I do not know precisely what happened that tragic day when Officer Darrell Wilson shot Michael Brown to death. I’ve read some reports and watched some video, and gone back and forth thinking, “This is unconscionable police brutality and murder” to “Wow, what else could the officer do?” I don’t have all the facts, just press reports and some opinions and a lot more questions than answers. I sometimes wonder if I’m the only one left with some doubts, but most of the opinions I’m reading declaim with certainty and confidence that I just don’t have. Those who opine seem assured that they understand exactly what happened and why. I grow less certain every day.
I watched a video a couple of days ago that fascinated me, made by a man on the scene who started filming soon after the shooting took place. At the very beginning he said, “The cops shot him for no reason.” Several other bystanders joined him and repeated that almost verbatim. “For no reason.” “For no reason.” Over and over again. Then someone came along who had actually watched the shooting and he explained some of the details. Evidently, they realized, this incident was more than just a calloused (white) cop shooting down an unarmed and helpless (black) man on the streets, “for no reason.” Whether the reason justified the shooting is for others to decide, but the assumptions of the onlookers were shaken by the introduction of facts.
It seems to me that a lot of my friends, bloggers, and commenters here have fallen into the same trap – making a snap judgment and assuming that their perspective is completely accurate.
- Racist white cops gunning down an innocent black citizen.
- An unjust system exposed once again.
- Militarized police acting like soldiers instead of law enforcement officers.
- Looters! Lawbreakers. Troublemakers.
- There are Al and Jesse again, just stirring things up.
- We need law and order! Support your police as they go out to battle crime in your neighborhood.
We’ve seen about as many opinions as we’ve seen opiners. At the risk of oversimplification, I’ve seen
- Racism and injustice reaction – focused on the continued presence of racism and injustice in law enforcement and the legal system.
- Law and order reaction – supportive of law enforcement and generally dismissive of the claims of those who see racism and injustice.
- Police abuse of authority reaction – militarized police and the abuse of authority as cops turn into soldiers, oppressing free speech and the free press.
I’d like to make a few observations about the reporting, discussions and facts as I’ve seen them in this debate.
1. We are very comfortable shooting from the hip.
We make snap judgments on complicated issues. If you pinned me down and forced me to hazard a guess as to what really happened that day, I would guess that Michael Brown was aggressive towards the police and did some things that provoked the men in blue. I’m also thinking that perhaps the police were a little intimidated by this large man and his behavior and responded with force – perhaps more than they needed. The truth might well be somewhere between the extremes of overt racism and completely justified law enforcement action. I don’t know. Maybe someday I will. There is a verse in Proverbs that talks about how one side seems right until the other side presents its case. Most of us will never really know what happened that day.
That does not stop us from drawing firm conclusions, writing strong opinions, and holding fast as if ours was the only view that could possibly be right. Simply put, most of us act like we know a lot more about Ferguson than we actually know.
2. We are quick to paint the other side in bad light.
- Supporters of Officer Wilson are racists and enable the police state. They ignore justice and turn a blind eye to the systematic oppression of blacks.
- Critics of Wilson don’t care about law and order, support reverse racism and discrimination and side with Jesse Jackson (them’s fighting words.)
- And, if you don’t agree with me on this subject, you probably love to drown puppies.
Of course, these are exaggerations which I hope make the point. We stake out our own positions and put those who disagree with that position in the worst possible light. In this fractured, partisan, divided world, that is a natural (if sinful) tendency. Unfortunately, this attitude has spilled over even into the Christian world, where we treat those who disagree with disdain, as if their viewpoint makes them enemies of the Cross, of the Bible and of the Church. Hyperbole? Perhaps, but not by that much. hat is not really hyperbole.
It is a common failing among bloggers, the “you who disagree hate Jesus” response to differences of opinion.
3. While our justice system is based on “innocent until proven guilty,” our opinions are not.
In our legal system, one accused of a crime is supposed to be regarded by the law as innocent until the crime is proven beyond a reasonable doubt. Would that it were always so, but despite frequent failures in application, it is still a fundamental legal principle in America. It is not a principle we hold dear in American public opinion.
Remember Richard Jewell? The press had him tried, convicted and sentenced and public opinion was demanding summary execution against him for his role in the Atlanta Olympic bombing. One problem. He didn’t do it. He was innocent. By the time he was exonerated, his name was smeared in such a way that he never recovered.
We go through that every time. By bedtime on the night of the shooting, most Americans had heard all the evidence they needed, had convicted the guilty party, and were ready to pass sentence. Michael Brown was a hoodlum who attacked the cops and is responsible for his own fate. Darrell Wilson is a murderer, and probably a racist. Ferguson cops are jack-booted thugs ready to turn their town into a police state.
Guilty! Appeal denied! Lock them up!
4. We see what we want to see.
Most people see things like this through the lens of their own convictions.
- Black people, who have been subjected to racism and discrimination all their lives, who know firsthand what DWB is, who are used to being viewed with suspicion because of their skin color – they tend to see this as another instance of brutality by a white cop against a black citizen. They’ve seen it a thousand times. They live it. Why wouldn’t they make this assumption?
- Many white people, who reject the notion of “white privilege” (denial ain’t just a river in Egypt), who (rightly and honestly) deny that they are racist or have ever discriminated against black people, and who value law and order, see this as another instance of unruly people who are stirred up by Jesse and Al, who overreact and riot and loot.
- Those with certain political leanings see this primarily through their libertarian lens and focus on police militarization and the loss of liberties, the increasing power of the state and such trends.
And guess what, each of them has a point. Black people have been mistreated in this beloved land for 400 years. It is the most shameful mark on American history and it has left a stain on black culture, an anger that often overflows sometimes into violence. Most of the white people I know are genuinely not racist or discriminatory. They just can’t understand why they should be held liable for the sins of the past. And I join in the concern about the growing power of the federal government, the trend toward police overstepping their bounds and denying civil rights. Reading stories about the cops arresting members of the press for reporting on the situation ought to chill all our bones, even if we view the press as leftist elites who slant their reporting. It’s still better to have a free press than a police state. Most of the sides in this debate seem to have at least a partial hold on truth.
My point is that we tend to look at situations to verify and buttress our opinions and convictions. We approach Ferguson and other such tragedies not with the question, “I wonder what really happened,” but with the attitude, “See, this is just what I’ve been talking about!”
I would never suggest that Christians soften their convictions, but it might be helpful if we tried to look at this from the other side.
- Members of the Law and Order brigade, maybe you could try to understand what life is like as a minority in America. Sympathize. Empathize. Try to see the other side.
- The Anti-Racism and Justice league, take a deep breath and see how rioting and looting could cause good, decent people, who are not racists, to withdraw support from your cause.
There are levels and perspectives on this argument and the wise person will try to see all sides. Avoid rushing to judgment and try to hear the facts, not just those that buttress your viewpoint and affirm your convictions. Be careful about the proverbial rush to judgment and the bloodthirst that often develops in the wake of that rush. Most of all, pray for the churches of Ferguson, that God might use them to bring real healing to that city.