The week started out so well. Monday was the Fourth of July. It was supposed to be a fun-filled holiday weekend of celebrating our freedom. But things went rapidly downhill from there. Just after midnight on Tuesday, in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, police responding to a call shot and killed Alton Sterling, an African-American man. Two different bystanders uploaded video footage of the event, and it went quickly went viral online, sparking outrage and grief as people saw for themselves what happened. Mr. Sterling was shot while officers held him pinned to the ground. Many observers saw it as a blatant miscarriage of justice and an abuse of police power.
But before we could wrap our minds around what had happened, before the investigation was even close to being completed, the very next day another African-American man, Philando Castile, was shot and killed during a traffic stop in Falcon Heights, Minnesota. This time there was no video of the actual shooting. But Mr. Castile’s girlfriend, Diamond Reynolds, somehow had the presence of mind to take out her phone and start live-streaming the aftermath. As her boyfriend’s body slumped over in the car seat, bleeding from multiple gunshot wounds, you can hear her cry out, “Please don’t tell me this, Lord. Please, Jesus, don’t tell me that he’s gone. Please, officer, don’t tell me that you just did this to him. You shot four bullets into him, sir. He was just getting his license and registration, sir.” Later on, in maybe the most heartbreaking scene of the video, Ms. Reynolds is sitting in a squad car along with her four-year-old daughter, who was there at the time of the shooting. She begins sobbing, “I can’t believe they did this,” and her daughter—her four-year-old child—comforts her, “It’s OK, I’m right here with you.”
This is gut-wrenching stuff. As I’ve watched the reactions unfold on Facebook over the last few days, I’ve been reminded how different life in America is for my black friends than it is for me. I saw my friends wondering, “Will I be next? Will my son be next?” I saw them talk about driving five miles under the speed limit in the right lane, praying that they won’t be next. I saw them grieving and mourning for two men that they never met, but felt a kinship with on a level I can’t really understand because I’ve never walked in their shoes, I’ve never lived in their skin. I enjoy privileges that they never have simply because, by accident of birth, my skin has less melanin than theirs. And I have to tell you, I’m angry. I’m heartbroken. I’m distraught, on their behalf. I stand in solidarity with them, wondering when our great nation will finally live up to its lofty ideals that “all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
Because it’s not just these two shootings. It’s the cumulative effect of so many other shootings, the cumulative impact of a thousand different forms of inequality, the cumulative weight of injustice that our black brothers and sisters have borne ever since they first bore burdens for their slave masters. It’s the racism that is so deeply ingrained into our culture that many of us don’t even think about it, don’t even realize it’s there—unless we happen to be the victims of it.
“It’s… the cumulative weight of injustice that our black brothers and sisters have borne ever since they first bore burdens for their slave masters.”
Let me say it clearly, because it needs to be said: America is a great country; in fact, it may be the greatest country in the world. But it is far from perfect. In 2016, racism is still a reality. Injustice is still a reality. Now, maybe you’re skeptical about that. For many years I wasn’t even aware of these issues. I enjoyed the privilege of ignorance. I didn’t have to be aware of racism and injustice because they didn’t affect me. But many of my fellow citizens do not enjoy that privilege. Maybe some of us are still in the process of learning about these issues. Now is the time for listening to the experience of others—listen before you speak.
But as I was thinking about these things over the last few days, tragedy struck yet again, Thursday night in Dallas, Texas. There was a protest organized to call for justice for the two men who were killed by police in the previous days. The protest itself was peaceful. But as it was concluding, a gunman armed with a high-powered rifle opened fire on the police officers who were there escorting the protesters. And suddenly downtown Dallas turned into something that resembled a warzone. Dozens of officers were involved in an hours-long manhunt for the shooter. They exchanged gunfire with him for nearly an hour before finally detonating a remote-controlled bomb to neutralize him without further endangering the lives of the police.
The final tally was two civilians wounded, seven officers wounded, and five officers killed. (Some were from the Dallas police, others from the transit authority.) The shooter, who was himself a black man, was upset about the recent killings of black men by police. He said he wanted to kill white people and specifically white police officers. Sadly he succeeded. Police officers around the nation are reeling from this devastating attack. No doubt the fear for their lives and safety that they experience every time they don the uniform has dramatically increased in the wake of the deadliest day for police officers since 9/11.
And let’s be absolutely clear about this: no matter what happened on Tuesday, no matter what happened on Wednesday, nothing justifies the killing of innocent people, whether they wear a uniform or not. And just so there’s no doubt about this, our black brothers and sisters would agree. I’ve seen the same people who were mourning the deaths of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile also mourning the loss of these five officers: Brent Thompson, Patrick Zamarripa, Michael Krol, Michael Smith, and Lorne Ahrens. These men had families, people who loved them. Those people are heartbroken right now; their lives have been shattered. And our entire nation has been rocked these tragedies.
I’m reminded of the words of Martin Luther King, Jr.
The ultimate weakness of violence is that it is a descending spiral begetting the very thing it seeks to destroy. Instead of diminishing evil, it multiplies it. Through violence you may murder the liar, but you cannot murder the lie, nor establish the truth. Through violence you may murder the hater, but you do not murder hate. In fact, violence merely increases hate.
Returning violence for violence multiplies violence, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.
As I’ve pondered what to say about these senseless and horrific acts of violence, I’ve been at a loss. What can you say? There are no words that make any of this better. There are no words that can make sense of madness. But if there’s one thing that these tragic events remind us of, it’s that this world does not operate according to God’s standard of justice and righteousness. This world is governed by sin and evil. And God rises up in judgment against it.
What should be our response, then, as His followers? We cannot sit idly by and say nothing. Silence in the face of great injustice is unacceptable. In the past God raised up prophets to speak to His people during times of distress. And while I don’t think that any of us personally claim the gift of prophecy, collectively as God’s church we must raise our prophetic voice and speak truth in our times.
“We cannot sit idly by and say nothing…. collectively as God’s church we must raise our prophetic voice and speak truth in our times.”
Perhaps the Old Testament prophets can serve as a guide for the message we might deliver to our troubled world. But in order to deliver the message, we must first hear it ourselves. The prophets spoke to God’s people. May they speak to God’s people even today.
The prophet Amos was called by God to carry a special message of warning to Israel: repent of your wicked ways, or judgment will come. It must have seemed a preposterous message to the people of Israel. At the time, the kingdom was powerful and prosperous. The people lived in self-indulgent luxury. They were certainly not thinking about calamity and destruction. Perhaps we might draw a parallel to our own times. Many people today live in blissful, comfortable ignorance, unaware of how quickly disaster can strike. But just as in Amos’ day, they need a prophetic voice to rouse them from their slumber.
Amos did not hesitate to call the sins of Israel by their right name.
This is what the Lord says: “For three sins of Judah, even for four, I will not turn back my wrath. Because they have rejected the law of the Lord and have not kept his decrees, because they have been led astray by false gods, the gods their ancestors followed, I will send fire upon Judah that will consume the fortresses of Jerusalem.” This is what the Lord says: “For three sins of Israel, even for four, I will not turn back my wrath. They sell the righteous for silver, and the needy for a pair of sandals. They trample on the heads of the poor as upon the dust of the ground and deny justice to the oppressed. Father and son use the same girl and so profane my holy name. They lie down beside every altar on garments taken in pledge. In the house of their god they drink wine taken as fines.” (Amos 2:4-8)
Amos calls them to repent, to seek the Lord before it is too late.
Seek the Lord and live, or he will sweep through the house of Joseph like a fire; it will devour, and Bethel will have no one to quench it…. Seek good, not evil, that you may live. Then the Lord God Almighty will be with you, just as you say he is. (Amos 5:6, 14)
But then God has a stern warning message that, at first glance, might seem a bit strange to us.
Woe to you who long for the day of the Lord! Why do you long for the day of the Lord? That day will be darkness, not light. It will be as though a man fled from a lion only to meet a bear, as though he entered his house and rested his hand on the wall only to have a snake bite him. Will not the day of the Lord be darkness, not light—pitch-dark, without a ray of brightness? (Amos 5:18-20)
Why is woe pronounced on those who long for the day of the Lord? Aren’t we supposed to look forward to that day? Don’t we long for it, especially when we’re faced with the suffering and evil of this world? Aren’t we encouraged by the thought that Jesus is coming back soon? So what’s the deal? The next few verses answer the question.
“I hate, I despise your religious feasts; I cannot stand your assemblies. Even though you bring me burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them. Though you bring choice fellowship offerings, I will have no regard for them. Away with the noise of your songs! I will not listen to the music of your harps. But let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream!” (Amos 5:21-24)
God is fed up with self-righteous religiosity that pretends to be pious while tolerating sin. If He were speaking today, He might say, “I can’t stand your church services. I don’t want your offerings. I do not accept your prayers. I’m not listening to your hymn-singing.” That is God’s rebuke to us when we take His name upon ourselves, calling ourselves Christians, but failing to uphold His standard of justice and righteousness. As Jesus once warned, the people who call Him “Lord, Lord,” but do not do what He says are in for a rude awakening on the day of the Lord, when they will hear God say, “I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!” (Matthew 7:21-23).
“But let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream!”
You might recognize that verse. Martin Luther King, Jr. quoted it in his most famous speech, “I Have a Dream.” In that same speech he proclaimed, “Let freedom ring from Stone Mountain of Georgia. Let freedom ring from Lookout Mountain of Tennessee. Let freedom ring from every hill and molehill of Mississippi. From every mountainside, let freedom ring.”
But freedom cannot ring until justice rolls. So let justice roll! And let God’s church be at the forefront of the movement proclaiming righteousness and justice for all those who do not yet have it. Why? Because our God is leading that movement—“The Lord works righteousness and justice for all the oppressed” (Psalm 103:6).
“But freedom cannot ring until justice rolls. So let justice roll!”
At this point some of you are thinking, “I’m not sure about all of this. I’m uncomfortable with getting involved in politics. That’s not the church’s place.” It is true that the church should never become a political organization. Bad things happen when it does, history shows. And yet we have no problem as Christians raising our voices in the public sphere to decry abortion, or to oppose the redefinition of marriage. Why is it acceptable to speak out on those issues, which we believe to be of great moral importance, and yet we cannot speak out about the racial divide in our country, about the tensions between law enforcement and the communities they are supposed to protect, about the injustices that disproportionately impact minority communities?
If we do not speak out about the moral issues facing our society, we have lost our prophetic voice. “Shout it aloud, do not hold back. Raise your voice like a trumpet. Declare to my people their rebellion and to the house of Jacob their sins” (Isaiah 58:1).
The church need not become entangled with partisan politics in order to be a prophetic voice to our society. We need only stand for what is right and true, upholding our standard, our only rule of faith and practice—the Bible. And the Bible tells us—“let justice roll!”
“The church need not become entangled with partisan politics in order to be a prophetic voice to our society.”
We could go to so many other passages of Scripture with this same message, this same call to uphold justice and righteousness. Psalm 89:14 says that these are the very foundation of God’s throne. We could spend many fruitful hours plumbing the depths of God’s Word learning what those concepts of justice and righteousness mean—doing what is right, doing what is in accordance with the character of God. If you’re looking for a topic for personal Bible study, that would be a good one.
But let us not end with proclamations and studies. Let us be motivated into action. Justice must roll on like a mighty river; righteousness must flow like a never-failing stream. That’s an action, not merely a sentiment. A river doesn’t just sit there waiting for something to happen; it rolls on, the power of its current carrying along all that falls into its path. And so it must be with us.
I’d like to suggest some concrete action steps that we can take in the wake of these deadly shootings. These are ways that we can raise our prophetic voice in this time of need. But first I want to clarify two issues that our society is facing right now.
First, we need to own up to the fact that there is racial injustice on a systemic level in our nation. Consider these statistics: black Americans are two and half times more likely than white Americans to be fatally shot by the police. Even more alarming, unarmed black Americans are five times more likely than white Americans to be fatally shot by police. (And despite what you may have heard, no, we cannot pin these disparities on crime rate. Read this article for more details.)
Second, we also need to recognize that blaming all police officers for the actions of a few is irresponsible. We don’t want to inadvertently send a message of hatred for law enforcement. They risk and sometimes even sacrifice their lives to protect others. If we want to effectively address the problem of police brutality, then we should support police officers who are doing their jobs well.
So understand this: we should support police, and we should also support victims of police injustice. These are not mutually exclusive ideas. Currently in our country some are advancing a narrative that says if you support protest movements against police brutality, you are therefore anti-police and are actually contributing to violence against police. This is a false narrative and should be firmly rejected. We should also reject any narrative that suggests supporting the police means one condones police injustice. Again, support for the police and support for victims of injustice are not mutually exclusive ideas. With that in mind, here are some action steps to take.
“We should support police, and we should also support victims of police injustice. These are not mutually exclusive ideas.”
First (and right now I’m speaking primarily to my fellow white Christians), now is the time to join together in solidarity with our black brothers and sisters. Let them know that you care about them, that the issues which matter to them matter to you, that when they mourn you mourn. Let us join together in unity to stand for justice, to stand against violence—all violence, whether it is unnecessary violence against black Americans, or unjustifiable violence against police officers.
Second, consider writing a letter of encouragement to your local police department. Right now they’re most likely on edge from the events in Dallas. They need to know that we support them—that we’re pro-justice, not anti-police. Write them a letter or send them an email and tell them that. Tell them you’re praying for them, that you’re asking God to protect them as they serve your community. They have a hard job, and right now they’re feeling like they’re under attack. The need our support now more than ever.
You might even consider asking to meet with your local police chief to talk about these issues. Here are two questions you might ask (I’m indebted to my friends, and fellow pastors, Jeremiah Sepolen and David Hamstra, for these suggestions). Ask your local authorities what you can do to help build a positive relationship between police and the people in the communities they serve. And ask what they are doing to prevent unnecessary officer-involved shootings of persons of color.
Lastly, use your influence to work for positive change. You may not think you have much influence. But everyone has family, friends, neighbors, and coworkers. We can all start a positive dialog about these issues. Let’s not bury our heads in the sand and pretend that if we don’t talk about the problem it doesn’t exist. Let’s have an open and honest dialog about the problems our society is facing, and how we might remedy them. Change starts with us.
And all of us have the power of our vote. Now, I’m not going to tell you who or what to vote for, because that is up to your conscience. But I will encourage you to consider the issue of civil rights when you vote. Vote for leaders who are going to help make our communities, our states, and our country a better place, leaders who will lead positive change.
In all of these actions, we must constantly be in prayer. As Christians we believe that prayer is essential. Pray for all those who have recently lost loved ones. Pray for the victims of injustice. Pray for police officers and their families. In and of itself, though, prayer is not a concrete action; that’s why I didn’t list it as an action step. Sometimes we use prayer as an excuse not to do anything. We hear about terrible tragedies, and we say, “Our thoughts and prayers are with the victims.” Let’s do more than just think and pray. Let’s act, with the gumption of the Holy Spirit.
Friends, now is the time to stand up with all of the courage and conviction our Christian faith gives us. Stand up for what is right. Stand up for what is true. Stand up for the oppressed. Let us not grow weary in doing good. Stand up, and let justice roll!
This blog is an adaptation of a sermon I preached on July 9, 2016. You can view a video of it on my sermon page.