David Murray

Professor, Pastor, Author

I Can’t Breathe, but I Must Write

Well, I don’t think I’ve ever been so scared about writing a blog post. Last week I allowed my fear to silence me about Ferguson. But here I am, sleepless at 3.30am, deeply troubled about Eric Garner’s homicide and irresistibly burdened to write.

I start with hardly any idea about what to write, but I do know why I ‘m writing. I want to stand with my African American brothers and sisters. More than that, “I’m all in” with them.

And that’s why I’m scared. Because I know that for many people, that automatically puts me “outside.” It puts me on the other side. It makes me suspect. It makes me soft. It makes me left-wing. It makes me anti-police. It makes me pro-thug.

And I could defend myself as Paul did when he said, “I am a Hebrew of the Hebrews, concerning the law, a Pharisee.” Similarly I could say, “I am a conservative of the conservatives, concerning the law, a Fox-Newser.”

But this is not about me. Me must be sacrificed at times. And this is such a time.

Disgusted with Hannity
I think what pushed me over the edge was Sean Hannity. I’ve been finding it increasingly difficult to listen to him since the Trayvon Martin case. Some of his bullying interviews with Michael Brown supporters last week were repulsive. But when I turned on the radio yesterday to hear his commentary on Eric Garner’s murder, only to find him aggressively blaming New York’s excessive taxes on cigarettes for Garner’s death, that was it. There wasn’t an ounce of sympathy for Garner or his family. There was only diversion and distraction from the real issue. I was sick to my core.

And remember, I’m coming at this with the strongest possible default in favor of the law, the police, the courts, etc. If Hannity and Fox lose people like me, they’ll lose everything.

But, and I think this is what I really want to say here, I believe good will come out of all this personal pain and national distress.

Previous cases, like Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown, were never strong enough to challenge the majority white community’s worldview. The Brown case actually just confirmed it. But Eric Garner’s case is different, very different, different enough not just to challenge our worldview but change it. As I said last night on Twitter, “I see a cloud about the size of a man’s hand. Aslan is on the move.” God’s wise providence is being worked out here as He sovereignly moves in and through these events.

What possible good could come out of this? I see four goods.

End of Denial
First, white people can no longer deny the problem. We have it in technicolor on Youtube. The Michael Brown case was escalated by Brown. We sat back and said, “Well that’s what you get when you rob a store, threaten a shopkeeper, assault a police officer, try to grab his gun, etc.”

Sure, there were some things that disturbed us even about this case. For example, I was deeply shocked by the callous insensitivity of Officer Darrin Wilson when interviewed on TV last week. He said he had a clean conscience, would change nothing about what he did that day, and would not apologize to the family. Even though he was acting in self-defense, his words and attitude struck me as incredibly revealing and frightening. Change nothing? Wilson did a lot of damage to the police in that interview.

Garner’s homicide is impossible to excuse or explain away. When Hannity’s strongest defense is an attack on New York’s tobacco tax, you know you’ve got a strong and persuasive case. It’s strong enough to bear the weight of worldview challenge and change.

More Black Police Officers
There is no solution to this problem without a massive increase in black police officers. Few white people realize how strongly communal the black community is. There’s a solidarity and a togetherness that more individualist whites cannot fully understand. That’s why it’s so important for far more black police officers to police the black community. The problem is that the police are now viewed so much as the enemy that to join them is considered an act of betrayal among many blacks.

But there are other situations where similar problems have been overcome. In Northern Ireland, the police force was largely Protestant, and therefore hated by the Roman Catholic community.

Part of the political settlement of “the troubles” there was the formation of a new police force with a commitment to much greater Roman Catholic recruitment. It’s nowhere near perfect, but much progress has been made and can surely be a model for re-constituting the make-up of American police forces over the next several decades.

This is also going to take strong and brave leadership from African American leaders to persuade African Americans that these forces have changed and that they should join.

Grand Jury System
It appears that the Grand Jury system is not so grand. America is practically the last country in the world still using this as part of their legal system. While it may have had its good uses, I don’t think many Americans realize just how bad it looks to outside observers.

As has often been said, “It’s not enough that justice is done, it must be seen to be done.” The problem is that secret justice can so easily become injustice, or be perceived as such.

Recent grand juries do not seem to take into sufficient account the “public interest” aspect of justice, with too much focus on technical legal terms like “probable cause” etc. I don’t see how it’s possible for public trust to be rebuilt in the justice system without it becoming a much more public and accountable system.

Christians are stirring
Christians are discussing these things more than at any time in recent history. On the whole, the tone has been civil and constructive. And I hope that continues. Most of us are on a journey here, and we sometimes take wrong turns and say wrong things. But with continued patience and Christian love, we will hopefully all arrive at a better place. 

We’re also listening to voices, Christian voices, outside our own churches and communities. We’re learning about other people’s lives and problems, seeing things from different perspectives, letting go of prejudices and faulty presuppositions. The greatest hope of reducing violence and persuading people to pursue change through peaceful means is to convince them that we are listening…and changing.

We’re praying for police officers as never before. It must be extremely frustrating for the majority of good officers who have devoted their lives to fairness and justice, to be tarnished as racists and have their own lives endangered because of the actions of others. If it was hard to be a police officer before Michael Brown and Eric Garner, then it’s ten times harder now. I can hardly imagine what it must feel like to get up in the morning or go out at night and know that you’re moving into communities that are extremely hostile and dangerous to your life. I know I couldn’t do it (although my son is hoping to) and have the utmost admiration for those who do.

Above all, we’re hoping for Gospel transformation. We’re looking to Christ and the power of the Gospel to break down walls of hostility between black, white, and every color in between. If God can reconcile sinners to Himself, and Jews to Gentiles, then he can reconcile every color of American through the blood-red sufferings of THE barrier-breaker and bridge-builder.

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About David Murray

David Murray is Professor of Old Testament and Practical Theology at Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary. He blogs at HeadHeartHand . and you can follow him on Twitter @DavidPMurray .

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