Eric Garner and the Case for Justice

[Editor's Note: The following is a transcript of "Questions & Ethics" with Russell Moore. To listen to this broadcast, click here.]

Phillip Bethancourt: Welcome back to the Questions and Ethics program I'm Philip Bethancourt, joined here with Russell Moore. Today, Dr. Moore, I want to have you help us think some more about issues related to racial reconciliation. In the past week or two the country has been captivated by the issues that have unfolded in Ferguson when there was no indictment made there. And just today we found out that the police officer who killed Eric Garner by chokehold in New York City was also not indicted for what took place there. 

I think it raises a lot of questions for a lot of people about how should we be thinking about these issues and what it means about the justice system in America. How do we help our churches navigate the types of controversy that's going on around us. What thoughts would you have for us in the wake of this about what it means for racial reconciliation in our culture and our churches in particular. 

Russell Moore: Well, I've said quite a few times that when it comes to the Ferguson decision you have a lot of white people, particularly, who look at it only in terms of Ferguson itself. And they're saying, and they're right, that we don't know exactly what happened between Michael Brown and this police officer. We don't know exactly what happened between Michael Brown ant this police officer. We don't know exactly what this altercation was about. 

But we have our African-American brothers and sisters who are saying to the rest of the community that we're looking at this through a bigger picture of a situation in which there is often unjust and unequal treatment happening, especially for black males in this culture. I think that's an important point to make. Now with this Eric Garner thing . . . I just found out about this within the last hour—we're here recording in our studio—and I am shocked and grieved. I'm sitting here wondering what could possibly be the explanation for this. 

I mean, there is no excuse that I can think of for choking a man to death for selling illegal cigarettes. This is about cigarettes. This isn't a violent confrontation. This isn't a threat that anybody has reported, a threat of someone being killed. This is someone being choked to death. We have it on video with the man pleading for his life. There is no excuse for that I can even contemplate or imagine right now. And so we've heard a lot in recent days about rule of law, and that's exactly right. We need to be emphasizing rule of law. And a rule of law that is Biblically just is a rule of law that carries out justice equally. 

Romans 13 says that the sword of justice is to be wielded against evildoers. Now, what we too often see still is a situation where our African-American brothers and sisters, especially brothers, are more likely to be arrested, more likely to be executed, more likely to be killed. And this is a situation in which we have to say, I wonder what the defenders of this would possibly say. I just don't know. But I think we have to acknowledge that something is wrong with the system at this point and that something has to be done. 

Frankly, nothing is more controversial in American life than this issue of whether or not we are going to be reconciled across racial lines. I have seen some responses coming after simply saying in light of Ferguson that we need to talk about why it is that white people and black people see things differently. And I said what we need to do is to have churches that come together and know one another and are knitted together across these racial lines. And I have gotten responses and seen responses that are right out of the White Citizen's Council material from 1964. In my home state of Mississippi, seeing people saying there is no gospel issue involved in racial reconciliation. 

Are you kidding me? There is nothing that is clearer in the New Testament that the gospel breaks down the dividing walls that we have between one another. The gospel is what turns us away from hating our brother so much so that John says in 1 John 3 that the one who hates his brother is not of the spirit of Christ, but is of the spirit of the evil one, of the spirit of the devil. If that is not a gospel issue then I don't know what is. 

So we do have some real problems in society around us. We have some real problems in our own hearts and in our own churches. We have a group of people—a small group of people, not a lot of people—some unreconstructed racists in American society and we have some who continue to come and to sit in pews of churches and pretend as though they are disciples of Jesus Christ. And we have some other people who are willing to speak to any possible issue, from the framework of Scripture that goes on in the world until it comes to the question of whether or not we maybe do have some legitimate problems being faced by our African-American brothers and sisters in Christ, and then at that point they become completely silent and say the gospel doesn't speak to this. I think that's wrong. 

Some of these issues are going to be complicated, and some of these particular. . . when it comes to Ferguson we're going to have different understandings of what the grand jury should have done and how they should have handled it. There are going to be some differing interpretations. But folks, when we've got police officers killing a man on video with a chokehold, can we not say there are still some problems in American society when it comes to race? 

And if the church of Jesus Christ cannot say that . . . we don't have all the answers to fix the systemic structure. But what we do know is that we in our churches ought to be grieving over the fact that we are siloed away from one another into white churches and black churches and Latino churches far too often. And that one of the ways that we ought to embody the gospel of Jesus Christ is by congregations that love one another and that go beyond carnal divisions and instead signal what Paul says to the church in Ephesus at Ephesians chapter 3 is the manifold wisdom of God in breaking down the division between Jew and gentile, breaking down the division between Scythian and Jew. All of these divisions broken down so that our identity is in Christ, so that we love one another and know one another. 

The situation that we have right now is not the book of Acts. It would be easy in Acts chapter 6 for the disciples to simply say, "Well, the Greek widows are having problems—that's the Greeks problem. Let the Greek church handle that." No, it's Jewish apostles setting aside deacons, Jewish deacons in many cases, to minister to the Greek widows. Why? Because the Greeks weren't some other part of the body of Christ. They are part of one body. And if we can't start to model that in our churches and start to show that in our churches to the outside society, then I'm not sure what we have to say. 

Phillip Bethancourt: Thanks for listening to this special edition of the Questions and Ethics program. We want to encourage you to pray for our country and our churches in light of these recent things that have unfolded on racial reconciliation. We'll be back again with you soon to talk about how to apply the gospel to the pressing issue of the day.

Ferguson and the Path to Peace

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The mood in Ferguson, Missouri, is tense, after a grand jury decided against indicting a police officer for the killing of unarmed African-American teenager Michael Brown. The tension ought to remind us, as the church, that we are living in a time in which racial division is hardly behind us. That reality ought to motivate us as citizens to work for justice, but also as the church to seek to embody the kingdom of Christ.

We haven’t as of yet sorted through all the evidence the grand jury saw and we don’t know precisely what happened in this nightmarish incident. What we do know is that the Ferguson situation is one of several in just the past couple of years where white and black Americans have viewed a situation in starkly different terms. White Americans tend, in public polling, to view the presenting situations as though they exist in isolation, dealing only with the known facts of the case at hand, of whether there is evidence of murder. Black Americans, polls show, tend to view these crises through a wider lens, the question of whether African-American youth are too often profiled and killed in America. Whatever the particulars of this case, this divergence ought to show us that we have a ways to go toward racial reconciliation.

One of the things I’ve learned over the past year is that nothing brings out more hate mail, nothing, than when I say that too many black kids are being shot in America. Often this hate mail is accompanied by the sort of neo-Confederate rhetoric that I would have thought would have died out, at least in its explicit form, a long, long time ago. That’s just mail, with no real harm. I cannot imagine what it would be to worry about the physical safety of my sons. We have come a long way toward racial justice in this country, but we shouldn’t be deceived. The old zombie of Jim Crow still moves about.

So what should we do? In the public arena, we ought to recognize that it is empirically true that African-American men are more likely, by virtually every measure, to be arrested, sentenced, executed, or murdered than their white peers. We cannot shrug that off with apathy. Working toward justice in this arena will mean consciences that are sensitive to the problem. But how can we get there when white people do not face the same experiences as do black people?

The answer for the Body of Christ starts with a robust doctrine of the church lived out in local congregations under the lordship of Christ. The reason white and black Americans often view things so differently is because white and black Americans often live and move in different places, with different cultural lenses. In the church, however, we belong to one another. We are part of one Body.

The reason African-Americans tend to speak out against racial profiling and disparate sentencing is because often they can imagine their own sons or brothers or nephews in that place. As those in Christ, we have the same family dynamic at work, regardless of whether we are black or white, Jew or Gentile. In the church, a black Christian and a white Christian are brothers and sisters. We care what happens to the other, because when one part of the Body hurts, the whole Body hurts.

Consciences are not simply shaped by ideas. They are shaped by affections. As sociologist Robert Nisbet pointed out last century, soldiers aren’t motivated to fight chiefly by the patriotic speeches of their commanders but by their sense of unity and camaraderie with their fellow fighters. They are a band of brothers. The same should be true, except infinitely more so, within the church. That’s why the early church saw to it that they listened to the Greek widows who felt ignored in the distribution of food (Acts 6), and why the largely Gentile churches were included in an offering for the relief of the church in Jerusalem.

In order to get there, we will need churches that are not divided up along carnal patterns of division—by skin color or ethnicity or economic status. We will need churches that reflect the manifold wisdom of God (Eph. 3:10) in the joining together of those who may have nothing else in common but the image of God, the blood of Christ, and the unity of the Spirit. When we know one another as brothers and sisters, we will start to stand up and speak up for one another.

That doesn’t mean that every situation will have an immediate resolution. We will still live in a fallen world, in which the justice system will sometimes discover wrongdoing and sometimes won’t. But it will mean that we will go a long way toward reflecting in our churches the united kingdom of Christ more than divided states of America.

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I disagree with President Barack Obama’s decision to act unilaterally on immigration policy. I am for immigration reform, for all sorts of reasons that I have outlined elsewhere. The system we have is incoherent and unjust. I have worked hard to try to see the system changed, and will continue to do so. It’s because of my support for immigrants and for immigration reform that I think President Obama’s executive actions are the wrong way to go.

Read the entire article at Time Ideas

Recently, a question came to me from a listener who wrote, “Dr. Moore, we are planning our wedding, and we were planning to write our own vows, but after watching the livestream of the ERLC National Conference, we noticed that you said that you don’t let couples write their own vows. Can you talk a little bit more about that, and should we rethink this?”

Okay, well, when I say this, what I am not saying is that there is some inspired, inerrant set of wedding vows. I normally use the Book of Common Prayer wedding ceremony. There is nothing that is handed down by God on golden tablets in the Book of Common Prayer. I certainly, as a Baptist, wouldn’t think that.

But what I do think the issue is, is what is the wedding. And this is the reason why I don’t let couples write their own vows when I am doing the marrying—because I think we are in a culture right now where many people assume that the wedding is the celebration of the love of the couple. Now, of course it is that to some degree, but it is so much more than that, and the main point of the wedding is about more than highlighting the individuality of the couple.

In a biblical understanding of marriage the couple is being given to one another, and there is an accountability, a public accountability for the marriage, for the wedding. That’s the reason why Jesus is present as part of the community at a wedding at Cana, and in the epistles of the New Testament the writings about marriage are not simply to the couples themselves but to the entire body of Christ. We are members of one another, and we are responsible for one another.

And so, when we are gathering together for a wedding, we have a gathering of witnesses. That’s why in the traditional Anglican wedding ceremony we gather “in the sight of God and these witnesses to join this man and this woman in holy matrimony.” The people there aren’t just guests at the party. They are people who are witnessing the vows that are being made with the implicit message there—we are representing the body of Christ to hold you accountable to these vows, to help you through these vows, to support you as you seek to keep these vows.

And when a couple writes his or her own vows, or when a couple together writes their own vows, what’s happening is that couple is suggesting somehow that their vows are unique. The

vows are not unique; as a matter of fact, as a friend of mine who is a pastor puts it often, what makes the wedding, any particular wedding, significant is not what makes it different from every other wedding but what makes it the same.

A couple starting out a wedding frankly don’t know the vows that they need to make without the rest of the body of Christ, with those who’ve gone before them. A twenty-five-year-old couple, they are not thinking about Alzheimer’s disease. They are not thinking about what happens when we find out that our small child is dying with cancer. They don’t think about what happens if one of us commits adultery and we have to work through the aftermath of that. The rest of the body of Christ is speaking of the fact that the vows you are making to one another aren’t simply when things are in conditions as they are right now, and it’s not simply when things are in conditions that you can imagine right now, but it’s in sickness and in health; for richer, for poorer; till death do us part. Those are the sorts of vows that ought to be made.

And also because what’s happening in that wedding ceremony ought to be something that is the same sort of thing that ought to happen when we baptize. The people who are gathered there who are married ought to be seeing a reenactment, in as much as possible, of what it is that they themselves have vowed to do. They are participating in this not only by witnessing these vows but also in memory of remembering and recommitting to their own vows.

So, when a couple comes to me and says we want to write our own vows, I usually say well then I’m the wrong guy to officiate at this wedding because I really think we need to think of the wedding as about much much more than that.

What’s your question? Send it to me at [email protected]. Maybe there is a moral dilemma that you are facing at your work or maybe something going on in your family or maybe something you have come across in the Bible, and you are just asking how should I think this through as a Christian? Send it to us, [email protected], and I will be glad to take it up when we come back next time for Questions and Ethics.

 

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