met him, but we were friends from that instant. As a new kid to the neighborhood he became known for a little “Eddie Munster” peak growing down the middle of his forehead. We teased him, but it didn’t bother him one bit.

We rode our bikes together all over the city. He had one of the first mountain bikes I’d ever seen and could ride a wheelie on it as long as he wanted, up hills, around corners, everywhere. When we weren’t riding our bikes we were playing sports together. When we began to drive, we drove together. When we began to date, we often liked the same girls. Marvin introduced me to pool. Soon I got as good as he was and we argued non-stop about who was better. Marvin was quick to laugh, loud in conversation, and able to irritate you without making you angry. He thought he was so cool. In a way he was. He was confident. Nothing seemed to dent his appreciation for himself. I guess you could call that proud, but not in that superior-condescending way. He was simply himself and okay with that, even pleased.

I sometimes slept over at his family’s house and he at mine. He could walk into our house without knocking. When my dad left when I was 13, his father, Tinelli, adopted me as my own. He’d often tell people I was his son without explanation or hesitation. Lessons Tinelli gave his son he also gave me. We were family.

My mom delivered her news: “Well… lil’ Ronnie was in the barber shop getting his hair cut. Marvin pulled up outside and was talking with Flippo. When Ronnie saw Marvin outside he got out of the chair, went outside, and shot him in the head and killed him. Nobody knows why. They say Ronnie has been ‘going off’ lately. Other people say Marvin did something to him. We don’t know….”

This post has three points:

1. I am full of grief.
2. I am so tired of guns.
3. I want Jesus to come quickly.

Grief and hope may and must coexist if we are to avoid despair. As Christians we do not grieve as those who have no hope (1 Thes. 4:13ff). We dare not. And we wonder how those who know not Christ keep from being overwhelmed be grief. I don’t know. I do know that grief in this world can be so present that the hope of the next world seems insufficient. I almost feel that way now. But Jesus keeps me, and I cry, “Maranatha! Come, Lord Jesus, come!”

View Comments
1 2 3 4 5 206