For the Record…

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I’m grateful for Phil Johnson’s gracious and clear reply to my post responding to his Facebook “poke” (his word) at me. I’m even more grateful that Phil isn’t interested in a prolonged brouhaha, which the Internet sees too much of on any given day and rarely results in much light. So this won’t be a prolonged reply inviting more exchange, and in a very real sense it’s not directed at Phil, though I’ll use some parts of his post as convenient jumping off points. It’s trying to set matters straight publicly–matters having to do with what I do/don’t think about some very important issues. And since I’m the only one who can definitively say what I think, I suppose I have to be the one to say it.

Let me apologize for the length of this. If you like, skip to a section that most interests you. But I’ve written at some length because I don’t intend to revisit these things. So here goes:

1. I am unwaveringly pro-life.

I believe life begins at the moment of conception. I believe that life ought and must be protected. And I consider myself consistently pro-life, which I define as valuing and wanting to defend life from the womb to the tomb. I decry as heinous, evil, tragic and sad any unjust taking of life by anyone at any time against any person of any age–pre-birth until death. Some people took exception to a tweet where I asked an interlocutor “What about the living?”, by which I meant people outside the womb. I did not in any way mean to imply that people in the womb were not among “the living.” I see how people could infer that if they want. But that is most definitely not what I meant or what I believe or what I have ever believed. I believe life begins at the moment of conception and ought to be protected by every just means.

Here are just a couple things on this blog written years before this kerfuffle:

2. I have not and I do not recommend anyone vote for Bernie Sanders.

At least since October 2012, I’ve been making the case for why I won’t vote and why I don’t think there’s a viable candidate worthy of a Christian’s vote. I know that’s a minority position. I don’t expect to be terribly persuasive. It’s just where I’m at. And I’m in good company, even if we’re a small number. Even someone who worked so tirelessly for African-American enfranchisement as W.E.B. DuBois saw in his day presidential races wherein he would not vote. Some people think I’m playing some kind of double speak here, saying I wouldn’t vote but encouraging others to vote Sanders.

But here’s the context:

That article essentially demolishes the Clinton claim to fostering policies that help African Americans. Based on that article, the original tweeter said this about Sanders:

So, in context, I was criticizing Democratic policies in conversation with a person who is not a Christian and is supporting Sanders. I was longing for every African-American voter to read it and avoid what it describes. Nothing in that is an endorsement of anyone; rather, I state it’s a critique–a damning critique–of the entire party.

Then my dear sister who knows me so well, who had taken the time to read the article and understand my point of view, asked me a harmless and fair question, the two of us assuming so much understanding of each other. I replied with two tweets (because who can say anything in one?):

In answering “Sanders” was a good candidate for the vote, I was accepting a “forced choice” situation. I could have said, “No one.” And in retrospect, given all the hoopla, I wish I had and left it at that. But I was trying to have a conversation and to say Sanders is who I thought would get the vote. I was saying that because, in my opinion, he’s the candidate (only?) trying to talk at length with African-American voters about their concerns and represent those concerns the way the voters themselves would. See, for example, this endorsement from the daughter of Eric Garner:

The fact that he would produce a 4-minute commercial told almost completely in the voice and from the perspective of an African-American mother, the daughter of an unarmed man choked to death by a police officer, is unprecedented and indicative of his willingness to give at least this issue a major platform. Nobody else is doing anything remotely close to that. No one has ever done it in presidential election history. If voting is, in part, driven by self-interests and quid pro quo, I think Sanders stands a good chance of getting the vote. He’s playing the game.

All of this, of course, was in my head and folks reading tweets can be forgiven if they’re not mind readers. But having already established that (a) I don’t think I could vote for anyone and (b) that I think Democratic policies have been disastrous for Black communities, I never assumed anyone reading the tweets would think that my answering “Sanders” amounts to an endorsement, and certainly I didn’t think anyone would go so far as to say I was supporting abortion. But that’s exactly what happened.

So, to put the matter straight:
* I do not endorse Sanders.
* I do not endorse Democratic public policy, especially the sort discussed in the article.
* I do not support abortion.
* I do not endorse any candidate in the race.

3. There’s no drift: I stand by my T4G talks.

Phil wants you to believe that I’ve departed from my 2008 and 2010 T4G talks. To demonstrate that, he posts a clip and quotes from a couple of lines about repentance being the “irreducible minimum” of the gospel and “winning the culture” not being the goal of pastoral ministry.

I believe both of those things today! Join us for any service or listen online and you will hear me preach the gospel and call people to repentance and faith. I try to do that every Sunday and I don’t believe a preacher has done his job unless he does. And I have never said anywhere that my goal was to “win the culture.” If Phil thinks I’ve foisted “justice” on his comments, he’s certainly now foisting “win the culture” ideals on my tweets and posts. I continue to think it’s indicative of a slip in focus when people say “winning the culture is the goal of the church or the pastor.” That is mission drift.

But one can preach the gospel and simultaneously call for justice. In fact, if one understands the gospel properly, they must teach “what accords with sound doctrine” (i.e. the gospel). Justice accords with sound doctrine. Calling for it is part of Christian discipleship and Christian witness. The real problem here is that so many seem utterly incapable of imagining that one can see gospel proclamation as the main thing and maintain that the “whole counsel of God” or “teaching them to obey everything I have commanded” includes acts of justice, mercy, compassion, righteousness and so on. There’s no contradiction or drift there whatsoever.

Perhaps what should be noted is that some people are trying to make the entirety of my beliefs rest on one or two tweets or one or two sermons. To do that, they have to make me contradict myself. To make me contradict myself, they have to ignore plain statements I’m making now. I stand by my T4G talks, yet those talks are far from encompassing all that the Bible teaches and therefore all that I believe.

4. Hands Up, Don’t Shoot

For some time now there’s been this trope floating through the interwebs. “Thabiti defends the ‘hands up, don’t shoot’ lie.” As far as I can tell, this line goes back to a post I wrote in support of protestors and pictures I clipped and used that had protestors holding up signs with that phrase on it. From the beginning of the Michael Brown–Darren Wilson situation through the many cases that followed and in interviews, I’ve written that the point for me was not the particular details of the case (which must be adjudicated with due process) but the general pattern of injustice. The individual cases may fall one way or the other–and they have. But there’s a forest here to see. That people are still bringing up “Hands up, don’t shoot” strikes me as tying themselves to a tree in refusal to consider a forest.

5. I mentioned “justice.”

Phil is correct; his tweet and facebook post do not use the word “justice.” Fair enough. But isn’t that what we’re talking about? Aren’t we debating whether this or that cause is just, if this or that strategy is just, if this or that alliance is just? Whether we call it “biblical justice,” “social justice” or just plain “justice”, I think that’s a fair umbrella to hoist above the particular concerns. Abortion is a “justice” issue. So, too, is the treatment of citizens by agents of the state with the responsibility and right to exercise lethal force. I don’t much care which term we use (though I’m comfortable using “social justice” and fighting to distinguish it from faulty ideas). I really care that we try in our own spheres and in our own ways to advance the Bible’s notion of justice wherever we find injustice. Here’s my concern: A good number of people spend all their time labeling and discarding those of us who want to discuss and pursue justice, and it seems to me comparably less time actually working for any robust form of justice. That’s a problem for evangelicalism I think all Christians should consider if they haven’t.

6. On use of terms

UpdateI want to thank Phil for removing the word “agitator” from his post following our exchange. That was gracious and kind of him. That puts the matter to rest as far  as any personal exchange between him and I goes. I’m leaving this original section hoping it’s beneficial for subsequent readers.

Original comment: Phil wants to use “agitator” to describe me. Fine. He want’s to use a textbook definition of the term and give a little history. I learned a lot from that. And in the end, he wants to set aside concern about the term and argue it has nothing to do with “race” and everything to do with the “agitator’s” political views. I respect Phil. And he’s shown me respect in his post. But that’s a naive and laughable notion. King was not called an “agitator” because of his “political opinions.” He was called an agitator by racists because of his “race” and because he sought to undermine their unjust system. We’re now discussing many of the things King himself addressed in his short lifetime, across dividing lines that look frighteningly similar, using the same words to label, and we want to act as if it’s just language. It’s not. Not any more than if I were to call Phil a “racist.” I’m simply trying to help the discussion, especially for those watching who might stumble before they hear well. If my counterparts aren’t willing to consider that and work on it, then they prove some of the worst thoughts many have. That’s sad to me.

And I should respond to the notion that my using a loaded term like “social justice” was equivalent to Phil’s use of the term “agitator.” I agree wholeheartedly that both terms are loaded. However, my term describes issues that we can debate. Phil uses a term to describe me. The entirety of his post was an expression of concern or doubt regarding me, my drift, etc. That’s the difference–the significant difference. He gets personal in a way that I haven’t with him. At no point have I called into question his commitment to anything vital. Quite the contrary. I’ve only tried to express respect for him. “Agitator” does not communicate the same for me. I tried to give everyone a sense of how the word is heard by others. Rather than reciprocate in kindness, Phil doubles down. He charges me with creating a climate that makes his son’s job more difficult and dangerous when I write generally about injustice among police officers, not knowing his son. But he doesn’t recognize how historically “agitator” language has made life more difficult and dangerous when people use it specifically of individual African-American leaders. There’s a blind spot here, but it’s not solely mine.

7. Yes, I still stand with protestors.

Now Phil and others want to say that means I stand with the organization #BlackLivesMatter. I’ve repeatedly clarified that I do not. Even in the DG video linked above, I point to the unhinging of biblical morality from the current #BlackLivesMatters movement.

But I do stand by the hard-earned and constitutionally protected right of people to protest in support of the principle “Black lives matter.” I do not support violent protests. I do not support looting or vandalism. All of which I’ve been slanderously said to encourage and condone. I do not. I support the legal right of people to assemble.That right is particularly important to African Americans who for a couple hundred years were denied–sometimes violently–that very right. I think the cause is just. I think the laws of the land grant the right to protest. And I don’t think there’s any contradiction between legal rights to protest granted by the government and submission to authorities a la Romans 13 and other places. In this case, protest is submission because government grants the right.

8. Arguing about racism and abortion

That’s not an argument I feel compelled to have. Someone wants to argue abortion is the “biggest sin.” Okay. I see why they’d say that. Someone wants to argue racism is the biggest sin? Okay. After a couple hundred years of chattel slavery, followed by counter-Reconstruction, the rise of Jim Crow, the terror of hate groups like the Ku Klux Klan and the White Citizens Council, lynchings, castrations, the burning of black cities and neighborhoods, redlining, separate and unequal education facilities, employment discrimination and all the social attitudes, mores and enforcement practices that go with them… I can see why they might say “racism is the biggest sin.” But, honestly, must we choose between the two? Shouldn’t we fight with all our might against both of them and against every injustice? That’s where I stand. That’s why single-issue, abortion-is-biggest, don’t-talk-about-racism appeals aren’t persuasive to me. Neither abortion or racism are the only thing to champion. I think the Christian heart has to be large enough to include both and much more.

9. I have a son, too.

Phil disclosed his concern for his son, an officer serving admirably and courageously in a tough neighborhood. Phil, and many others, think I’ve made his son’s job more difficult and dangerous by the things I’ve written.

I honestly don’t know how that could actually be the case. It seems to assume either that I endorse violence against police officers or that criminal elements in his son’s neighborhood are reading my blog. I highly doubt any criminal element in any neighborhood is tuning in to Pure Church. And I’ve never called for violence against an officer. Yes, blue lives matter. Absolutely. I wrote the following on December 10, 2014:

I take it for granted that a reasonable person understands that in calling for criminal justice and law enforcement reform I am not suggesting that all officers and staff involved in this system are racists or wicked or anything like that. The people who work in these systems have the most difficult jobs, often without the best resources and with little thanks. This is not a screed against those persons in uniform who put it on the line day-in and day-out for our collective well-being. This post is a jeremiad against those officers and practices that betray the many good women and men who serve in Law Enforcement and who rob the service of its dignity and respect by their corruption. It’s those unfaithful officers and administrators who make this a pressing and lethal civil rights issue.

I’ve always believed that. But I’m learning that I can’t take anything for granted in these conversations. That’s shame on me.

But let the record be set straight: I do not wish harm on any officer of the law. I’ve never wanted to say this for fear of it looking self-serving to some, but I have police officers and state troopers in my family, too. I want every officer’s safety and I want their families whole and I want officers to use their considerable authority justly and to be called to account when they don’t. What I want for officers is, in fact, the same things I want for the families they police.

You see, I have a son, too. And I have my fear for him. He’s on the other side of this equation. And we’ve chosen to live in and minister to one of the most dangerous neighborhoods in my city. He’s growing up in a similar kind of danger Phil writes about. But while police officers can offer an effective defense by simply saying they feared for their life, my 9-year old son if in the place of Tamir Rice and others faces the prospect of being killed then branded a “thug,” “a demon” and so on. In life and in death in this current climate, he has no justification for playing with a toy gun, talking on a cell phone in Wal-Mart, having a mental health issue, or even running away when he’s afraid. All of that can get him killed.

I can identify with Phil because I know what I feel for my son. And if I don’t ring the bell “Blue lives matter” more often, it’s because I’m looking at my son and longing for him the way I suspect an officer’s immediate family does. I get that some in this discussion really want me to ring the “Blue lives matter” bell more. But for that to happen, some of them are going to have to unabashedly ring the “Black lives matter” principle more.

CONCLUSION

Last year this time I sat in California with a former officer for a couple hours discussing these very things. We came into the meeting prepared for the worst, I think. We left the meeting as brothers, in charity, and feeling we could see all the same issues on both sides, but because of our experiences we leaned in slightly different directions. I think we both thought we should wave the other person’s banner a bit more than we do, and that might give the other’s arms a little rest. I suspect that would happen a lot if folks sat and talked.

We all care about our sons. That’s why we need these discussions and we need to have them like Christians–charitably, graciously, winsomely, hopefully and truthfully. I’ve written enough here for ill-willed people to make a lot of hey with. But I hope you, dear reader, will charitably accept this as my statement of where I stand on issues of controversy of late. Like Phil, I’m now signing off of this discussion.

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