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.

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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.

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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!”

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Do You Know Crown and Joy Presbyterian Church?

Oct 30, 2014 | Thabiti Anyabwile

You should. Check out this video, pray for this plant, and send people needing a gospel church in Richmond this way!

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The Most Neglected Part of the Pastor’s Job Description  

Oct 29, 2014 | Thabiti Anyabwile

Editor’s Note: This post originally appeared at The Gospel-Centered Woman, a new site dedicated to helping pastors and lay leaders disciple women through the local church. Please visited The Gospel-Centered Woman and make use of the excellent contributions there.

The Father is kind to me. Because of His rich love and unending grace, I’m not only a Christian but also a pastor. And for reasons that cannot be explained apart from my Savior’s sheer grace, I count a great company of other pastors as friends and colleagues.

The pastorate is a fraternity, a brotherhood. When we are together, we do what brothers do. We discuss (or argue about) what pastors discuss (or argue about): preaching, theology, the churches we shepherd and sports. We laugh together, counsel one another, plot and scheme for the advance of the gospel. In some ways these confabs become a kind of 360-degree job review. We hit the major bullets on our job descriptions and reflect together on our progress and struggles.

In nearly all the meetings I’ve had with my fellow pastors we come to those areas where we feel ill-equipped, ineffective and perhaps even discouraged. One man mourns his prayer life. Another feels hopeless about evangelism. Still another recounts leadership challenges. Someone wants to improve their preaching. We all share our wisdom, our common struggles and encouragements.

But in all of this talk over the years, I’ve come to believe that the most neglected aspect of a pastor’s job description is the command for pastors to disciple older women in their congregations. It’s a massive omission since in nearly every church women make up at least half the membership and in many cases much more. And when you consider how many ministries and committees depend upon the genius, generosity and sweat of our sisters, it’s almost criminal that most any pastor you meet has no plan for discipling the women of his church apart from outsourcing to a women’s ministry staff person or committee.

Consider Paul’s instruction to Titus.

But as for you, teach what accords with sound doctrine. Older men are to be sober-minded, dignified, self-controlled, sound in faith, in love, and in steadfastness. Older women likewise are to be reverent in behavior, not slanderers or slaves to much wine. They are to teach what is good, and so train the young women to love their husbands and children, to be self-controlled, pure, working at home, kind, and submissive to their own husbands, that the word of God may not be reviled. (Titus 2:1-5)

Three things stand out to me in these verses. First, an essential part of the pastor’s teaching ministry is instructing people in how to live out the faith—“what accords with sound doctrine.” With all our emphasis on teaching and preaching we can sometimes slip into emphasizing doctrine alone, forgetting “what accords” with it. Christian doctrine is meant to inform Christian living.

Second, every pastor has a responsibility for teaching Christian doctrine and living to the various demographic groups in the body of Christ. This includes older women (v. 3). Quick: How many pastors have you known or can you name who have an active intentional teaching ministry to the older ladies in his church besides his general pulpit ministry? The pulpit ministry counts. But I suspect Paul has something else in mind in these verses because the emphasis on Christian living is so robust it’s difficult to imagine teaching all these things to all these groups via one outlet (the pulpit). But I cannot think of one pastor that regularly meets with the older women of his church, reads with them, talks with them, or instructs them in reverent behavior, bridled speech, sobriety, or teaching others. In fact, to our shame, sometimes the most ill-equipped persons in the church are the older women who feel inadequate to carry out their vital ministry to younger women.

Third, the pastor’s ministry to older women is no less a gospel ministry than his prayer, evangelism or regular preaching. In fact, the older women’s ministry to younger women—which the pastor should equip them to carry out—protects the gospel. This must be done so “that the word of God may not be reviled” (v. 5). I fear that far too many of us pastors don’t imagine much gospel fruit when we look at the older women in our congregations and imagine spending time with them. We’re much too drawn to the younger men who show promise. We’re much too attracted to career professionals who seem to be doing something in the world. We find it easier and more enjoyable to be with the youth group than to have tea with the senior ladies. We pour ourselves into the men of our congregation with hope of fruit while neglecting the older women who would not only bear fruit in their personal lives but in all the homes of our church as they train younger women in sound doctrine and sound living.

The negative effects of neglecting older women show up in our ministries in various ways. In the unending march of marriage counseling sessions with couples who haven’t learned the lessons of Titus 2. In the sneaking suspicion that we favor men rather than women. In the continuing concern that there’s no place for women in the church. In the feeling of oppression or marginalization many serious and saintly women express. In time, money and energy invested in women’s ministries that sometimes veer away from the church’s core mission. In the isolation, discouragement and hopelessness that some women experience. In the incalculable loss of wisdom when older saints aren’t equipped and organized to share with others. I could go on, but you see the point. A great treasure is lost and much pain multiplied when we pastors neglect this aspect of our job description.

So what to do?

First, repent privately and publicly if you think you’ve neglected the older women in your church. Turning again to God for help and turning to the saints just might open up a fruitful dialogue and meaningful relationships.

Second, do a lot of listening. If meeting with the women of the church hasn’t been a part of your ministry, or if that listening has largely been one-on-one personal conversation rather than a more systemic discussion of ministry to women in the church, then don’t assume you know what they think or how they feel. Listen. Ask lots of questions and sit back patiently. Having repented, hopefully we can learn from our sisters without feeling attacked, criticized or rejected. Listen, learn, and list out the themes you hear.

Third, identify some older women in the congregation who would be willing to study with you and your wife or perhaps you and a couple other elders. You can identify them simply by asking who’s interested or by specific invitation. Form a small group to read a book like Spiritual Mothering or Women’s Ministry in the Local Church. Start slow and start small. If this hasn’t been a part of your church’s ministry then it’s likely intimidating for some women. Build their confidence with encouragement and patience. Help them see God’s great vision for them in places like Titus 2. Help them understand that their ministry is as vital to the gospel and to the lives of fellow members as your own.

Fourth, pair the older ladies up with younger ladies. There are endless ways of doing this. Perhaps it’s a one-on-one relationship, or maybe starting new small groups. Or maybe there are specific aspects of the faith (say, living faithfully with an unbelieving spouse) that one or two older members have experience with and would love to help others in. Help those ladies host special fellowships or perhaps a tailored small group for a specific period of time. Listen to the ladies as they generate ideas for serving and help them get involved with the younger women of the church.

Fifth, have the entire church pray for these ladies as they study and prepare. While serving at First Baptist Church of Grand Cayman, our women’s ministry director, Meg Bodden, suggested we take a few minutes in a Sunday morning to pray for the older women who were becoming our women’s disciple making team. It was a wonderful celebration as 20 or so older women came up front, a little sheepish and shy, and bowed their heads as pastor and congregation committed them to the Lord. Many of these women have been and will continue to serve quietly in the background. But it’s good for us to give greater honor to the parts of the body that lack it (1 Cor. 12:23).

The most significant yet unused disciple making resource we have in our churches are the older, faithful women among us. It’s to our shame if as pastors we don’t have a strategy for investing in them and seeing them invest in others. But it will be for our joy and for the church’s strength if we do.

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The Healthy Elder Board Is a P.C. Elder Board

Oct 17, 2014 | Thabiti Anyabwile

The abbreviation “P.C.” has an almost universally negative connotation. We hear “P.C.” and we think “politically correct.” Being “P.C.” is synonymous with cultural capitulation, a kind of cowardice that refuses to call things what they are.

If that’s all the letters “P.C.” could stand for then we’d be right to suspect a “P.C. elder board” of unfaithfulness and ineffectiveness. But, thank God, there are other words for which “P.C.” can stand. And some of them actually help us define what a well-functioning eldership looks like. In general, I think we need “P.C.” elder teams. Here’s what I mean.

Personal Commitment

The first thing Paul mentions in his list of elder qualifications in 1 Timothy 3 is “desires to be an overseer.” He calls such desire “a noble thing.” There’s got to be the want-to in an elder’s heart. It’s that want-to or desire that germinates into personal commitment. We’ve all heard the adage, “You can lead a horse to water but you can’t make him drink.” Well, elders are horses. They’re the strong beasts of burdens that loyally carry, pull, dash and jump in service to the King and His people. Elders are noble steeds, war stallions for the church militant. But you can’t make them drink the waters of personal commitment. They have to want to. And once they want to, they’re unstoppable. Out of deep personal commitment to the calling they lead, learn, serve, pray, teach, sing, model, weep, rejoice, sacrifice, even die. You can’t keep them from the meetings of the church, the meetings of the elders, the special celebrations, the ordinary work days, the Lord’s table or baptism celebrations. They express their commitment in word and deed.

Healthy elderships call for such commitment. Elder teams specify precisely what they expect of one another and that becomes a floor for their ministry together. Without this floor of personal commitment elders sink into the hole of irregularity and unfaithfulness.

Principled Commitments

Principled commitments represent the theological and values-oriented perspectives of the elders. These are the foundational–sometimes unspoken–beliefs that guide worship, life, speech and behavior. These are the pre-conditions and presuppositions that define what’s possible, conceivable, worthy, and good–and simultaneously rule out things as unworthy, inconceivable, repugnant. Sometimes these prnicipled commitments get embodied in statements of faith, vision and mission statements, or a list of values. These principled commitments say to the elder, the church and the world, “This is what we believe and how we intend to live out our faith. These are inviolable, non-negotiable principles to which we dedicate ourselves.”

Healthy elderships clarify their first principles. They take time to examine the Bible and to discuss those values and beliefs that serve as the North Star in Christian witness. Once they lay these principles as a foundation, elder teams then take their stand on them. An unprincipled eldership will soon be an unruly eldership.

Practical Commitments

Finally, “P.C.” refers to “practical commitments” in a healthy eldership. These are the strategies, ministry approaches, processes and “how to’s” of a particular eldership and church. These practical commitments define how the eldership applies personal and principled commitments. How will they organize church services? How will they take in members? What process will be used for passing budgets or electing officers? Which missions opportunities will be taken on and how will missionaries be developed? Church life is full of practical, day-to-day decisions and processes that must be kept up. The elders need not implement all these things (in fact, getting too involved in day-to-day operation is a sign of poor health for an elder team), but they must ensure these processes and practices are consistent with their principles, lived out personally, and kept in good repair.

How These Things Fit Together

These three PCs have a particular relationship and can often signal health or dis-ease in an elder team.

As alluded to earlier, personal commitment is most foundational. Nothing good or lasting happens without personal commitment. If an elder or team lack personal commitment, chances are they won’t do the hard things of Christian ministry–at least not consistently. If personal commitment is absent then sacrifice will be absent, too. An elder may not give financially, attend meetings or services, or, worst of all, watch over the sheep entrusted to his care. In short, there’s no way for an elder to fulfill the call to faithfulness given in 1 Cor. 4:1-2 without demonstrating some personal commitment.

Some reading this will naturally think principled commitment should come first since that category includes theology. Surely an elder ought to hold to the church’s theology first? Let me suggest three reasons why personal commitment should initially take precedence over principled commitment. First, the Bible lists personal commitment first. From “desires to be an overseer” to all the character qualifications of 1 Tim. 3, we’re really reading the biography of a committed man–in his home, in relationships, in the church. Second, a church doesn’t want a situation where a man signs a statement of faith but isn’t really committed to it. The history of liberal denominations and churches often illustrates how disastrous such a practice is. Men who aren’t personally committed to the truth won’t uphold the church’s theology. Third, personally committed elders will also be teachable elders. They’ll be there to learn and grow. So even if you’re starting with a team that doesn’t see eye to eye on some things, godly personal commitment will enable fulfillment of Philippians 3:15-16.

Principled agreement is another phrase for “freedom.” Freedom isn’t created or maintained by saying to each man, “Live by your own rules or perspectives.” If each man is a king in his own eyes, then sooner or later someone will not only look to live by their own rule but to rule how others live. Preferences will be debated and sometimes forced on the group. There will be no plumbline to settle disputes. Each will be going their own way and sometimes battling or politicking to get others to follow. If these first principles are not settled, the underlying differences or uncertainty bubble up and pop. Elder teams will find it difficult to move on to practical matters of ministry as they repeatedly debate first principles or they may find their practical agreements hang by a thread because deeper principled confusion exists. But if the Bible and the church’s statement of faith are the unifying truth to which every elder is committed, and if they hold that agreement joyfully and deeply, it actually frees the eldership from the slavery of preference and tyranny of individualism. Their unity dispels suspicion. The shared principles or theology define and bind the team. With these first principles settled, men can move on to the practical matters of ministry.

In practical matters their freedom comes in surprising forms. One surprise will be the ability to disagree about practical matters without feeling personally attacked or opposed and without feeling as if the entire church may come to a halt or split. An eldership marked by personal commitment and principled commitment will not feel as if practical disagreements are high-stakes wars with winners and losers. They know each man’s dedication personally and to the ministry philosophy of the church. So they’re able to accept that the person disagreeing with them is filled with the Holy Spirit, wisdom and faith. They can receive from one another during discussions and debates because they perceive the other to be Christ’s gift to them personally and to the church (Eph. 4:8, 11). Commitment breeds trust. Trust enables freedom.


A “P.C.” eldership is a very good thing–if the “P.C.” stands for personal commitment, principled commitment, and practical commitment. Such an eldership is blessed with individual men whose personal desire leads to a broader group identity and a joyful freedom to work together. Is your eldership “P.C.”?

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What Marrying a Black Man Taught Me about Race and Why Ferguson Matters

Sep 15, 2014 | Thabiti Anyabwile

Editor’s Note: Today’s guest blogger is Dennae Pierre. Dennae is wife to Vermon Pierre, lead pastor of Roosevelt Community Church in Phoenix, AZ, a mother, and adoption advocate. 

250 years of slavery. 90 years of Jim Crow. 60 years of separate but equal. 35 years of racist housing policies. Does that explain everything? No. Does it mean something? Yes.

The Back Seat Passenger:

A close friend and dear brother of ours, Dr. Patrick T. Smith, is a professor at Gordon Conwell Theological Seminary. He gives his students the following example to help them understand how to hear from different world views:

Imagine that you are driving down a busy highway and you put your blinker on and prepare to merge into the left lane. All of a sudden, someone in the backseat yells, “Stop! You’re going to hit a car!” but you are confident that you checked your rearview mirror and feel certain there is no car in the lane next to you. What do you do?

The answer all comes down to how much you trust the person in that seat behind you. Is it a foolish, goofy middle school boy who likes to blurt random things out? If so, then you will likely ignore the voice and get into the next lane.

Or is it a trusted friend? Your peer? Your equal? If so, then you will instantly put on your breaks without thinking or question.

Patrick goes on to explain the issues related to understanding the complexities of race are similar. Whether or not you are willing to listen to another voice bring light to an issue that you may have a blind spot on all comes down to how much you trust the other person.

My Story:

My husband, Vermon, and I instantly connected on every subject under the sun. Our early dates included endless discussions on theology, politics, and race. But we didn’t (and still don’t) agree on everything. Passionate debates and differing views of a few subjects have only worked to draw us closer and help us grow in our perspectives and faith. But looking back, I can honestly say that I had this pride in the area of race. I thought because I agreed and resonated with Vermon on his thoughts about being black in American that it meant I “got it.” It wasn’t until we had our first real argument in this area that I realized how much I didn’t understand…

I was 23, prideful, and very confident in every single opinion. We had been married a few months.

We were brushing our teeth when Vermon mentioned some excited feelings about the thought of Obama becoming our first black president. I failed to realize that Vermon’s statement wasn’t about agreeing or disagreeing with political positions. It wasn’t about being a democrat or republican nor was it a statement on who he thought would be better for our country. He was simply excited, given the history of our country, that America finally had the potential to elect a non-white president.

But I missed the emotion he was expressing and went straight to my “facts.” I didn’t ask questions or trying to understand what he meant. I just got into some logical, factual argument about why I preferred another candidate to win the primary and twenty minutes later my husband was mad at me. We were still holding our toothbrushes, jabbing our opinions back and forth, getting no closer to agree and quickly dividing our hearts while wounding the other.

At some point Vermon got quiet, and I saw a look on his face that I instantly knew I never wanted to cause in my husband again. It was exhaustion, tiredness, and frustration at trying to explain his 30-years of racial experience to his confident and prideful partner.

That began a journey of realizing that I didn’t “get it.” I may have been able to have deep discussions with my husband about race, but I hadn’t lived THAT intimately side by side with someone who was African American and really given them permission to give me all their unfiltered thoughts with no threat of judgment, just a desire to really understand. It occurred to me in that moment that my other black friends likely filtered their experiences and true feelings from me in order to prevent that same “tired” reaction I saw in my husband’s face.

After many tears and a deeply broken apology, I decided that I was not understanding the emotion Vermon was trying to communicate to me, but I needed to try.

Vermon then gave me one of the greatest gifts of this life and brought me into the inner circles of his dearest friends and let me participate in conversations where I didn’t have to prove I “got it” or that I could relate based on my own experiences of injustice, pain, or suffering. I simply had an opportunity to love and be loved without having to prove my own knowledge on a topic or relate in some way. I got to ask a lot of questions and hear a lot of stories.

I also had the ability to see black men relax and breathe a little lighter because they didn’t have to filter themselves in order to not offend people or get accused of playing the race card. I began to notice that when we leave our multi-ethnic community in Phoenix to spend time with Vermon’s dear brothers who are black that he had the freedom to joke, lament, dream, and discuss life as a black man in America in a way that differs from when he’s here.

I will never fully understand the deep hurt and pain my husband and his brothers share over different incidents. But now that I am 8 years down the road, have black sons and daughters, have dear friends who have shared their experiences of unspeakable horror and constitutional violations in America’s ghettos, have seen my husband racially profiled & white friends question the reality of his experience…after that, this is now an issue that goes beyond “facts” but also resonates emotionally with me.

Why Ferguson Matters:

Here is what I believe it comes down to. We can disagree about facts. Some post articles sharing one perspective, and certain “facts.” Others post different eye witness accounts and different “facts.” I see some feeling more for the police officer and others feeling for Michael Brown’s family.

A healthy discussion allows us to look at it all, read it all, listen to it all and ask, “can this all fit together as one story?” I believe it can. It does not have to be innocent vs. guilty, right vs. wrong, or a self defense killing vs. a murder.

If you took some time to really listen to what many (not all) African Americans are saying you may hear something like this:

“Let’s just assume, for argument sake that Michael Brown was guilty & and that was the police officer’s only option…

we are still broken.” (this, friend….is where you ask…why?)


(the answer to this why is long and complex…most especially in the south…so ask the question to multiple people who are wrestling with this right now…)

Or perhaps you would hear this…

“We don’t trust the police. The same police force that pepper sprayed our peaceful protest last week, fire hosed my grandfather (who is still alive by the way) and turned a blind eye when his brother was lynched. We repeatedly experience search and seizures without warrants. Our community is 67% African American and yet our police force of 53 only has 3 African-Americans on it. It is hard to trust facts when you have directly seen grandmas, sisters, and friends disrespected for no reason by the police.”

Or perhaps you would hear…

“I’m tired of never being heard. I’m tired of not being able to share my experience or opinion without being called a race baiter. Or an angry black man. Yes, I’m angry. Angry and tired. I’m broken that the minority that looted take away from the majority that have protested peacefully. I’m broken that death is an everyday occurrence in this community, that our kids aren’t being taught to read in our failing public school systems while the white suburban and country schools are thriving and receiving all the money.”

This is what I have heard from my friends who have experienced Ferguson first hand. My backseat voice telling me to brake is not the media, CNN, Fox News, Facebook, but trusted friends, brothers, sisters…my husband. When these people yell “brake” I am going to slam on my brakes, regardless of what others say.

You can “yeah, but” or you can just listen and observe. Observe a community weeping and ask … Why? Observe a community rioting and ask why? Observe people thousands of miles away deeply impacted, maybe even depressed over it and ask why?

I want someone to remind me to think and pray for that police officer and his family. Unless he truly is evil, he is likely broken and afraid. Even if he feels justified in the shooting, he has to live with the reality that he killed someone. That is never easy.

But unless we sit down, together, and converse face to face and listen to each other, that perspective won’t get added to the conversation.

I have read all the articles I can find on both sides of the position and my conclusion is that it is ugly, messy, and complex. I am not calling the police officer a murderer, but I dare not say Michael Brown deserved death either. Who am I to make that judgment on either person? But what I will do is stand in solidarity with my African American brothers and sisters who are broken and mourning. I will talk on the phone, pray with, and say, “I’m sorry you are tired.” I will give the benefit of the doubt to the community who has little reason to trust the police.

I will always mourn the brokenness of the most marginalized and poor in our community. I will lament at watching a city full of impoverished people steal and loot and the complex reasons that happened. I will stand proud of those who protested peacefully. I will grieve and pray for those who were violent.

What heals?

Some believe that uncovering the “facts” will heal the wounds. But they aren’t your wounds-so perhaps you should ask instead of tell what will heal those wounds. And dear brother or sister, you have your own wounds…and there will be a time and place to bring those things to the table too. But I assure you the “facts” will not heal them either. I know this because they are emotional wounds. They have context in each person’s own narrative and story. Healing happens as we sit, side by side, and wrestle with each and every individual story and the history that preceded that incident. And that can only happen through deep relationship.

Ferguson matters because it has brought up wounds that are deep. Wounds that have never been healed. It is a reminder that this is a topic we cannot ignore. Division does not come because you believe there is a racial divide or systemic injustice. Healing does not come by reporting “facts.” History and the scriptures tell us what heals:

Humility. Listening. Weeping with those who weep. Comforting those who mourn. Humility. Listening. Say, “explain,” “tell me your story.” Humility. Making room for different perspectives. Humility. Humility like that of our wonderful Savior:

“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. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross”

Philippians 2: 4-8


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The One Thing My Mother Would Not Let Me Become

Aug 26, 2014 | Thabiti Anyabwile

I’m in Northern Ireland at the Bangor Worldwide Missionary Convention. I first had the privilege of serving these dear saints back in 2008. I guess I didn’t scare them off because they’ve been kind enough to bring me back this year. This mission convention has been going on for nearly eighty years, attracting missionaries from around the world and participants from across Northern Ireland. The fellowship is warm, the singing joyful, the call to mission zealous!

I thought I’d come to Northern Ireland and have something of a respite from the news and opinions concerning Ferguson. But, as it turns out, events in Ferguson have been a significant part of news coverage across the pond, too. So my friends in Northern Ireland have asked me what I thought. They’ve taken a genuine interest. And as I’ve talked and they’ve listened, some have confessed that the situation somewhat confuses them. The closest analogy would be the “Troubles” between Protestant and Catholic, but nothing quite like the racial picture of the U.S. seems to fit their experience. When they ask me to explain, I take a deep breath trying to figure out where to start, and quietly acknowledging to myself that I don’t know everything.

The Beginning of My Suspicion

But for me it started at my parents’ dining room table. I must have been about the age of my son, around seven, when my parents started what felt like a campaign of encouragement. They’d repeatedly tell me, “You can be anything you want to be in life, even President of the United States.” Then they’d follow with a question, “So, what do you want to be when you grow up?” I was trying on answers during that period of time. Professional football player. A professional basketball player, too. Lawyer. Doctor. Perhaps something exotic like a marine biologist. They encouraged every ambition. Except one.

One evening my mom asked me the question and with beaming eye I answered, “A police officer.” I don’t know where the idea came from. Maybe we’d had an elementary civics lesson on “Officer Friendly” or perhaps a visit to our class from an officer. Perhaps it was watching “Kojak” or “Starsky and Hutch” (I know; I’m dating myself!). But whatever was the source of inspiration, it all got dashed in a moment. My mother’s face grew solid, the soft flesh of her cheeks stone. She snapped back, “You cannot be a police officer.” I asked why. She said, “I will not have you arresting our people all the time.” I think she also said something about worrying and sleepless nights, but her main point had to do with this adversarial relationship between the police and African Americans. I mentally crossed the police off my list of aspirations and got on about the business of being a little boy.

Where Does This Distrust Come From?

During the last week, some genuinely concerned people have admonished me about what they perceive to be an unhealthy bias against police officers. They have with good intention taken the position that those in authority should have our trust and support. I’ve had a running conversation with at least four officers or former officers concerned that I’m spreading distrust of them and their mates. They think it’s better if people with a public platform of any size would encourage trust for officers.

I’ve benefitted from these exchanges, if for no other reason than it demonstrates once again the very different lives African Americans and White Americans live in the same country. For my white interlocutors, the thought of not trusting the police never crosses their mind. It’s the right thing to do. It’s basic civics. That’s, in part, why even the peaceful aspects of the protests in Ferguson look to them like a “riot.”

So I’ve been trying to find a way to explain the distrust and the sometimes angry protests. Let me put it as starkly as I can: For nearly all of African-American life in the U.S., the police force has been the local arm of white supremacy and oppression. Ask yourself, How does white supremacy, racism and oppression get enforced for centuries even in cities and places where African Americans were the majority? How was it possible to enforce slave codes and Jim Crow segregation? What local means of power did the state exercise to “keep Blacks in their place”?

Since the late 1600s up to the end of official desegregation, the official local means for enforcing white supremacy was the police. Oh, there were guys in white sheets and pointy hats who made their appearance later. And there were the over-zealous plantation overseers and paddy rollers that hunted down slaves. But even their actions received sanction from the state and police, or at the least a turned head by local authorities. You see, this is the story of men like my grandfather who fought in World War II, only to come back to a segregated America and be publicly harassed and beaten by police officers while in uniform. Not even a battlefield abroad proved their commitment to the country or earned them an equal place in it. There were local uniformed police to make sure of that. More often than we’d like to admit, the ones beating on the door, wearing the hood, burning the cross at night, or falsifying reports by day wore uniforms and badges.

Much African American mistrust and suspicion comes from living in a police state, a brutal and dangerous police state in which for many long centuries there was no recourse to “blind” or impartial justice. Lady Justice could see very well. She could see your black skin, assign a weight to it, and tip the scales against you.

That’s been an everyday truth for most of African-American experience. It’s a truth passed down at dinner tables between mothers who love their sons and sons wanting to play with toy guns or imagine one day being officers. It’s a truth recounted in history books—not the official books of public schools, but the books African Americans have worked to write in order to remember their names and tell their stories first person. It’s an experience that shapes generations. So the moments when little boys and girls daydream with their parents about what to become when they grow up intersects the story of an entire people. Like waters flowing from oceans into rivers, the moving memories and sediments get passed along until they puddle up in some lake and there grow with each wave that enters. Memory is long. The memory of hurt longer.

How Long?

The idea that African Americans have lived in a police state in the United States may be something new to White readers of this post. That, again, just shows how different the lived experiences have been.

And you may be asking at this point, “How long?” How long will the remembrance of past injustices dog the steps of inter-ethnic peace and progress? How long will the sins of the fathers haunt their children and children’s children? How long must we keep falling into this rut, this tires-stuck-in-the-dried-mud rut of mistrust and suspicion?

I have two answers.

First, how long do you think it takes a police system and a justice system to exorcise the poison of officially-sanctioned racial animosity? How long do you think it takes people and systems to move from embraced and open racism to something resembling a true content-of-character, love-believes-all-things heart? How many years might be required before those who view the “other” as “little black perverts” can begin to view them as sharing the same precious humanity, or those who view officers as “pigs” can return the favor?

Is ten years enough? Twenty? How about thirty? Or perhaps the fifty or so years since desegregation began to crumble?

Are all the racists and the racist sentiments of a police force with hundreds of years of practice gone in one generation? Have all the attitudes and practices that made forceful subjugation of African Americans possible disappeared in a couple of decades? Does justice travel city halls that fast and that sweepingly? I suspect not. Is it possible that the basic posture of police forces—though changed significantly—continues to be one of patrolling and suspiciously judging African Americans?

Now, I know there are lots and lots of fine officers who do heroic work in the most difficult and daily circumstances. I know there are many women and men on the front lines who are honorable and who would resist the impulses of racism with vigor. And I know that there are many people–many African Americans among them–who deserve to be arrested, justly tried and sentenced to whatever terms appropriate. This is not a matter of pretending all African Americans are guiltless or that every allegation of mistreatment is true. Far from it. I am as glad as anyone when criminals are properly arrested and taken off the streets.

But our police officers work in a system. And systems don’t change overnight. Systems have a way of molding the behavior and attitudes of the best of people. That’s true of every system, and it’s no less true of law enforcement. It’s true even when you put a black man in a blue uniform. They find themselves acting out prejudices or facing the prejudices inside the force. The invisible hand of systemic prejudice is always at work on everyone in the system. So how long it takes to be over these issues depends on how long it takes us to level serious critiques of systemic injustice and do the heavy lifting of standing upright a totem leaned against African Americans.

Second, how long it takes depends on how quickly we realize that we’ve got things backwards. It’s not “race” that gives rise to racism, but racism that gives rise to “race.” The idea of “race” is what racism made up to cover up its ugliness (see here for this view). The sooner we stop pretending “race” exists and understand that the root problem is racism, the sooner we make some progress as a country.

That Bedeviling Two-ness

So I pause real long before I answer the questions of my Northern Ireland friends. I pause and I think. And I realize a story this old, told in so many ways can’t be easily explained in a few polite moments of conversation. And I realize that rehearsing the story repeats the story,entrenches the story, spreads it farther. So I try to get to the load-bearing wall of the entire problem: The problem we face is a product of the fall, which blinds us to the fact that we are all descended from Adam and encourages us to misdiagnose the problem as anything but our own corruption.

And even as I give that answer I’m experiencing that DuBoisian two-ness, that being an American and at the same time being African, that being a citizen and being outcast, that being torn between “I, too, sing America” and “Ain’t I a man?”

This week I’m singing “Ain’t I a man?” because it seems so many of my correspondents have forgotten.

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I Wonder If Seeing Really Is Believing

Aug 22, 2014 | Thabiti Anyabwile

I don’t even know how to write this post.

So I’ll be brief.

Last night I read with much appreciation John Piper’s comments about police restraint. If you haven’t, you should read it, along with posts from Bryan Loritts and Al Mohler and Rachel Held Evans. I didn’t follow the link Piper provided to the actual footage of the other shooting he mentioned. I thought it was perhaps the edited footage from a news segment or something.

This morning something led me to watch the footage.

I’m sitting here weeping, so I’ll let the footage speak for itself.

Please be warned. It’s a live cell phone recording of police 9 miles from Ferguson shooting and killing another unarmed African-American man who has apparently committed a petty theft and who acts in a defiant manner when police officers emerge from their patrol car with hands on hilt. UPDATE: Police maintain he was brandishing a knife. This is not a television show. This is real life.

This video does not suggest this is what happened in the case of Brown and Wilson. I’m not saying that. Perhaps it is; perhaps it isn’t. But I wonder if seeing this unfold before our eyes will help us believe that it’s time for leaders to speak out about the statistics and the multiplying incidents that prove a pattern of unfair and severe treatment. This punishment does not fit the crime. That, too, is a virtue and promise, a public trust, that is supposed to undergird our criminal justice system.

The case I and so many others are making is that the cries of “Injustice!” don’t rest upon the facts of Wilson-Brown alone. The facts there will be weighed and a judgment reached. But then there are the facts piling up everywhere else, sometimes on video, and they cry out for justice quite apart from the particulars of Wilson and Brown.

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

Aug 20, 2014 | Thabiti Anyabwile

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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