Many Americans awoke from their Independence Day weekend to read that yet another African-American man had been shot and killed by police. On Tuesday Alton Sterling was confronted by police while selling music CDs outside a convenience store in Baton Rogue. A video posted to social media shows Sterling apparently pinned to the ground by two police officers, before gunshots ring out and Sterling is killed.
Most of us had scarcely caught up with the news when another grisly video went viral. The footage, first posted to Facebook, shows a young black man, Philando Castile, wearing a blood-soaked shirt in his car while his girlfriend tells the camera that he was shot by an officer after reaching for his concealed carry permit. The videos of the deaths of these two men have been seen by millions of Americans on social media, and provoked cries of anger, grief, and frustration.
What we should understand, first, is that this crisis is not new. Many white evangelicals will point to specific cases, and argue that the particulars are more complex in those situations than initial news reports might show. But how can anyone deny, after seeing the sheer number of cases and after seeing those in which the situation is all too clear, that there is a problem in terms of the safety of African-Americans before the law. That’s especially true when one considers the history of a country in which African-Americans have lived with trauma from the very beginning, the initial trauma being the kidnapping and forced enslavement of an entire people with no standing whatsoever before the law. For the black community, these present situations often reverberate with a history of state-sanctioned violence, in a way that many white Americans—including white evangelicals—often don’t understand.
Secondly, we should understand the peril here. The shootings here, and the root causes behind them, come at a time when the United States is hyper-polarized and socially fragmenting. In addition, there’s a resurgent wave of blatant racism and anti-Semitism on display in social media channels and in upheavals around the world. The social bonds in our culture are weak indeed, and ought to cause us to have the same gravity about us that leaders during the Great Depression had, not knowing whether the crisis would propel the nation to greatness in problem-solving or toward meltdown.
The stakes are even higher, though, morally than they are socially. If we believe that every person will stand before a Judgment Seat, we cannot then stand silently when we see injustice. But many—including evangelicals of all ethnicities—wonder what we can really do? Some are reluctant to speak because they do not wish to reduce these issues to a hash-tag and they don’t know what to do.
These situations ought to cause us, as Christians, to understand our own doctrine of sin. The Bible speaks of sin both in terms of how we relate to others personally and how we relate to one another corporately. Sometimes we speak of issues that are “political” as though they have no bearing on issues of gospel and discipleship. It is telling that we tend to be quite selective in what issues we deem to be too “political” to speak about with a word from God. It is also telling that we often don’t consider what it even means to be “political.” The “political” is not merely the partisan. “Politics” describes what we act together to do corporately in the public arena. Joseph’s brothers are acting “politically” when they throw him into the pit and sell him into Egyptian slavery. The fact that they are acting corporately doesn’t absolve each of them for responsibility personally. The Bible speaks of sin both in strikingly personal terms. The one who is sexually immoral sins against his own body (1 Cor. 6:18). The Bible also speaks of sin in terms of the way we organize structures—whether that’s unjust courts or the oppression of laborers in the fields (Jas. 5:4-6).
Some white evangelicals dismiss the structural. They assume that if they do not harbor personal animus against those of other ethnicities then there is no “race problem.” We do not take the same view (and rightly so) when it comes to abortion. That’s why we rightly object to the pro-choice bumper sticker that reads, “Don’t like abortion? Don’t have one.”
Recognizing that we have responsibility for structures and systems that can be unjust doesn’t give us an immediate blueprint of what to do. After the last rash of public killings of unarmed African-Americans, many called for addressing these situations through body cameras on police officers. As we have seen, body cameras alone won’t address the root issues here. They may show us, after the fact, what has happened, but they do not—alone—solve the problem.
The situation is complex precisely because such injustices are so longstanding and are often hidden from majority populations, who don’t pay attention to such questions because they rarely have to think about them. My oldest two sons are learning to drive. I have many fears, but I’ve never worried about one of my sons being shot after being pulled over. My perspective is thus radically different than my African-American neighbor or colleague or fellow church member. Notice the differences even on social media over the past couple of days. An African-American colleague of mine noted that the divide is glaring, with black evangelicals interacting with this set of news while many white evangelicals continue on discussing the presidential race or the upcoming Olympics, with no reference to these shootings. That divide ought to cause us to reflect on how we’re experiencing the culture differently, and what implications that has for our unity and our witness.
At the same time, our concern for addressing systems and structures cannot dismiss the personal. It is true that these issues are more than just personal, but they are not less than personal. We can only address these questions if we care about them in the first place. That means that these questions cannot only be addressed by those who are in fear of unjust systems and thereby not addressed by those who benefit from them. We must bear one another’s burdens (Gal. 6:2), which means that those in majority cultures listen to our brothers and sisters who are directly in harm’s way. Again, those personal viewpoints and relationships do not solve the question of structures and institutions. But structures and institutions are changed only by people. And people are only awakened to act when their consciences are enlivened to the moral stakes involved. That means that we can work for justice in the public arena as we learn to love one another in the personal arena, and vice-versa.
The path ahead will be difficult, but it will require the Body of Christ—the whole Body of Christ—to call one another to moral awareness and action. That starts with acknowledging that we have a problem. When the videos are no longer viral, our witness must still be Christian.