In the past few years there have been a number of videos released that have raised concerns over police brutality and race relations in the US. I, for one, am grateful that many of these tragic moments are being captured so we can, hopefully, have important conversations and call people to justice when necessary.
The latest viral video just so happens to be from our city, in Northeast Columbia at Spring Valley High School.
After a young girl refused to leave class when a teacher and administrator asked her to leave, the resource officer was called in to remove her. And in the process of seeking to remove her, a violent encounter occurred. The moment escalated quickly, and in the blink of an eye a viral video was born that would be dissected the world over.
As the pastor of a church in a close-knit family of 2 other churches across the Columbia area, one of the most interesting things is seeing who posts what on social media after something like this, what they choose to focus on, what they respond to, etc. We have members of all races and all political persuasions who disagree on a vast array of issues (something that we are proud of), and you can even throw videos like this one into that list. I have not seen any incredibly insensitive posts from anyone in our churches, which is something I’m grateful for.
In light of all of this, I want to offer 5 thoughts specifically for our church family that also might be helpful for other Christians responding to situations like this one. I do not believe these are necessarily infallible thoughts, but hopefully ones not frequently addressed in the wake of circumstances like this one that will help us be God’s church more faithfully.
(And to be more clear, these are less thoughts on the Spring Valley incident, and more general thoughts on responding to situations like the Spring Valley situation.)
1. The gospel frees us to look with suspicion at our own biases.
If you spend any amount of time on social media after something like this happens, you’ll quickly notice that people watch the same video and see very different things.
How is this so? It’s really simple: we come from different backgrounds and have vastly different experiences, so that leads us to interpret events through the lenses of our own lives. And, of course, we project the lenses through which we see the world, expecting others see it exactly the same way. We then come down off the proverbial mountain to explain to everyone what the clear reality is.
For example, I am a stark white dude. Grew-up-listening-to-country white. Sometimes-wears-fishing-shirts white. I’ve never had a negative experience with a police officer in my entire life (besides that one time I got a $500 ticket for going 95 in a 70…but I was going 95…and even then he ended up reducing it to $180). I think police officers are wonderful and they have always at least politely tolerated me during my many speeding stops.
So, someone could show me the video of what happened at Spring Valley this week and ask me, “On your first reaction, who do you think is most in the wrong?” For most of my life due to my surroundings and experiences, I was conditioned to unilaterally trust police officers. I have no experience in my life that would lead me to doubt them. My default based solely off my experience would be, “Well if he used more force than I’m maybe even comfortable with, he must have had a good reason to do so.” I have been conditioned to give him the benefit of the doubt.
But I have good African-American friends who have had very bad experiences with some police officers (some, mind you, not all). I’ve heard some ridiculous, gut-wrenching stories. So when one of my friends sees the same video and is asked which party seems to be at fault, they have real, hard evidence from their experience that may lead them to doubt the police officer first and give the benefit of the doubt to the other party. Both of us could easily jump to conclusions based off of our past experiences. And yes, that works both ways in any situation. We all have our own experiences and therefore our own biases.
The good news of the gospel for Christians is that we can be wrong. When we are presented with information that doesn’t fit into our preconceived notions about how the world works, we can say “I was wrong or viewing this situation based on my personal bias. I need to consider a different perspective.”
What is my bias? Honestly, it has changed over the years. It’s gotten to the point now (because I’ve seen so many not-okay videos and heard many a story from friends I trust) that I’m inclined to look for cases of police brutality and think that, even if it’s not true in individual cases, there does seem to be a precedent of unequal treatment of racial minorities.
So when I see something posted on social media, I’m inclined to hit play and expect the worst (like Walter Scott being gunned down in Charleston), more ready to pronounce judgment on the officer or authority figure in question than I am to place blame on the other party. I grew up in the Deep South and I’ve seen the ugly reality of racism (both personal and systemic).
That bias can lead me to not see things as objectively as I could, and I need to own that and be suspicious of my own bias. Following my bias unchecked would be totally unhelpful, and I need to not be too quick to rush to judgment and ask the hard questions. I need to remember that cops have a crazy difficult job and the vast majority are amazing people serving in hard, thankless roles, making tough decisions I’ll never have to make (that is certainly true about the ones I know). My bias needs to take a backseat to reality in any given situation. I should seek to be as objective as possible.
On the other hand, I know lots of people with the exact opposite bias. They appear to watch these videos with the worldview that the authority figure in question can’t be wrong. It must be the other person’s fault. After all, if they would have never _______, this would never have happened. And, my friends—the gospel gives us the freedom to be wrong–for some nuance, for the lens through which we see the world to be cracked, because it likely is. We all need to ask the tough questions of ourselves and look at our reactions and biases closely.
2. Both people can be wrong at the same time…AND…
One of the hardest things about a situation like this is it seems to produce an urgent, “Well whose side are you on?!?” mentality. It can feel like a war, and you need to pick a side and stand your verbal ground, not giving an inch. These sides feel polarizing, pulling hard towards absolutes in opposite directions. Heads are hot.
In a situation like this, a biblical worldview allows you to have a category where both parties can be wrong, yet one bear more responsibility for their wrongness. A place for nuance where you get to say that a sinful response to sin is still sin.
Where you say this girl was wrong for disobeying her authorities. A girl going through a very difficult time, but still wrong. You’re kidding yourself if you refuse to at least acknowledge that. It’s not victim shaming to say she was wrong for disobeying her authorities and putting others in a difficult spot. It is victim shaming when you say (or imply) that she DESERVED to be treated how she was…because she absolutely did not.
AND, the officer was wrong and because he was the one in a position of authority and strength, his sin was more damaging. He let his temper flare and did not follow protocol (which is the reason he was fired). He is the greater offender and he is completely accountable for his actions regardless of the actions of this girl. Power, strength and authority come with greater responsibility (and greater consequences). A sinful response to sin is still sin. My sin against you doesn’t justify your sin against me.
Both parties can be wrong and one can be more responsible than the other. These ideas can coexist. In fact, they must. If you look at every conflict and try to assign full fault and full victim-status to one side you will rarely be correct and complicate the shouting matches between two sides that seem unable to hear the other.
3. Ask questions, don’t assume.
Ask questions, don’t assume.
Ask questions, don’t assume.
Ask questions, don’t assume.
Do I need to say it again?
When another believer has a different take on something controversial, don’t immediately jump to “Well you’re just a freaking idiot then.” If God has made us family through the cross, we shouldn’t treat one another like the enemy. And remember—we all have biases.
Lean away from attack mode as much as you can. Don’t blindly paint the person on the opposing side as the worst caricature of their argument. Try to give others the benefit of the doubt and the chance to clarify. Say things like:
“I’m not following your train of thought here. Can you help me understand? It seems like you are saying ______ and I’m not sure if that’s what you are trying to say.”
“I see this differently. Can you explain what has led you to this conclusion?”
Seek to understand and resist jumping to conclusions too fast. Cool down heated discussions with the grace you’ve received in Jesus. Recognize that people have different backgrounds and look for as much common ground as you can before voting someone off the proverbial island.
Ask non-accusatory questions, and listen to one another. With your ears. Open. Have the courage to challenge your assumptions by actually listening to someone with different assumptions. (Also, FOR THE LOVE, whenever possible have these conversations in person and not on social media.)
Know this, my beloved brothers: let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger;
In the end, even if you still don’t fully see eye-to-eye, you are still family through Jesus and that matters more than anything you disagree on. Grace can cover and ground disagreements, and we can pursue unity even without complete uniformity.
4. Our primary party line is Jesus.
Anytime there is a controversial, hot-button issue, our tendency is to run with whoever we deem to be “our team.”
What are other Republicans saying about this?!? Regurgitate with extra velocity!
What are other Democrats saying?!? Spit back with some extra pizazz at those juvenile Republicans.
What are other Southern conservative white people saying about this?!? Amen and amen!
You get the point.
I’ve never heard this idea more helpfully explained to Christians than when my friend Ant Frederick addressed the church he pastors (Midtown Two Notch, a predominantly African-American church) after the Michael Brown shooting in St. Louis. He said the following statement:
“I keep seeing posts where people are saying they have to take up for their
brothers and sisters, and I have to ask, ‘Who are your brothers and sisters?’ I’ll tell you who it’s not—it’s not the people we share a skin color with. It’s other believers in Christ, no matter what color they are. So when you say ‘brothers and sisters’ I hope you’re talking about other Christians of all races, because that is our primary allegiance.”
He got a lot of knowing grunts and head nods in response. When I heard him say that, I was absolutely floored. What a beautiful truth spoken in a very counter-cultural way in a difficult situation.
Believers in Jesus, if you find yourself viewing the world and all manner of complex issues first and foremost through your racial or political lens, something is amiss.
If you hold the party line and never disagree or push back on the common beliefs or values of those you naturally consider your “team,” you have prioritized the wrong identity.
First and foremost you are a believer in Jesus, bought with a price by His blood, adopted into a family of God that spans all colors, ethnicities and locales, and no other “team” or identity can even come close to that level of importance. If Jesus never confronts the party line of whatever group or ideology you naturally identify with, then what you have is not a God but a token.
It’s not that you aren’t (or can’t be) a Republican, a Democrat, white, black, etc. It’s just that your Republican-ness should be in submission to Jesus. Your liberal-ness, your race, your (fill-in-the-blank)-ness—they should all be in submission to Jesus, the primary authority in our lives. All other identities come second (at best), and we interpret them first and foremost through the lens of the gospel.
There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.
5. We have to be willing to speak out against injustice.
The litmus test of faithfulness is most certainly not tweeting or posting “This is terrible!” about the latest news story. That would be overly simplistic to say the least, and whenever possible we want to push for real-life conversations, advocacy and fighting against injustice. If our efforts at gospel-driven justice and fighting for human flourishing stop at social media, then we have fallen short.
But, it’s easy to poke fun at the guy who’s incessantly posting outrage over the latest incident…
…and be a person who does even less than that.
As followers of Jesus committed to care for the things He cares about, we will become a people who both speak out and practically work against injustice. Even, and maybe even especially the injustices that aren’t typically the focus of our particular “team.”
There are countless things, both overseas and right here in our culture, that are just not okay. There are causes and injustices that are worthy of devoting your passion, time and energy towards. There are things worth speaking out about, drawing attention to—yes, even on social media sometimes.
We have an opportunity to call attention to and fight injustices that happen all around us, and if we are never doing so in any form we should ask ourselves why. Do we care? Do I care enough to tweet something? Do I care even more than that? When some injustice comes up in a conversation and it’s awkward because the other people don’t have the same values Jesus does, do I care enough to say something?
Of course it’s not possible to constantly champion every injustice that exists in the world. But we can pray for the Holy Spirit to point out areas for us to focus our attention on and resist the urge to just cruise through life caring primarily about our own comfort.
If we are truly Christian in our approach to living life, then the gospel is bigger than any cultural, racial or political difference we may have. There is something deeper that unites us than all other things that would separate us. Let’s foster those things, let Jesus be the authority over our biases, experiences and worldviews, and join forces to fight against the things He calls injustice.