Confession time – many of you have followed the events in Ferguson, Missouri, a lot more carefully than I have. I have followed the story but not delved into every eyewitness report or followed the debates closely. I did, however, follow the news coverage Monday and watched the St. Louis County DA’s press conference. I have a few opinions and observations that I’d like to proffer for your consideration.
It is with great trepidation that I wade into this quagmire. Racial issues can be explosive, even on a Baptist blog. But here’s my take.
1) Justice was done in St. Louis County.
I saw several interviews today with family members and friends of Michael Brown, with community leaders and others who demanded that “justice be done.” It was clear that when they said, “Let justice be done,” what they really meant was “Officer Darren Wilson has to be indicted.” They defined justice according to the outcome. They were, of course, disappointed and even angered by the fact that the grand jury returned a “no true bill” decision.
I have no idea exactly what happened on the street that morning. It seems clear to me that Michael Brown could have made some different choices and he might still be alive. Perhaps he was a victim, but he was not without culpability in the tragedy. He could have and should have done things differently. Still, I wonder if Officer Wilson could have handled this in such a way that he would not have had to use deadly force to protect himself. I am not a police officer and I don’t know what he went through, but were his actions absolutely necessary?
But justice was done in St. Louis County. Justice is not about getting the outcome you want, but about a fair process being followed. It appears that all of the evidence was given to the grand jury, every witness was heard from, and great care was taken to try to do the right thing. The grand jury, after an arduous process of examination, decided that Officer Wilson had reasonable cause to use deadly force.
It would have been unjust if witnesses were excluded or evidence was ignored. It would have been unjust if a predetermined outcome had been fixed. It would have been unjust if the grand jury had listened to public opinion and press pressure and rendered a verdict based on that. But the evidence I’ve seen, to this point at least, is that they examined the evidence comprehensively and rendered their decision carefully.
That is justice. Justice is having your day in court, having the evidence heard, having a fair jury render an impartial verdict. Justice is not simply demanding that the government or the justice system do what you want.
We ought not be too quick to substitute our own judgment (based on our opinions and the limited evidence we have seen) for the judgment of those who have seen all the evidence.
2) This problem is about a lot more than one tragedy in Ferguson.
For the family and friends of Michael Brown, this is about the loss of one young man they loved, but for most people this is about a lot more than this situation. Some look at the situation and see abuse of power and racial injustice while others look at the same situation and see lawlessness and violence.
Our views on this situation tend to reflect our macro-views of racial issues in America. The facts of the case take a back seat to our passionately-held views of racial issues. The DA laid out a pretty compelling case that the evidence did not support charging Officer Wilson with a crime. The jurors spent months meticulously reviewing all the evidence in the case and rendered their decision. But there is such suspicion and lack of trust in the system that many people simply did not trust their decision.
That leads to the third point.
3) The Ferguson tragedy reveals the racial issues that still exist in America.
There has been progress in America on racial issues in recent years, and there has been progress in the SBC as well. But if you think we’ve solved our racial problems, all you need to do is look and listen to the coverage of the Ferguson tragedy.
Many African-Americans see a system of pervasive discrimination, believe the deck is stacked against them in the halls of justice and are frustrated at the pace of progress. Many white people tend to see race-baiting and blame-shifting and are frustrated about being called racists for their views and opinions on issues.
Race is still a quagmire in America…still.
4) Whites must seek to understand why blacks feel the way they do.
I am not a racist, but I do benefit from being a white person in America. I’ve never been pulled over by police because I’m in the wrong part of town with the wrong skin color. I’ve never been refused service at a restaurant because of my race. I’ve never been suspected of a crime for being a white guy. These are constant realities in the lives of black people, especially young black men, in America.
By the way, most of the scenarios I mentioned happened in Sioux City in recent years, to a deacon in my church, a man of dignity, gentleness, and grace. In the months before his death, he told me stories of things that happened to him in Sioux City, Iowa – not exactly a Klan hotspot. Racial profiling, discrimination and injustice are still real in America.
We, the white majority, need to realize that we do have certain privileges that are ours because of our race. The playing field is not completely level. Black people have a completely different experience in America than we do and it is incumbent on us to attempt to understand it.
Here is my thesis on racial issues:
The racial situation in America today is the result of centuries of white oppression, discrimination and dehumanizing treatment of black people. Though our forefathers caused this, not us, it is right and just for us to lead out in correcting it. Black people ought not have to demand justice, we ought to do all we can to give it!
5) Let Baptists be the leaders in racial reconciliation.
It is no surprise to anyone that the Southern Baptist Convention does not have a proud history in terms of racial issues. The defense of slavery was at the root of the founding of our convention. For more than a century after the elimination of slavery in America, Southern Baptists continued to practice discrimination, segregation and racism, and gave spiritual cover to despicable acts.
To deny that these things happened is to seek to revise history. Yes, there were voices among us calling for racial reconciliation, but the simple fact is that in far too many churches, we tolerated the intolerable – Southern Baptists were too often part of the problem.
We’ve owned that and repented of it. We’ve taken some significant steps in racial reconciliation. But as Southern Baptists resisted racial justice in previous generations, we must be leaders in it in the future. Let’s make it our goal to root out every vestige of racism in our churches, to stand against racial discrimination as the evil that it is, and take positive steps to demonstrate to our commitment to making Black, Asian, Hispanic and other ethic people full partners in Baptist life.
We need to be models to the world of racial reconciliation through the gospel, not because of guilt or some sort of outside pressure, but because the love of Christ compels us. May God grant us the courage to do this.
6) This is an issue that isn’t going away any time soon!
Little more needs to be said about that, does it?