[Trigger Alert: This post is about Police Officers, racism, and systemic inequality. I cannot stress it enough: this post is not a statement against those who wear the badge (I have a deep respect for our police force), rather it’s written out of a desire to continue conversations that will move us forward to peace and reconciliation.]
Ferguson is in the news once more.
It’s not that surprising, is it? After all, the topic of the past year has been racial tension and police brutality. It’s been everywhere. Over the past year, we’ve been witness to countless protests, written editorials, panel discussions and pundit opinions (read: diatribes) on this issue.
Jumping into the mix is Rev. Franklin Graham, son of well-known evangelist, Billy Graham. He recently wrote on his public Facebook page:
“Listen up–Blacks, Whites, Latinos, and everybody else. Most police shootings can be avoided. It comes down to respect for authority and obedience. If a police officer tells you to stop, you stop. If a police officer tells you to put your hands in the air, you put your hands in the air. If a police officer tells you to lay down face first with your hands behind your back, you lay down face first with your hands behind your back. It’s as simple as that. Even if you think the police officer is wrong—YOU OBEY. Parents, teach your children to respect and obey those in authority. Mr. President, this is a message our nation needs to hear, and they need to hear it from you. Some of the unnecessary shootings we have seen recently might have been avoided. The Bible says to submit to your leaders and those in authority ‘because they keep watch over you as those who must give an account.'”
His argument is a common one that goes like this: “If people just listened to police officers, obeyed them, and followed the law, then we wouldn’t have instances like Ferguson and New York.”
On paper, this seems valid. I mean, if I’m honest, his statement jives with my own personal experience. For instance, when I’ve been pulled over by a police officer, I would place my hands on the wheel, have my license and registration ready, and was careful to co-operate with anything the officer requests of me.
To this day, I’ve never been shot, even though I’ve been stopped by police multiple times. My experience seems to prove Graham’s point.
There is one just problem; My experience is not universal. It’s far from it, actually.
There is a vast spectrum of experiences that prove another truth; that co-operation and innocence doesn’t always end in peace, that obedience doesn’t always lead to justice. All around us, the voices of our minority brothers and sisters are pleading with us to listen to their stories and experiences.
Sadly, Graham, and much of Evangelical America, isn’t listening.
In his statement about obedience and submission, Reverend Graham is completely ignoring a contextual truth within Ferguson, and within cities across the country; the issue of racial profiling and systemic racial injustice.
Ferguson, Mo., is a third white, but the crime statistics compiled in the city over the past two years seemed to suggest that only black people were breaking the law. They accounted for 85 percent of traffic stops, 90 percent of tickets and 93 percent of arrests. In cases like jaywalking, which often hinge on police discretion, blacks accounted for 95 percent of all arrests.
It goes on to say,
The report, based on a six-month investigation, provides a glimpse into the roots of the racial tensions that boiled over in Ferguson last summer…Racial bias is so ingrained, the report said, that Ferguson officials circulated racist jokes on their government email accounts. In a November 2008 email, a city official said Barack Obama would not be president long because “what black man holds a steady job for four years?” Another email included a cartoon depicting African-Americans as monkeys. A third described black women having abortions as a way to curb crime.
Reading Graham’s quote, followed immediately by the Times article, leaves me with two thoughts.
First, Reverend Graham is letting his politics interfere with his pastoral/prophetic responsibility.
Sound harsh? I don’t mean it to be. Speaking from my experience as a pastor, I know as well as any that it’s nearly impossible to keep one’s politics out of their hermeneutics and, consequently, their Sunday sermons.
We preach what we believe, and we believe in our politics.
I genuinely don’t begrudge a man or woman for having a political leaning; be they Republican or Democrat. Such is our right as Americans.
I do however criticize Graham’s willingness to let his politics stand in the way of speaking truthfully about a very difficult, painful and complicated situation.
As pastors, there are moments when we must stand in unity with our brothers and sisters, and call out those who are being unjust. In doing this, there will times when we must call for others to stand in defiance of those who are in authority over us.
Our Christ-following leads us to protest.
In our protesting, are we as Christians to do it with love, compassion and Christ-likeness? Absolutely.
However, as the church, it’s one of our greatest callings and responsibilities to stand against injustice. What we are seeing in Ferguson is systemic injustice, and Rev. Graham’s words only discount what is happening all around us.
Second: Graham’s call for minorities to respect authority, because it’s ordained of God, is wildly hypocritical.
In an essay he wrote back in May, 2014 titled, “The Flood of Compromise,” Graham wrote:
On the heels of these upheavals [speaking of Gay Marriage], it was particularly jolting when those who call themselves Christians departed from the clarity of God’s Word…The very day World Vision announced its great compromise on a basic truth of Scripture…the Supreme Court began hearings to determine if the Green family, owners of Hobby Lobby, should be required to provide life-terminating drugs and devices in their employee health care plan, contrary to the Christian family’s spiritual convictions. The contrast was stunning. While the Christian-owned business stood up against a federal government bent on forcing them to compromise the right to life…”
Graham, in his own words, speaks glowingly of those who were willing to stand against a government denying rights to life, all the while he refuses that right to those who are angry about the denial of justice to minorities in America.
Instead of acknowledging that there is racial inequality within our justice system, and calling for this change, Graham tells those who are victims of such inequality to essentially “stop being criminals” and all their issues will disappear.
The problem, however, is we can’t have things both ways.
We can’t require of people obedience to civil authorities when it’s politically convenient for us, and then denounce it when it’s politically inconvenient. My friends. That’s text-book hypocrisy.
Life in Technicolor
Should the church fight for pro-life issues? Absolutely.
The value of life is a battle that will be forever worth fighting for. However, in our battling, we must not forget that to be pro-life means we’re required to fight for every life, regardless of where it’s found.
Pro-life means we fight for the care of the immigrant, the minority and the marginalized.
It means we fight for those who are…
All. Life. Matters.
Farewell to arms
What Rev. Graham is saying, even if he doesn’t mean to, is that life is only worth something if it’s white, middle class and American. The problem is, however, that even if he doesn’t actually mean to preach this message (which, I’m sure he doesn’t), his words still convey it.
Therein lies the real problem; the problem of words.
Words inspire people. These people create and inspire social movements. Those social movements shape our nation’s laws. Those laws then shape social systems, and it’s those systems which oppress people.
The church would do well to remember this.
Rev. Graham isn’t just speaking words into the abyss. He’s speaking words which eventually oppress. Not in some generic, political-correct kind of way, but in a real-life-flesh-and-blood-kind of way.
The church must change her words.
We desperately need to find new words. Life-giving, soul-renewing, justice-loving, grace-restoring words. We need to rediscover our God-given prophetic imagination, and in our rediscovery, we must find our way towards compassion for others; especially when it’s “The Other.”
Because only then will we find our way forward in this divided and broken world.
Friends, we might not always have these chances to speak words that can change the world around us. With this in mind, may we speak our words well, with boldness, and as they leave our lips, may they bring life.