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

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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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