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Predictably, I’ve received a bit of pushback on my post yesterday calling for leaders of the evangelical movement to organize themselves to provide theological and practical leadership on issues that affect the marginalized and oppressed. Why such a call should ever receive pushback is itself worth pondering, but I want to focus on the chief reason stated for the pushback.

It’s essentially this: “We should not pass judgment on Wilson until we have all the facts.” If I had a dollar for every time I’ve heard that in the last couple of days, I’d at least be able to satisfy someone’s Starbucks habit for a week.

The critique has the semblance of wisdom, in fact, some people even call it such. They say that speaking out is “foolish,” rash, inconsiderate of Officer Wilson, even contributory to racial animosity and strife. We would be wise to be silent, they tell us. They’ve always told us that. “Just wait. Time will tell. Justice will be done.” And they tell us this as if they don’t have any assumptions of their own, as if they’re the objective bystanders, as if being “dispassionate” is a virtuous response when someone in any circumstance is killed, as if their rational powers are untainted by what they’ve seen or heard or untarnished by their own experiences, as if there is some moral neutral ground on which to stand, and as if their silence isn’t itself a statement.

To all of that, I want to say several things.

First, I’ve read and re-read and read again my two posts. Do you know what’s conspicuously absent from the posts? Any mention of Officer Wilson or the particular facts that are yet to be disclosed. Not one mention. Yet, everyone who has raised the “wait for the facts” objection has to a person taken issue not with what I’ve written but with what they fear I think about the guilt or innocence of Wilson. There’s a questionable eagerness to read into my words and to defend Wilson. Some deep reflection on why seems to be in order when I think I’ve made a legitimate call for biblical response.

Second, I don’t hear any protestor—not least myself—arguing against facts. From what I can discern the protestors have been demanding facts. We want more facts, not less. But the facts have been withheld or delayed over these past ten days. No one is setting aside any facts. If you want facts then the persons to pressure aren’t those speaking up but those clamming up, who swear an oath that reminds them of a public trust they’re to steward, and who have proven (at least in the eyes of the Governor of that state) that they’re not stewarding that trust well. Ask yourself: Why is it that the first autopsy report the public received came not from the government’s medical examiner but from someone hired by the family? Why, by the police chief’s own admission, did he release some information only after receiving repeated Freedom of Information requests? Why is it that the officer’s name was withheld for so long? I’m quite happy for the facts to be weighed in the particular case of Wilson. We need to insist on it. But in speaking up I’m not the enemy of facts. You have to look elsewhere for that. No one is arguing against the need for facts. We’re arguing for the appropriate and timely release of them.

Third, even though we don’t know “all the facts,” we do know enough facts to speak. Here are four simple facts to consider for all those who think silence is the response. Fact: Mike Brown is dead. Fact: We will never hear his story or see him speak for himself. Fact: His parents are left to grieve. Fact: He has now to face an eternal Judge and receive recompense for deeds done in the body, never again to have opportunity to hear the gospel and be saved. The most profound facts are the simplest facts. Some people want to accumulate “all the facts” so they can then conclude, “It’s too complicated.” That allows them to keep their cozy corners of indifference and inaction. It allows them to move on as if powerless to do anything–even speak. But we all know that the morality of an action isn’t determined by the proliferation and multiplication of facts. Multiplying facts only help us determine whether the particular situation has some exculpatory features. That’s useful in a particular criminal trial. But the basic right and wrong of a situation is as clear as “Thou shalt not kill.” One fact, one sentence above all others roots our moral understanding. Therefore, we can at least speak a lament for the basic wrong of killing that has happened, without suspending the relevance of all other facts in determining the next righteous (we hope) reaction. These basic facts alone mean we should say something—at least “We mourn with you” or “We will pray for you” or “We’re here for you.” Evangelical silence in the face of these basic facts is deafening. The pretension to dispassionate objectivity in the face of a tragic death must itself be the height of privilege, a privilege Michael Brown’s family certainly doesn’t have. When silence is only broken to tell the broken that their speaking is wrong, then you have multiplied the injustice by not listening to the grieving. You’re Job’s friends darkening counsel.

Fourth, we never have “all the facts” in a situation. Ever. The call to “wait for all the facts” is not in keeping with reality as we live it. We rightly speak against the killing of Christians in Syria—and we don’t wait for all the facts to do so. We rightly speak against killing unborn children in the womb—and we don’t wait for all the facts of a particular pregnancy to do so. We take our stand and have our say because we understand that all human life has dignity because it’s made in the image and likeness of God. We understand that all human life ought to be valued and protected, so we speak out in defense of life without “all the facts” and particulars. And we’re right to do so with Syria and abortion, and we’re right to do so when teenagers are killed in the street without clear apology or explanation. It’s hypocrisy to silence the mourning neighbor while we speak so passionately for the unknown sufferer. We ought to speak for both—the basic facts which we do know require it.

Fifth, it seems to me that when people hear or say “Ferguson” they’re understanding different things. For some of my respondents, the mention of “Ferguson” means “Wilson” and the specific events surrounding the shooting—even though I never say a single word about Wilson or the particular case. But for me and a whole lot of people “Ferguson” is emblematic of a whole host of events and experiences. There’s the shooting, of course, which rightly awaits final resolution in accord with the law. But then there’s the police department’s treatment of media personnel and peaceful protestors. There’s sloppy handling of reports and information. And all these things—the shooting, the police response, etc.—look a great deal like other situations we’ve seen unfold this month and over the years.

“Ferguson” isn’t about Wilson. “Ferguson” as I use it is about black- and brown-skinned people and our encounter with this country’s criminal justice system, from the police to the courts. It’s about a long history of being policed rather than protected and served. It’s about a set of experiences so ubiquitous there’s hardly any African American that hasn’t met at least suspicion from police authority and often harassment or much worse. I refuse to allow people to make this story solely about the facts involving Wilson because in doing so they conveniently erase the bigger pattern of facts about injustice. And this, beloved, is why Evangelicalism is teetering on the fence of irrelevance to the lives of the marginalized.

I Want to Be a Fool for Justice

My fellow pastor at The Cripplegate calls for silence, which he argues is wisdom not weakness. He quotes from my previous posts and from a wonderful post written by Joshua Waulk wherein we give two different perspectives. He gives those two perspectives as evidence that we should not have spoken. What he doesn’t cite is my and Waulk’s discussion with each other. He doesn’t mention that Waulk has tweeted links to my post and I to his. That we both have benefitted from speaking—even via twitter—with each other. And we both have had our own positions helpfully challenged and clarified by the exchange. He doesn’t seem to entertain the notion that “Ferguson” could be about both prejudices against police authority and prejudice against African Americans. And so he calls for silence as wisdom. Those who do otherwise, he says, using Proverbs, are “fools.”

But what wisdom would there be in Waulk and I not speaking and winning each other as brothers? What wisdom is there in a silence that risks nothing for the oppressed and grants no opportunity for understanding? What wisdom is there in a call for “all the facts” while ignoring some basic and publicly available facts that give cause to lament? What wisdom is there in a silence that actually speaks volumes about its willingness to not even comfort the grieving? If that’s “wisdom” give me folly. I suppose there’s reason to heed our Lord’s warning about calling others “fools” (Matt. 5:22).

My brother pastor thinks that by speaking before we “have all the facts” we’re putting the gospel on the line. I think by not speaking about about the facts we do have and the patterns of injustice affecting the marginalized we’ve already abandoned the gospel and what it demands of us.

You decide.

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12 thoughts on “Why We Never “Wait for All the Facts” Before We Speak”

  1. No pushback from me. I think these articles are some of the most relevant gospel focused words I’ve read in years. Other articles on this sight are feeling like self-serving fluff in light of this call to stop making excuses and speak with passion. Thank-you. May these words not fall to the ground.

  2. chosenrebel says:

    Thanks for both articles and thanks for your passion for justice and the gospel (Why must those two passions ever be separated?). It’s a long battle brother. Don’t grow weary. We need your voice.

  3. Matt says:

    I struggle with TGC a lot, but this article is breathtaking.

  4. Todd Wilkinson says:

    These past few post have been some of the most encouraging posts I have ever read. I thank you. Particularly since you stated earlier that you were attempting to stay away from such “hot button” issues. Brother, we need you. Right now you are standing in a position that is helpful for all sides. I thank you and I am praying for you.

    By the way, thank you for your compassionate, patient but frank and direct tone for all involved. Being more sober could benefit us all. By the way, I am an African American and I was on my to purchase a Roku streaming device. However, across my street is a Caucasian family and I don’t yet know where they stand with our Lord and Savior. I think I’ll heed your godly advice and turn the tv off and turn on the porch light.

    I can not thank you enough for this post!!

    In more ways than you will ever know.
    May the Lord Bless Rev.

    3rd John 2

  5. Jay Smith says:

    I really appreciate your posts, brother. I agree 100% with the demand for the facts. Unbelievable there has been silence for this long on the issue. I think the hard thing for some of us to discern is the separation of injustices between Police and black people in general, and the injustice between Police and Mike Brown. We should and do speak against abortion in general and killing over religion in general. For the most part there aren’t really specific cases or names that get publicized with these causes – no need for all the facts on an individual incident. For the most part it’s “killing the unborn is wrong”. But this situation is slightly different because people are assuming that Mike Brown was unjustly killed. That is what protesters are saying when they say “justice is an arrest”. I cannot back that without facts. But I can back that Police should not profile or target black people without cause, or that a person should be gunned down if there is another way out, without all the facts.

  6. Mark Trigsted says:

    TGC should be ashamed at this post… This is not a “Biblical Response” – One question Thabiti – Suppose Wilson was not a duly oathed officer of the law in good standing, but a member of your church in good standing? Same reaction? Equating this incident to killing of the unborn and murder of Christians is not defendable…. Sorry I guess I’m having a “gag reflex” my dear brother in Christ…

  7. Frank Turk says:

    Thaibiti —

    I think the fact that is evident a young black man was killed by a police officer. Nobody’s teenaged son ought to be killed by the police. Period.

    Everything said after that needs more to be said regarding actual facts and actual circumstances in order for there to be anything approaching an enthusiasm for justice. I’m 100% confident you would agree with both of these statements, but if I’m mistaken about that I would love to have a dialogue about it for the sake of being a more just, more compassionate, and more serious person about the state and future of my relationship with all my neighbors.

  8. Jake Phillips says:

    Once again, a fantastic article. Thank you. Stay strong.

  9. Brad says:

    Great points, Thabiti. I find the folks at Cripplegate to be brothers in Christ, but they tend to be pretty argumentative and extreme in their positions and rhetoric. I think you responded to them well!

  10. Aaron says:

    Agreed on the need for compassion and lament BEFORE facts are known. Agreed on the silence being deafening, and absolutely agreed on the Ferguson public servants completely mishandling of the whole affair. Thabiti, I linked to your original post, as I am the (white) father of a black son and hadn’t considered the issues you raised until I read that piece. It was heart-rending for me to read. I needed it.

    I received some pushback from a friend, former police officer, now in the federal govt. . . . who said what follows to me. . I’d love to hear your thoughts:
    “While I sympathize with what this father is working through, as someone from the law enforcement community I cannot help but be frustrated by one of his paragraphs:

    “Deadlier still are the many persons who seem not to recognize it. Who carry on without pause, who empathize with the shooter rather than the shot, who express concern for the family of the living but little to no regard for the family of the deceased, who talk of obeying lawful authority while witnessing the unlawful use of authority, who keep resetting the conversation to call into question the teenage victim while granting the benefit of the doubt to the grown up perpetrator. Whatever else teenagers are, we all know they can be incredibly stupid at times. Whatever else a grown up is supposed to be, we all know we’re supposed to be responsible and level. It is the adult who should have put away childish things. But we ask of the teenager what we should ask of the adult, and we accord the adult the latitude only stupid teens should receive. When the teen is large and “Black,” then he’s not a teen any more. He’s a menace. The calculation is faster than a speeding bullet. And it’s deadly.”

    Unfortunately, sometimes teenagers make adult decisions; when those decisions put the life of a law enforcement officer in jeopardy, from a personal standpoint, I certainly want to make it home at the end of my shift to my wife and children. When a teenager makes an adult decision on the street, you don’t get a time out…decisions have to be made quickly or you may not make it home. I would certainly hope that the populace would pray for both parties involved and until all the facts are in that labeling of perpetrator or victim be delayed. This has been a terrible year with an increase of law enforcement deaths. I wish there was equal concern for their families.”

    In this fast pace media blitz we live in every day, police departments have to publicly address situations. The days of no comment passed during the time of Jon Bennet. On the flip side you now have families hiring lawyers and spokespeople which have resulted in fingerpointing only further inflamed by the media.

    But again, my issue is with the writer’s lack of thought for law enforcement…and that is only deepened and more frustrating for myself, a believer…and what I can only imagine is a huge wall for non-believing law enforcement officers to read.”

    Many law enforcement officers have lost their lives at the hands of unarmed civilians.

    As for your friend’s blog, I will never read it again.”

    Bless you, Thabiti. . and thanks for some verbage and specific thoughts on how to speak before facts are in, in a way that unifies, honors, and speaks the Gospel to those who are hurting.

  11. C. Hernandez says:

    I have stayed out of the conversation being a young Hispanic male, but I see Thabiti as inserted brown skinned people into the discussion, so if I may say something being a brown skinned individual. First I do not dare to put myself in the place of African Americans in this country, the history speaks for itself, and I can not speak as if I feel what they feel when the thoughts of our countries history of injustice to their race comes to mind. But being a brown skinned individual raised in the inner city of Dallas, TX I know firsthand the effects of racial profiling. I myself have been put in handcuffs twice for mistaken identity. I have been pushed, cussed at, and followed home countless times. My dad told me stories of my grandfather not being able to go into diners to eat with his fellow “white” bowling team mates. He was made to eat outside the establishment for being Mexican, though he was born in the U.S.

    As you can see I have plenty of reasons to be angry, cynical and suspicious of our criminal justice system, and for a large portion of my life I was. It wasn’t until 2 things happened in my life that I started to see things differently. First, the gospel, When I embraced the message of the cross and the gospel I saw the harsh reality of sin, what sin does to fallen individuals, and what fallen individuals are capable of. When I saw things trough the lens of the gospel nothing surprised me not even the sin of racism. Second, education. As I began to educate myself and believe that with hard work I can go down a different path than most of my peers I started to get promoted into different social environments. As i began to meet other people, “white” people to be specific, I began to see that the perception I had towards them growing up in the inner city wasn’t all true. I met many who did care, who did love and who were willing to be friend those of other races. The question then became was I ready? Was I ready to reach out, was I ready to befriend other races? See, i grew up in a neighborhood 90 percent Hispanic and had no white friends growing up. I remember begging my dad not to send me to a mixed school, yes i loved my race that much. The problem in the way of racial harmony in my life had nothing to do with outsiders but with me. This young, angry, kid from the inner city had a lot to overcome

    So now I read blogs like these, and agree the evangelic community needs to be more involved, but my question is why now? Where was this passion before this incident at Ferguson? I pastor a small church in the inner city, and still deal with these realities every day. The problem I’m fighting is not the unfair criminal justice system, or “white privilege” as pastor Matt Chandler tweeted. The problem is fatherless homes, and confronting young men and women with the truth of the gospel. I deal with men coming out of jail, men that can’t get a job because of their criminal history. My advice to them is not “get down for the cause” or “yeah i know its unfair”. I let them know the realities of their consequences and exhort them to lead their homes and show their children a different way.

    I see a lot of pastors tweeting and blogging about injustice, oppression, and so forth and see no help in that. If i was still that young angry kid, seeing that would embolden me with anger even more. It is much easier to tweet, blog, protest, be vocal, and even weep than come to these streets, give out school supplies, get your hands dirty, serve some hot dogs, lay hands, and pray with these young, men and women that are really hurting. Yes people are angry, yes people are hurting, but adding to the false narrative that the actions of few rogue, undisciplined, even racist police officers make the whole system unjust is absurd. The numbers don’t back up your claim. In fact, if you look at the statistics of interracial violence in this country your claim as no ground to stand on. Our brown and black brothers are not being killed and hurt by those on the outside, we are hurting each other from within. Where is the passion to come and confront this? Confront the dope dealers, confront the hustlers, confront the rappers that glorify violence, confront the fathers who abandon their children? These are the real enemies to our communities. I read that minority parents are scared of raising boys in an America that is unkind to them. I have 2 boys of my own, my fear is not an unkind America, my fear is them being recruited by a gang in the neighborhood, or taking the bait of easy money selling drugs. This is what I will fight, the enemy from within, I will fight it on my knees, I will fight it with devotion, and I will fight it by fathering.

    I am no way saying to look the other way. I still deal with the occasional follow home by police, the extra attention in stores, and the dirty looks when I’m in a nice neighborhood. I can either choose to get angry, champion a cause, and vilify an entire race, or I can see the sin of racial profiling and racism for what it is, people of all walks are in desperate need of the gospel. That cop, that racist business man, that lost prevention security, we are all in the same boat. We are all infected by the disease of sin, and it can get ugly. My answer is not anger, its not championing a cause, my answer is prayer and action. Pray that God removes that heart of stone, that heart of racism, that heart of fear. Get active, get active with these kids, show them a better way, tell them the hard truths, be confrontational, become actively involved in my community and show them another way, the way of the cross.

    I love the passion, I love the willingness to act, and the calling on all to get involved. The problem is your narrative is calling people to get involved in the wrong thing.

  12. Justice Advocate says:

    Frank Turk, you’re mistaken in your facts when you say that there are no circumstances that might have justified the shooting of Michael Brown.

    Police officers are trained to identify circumstances in which lethal force should be used. Whether or not it should have been used in this situation is actually a second matter, one that must be fully examined. But you place an impossible burden on a police officer if you deny him the right and indeed, responsibility, to exercise lethal force in order to protect either himself or others from imminent danger.

    Officer Wilson has to live with the split second decision he made, whether it is right or wrong. If we truly love justice, we will honor and uphold the legal process, starting with a duly deputized grand jury, as they work to assess whether he was justified in using lethal force or not. Vigilante and street justice and politicized prosecution are not proper solutions to this situation, and if we truly love justice, we must reject these false notions of justice.

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Thabiti Anyabwile

Thabiti Anyabwile is a pastor for Anacostia River Church in southeast Washington, DC and a council member of The Gospel Coalition.

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