Justice and Peace-A Response to Baton Rouge, St. Paul and Dallas

I’m taking a break from my Ephesians series to respond to what’s happened in our country this week.  Due to the timeliness of this message, this will serve as this week’s “Sunday Series” post.

July 6: An officer-involved shooting claims the life of Baton Rouge resident Alton Sterling.

July 7: An officer-involved shooting claims the life of Philando Castle in St. Paul, Minnesota.

July 7: A lone sniper guns down five Dallas police officers, and injures seven more, including one civilian.

In addition to these major events, there were shootings in Valdosta, Georgia and just outside St. Louis, where police officers were targeted in the aftermath of the Sterling and Castle killings.

Needless to say, our country is need of some good news.  Our country is in need of God’s mercy and healing.  And we are in need of change.

So what does the church do?  How ought Christians not only feel, but act, in the wake of this violence, in the wake of racial tension?

First, we must not allow or silently affirm any kind of injustice. We cannot remain silent while people are killed in the streets. We do not have all the facts yet, in any of these cases, but the Sterling video shows a man being pinned down by officers before being shot four times at point blank range. The Castle video shows a man bleeding out after being shot with his four-year old daughter in the backseat. Castle was pulled over for a broken tail light, and wound up dead. And five officers will never see their families again after what should rightly be called a terrorist gunned them down from a parking garage.

America has a race problem. That much is clear. We can no longer deny that sad reality. It is not Barack Obama’s fault. It is not mainstream media’s fault. It is a result of this sinful world and the sin in everyone’s heart, regardless of skin color. If we are to change our world, we must admit that it is in need of change.

In Amos 5, God calls Israel to “let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.” He rejects their sacrifices because He is more concerned about obedience and justice than He is their religious rituals.

Justice is the sense of rightness, of fairness, of right judgment.  It implies that someone has received the right judgment or sentence, and that people are dealt with in a fair way, not treated differently because of any inconsequential reason (skin color, socioeconomic status, marital status, etc.).

If justice is rolling down like waters, that means it is flooding every street and every household.  Justice is uplifting everyone.

Here’s what that means for us today: We do not have justice for anyone until we have justice for everyone. We do not have justice for the white Wall Street executive who makes millions of dollars until we have justice for the single black mother living below the poverty line, unable to provide for her children.

Right now, in our country, many black people do not have justice. Black people face racial stereotypes that white people do not.  When people talk about the “bad side of town,” they hardly ever mean the middle-class, white part of town.  Black people are still dealing with the effects of legal racism.  The horrendous treatment of African-Americans in the middle of the 20th century left many families in the cycle of poverty for years to come, leading to a lack of access to quality education and quality jobs.  A hyper-focus on the upper and middle class has all but forgotten the lower class, leaving them in unlivable conditions.  Certainly, there may be more opportunities now than there used to be, but we need to take a long, hard look at whether or not we are affording the same rights to all people. I am not calling for handouts.  I am not calling for a welfare state.  I am calling for justice and for love of neighbor. I am calling for good education for all, for job training, for help, whatever that may mean.  I am calling for the church, as well as the state, to care more about other people than we care about ourselves. We will all be stronger when we reach down our hand and lift each other up.

The events in Baton Rouge, St. Paul., Ferguson, New York, South Carolina, Baltimore, and more, have left many African-American citizens scared to walk the streets at night.  A handful of bad cops, highlighted in a sea of otherwise law-abiding, wonderful police officers, choose to abuse their power and take life like it’s nothing. We cannot let people’s lives be taken by those paid to protect them.

On the flip side: We have many good, outstanding law enforcement officers.  Their job is harder today than it has ever been before.  Over 90% of our police force does their job well, and they deserve our utmost respect.  As Jon Stewart (yes, that Jon Stewart) said: It is possible to be against both the murder of cops by criminals and the murder of citizens by cops.  They are not mutually exclusive.  Law enforcement is always a dangerous profession, but it is even more dangerous now, because some want to take their well-deserved anger and point it toward innocent police officers, which does not accomplish the goal of justice and peace, rather, it stokes the fires of hatred and further racism.

While we do not have justice until we have justice for the Sterling and Castle families, we also will not have justice until the criminals who murder police officers are brought to justice, and our brave men and women in uniform can protect our streets with as much peace of mind as we can afford them.  Peace of mind is not reserved for anyone, it should be an unalienable right for everyone.

The church must be vocal about these issues.  We cannot be afraid of backlash.  We cannot be afraid of losing our tax-exempt status.  We cannot be afraid of anything, because we live for an eternal kingdom made up of black and white men and women, a kingdom made up of criminals brought to repentance by the gospel, of police officers who have come face to face with grace, and by heartbroken families mended together by the love of Jesus.  We live, not for political or social acceptance, but for the glory of our God and Savior. We must call for an end to racial stereotypes.  We must call for an end to police brutality.  We must call for an end to police shootings.  We must call for an end to assumptions, an end for generalizations.  We must join hands with our black, white, Hispanic, Asian, African brothers and sisters all across the globe as a people united by grace, together for peace, working to bring about God’s kingdom on Earth. We must do something.

But before we act, we need to be truly broken with those who are hurting.  We need to weep.  Romans 12:15 says to “rejoice with those who rejoice, and weep with those who weep.”  That means that your opinion of the Black Lives Matter movement doesn’t matter as much as how you as a Christian treat protestors.  It means that you desire to show love and sympathy before you desire to be snappy on Facebook, or respond to #blacklivesmatter with #alllivesmatter.  It means that you, as a black Christian, identify not only with Alton Sterling’s family, but with Brent Thompson, a victim of the Dallas shootings who recently got married.  It means that your heart beats faster than your fingers type, and that you are quicker to pray than quicker to post.

Most importantly, the church needs to keep preaching the gospel.

Ephesians 2:13-14 says that “in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ.  For he himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility.”  We need to be forgiven.  We need to understand that in Christ, we are forgiven and we need to rest in His love.  Then, and only then, can we forgive others and work toward reconciliation.  We must forgive.

Yesterday, I called the cops who killed Mr. Sterling “thugs.”  I was wrong.  Name-calling does nothing.  And if I am to work for the kingdom, I must act like a member of the kingdom.  I am so grateful for the forgiveness I have in Christ.

Forgiveness doesn’t mean we forget what happened.  It doesn’t mean we don’t want justice.  We still seek right legal punishment for those responsible for crimes.  We work for social action to ensure that these things don’t happen again.  It doesn’t mean we aren’t angry.  We are rightfully angry.  All of us, if we have a heart, are rightfully angry right now.

But forgiveness means we don’t let that anger turn into hatred or vengeance.  Forgiveness means we lay down our weapons, our social media attacks, our cold, bitter retorts, and we choose to not hold grudges.  We choose to act out of love and care, not hate and desires for revenge.  Forgiveness allows us to be just, to do the right thing, and work toward healing.  Forgiveness is the first step to change.

Forgiveness means the family of Alton Sterling, while seeking justice and truth, embraces the family of Brent Thompson.  Forgiveness means the family of other officers who were killed work to ensure that what happened to Philando Castle doesn’t happen to anyone else.  Forgiveness means we begin to see each other, not as black or white, not as cop or civilian, not as liberal or conservative, but as people made in the image of God.

We can change.  We must change.

And the church must not sit in fear and we must not sit in silence.  We must act, we must call for justice for Alton Sterling and the Dallas police officers.  We must call for an end to racism, to all violence, to all stereotypes, and to all that plagues our world.  There is no either/or.  There are no sides.  There is only the side of justice, the side of the gospel.  There is only the side of those who recognize that we are made in the image of God, and in the gospel, we all, regardless of race, can be remade in His image, as dearly loved, forgiven children.

Let’s love each other.  Let’s see each others’ needs and meet them.  Let’s hug one another.  Let’s share the gospel more and more so we can forgive each other.  Let God’s church be the leading agent of change in America and in the world.  As people who have been united by Christ, let’s seek to unite all people, black and white, cop and civilian, under His great name.

Lord, may we act for justice.  May we not see color, but may we see your image.  May we be reminded that all people are worthy of love and respect.  May we share the gospel and forgive one another, just as in Christ you have forgiven us.  May your church help change this world.

God bless,

Neal E.