Last week was a hard week. Very hard. And sadly, there could be harder weeks to come.
I’m sure I’m not alone in feeling a mix of sadness, exhaustion, fear, and confusion. There is so much hurt, so much grief, so many layers, so many story lines, and so many different voices clamoring for our attention. How can we possibly process everything that’s going on in our world?
The short answer is: we can’t. But that doesn’t mean we can’t try to think and respond wisely and Christianly. Here are a number of suggestions.
1. Pray. “Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your request be made known to God” (Phil. 4:6). Cast all your cares on God, because he cares for you (1 Pet. 5:7). Prayer is not what we do because we can’t do anything else. Prayer is what we do because we can do something.
2. Keep reading your Bibles. “May the mind of Christ my Savior, live in me from day to day. By his love and power controlling, all I do and say.” That’s not going to happen if we check social media more than we check the Scriptures.
3. Admit no one is a completely neutral interpreter. We all come from some place. If our interactions with police officers have been entirely good or often bad will surely shape how we view current events. Just like it will make a difference whether we grew up in the majority culture or as a minority. None of this condemns every viewpoint to the hermeneutical abyss, but it means we should understand we are all wearing some kind of lens. We would do well as Christians to try to understand how our brothers and sisters might see things differently.
4. Listen to African Americans. I grew up in a suburb of Grand Rapids surrounded by almost entirely white friends, churchgoers, and classmates. As far as I know my own heart, I’ve never had any animus toward others just because they weren’t white. I was pretty well drilled in the public school to lionize Civil Rights leaders and reject all forms of racism. But that doesn’t mean I was somehow magically “post-racial.” I’ve had a lot to learn, and am still learning—about African-American history, and pain, and how my culture is not the standard, and about a hundred things I never have to think about or face as a middle-class Anglo in America.
5. Listen to police officers. Believe it or not, I knew more African Americans growing up than I knew police officers (which doesn’t make me an expert in anything, only ignorant in more things than I realized). I happened to run into (not literally!) a police office a few days ago. I asked him how he was doing. He said the department was demoralized and afraid. It was a good for me to hear what last week had been like for him and his colleagues. Not incidentally, he said the same thing I’m hearing from many African-American brothers and sisters.
6. Don’t rush to judgment. It’s easy to think after a few minutes on the internet that we are experts on the Supreme Court, police training, what cops are really like, what Black Lives Matter is really about, why there are so many shootings in Chicago, and how each new tragedy could have been prevented. Let’s not be afraid to slow down and get as many facts as we can (Prov. 18:17). We must be people who pursue justice, which means defending our neighbor against every kind of unfair treatment and his good name against every kind of false report (Exod. 23:1-3; Micah 6:8).
7. Don’t catastrophize every catastrophe. At any given moment, the world is so much worse and so much better than we can imagine. On the one hand, if we could see every failed marriage, every abusive situation, and every dying person, let alone inside every sinful heart, the world would look unbelievably grim. But that’s not the only picture. Crime rates have actually been going down for several decades. Grinding poverty across the globe is much less than it used to be. There are, as we speak, wonderful stories we never hear about involving racial harmony, police kindness, and African Americans forgiving tremendous wrongs.
The news specializes in bad news. Chaos brings ratings. Normalcy doesn’t. Imagine life way back when before the internet. We would have heard about some of these incidents the next day in the paper or later that night on the news. People would talk about it at work for a few minutes and that would be it. Now, for better and for worse, we can’t escape bad news. We have national tragedies every week, not because bad stuff didn’t use to happen, but, in part, because we didn’t see it constantly like we do now.
8. Don’t politicize every tragedy. Think before your post or re-post. We are ambassadors for Christ, not for the Republicans or the Democrats. If every death always confirms whatever your narrative already was about gun control, terrorism, Black Lives Matter, or the cops, then we are looking for a way forward as much as we are looking for validation. Let’s keep learning and keep our hearts and our minds open. In the past week I saw some citing the Washington Post figures that of the 990 persons killed by police officers in 2015, 494 were White, 258 were Black, 172 were Hispanic, and only 93 of the 990 were unarmed. In three-fourths of the shootings, an attack was in progress. Meanwhile, others pointed to a Washington Post article referencing that police fatalities are fewer under Obama than during the previous four administrations. Do these numbers by themselves mean that there is never racial bias among law enforcement officers and that cops are obviously safer today than ever before? Of course not, but the numbers can help temper both sides from making sweeping generalizations.
9. Avoid Manicheaen interpretations of the past (or the present). News outlets aren’t looking to bring people together. Social media posts don’t go viral for being calm and measured. Everything around us pushes us to take sides and make every tragedy part of an us-versus-them, all-or-nothing, you-win-I-lose, good-against-evil cultural struggle. Sometimes the conflict is that clear-cut, but not usually, especially if we are thinking about fellow Christians who may vote differently or watch a different cable news channel. These are are complicated issues, with root problems that are long and tangled. If the solutions were simple we would have done them by now.
10. Consider that there might be more common ground than we think. If you ask ten Christians to summarize last week, you may get ten different responses, from “Racism is alive and well,” to “The men and women in blue are under attack,” to a more general “Our country is falling apart.” People in the church may not always agree on what we are seeing, but I think most of us agree on what we want to see. I think the vast majority of Christians in this country—Black, White, Hispanic, Asian, everyone—want to see all people treated fairly and humanely by the police. We also want to see police officers respected and come home each night. I think almost all of us agree, as I heard an African-American pastor say at the church I was visiting this Sunday, black lives matter and blue lives matter. I think there is a shared consensus, broad and deep (if not yet thick and thought through) that we deplore racial bias and violent retaliation, that traffic stops should not end in gunshots, and that cops need to protect themselves. We may not be as far apart as we fear.
11. Read a book. Blogs and tweets and Facebook updates are here today and gone tomorrow. Try picking up a book on the subject, maybe from two different perspectives. I just ordered Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness and Heather MacDonald’s The War on Cops: How the New Attack on Law and Order Makes Everyone Less Safe. I’ve been helped in the past by Shelby Steele (Shame), Edward Gilbreath (Reconciliation Blues), and David Kennedy (Don’t Shoot).
12. Lament. It’s okay to be sad. It’s okay to be confused. There are more Psalms of lamentation than there are fix-it Psalms. Show pity before you pontificate.
13. Repent. The problem in the world starts with your heart. And mine. Among other things, every tragedy is an opportunity for the Lord to show us our sin and lead us to the Savior (Luke 13:1-5).
14. Hope. The Church can show the world a better way. What do we have to offer the world? An insistence on truth, a commitment to grace, and a hope that does not disappoint (Rom. 5:5). We worship a God who created the world out of nothing, brought the slaves out of Egypt, and raised Jesus out of the grave. Surely the arm of the Lord is not too short to save, nor his ear too dull to hear (Isa. 59:1).
15. Remember God is sovereign. There is no chaos, no chance, and no spinning out of control with God. He upholds us with his hand, and so rules over heaven and earth and all creatures, that leaf and blade, rain and drought, fruitful and lean years, food and drink, health and sickness, prosperity and poverty—all things, in fact, come to us not by chance but from his fatherly hand (Heidelberg Catechism, Lord’s Day 10).