With deep sadness, I have been closely following the events unfolding in Ferguson, Missouri in the aftermath of the shooting of Michael Brown. I have watched, read, and listened intently to the reactions of many fellow pastors, both black and white, that have spoken up about this issue. I’ve struggled with how to express myself and wrestled with whether I should just remain silent for the moment or go ahead and speak. Sometimes, silence is a sign of wisdom. At other times, silence is an injustice. With the prodding of other pastors and leaders here at Sojourn and even some outside of Sojourn Church, I have decided to weigh in on this topic. I pray that the piece below will be a helpful addition to the pursuit of justice, a pursuit shared by all who love Jesus and believe the Bible.
Right Message, Wrong Text – My Thoughts on the Situation in Ferguson
When I was in seminary, my professors often warned against the dangers of preaching a sermon that was true and biblical from a text that was not about those particular true and biblical ideas. In other words, it’s possible to have the right message but to preach that message from the wrong text. I sense a similar situation might be happening among Christians engaged in the discussion over what happened with the killing of Michael Brown by Ferguson, Missouri police officer Darren Wilson almost two weeks ago.
Many are preaching the right message – as the church, we must address racism, white privilege, and the plight of our African-American brothers and sisters in this country. As a white man, I must be willing to listen to my African-American friends and learn from them. I must be willing to admit that I am privileged and that they suffer in ways that I will never know because my skin is white. This is the right message. These issues need to be discussed and we, white people who love Jesus and believe the gospel, need to do more – much more – to help fight against the many injustices that so many African-Americans face on a regular basis.
Yet, I cannot help but think that we might be using the wrong text (Ferguson) to preach this right message (racism, white privilege, etc.). To insist that what happened in Ferguson, Missouri is a case of injustice against African-Americans is premature at best or flat-out wrong at worst. There are many conflicting reports about what happened in the moments leading up to the shooting of Michael Brown. If, as some have alleged, Darren Wilson shot Brown while he was surrendering and was not a threat to the officer or anyone else, than this whole situation is indeed one of injustice and officer Wilson should be dealt with accordingly.
But if it is true that Brown was fighting with Officer Wilson, had already attempted to get control of the officer’s firearm, and was threatening to attempt to do more physical harm to the officer, then that might lead one to conclude that the officer was justified in using deadly force if he indeed feared for his life.
I am bothered by the fact that so many evangelical Christians who rightly long for equality, justice, and loving one another have been so quick to condemn officer Darren Wilson before the facts of the case have become clear. I understand that past injustices might lead one to jump to such a conclusion. I am sensitive to that. But such a reality does not make a false accusation or premature condemnation right or acceptable.
So what if it is determined that officer Wilson did fear for his life and the shooting of Michael Brown was indeed justified? Will all of those who have screamed injustice and accused officer Wilson of murder retract their statements? Will they apologize for speaking rashly about things that they did not understand? I hope so.
At the same time, if the facts indicate that officer Wilson did indeed use unnecessary deadly force and that he did indeed murder Michael Brown, will all of us who have remained silent until the facts of this case were made clear then speak up against such injustice? I hope so. And I certainly plan to do so.
Even as we await the full story of what happened in Ferguson, Missouri to be made clear, we have a lot of work to do and lots to talk about. We need to address these issues of race and white privilege that are so prevalent and so divisive. As Christians, we need to speak clearly and boldly about how the gospel speaks to racism and leads to unity and empathy and reconciliation. We don't need to wait until all the facts in this case are available to begin engaging on these important and gospel-related issues. But let’s make sure that this right message (the gospel speaks to racism and should lead to unity and understanding) is not being preached from the wrong text (Ferguson, MO).
*For Additional Reading - I encourage you to read this article offering the perspective of a black female police officer regarding the situation in Ferguson. I found it helpful.