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Until now, I’ve been deliberately hesitant to offer my own opinion on the recent grand jury decisions involving the deaths of both Michael Brown and Eric Garner at the hands of police in Ferguson, Missouri and New York City.
I will not use this space to bore you with my reasons for not chiming in sooner on these events, however, suffice it to say in my mind there were, and are still, many other Christian bloggers who are far more learned, thoughtful and perceptive on the matter than I, and I chose to defer to them in the weeks immediately following the respective decisions that were rendered.
Nonetheless, I’ve found that remaining in the background, so to speak, has been quite beneficial for me as it has afforded me the opportunity to be exposed to any number of varying perspectives on the grand jury decisions, while also considering each perspective objectively.
Not that I had a vested interest in either decision personally, nevertheless, as a member of society and as a follower of Jesus Christ, I found myself quite interested as a student of human nature and the realization that there were countless people, particularly black Americans, who seemed to self-identify, and deeply so, with what they perceived to be the gross injustice of the grand jury decisions to not indict the police officers at whose hands both Michael Brown and Eric Garner met their demise.
Now, I want to be clear that I have no intention of “taking sides” regarding whether or not either grand jury was right or wrong because, as I’ve previously stated, I have no personal vested interest in either decision. As far as the Brown and Garner decisions are concerned, the Fifth Amendment of the United States Constitution provides for a Grand Jury process, and that process appears to have been followed in each case. Whether one happens to agree with the decisions is a different matter altogether.
Neither the grand jury process nor its outcomes are for me to judge as being just (or not) but, to my knowledge at least, there have been no charges filed or accusations made to-date in either case that there were any violations of grand jury proceedings.
What you will read in this blog post has less to do with my taking sides than with simply offering my own theological observations about what has transpired over the past weeks and months in the wake of the grand jury decisions.
That said, one cannot help but grant selfless and focused attention to the passionate collective lament of many who genuinely view the grand jury decisions in Ferguson and New York as blatantly unjust extensions of what has been a dark commentary on an entire race of people whose history in America encompasses over 400 years of mistreatment and injustice by institutionalized slavery.
It is within this paradigm of slavery that I am reminded of the passage in Exodus 3:7 and the encounter Moses had with God at the Burning Bush where God said, “I have surely seen the affliction of my people who are in Egypt and have heard their cry because of their taskmasters. I know their suffering.”
In those few yet profound words, the sovereign God of the universe reveals to Moses both the impetus and rationale for leaving His throne in Heaven and choosing a murderer like him to be the “hand of God”, so to speak, in delivering the nation of Israel from hundreds of years of Egyptian bondage: the unjust affliction of His people.
The contrast between the injustice of the Israelites at the hands of the Egyptians, and what is perceived as the “unjust” treatment of black Americans by police, is interesting to me as a theologian (small ‘t’) because in the Exodus account we have unambiguous evidence of an entire nation of people living under actual institutional forced servitude as opposed to the subjective institutional injustice based on individual instances of police “abuse” as represented most recently by the Brown and Garner incidents.
God’s sovereign choice of the nation of Israel, through whom He established an everlasting covenant with Abraham, was ordained before the foundation of the world. However, in order for that covenant to be brought to its ultimate consummation, what Israel needed from God was not merely justice but salvation. In other words, the plight in which the Israelites found themselves was such that not only did they need the situation to be made right by God (justice), they also needed to be rescued from the situation by Him (salvation).
These two dynamics are borne out in Exodus 3:8-9, “…and I have come down to deliver them out of the hand of the Egyptians and to bring them up out of the land…” (salvation) and “…now, behold, the cry of the people of Israel has come up to me, and I have also seen the oppression with which the Egyptians oppress them” (justice).
The reason I place in this context the developments involving Michael Brown and Eric Garner, and those who hold the opinion that their respective grand jury decisions were unjust, is that in the weeks and months subsequent to the decisions being handed down, I’ve come to the realization that what many are demanding in terms of justice is really not justice at all. What they actually are pressing for is not all that different from what God, through Moses, granted the nation of Israel – that the State, as if a proxy for God, give them not only justice but salvation. That is, a form of “deliverance” from the State that is facilitated by the State, a conundrum if there ever was one.
Now, having said that, there is an extent to which we as believers are to look to the State for redress of injustices and the righting of wrongs that are initiated, sanctioned or otherwise brought upon us by those who represent the State, such as police officers. It is in Romans 13:1-7 that we find the biblical context for this. The apostle Paul establishes that “those in authority” (i.e. the State) are “servants of God” and are “avengers who carry out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer.”
That police officers, and others who are in positions of authority over citizens of the State, are considered “servants of God” is not to say that they are or should be required to be believers in God, but that they are ultimately accountable to God, even though they may not believe in Him or reflect His image in their behavior or attitude toward those over whom they possess this authority. Needless to say, even those who profess to have a relationship with Jesus Christ fall short in this area, let alone those who make no such profession, for even in our regenerate condition the presence of sin renders our sanctification as yet incomplete.
You see, we must realize and accept that the State is only as righteous as the individuals who represent it; and God’s Word is abundantly clear that none of us is righteous which, by extension, means the State is unrighteous and, therefore, imperfect. With this in mind, it is right that we look to the State for redress of the injustices deliberately and egregiously committed against us. But “justice,” as the protesters would define it anyway, is about as far as the State can go.
The State is not salvific. It cannot save. It cannot truly deliver us from the type of bondage which is fundamentally at the root of all injustice to begin with: the bondage to sin.
Even if it could be proven that police officers Darren Wilson and Daniel Pantaleo, respectively, killed Michael Brown and Eric Garner intentionally and new grand juries were convened that reversed earlier decisions and indicted both officers so that they were ultimately found guilty at a trial and sentenced to extended prison terms (or worse), nothing long-term is gained if their hearts are not changed from the condition which prompted their harmful actions to begin with. In such a situation, you will have received justice but not salvation.
The State can grant redress but not redemption, and redemption is what this world needs and longs for; to be rescued from the effects and consequences of the Fall of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. Because, whether we realize it or not, what we want ultimately is to be fully delivered from the hateful attitudes and intentions that foster such behavior in the first place, and only God can effectuate that.
Try as we might – and we should – to seek remedy for offenses committed against us through more stringent and punitive laws that are designed to protect private citizens against evildoers in positions of authority, more laws do not portend transformed hearts.
And, ultimately, it is the heart that dictates one’s actions, for better or worse.
We should seek justice, yes, but we should not stop there. The justice of the State is only temporal. It can never produce lasting spiritual transformation, which should be our ultimate goal.
“And those who know Your name will put their trust in You, for You, O Lord, have not forsaken those who seek You.” – Psalm 9:10 (NASB)
Think about it.