Thursday, September 4, 2014

What Do Black People Want?

Especially Black Christians

Michael Brown

Yes, the title is meant to be provocative. It is directed particularly to African American Christians who, to some extent at least, identify with Reformed theology as well as to white Christians who understand and share their concerns. 

Several weeks ago I expressed serious doubts about the necessity and justice of the shooting (language warning) of a mentally unbalanced man by St. Louis police. In fact, as I watched, I found myself saying some of the things the young man who made the video said. Immediately I got push back from a professor of criminal justice, a policeman, a former policeman now a clergyman, and others. The comments pointed out that I did not understand policeman, police work, police procedures, and police experience because I am not a policeman. It was asserted that this was a "righteous shooting." I still have my doubts. I know that I am suspicious enough of police that I would never undergo any kind of questioning by police without legal counsel. No doubt someone will say, as police interrogators do, "Well, if you are innocent and have nothing to hide, what have you to fear?" My answer is, "A lot."

The shooting to which I refer in the previous paragraph is not the shooting of Michael Brown in nearby, Ferguson, MO. Unfortunately, so far as we know, there is no video of that shooting. We do not know what happened. It could be that an unarmed and innocent black teenager, who had his hands up in surrender, was shot to death by a prejudiced, trigger-happy policeman. It could be that a policeman, who confronted a young man who had been in trouble before and was walking down the middle of the road, was attacked and charged and justifiably fired his weapon killing the teenager. We must hope that the facts will become clear and that justice will be done. 

Regarding the Ferguson shooting, I have read over the past week or so blogs by the Rev. Thabiti Anyabwile, Assistant Pastor for Church Planting at Capitol Hill Baptist Church, and Dr. Mike Higgins, Dean of Students at Covenant Theological Seminary. 

Mr. Anyawhile says that the policing system has historically been an instrument of oppression of African Americans, especially males:

... how long do you think it takes a police system and a justice system to exorcise the poison of officially-sanctioned racial animosity? How long do you think it takes people and systems to move from embraced and open racism to something resembling a true content-of-character, love-believes-all-things heart? 
Are all the racists and the racist sentiments of a police force with hundreds of years of practice gone in one generation? Have all the attitudes and practices that made forceful subjugation of African Americans possible disappeared in a couple of decades? Does justice travel city halls that fast and that sweepingly? I suspect not. Is it possible that the basic posture of police forces—though changed significantly—continues to be one of patrolling and suspiciously judging African Americans?
Mr. Anyabwile believes the systemic racism and oppression of the police affects even blacks who become policemen:
 ...our police officers work in a system. And systems don’t change overnight. Systems have a way of molding the behavior and attitudes of the best of people. That’s true of every system, and it’s no less true of law enforcement. It’s true even when you put a black man in a blue uniform. They find themselves acting out prejudices or facing the prejudices inside the force. The invisible hand of systemic prejudice is always at work on everyone in the system.

Dr. Higgins focuses particularly on the anger he and other blacks feel as a result of the Ferguson tragedy:

 ...Black folks know that they are not the privileged race and when this becomes evident, by an alleged act of police brutality or racial profiling, they move toward a boiling point. This time the pot boiled over. 

Even as an African American male, who is educated at the doctoral level and has reached the rank of full Colonel in the nation’s armed forces, I still deal with anger. But this anger is so deep that it is unexplainable. And when the anger is challenged–especially by a well-meaning white person–the anger just gets worse. It is like we want to say to that white person, “Do you really need me to explain it!?” “What planet do you live on!?”
Perhaps the most striking thing in Dr. Higgins blog is a seeming comparison of the death of Christ and the death of Michael Brown:
The Lord knows what it is like to lose a Son to violence. And amazingly, he is a friend of sinners, and he restores the fallen. May he restore this fallen community. Pray for the family of the victim as they are continually reminded of their loss. Pray for the police officer involved, as he too is somebody’s son.

On September 4 Jemar Tisby, President of the Reformed African American Network, followed up on his posts from earlier in the summer on the need for an "indigenous African American theology" with a report from a conference where this kind of theology was done partly in response to to the Ferguson shooting.

Mr. Tisby also addresses the matter of the anger African Americans feel:
One of the many psychological costs of living as a marginalized minority in this country is psychological vigilance. It is having to constantly ask the question, “Did that happen to me because I’m Black?” This constant hyper-awareness affects one’s emotional state. “Byproducts of psychological vigilance include
frustration, irritation, and hostility, which are the antecedents for anger and possibly depression.”

After empathizing with our anger, the panelists went on to affirm the value of Black life. Amidst many situations that blatantly or subtly undermine the humanity of African Americans, particularly young men, the Bible’s teaching on creation affirms the dignity of all people, including Blacks. The group referenced Genesis 1:26-27 which articulates the doctrine of the imago dei or the image of God. It reminds us that we all, no matter our race, are created in the image of God. Therefore, no matter what we have done or failed to do, we are entitled to life and respect from our fellow image bearers.

Having our anger validated helped assuage our rage. And pointing us to the dignity of all human life, including Black male life, helped us seek peace instead of retribution.
Most interesting is the approach of indigenous African American theology to the doctrine of the perseverance of believers. Perseverance for minorities means a struggle, not only with the sin you are tempted to commit, but with the sins others commit against you:
While I have often heard sermons or read blogs or books about perseverance in the midst of personal sin, I have seldom heard how to persevere as a racial minority. Evangelical and Reformed Christians have much more experience applying theology to issues of personal piety. Thus it is common to talk about perseverance in the face of the constant temptation to sin. We are indeed called to holiness and righteous works. So perseverance in holiness is certainly a valid and needed application. But there are further applications.

At the LDR Weekend, I heard pastors and other leaders talk about perseverance not in regards to indwelling sin but in regards to imposed sin. Imposed sin is unrighteousness that is forced upon a person or people group by another person or people group. Imposed sin is oppression, and African Americans have endured much of it.
The oppression of minorities today is, if not identical with, very close to the oppression of the people of God in the Old Testament:
So how does one endure as a Christian in the midst of oppression or the challenges of life as a minority? The Bible has much to say about this. At the LDR Weekend we were pointed to passages in the Old Testament that told about the oppression of whole people groups.
Moreover, for minorities perseverance has to do, not only with acts of sin committed against you, but with just being in the minority:
Furthermore, perseverance need not pertain to outright acts of unrighteousness. Perseverance is needed simply to be a racial or ethnic minority in the midst of an overwhelmingly White denomination or theological tradition. Most African Americans who are Reformed are one of a very few in their church or community. As such, they constantly struggle to have their particular questions and needs addressed by the majority. Minorities are frequently in the place of speaking for their entire people group. They are often subject to unfair assumptions and face feelings of isolation.
As Dr. Higgins compares the death of Christ and the death of Michael Brown, similarly Mr. Tisby connects the experience of racial and ethnic minorities with Jesus the Ultimate Minority:
So we also look to the example of Jesus who was the minority of minorities. As the only truly righteous person who ever lived, Jesus was a minority everywhere He went. Yet Jesus endured to the end and we can have confidence that our Savior understands what it is like to be the only one of His kind in a particular situation.
While I know there are highly successful black men, three of whom I cited in my August 3 post, and others who could be cited (Mr. Herman Cain, Lt. Col. Allen West, and Sen. Tim Scott, for example) it is clear that these three black men who profess Reformed theology are angry, not only about the Ferguson shooting, but about the status of African Americans in society and in the church.

So let me ask a few questions.

Government. What do you want the goverment to do? Are there laws that still need to be enacted? Are there existing laws that need more rigorous enforcement? How do these things work out in terms of support of political parties, candidates, court appointments?

Society. What do you want society to do? Do you want more affirmative action in admissions and hiring? What roles would you allow for qualifications and achievments? How long do you envision such practices (as affirmative action) needing to continue? Do you want reparations? How would these be distributed? Is there a forseeable time and/or are there measurable benchmarks by which you would judge society to have done all a society as such can do?

Education. What would you like to see happen in the nation's public schools? Private schools? Do you want integration or separation of some of both? What role do you want race play in the appointment of teachers? What role do you want race to play in standardized testing and grading? Do you want standard (majority?) English to be taught as the norm? What should be included in history courses? What would you like to change about the way African American males are educated?

Civilization and Culture. What do you want to happen with regard to the western civilization and culture and how do you think they should viewed?  Do you want all civilizations and cultures to be regarded as equal? How would your view of civilization and culture change the content and processes of education?

Church. Do you want churches to remain mainly segregated by race in order for black Christians to have a sense of dignity and of ownership? Do you eventually want a distinct African American church with its own faith statements and practices while seeking to maintain some measure of continuity with the Reformed tradition?

Law and Police. What changes to you want in  the system of laws? What changes to you want in the judicial system? What policies do you want regarding police work, arrests, trials, and sentencing? What prison reforms to you want?

The South. Do you want Southerners, and in particular Southern Christians, to do about the past? the present? the War? their forbears? their churches?

What do black people want?

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