Gospel Fluency by Jeff Vanderstelt, Free for CAPC Members
In Gospel Fluency, Jeff Vanderstelt wants to help every believer speak the gospel in the stuff of everyday life.
For the sake of argument, let’s assume that Black Lives Matter is overblown.
It’s an assumption that many have already made. Whether they are going out of their way to say so on social media or just not saying anything at all, many people assume that the black men and women killed by police that have dominated headlines are either aberrant outliers in a justice system that otherwise metes out fair punishments with colorblindness or that these men and women who died are the victims of their own criminality in that system, which has brought them fair retribution for whatever they happened to be doing at the time. Any example of truly inexcusable behavior by police can be explained away as non-representative; any ambiguously justified behavior can be excused as a natural consequence of the circumstances in which law enforcement finds themselves. Many also assume that the rhetoric and ideology of Black Lives Matter–whether it’s the everyday “lock up killer cops” chants or the occasional calls for violence from the fringe–disqualify any support for the movement per se.You don’t have to hold any of my positions to be deeply concerned about the use of deadly force against citizens.
Let’s run with this set of assumptions: that sentimentality and racial guilt cloud our public judgment such that we glorify criminals at the expense of hardworking law enforcement officers, that a greater emphasis on personal responsibility can correct the centuries of injustice that African Americans have suffered, and that the principles espoused by various Black Lives Matter organizations and leaders conflict so sharply with Christian teaching that we can’t be co-belligerents with those within the movement. Even if “Black Lives Matter” is the wrong rallying cry, state violence is still a matter of serious concern for citizens who care about law and justice and we should vigorously debate policy solutions to stem state violence against citizens like that suggested by Campaign Zero, a project by the Black Lives Matter organization.
Let’s assume, then, that Black Lives Matter has made a mountain out of a molehill. In any given year, a few hundred people will die in police custody or at the hands of police in America. Most are probably situations in which someone was either threatening the police or someone else with deadly force. But really, we don’t know for sure, because until recently there has been no federal or state oversight of these deaths and the program that was recently announced only uses open source documents like media reports. Even if it’s not a big deal, shouldn’t we at least mandate that the state monitor how and when it uses deadly force against citizens, just to make sure there aren’t any patterns, or that the cases that represent clear overreaches–like shooting a homeowner in his own home after calling for help or shooting an unarmed mentally ill man making vague threats–aren’t a significant proportion of these uses of force? Even if there is absolutely no racial bias in policing, don’t we want to make sure that we’re not disproportionately killing black citizens–or just killing too many citizens in racially proportionate numbers? Simply ensuring that there is adequate oversight when deadly force is used is one goal of Black Lives Matter that any concerned citizen can get behind.
Let’s assume that any disrespect to a police officer justifies whatever happens to you next. Let’s also assume that the rhetoric in the “war on cops” is too hot (of course, you must also grant that this rhetoric has not caused any appreciable increase in violence against police officers). Should we not be deeply disquieted by incidents where toddlers get their chests blown up by flashbang grenades just for being related to a drug dealer and children with toy guns are shot without verbal confrontation? Are we really comfortable granting the power of life and death to the state with minimal accountability (and only in cases with clear video evidence–even then, often the legal process is subverted)? Shouldn’t the people who have the power over life and death have clear standards for using it–and shouldn’t the citizens who they are supposed to protect have a say in how to hold those people accountable?
Let’s also assume that “black-on-black” crime isn’t talked about enough, protested enough, or dealt with enough. (For the sake of this argument, let’s ignore the fact that these sorts of murders–which do take many black lives every year–are regularly and vociferously protested.) Regardless of what gets portrayed or not in the media, shouldn’t we be focused on what will actually make young black men safer from violence? While people who have never been pulled over by police for driving the wrong sort of car in their own neighborhood might think that “following orders” is the best advice for such situations, it should be clear to anyone that doling out this advice does little to actually keep neighborhoods safe. Instead, we should recognize that the policing currently practiced in many communities besieged by violence does little to prevent violence; in fact, “zero tolerance policing” only makes citizens more distrustful of the police and less likely to offer the information necessary to get dangerous people off the street. You don’t have to be a Chicago community organizer to recognize that arresting or killing people for running from police (especially in a time when the government is trying to establish all sorts of legal excuses for invading our lives) is a dangerous precedent.
If all the other murders of black men ought to be our real focus, then we still need to seriously reform our policing practices because they aren’t making poor communities safer. Very few activists seriously think that the police need to go away entirely; the vast majority of people on either side of the police reform debate recognize that law enforcement officers should use force judiciously at times and that law enforcement is a key player in making communities safer. If this is the case, then, it is the responsibility of officers with this power to make the first move and do what is necessary to build trust–like Officer Tommy Norman in Little Rock. There are many cities like Baltimore with toothless civilian review boards that only give lip service to the idea of allowing citizens to give input on the people who are authorized to shoot them if necessary–why not at least strengthen the powers of these boards? There are other models–Safe Streets or Operation Ceasefire–that comprehensively address the problem of street violence with more creative incentives and less brute force. Why not continue to expand these?
Furthermore, we recognize that police alone can’t create safe, healthy communities. Let’s assume that structural racism is a made-up fancy word to justify a continued feeling of entitlement on behalf of people who already collect too much welfare from the government anyway. For the sake of argument, we can even assume that anyone who is poor only continues to be poor because it is entirely their own fault and that any disproportionate poverty among African Americans has nothing at all to do with the fact that they were discriminated against, violently oppressed, and systematically stolen from using a variety of legal and non-legal means. At the very least, those of us who benefit from government largesse like the mortgage deduction and suburban highways should foreswear both in order to lead the way in demonstrating the benefits of smaller government. We should also stop giving the government any pretext to interfere in anyone’s life or entrepreneurship by decriminalizing drugs, since locking people up for selling drugs only makes it harder for families to stay intact.
Let’s assume that a cabal of academics, journalists, and politicians have created a narrative that ignores the cultural decay which perpetuates poverty. (Keep in mind that at least among African-American Christians and churches, this cultural decay is routinely examined and passionately preached against.) Can those of us who have some cultural power and wealth–not to mention the grace of Christ–sit idly by while young men murder each other and families suffer? If “personal responsibility” is the means by which the poor will lift themselves from poverty, doesn’t that make those of us with any extra time or money personally responsible for entering into relationships with people who are stuck in poverty so we can help? If we don’t think the government should subsidize any untoward behavior with another flimsy food stamp, shouldn’t we double our efforts to move into the neighborhoods most in need and work alongside Christians who are teaching, preaching, and discipling those whose terrible life choices are creating the discord we see on the news? If we aren’t willing to partner with our faithful brothers and sisters in these neighborhoods, can we at least seek out and welcome those who want to send their kids to better schools instead of shrieking in terror at the thought of “those children” coming to us?
I don’t hold any of the assumptions I’ve granted. I think structural racism has found creative ways to use violence against African Americans for centuries and that this has resulted in disproportionate violence against black citizens which endures today despite some significant improvements on historical injustices. I think that waving away the results of federal investigations which demonstrate clear patterns of racial discrimination in certain areas is intellectual sloppiness, pretending that police brutality is anecdotal (not systemic) is wishful thinking, and assuming that anyone shot by the police had it coming is moral midgetry (as well as disrespectful to the Constitution). I think that if you only take seriously the work of people of color who already agree with you, you’re selling yourself short intellectually while setting yourself up for ignorant whataboutism when you open your mouth. I think that Christians should enthusiastically pursue racial reconciliation in the Church and work to create conditions that establish public justice because it is a discipleship issue. I think Christians should flood the Black Lives Matter movement to the point where any violent demagoguery is drowned out by Biblical exposition.
However, you don’t have to hold any of my positions to be deeply concerned about the use of deadly force against citizens. You don’t have to sing any of the Black Lives Matter chants or subscribe to any Marxist ideology to support the goals of the movement and find a way to affirm that all lives do matter–any more than being pro-life entails believing that using birth control is a sin or that you’ll stand with people who threaten to kill abortionists. Standing side-by-side with our brothers and sisters in the neighborhoods devastated by crime and poverty also doesn’t require anything but the willingness to listen to wisdom; you’d be surprised how much you can learn from those who have labored for a long time to proclaim the Gospel in these tough neighborhoods. Conservative Christians can support the chief goals of Black Lives Matter: namely, that police departments (and the local governments that oversee them) should be held accountable for their actions against the citizens who pay their salaries and call them in emergencies. You don’t have to give up your reservations about the movement; you simply have to be aware of the facts and conscious of the Biblical ethic that seeks to restrain the power of the state to take our lives without accountability.
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