Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Even in Ferguson, Facts are Worth the Wait

Patience is not only a virtue.  It's a Fruit of the Spirit.

So why do so many evangelical leaders seem so anxious to jump to conclusions regarding the racial strife in Ferguson, Missouri?

Men like Colin Hansen, Trevin Wax, Leon Brown, Russell Moore, Matt Chandler, and Thabiti Anyabwile have made impassioned pleas for racial reconciliation in the wake of a police officer's killing of Michael Brown in broad daylight in suburban St. Louis.  And with all due respect to my brothers in Christ, while the crux of their pleas cannot be denied - that bigotry dishonors God - their eagerness to draw conclusions before critical facts in this case are publicly known threatens to actually paralyze the movement these men are hoping their target audience - hardened bigots of any skin color - will make towards racial reconciliation.

Anyabwile has even written an article mocking the integrity of "having all the facts," in a sloppy yet acclaimed piece for the Gospel Coalition.  "Why We Never 'Wait for All the Facts' Before We Speak" presents an apalling endorsement of ends justifying means.  He says he wants to be "a fool for justice," as if that makes any sense.

"What wisdom is there in a silence that risks nothing for the oppressed and grants no opportunity for understanding?" Anyabwile asks, apparently ignoring a basic rule in effective debate strategy that involves speaking from a preponderance of the evidence.  In other words, Anyabwile is willing to jump on anything that whiffs of racial injustice and draw national implications from it, even if further facts may reveal something else entirely.  We don't have a preponderance of evidence yet, because we don't know crucial facts about what precipitated Brown's death.

You'd have thought these guys would have learned their lessons from the preemptive groveling many of them did during the Trayvon Martin travesty.  At the end of the day, after all the relevant facts were presented in a court of law, we learned that this was in fact a local tragedy in a specific gated community between two individuals who didn't trust each other.  The racist circus that erupted over the shooting of Trayvon ended up stripping much of the legitimacy from calls for racial harmony.  Too much rhetoric was being slopped around that wasn't based on facts, but emotion, bias, and perceptions of bits and pieces of reality.

For one, I was actually hoping that we could all learn something about mutual respect from the dialog, regardless of what the jury's verdict turned out to be, but now, looking back, it seems that nothing has changed.

And why is that?  One of the reasons may be because too many talking heads - even within evangelicalism - were more interested in rhapsodizing than letting the facts speak for themselves.

That's what Christ did:  let the facts speak for themselves.  "The truth will set you free," right?

We wait for facts because life's events are not necessarily linear.  At least, life's factual events exist regardless of the order in which we learn them.  For example, in the Ferguson case, we have a black youth shot to death by a white officer.  We have a town populated mostly by black people, and a police department staffed mostly by whites.  Those are facts.

We also have allegations, such as allegations that the police department is heavy-handed and discriminatory in how it interacts with people in the community.  We have allegations that Brown may have had marijuana in his system.  We have grainy video from a security camera purportedly showing Brown wrestling a $50 box of cigars from a much smaller bodega owner.

Then there are the conflicting statements about what happened to provoke a white officer into shooting an unarmed black person.  Some say there was some sort of altercation at the officer's squad car, some say Brown stuck his head inside the squad car, some say the officer was trying to get Brown to stop walking in the middle of the street, some say a gun discharged within the officer's squad car.  Some say Brown ran away, and then turned to face the officer.  Some say Brown had his hands raised.  One of the autopsies - how many have there already been? - says all six bullets fired by the officer entered Brown's body from its front.

Now we have stories circulating in the media that the officer had suffered some sort of physical harm to his face.  He was taken to the hospital, bleeding.  How did the officer get injured?  Did Brown punch him?  Was Brown under the fog of marijuana, and could that explain why his behavior before his death defies all of the glowing things his family has told the media about how kind, gentle, and soft-hearted Brown was?

This is why we need facts, Rev. Anyabwile.  This is why we need patience, all of you evangelical writers who are taking whites - mostly whites, at least, by the tone of their articles - to task for our hardened bigotry.  Social media and the omnipresence of cameras, cell phones, and reporters may lull us into a false entitlement to knowing everything we need to know - or at least, presuming as if we know all we need to know.

Meanwhile, there are still facts out there that haven't come in yet.  We all know the media is selective about what it reports, and how it reports it.  Plus, the investigators working on this case are only mortal human beings.  They need to sleep, eat, process information, interview people, go back and re-interview people, run rabbit trails, hold meetings, call their spouse to check in on their own family, and otherwise work the case.  Somebody has been killed by a police officer.  This is serious business.  Neither Brown nor the officer who killed him decided to create an incident that reporters, bloggers, preachers, and evangelical writers like me need to hash out.  That's not what they were talking about when Brown had his head, supposedly, inside the squad car.

This was a life and death event of tragic proportions.  How is it respectful of the law, justice, or the lives of ether Brown or his killer, to make preemptive assessments of who did what wrong, and society's culpability in the case?

Many people want Brown's death to be about race.  They want it to be about rogue cops - and indeed, entire police departments that have gone rogue.  They want the media to foment their adrenaline into something that may not be representative of the facts in this case.

This is one of the reasons why I'm a big anti-pop-culture person.  All too often, we're more willing to be sold something than work at being a wise consumer.  Especially a wise consumer of the news.

Throughout all of this, nobody is claiming that race relations in the United States are hunky-dory.  I haven't heard anybody yet say that we don't need to exercise extreme caution when it comes to how law enforcement protects the citizenry, no matter their race or creed.  Neither has anybody said that an investigation of this shooting isn't warranted, or that justice doesn't need to be served.

As it is, by taking a preemptive swipe at what they believe happened in Ferguson, many evangelical writers have neutered whatever they'd probably like to say when ALL of the facts are known.  Facts like whether or not Brown was high on marijuana.  Facts like whether Brown punched the police officer in the face so hard he broke his eye socket.  Facts like whether having a broken eye socket would make the officer unable to judge the distance Brown was from him, and hence, the rapid firing of his gun for fear of his life if he saw a distorted image of Brown coming towards him.  Facts like the crowds of demonstrators not even caring that the lead cop against whom they're demonstrating is a highly-respected law enforcement professional who happens to be black.  And then, all of the facts that we don't even yet know that we need to know.

For all of their self-righteous posturing over the issue of race, how many of these evangelical leaders have moved their families into racially-mixed inner-city neighborhoods to be salt and light?  Or older suburban subdivisions that are disproportionately non-white?  How many of them have their kids enrolled in big urban school districts, or school districts in older, mostly black suburbs?  How many of them have ever ridden with a police officer in a squad car to patrol a neighborhood populated more by non-whites than whites?

Racism is an easy evil to lambaste, because, frankly, it is evil.  And, frankly, we all engage in it, to a certain degree.  I know some pretty fair-minded people, but I doubt any of them would admit that they've wholly won the bigot thing in their private thoughts and when they make first impressions of other people.  This means that when we speak against something as insidious as racism, we need to do so with as much integrity, sincerity, and authority as we can.

Truth is all of those:  integrity, sincerity, and authority.  And truth comes from facts.  Which means facts are valuable, and worth waiting for.

Update 9/3/14:  When we talk about aggressive policing, what are we talking about?  Consider this perspective within the broader St. Louis County community.

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