It's Time: Responding to Grand Jury Decisions
By Tom De Vries
All of these emotions flowed out of the hearts of African American pastors as they shared their feelings, experiences, and perspectives just days before the grand jury decision regarding Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson and the death of Michael Brown. I was in St. Louis for a gathering of the governing board of the National Council of Churches with other Heads of Communion, and all attention was focused on the impending pronouncement.
Now, just days after another grand jury decision—this one in New York, involving the death of Eric Garner—those feelings are still being expressed.
Two African American men killed by white police officers who were not indicted.
It’s time to listen. It’s time to recognize there is a problem. It’s time to work toward real restoration and reconciliation, and not ignore, discount, or disregard the current situation.
These incidents are catalysts for a new opportunity to work for true equality and justice.
As I read the rhetoric, as I listen to both politicians and pundits, as I hear those who call for something different but are unwilling to give up power or position for real change, I recognize the time is now.
All who follow Jesus Christ must step forward and engage the issues before us, cross racial divides, realize that pain is present and injustice and inequality exist, and share in corporate lament.
The absence of leadership at this moment is significant. Violent protests are not the answer. Nothing can be done to bring back the lives of loved ones once death has taken hold. There must be willingness for change to occur.
Beneath the right and wrong of grand jury decisions, we must recognize the wrongness of how we currently live together. Below the surface of racial tension, the systemic injustice that abounds needs to be rectified.
The Time to Lament is Now.
In the Psalms, God’s people engaged in lament when they experienced corporate injustice. Lament went beyond expressing grief. It was the collective voices of all God’s people crying out to God: crying to an all-powerful, good, merciful, and just God who grants us access to himself.
As we cry out to God in this current situation, we can explain why this is painfully wrong—something that is out of alignment with God’s character. We can faithfully declare our expectation for God to act, to do something about what we face, to bring healing and restoration. We can declare our trust in God who is able to bring about the change and transformation we so desperately need.
And we can praise God. We can express hope, trust, and joy in God’s ability and desire to intervene—in accordance with his character and for the benefit of his people.
Stacey Gleddiesmith describes lament this way on the Reformed Worship website:
. . . an honest cry to a God who is powerful, good, and just—a cry that this situation is not in alignment with God’s person or purposes. It’s a cry that expects an answer from God, and therefore results in hope, trust, and joy rather than despair.
The Time to Listen is Now.
For some white Christians, you may be dismissing this entire issue. You may think that it is something that our African American brothers and sisters just need to “get over.” You look at the facts around these two decisions and you may have no problem with how things have transpired.
To these individuals I say, you are missing the forest for the trees.
What is currently being shared is the pain of injustice that has been constant, persistent, and relentless over time. The events of the last weeks and months only bring to the forefront the current reality that presently exists for so many individuals and communities. Honestly, the lack of greater violent protest is a credit especially to pastors and spiritual leaders in the African American community, who have called for protests to be nonviolent in the way of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. They have helped to focus on the greater societal disease and not allow these painful symptoms to overshadow the real issues that call for transformation.
I will be inviting the voices of African American leaders, as well as Hispanic and Asian leaders, to share with us their personal perspective in the current case of inequality, and how the majority can listen and respond—sharing in the lament, weeping with those who weep, and working for change. We will provide opportunity to learn and to listen, gaining support for a united effort of the oneness of the people of God in all places, loving one another.
We need to talk less and listen more. We need to be willing to tangibly join together in Jesus Christ and have our faith in him build a bridge over the great divide.
Racism remains. Pain is present. Injustice exists. We must listen to what it sounds like and feels like, and be willing to reach out for healing and reconciliation. The time to listen is now.
The Time to Lead is Now.
Before the situation gets out of hand, the time to lead the charge in bringing change and transformation is now. Being transformed and transforming means that what Jesus Christ has done in our hearts and lives finds expression in how we live: sharing compassion, providing comfort, caring for one another, recognizing how people are disempowered and marginalized, working for equality and justice.
As Dr. King championed, resolution finds its footing on a spiritual foundation. The capacity for deep change must be grounded in Jesus Christ and in the body of Christ, the church.
In Letter from Birmingham Jail, Dr. King laments:
There was a time when the church was very powerful—in the time when the early Christians rejoiced at being deemed worthy to suffer for what they believed. In those days the church was not merely a thermometer that recorded the ideas and principles of popular opinion; it was a thermostat that transformed the mores of society…
Things are different now. So often the contemporary church is a weak, ineffectual voice with an uncertain sound. So often it is an arch defender of the status quo. Far from being disturbed by the presence of the church, the power structure of the average community is consoled by the church's silent—and often even vocal—sanction of things as they are.
But the judgment of God is upon the church as never before. If today's church does not recapture the sacrificial spirit of the early church, it will lose its authenticity, forfeit the loyalty of millions, and be dismissed as an irrelevant social club with no meaning for the twentieth century. Every day I meet young people whose disappointment with the church has turned into outright disgust.
Perhaps I have once again been too optimistic. Is organized religion too inextricably bound to the status quo to save our nation and the world?
Now is not the time for the church and for Christians to be on the sidelines. We cannot remain silent. We cannot ignore the realities before us.
As the RCA, we have declared our commitment to racial reconciliation, to justice, and to the equality of all people. In our adoption of The Belhar Confession we give voice to our faith in stating:
that Christ's work of reconciliation is made manifest in the church as the community of believers who have been reconciled with God and with one another
that unity is, therefore, both a gift and an obligation for the church of Jesus Christ
that through the working of God's Spirit it is a binding force, yet simultaneously a reality which must be earnestly pursued and sought: one which the people of God must continually be built up to attain
that this unity must become visible so that the world may believe that separation, enmity and hatred between people and groups is sin which Christ has already conquered, and accordingly that anything which threatens this unity may have no place in the church and must be resisted.
We are called to earnestly pursue and seek peace, reconciliation, and justice. We must be catalysts in working for change; leaders who influence for a world that is different because it lives and loves like Jesus.
The time to lament is now: We must cry out to God with hope and trust rather than discouragement and despair, praying and asking for God to respond and restore.
The time to listen is now: We need to hear the witness of inequality and injustice and not be dismissive.
The time to lead is now: We are to be the people of God who actively pursue life in all its fullness for all people, working for love and peace together.
Tom De Vries is general secretary of the Reformed Church in America.