The Death of Mike Brown and the Death of the Church

I’ve been really rattled by the shooting death of Mike Brown. Shaken up. In no small part, I’m sure, because I am the father of black boys, and so there is a very real sense in which Mike Brown could’ve been my son. And so the image of him with his hands up, yelling, “Please stop shooting,” just guts me.

hands up

But there is another, more important reason I’m torn up by the death of Mike Brown. And that is that I am a Christian. More specifically, I am a Christian in a denomination that has explicitly made it a goal to strive for a future free from racial injustice.

So this past Sunday, following the challenge of Eugene Cho, I preached a sermon on Jeremiah 34, a passage in which God punishes his people because they go back on a covenant they had made to liberate all their slaves. They set them free, but then they force them back into slavery. It was impossible not to see the resonances with the history of African Americans and the situation in Ferguson. And so I said so. And I hoped in some small way that speaking that truth would make a difference.

Then last week, I wrote a blog post about white privilege. Again, hoping in some small way to make an impact. And it got a lot of hits. And I felt a little better.

And then I read this post from another pastor, Thabiti Anyabwile. Anyabwile, who is a black man and a fairly conservative evangelical, throws down the gauntlet for his fellow evangelicals. He says, in no uncertain terms, if evangelicalism does not have a response for the oppressed people of our nation, then evangelicalism is dead:

…most of what’s been said [about Mike Brown and Ferguson] by evangelical leaders thus far (including my post yesterday) has been a general lament. It’s been the expressing of sentiment. There’s not yet been anything that looks like a groundswell of evangelical call for action, for theology applied to injustice. …our most influential leaders with the widest reach [have] been silent en masse. Today I think we need to be pushed a couple steps ahead.

Otherwise, orthodox evangelicalism is dead. It’s dead to oppressed folks in our back yards who need to hear the word of God spoken into their situation with all the prophetic unction our Lord would give. It’s dead to grieving parents required to have closed casket funerals for their children because racist systems and people so disfigure the body it can’t be shown. Orthodox evangelicalism is dead to the marginalized because it’s so allergic to the margins. It wants its mainstream, its tree-lined streets of cultural acceptance, its reserve and respectability. So it’s dead.

So here’s my call: Let there be the founding of a new conservative evangelical body with the aim of (1) providing clear, understandable, biblical theological frameworks for the pressing problems of the marginalized coupled with (2) organized calls to action and campaigns consistent with that framework.

Though I don’t (very comfortably at least) identify as an evangelical, I do identify as a orthodox Christian, and so I was cut to the heart by Anyabwile’s words. They reminded me that when Trayvon Martin was shot, I was rattled then too. And I read my denomination’s official statements condemning his death and calling for justice. And I posted them on Facebook. And I felt a little better. And then I forgot about Trayvon.

TRAYVON

Like most prophetic voices, Anybwile’s challenge is simultaneously inspiring and convicting. It is a challenge that applies not just to those who identify as evangelicals, but to all streams of Christianity.  (You should read the whole thing). Sermons and tweets aren’t going to cut it. If we don’t have a way to apply our faith to the injustices around us, if we don’t show solidarity with the poor and oppressed, if we don’t go out to the margins to stand with the marginalized, then the church in America is dead.

Most orthodox Christians have been focussed on their own marginalization from the cultural and political center of American life, as our views of sexuality have become increasingly unpopular. Given the rapid pace at which this has accelerated the past several years, that’s understandable. But if we’re so focussed on our own marginalization from the halls of power and the public square that we walk by our neighbor laying wounded in the street, then we have really—as the British say—lost the plot.

I, for one, will answer my brother Thabiti’s call. I am ashamed that I forgot Trayvon. I will not forget Mike Brown. I don’t have any easy answers, or even any sense of what concretely to do yet. But I’m going to start by listening to Thabiti and my other African-American brothers and sisters in the church. And I’m not going to stop until I do know what to do.

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22 thoughts on “The Death of Mike Brown and the Death of the Church”

  1. For me, hanging onto what marginalizes us focuses on our differences rather than our commonality. Your bicycle piece is a nice comparison to shed light (in a small way), on what it might be like to live with daily difficulty. As a human with my eyes mostly wide open It is horrific to see horrors everywhere. I wonder “what can I do?” and make the teeny impacts I am able.

    I’m not fond of using my own marginalized experiences (which are not important here), to bring light into anything, because they do not reflect light. I’m consciously trying to live with what bring me closer to humanity, not add more to the brick walls that separates us.

    In my own perusal of historical data about using the marginalized aspects of a religion or a race to bring about change, is that approach has not brought the desired effect. Dr. Martin Luther King did not preach on peoples differences, but their commonality. His words still resonate. Perhaps if we stand united with our common humanity, with one voice of many backgrounds there would be a more productive solution to the many difficulties that face us ALL?

    We, of the collective of life on this planet, are engaged in a common pursuit of existence. The sooner we understand our common purpose, the sooner the lives of all living things are able to experience the bounty of this magnificent planet and the amazing force of ALL that exists.

    Thank you for your thoughtful blog. I enjoy it.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Deb, I agree with you on that we find what we have in common. I was raised Roman Catholic, but more in our traditional Yup’ik Eskimo culture. The commonality that I find is that our values are very much in line with Jesus Christ’s walk of life. Even in the Native American culture The Seven Grandfather Teachings; Honesty, Humility, Truth, Wisdom, Love, Respect, and Courage, are taught at a very young age. These Seven Great Values were all walked and talked by Jesus. That is one of the reason why we understood Jesus and was quite easily converted to Catholicism because He walked our walk and talked our talk. Unfortunately our young boys and girls were abused by the priests and nuns when our grandparents were in the Residential schools and later right in our reserves; so, for many of us, it’s back to our culture that we had control of in the beginning. The point I wanted to make was that if we can only begin with that, the life and times of Jesus, I think we would be able to take one step toward working things out. But without the government.

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    1. We’ve traveled similar paths to this point Winnie. I too was raised Catholic, but have now found healing/resonation with the ways of the Native American culture (s). As I explore, I’ve come to believe our commonatlity is singularly our best bet for universal acceptance of our differences.

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  3. I respectfully disagree with pastor Thabiti Anyabwile. The church isn’t just there to scream about injustices, the church is a hospital for sick. Getting upset about Trayvon and Michael are just the tip of a massive iceberg. As a christian myself (Seventh Day Adventist) our pastor preaches community. How big are we in the community when nothings going on? So when an injustice does happen we aren’t looked at as just the people who own the building at the end, middle, or top of the block. The people will know we have their backs because they us and they know we care about them as much as their care about their community.

    As a young black male every time I step outside my LA apartment there’s a chance I can be Trayvon’d or Mike’d. It’s crazy how this Ferguson issue goes hand and hand with the writers post on white privilege. At 28 I still receive calls from my mom and stepmom reminding me on what to do when approached my the law, to be completely honest, that’s a damn shame! I have to have a crash course on how to speak to an officer every time a young black is gunned down by an officer. Forgive me for saying this, but it’s almost like slavey: don’t talk back, know your place, and my favorite, don’t make the officer feel threatened. How the hell am I suppose to do that?! A man was choked out in broad daylight by officers. The coroners aren’t ruling the death a homicide because he had pre-exsititng conditions that could’ve caused his death, he damn sure did, his condition was NYPD! I haven’t lost faith in our lord, I’ve lost faith in the term “PROTECT AND SERVE”

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      1. I do believe church should be involved in working to end racial justice. However, I also believe that church must 1st be in the community helping in anyway they can. So when a racial injustice is committed they aren’t looked upon as just “that group from up the street.” The community will understand what the church stands for.

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  4. “I’ve been really rattled by the shooting death of Mike Brown. Shaken up. In no small part, I’m sure, because I am the father of black boys, and so there is a very real sense in which Mike Brown could’ve been my son. And so the image of him with his hands up, yelling, “Please stop shooting,” just guts me.”

    This made your whole post null and void. Read a little and dig a little deeper into the story. You’re jumping to a conclusion that just isn’t right, nor is it wrong. There literally is no proof of this happening.

    Your entire post is filled with pure bias. I never once saw Christ take a side in situations like this. All he did was love the person who was wrong and love the person who was right. You’re promoting a type of hate. Why don’t you focus more on what Jesus is saying instead of what culture is saying. As a pastor you must promote a life that isn’t of this world, but one that lives in it. One that worries about whether or not someone has actually been loved in their life.

    Christ pulled people out of slavery by showing them love and truth. He freed them by dying for them. He didn’t go after political, cultural and social norms. He went after people.

    Throw all of your buzzer words away, that’s the only reason me and so many people have read this article. Quit being in the popular opinion.
    This post didn’t better anyone, it just formed more of a complex. It walled people up, and gave them a reason to stoke the flames of hate.

    Talk about Christ, see how many people will read this.

    I hope there is no anger being translate in any of my words. I could never respond in anger to this.

    Liked by 1 person

        1. I’m not sure what you feel I didn’t respond to. I don’t agree with you that Christ would never take sides in a situation like this. I think that Christ loved everyone, but if a Roman soldier wrongly killed an innocent Jewish peasant, I have no doubt whose “side” he would be on. Jesus is decidedly on the side of the poor and oppressed–not to the exclusion of others–but without fail.

          There is nothing in my post to “stoke the flames of hate.” I don’t hate police or think that most police or corrupt. Nor do I in anyway advocate that people should hate anyone or disrespect law enforcement. I did read your comment, I just don’t understand your accusations.

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    1. Well said. And now, it is November and the anger, hates and riots are still going on in Ferguson and we know that Mr. Brown was anything but innocent. There are certain “community organizers” who want nothing more than to whip up the residents into an angry, hate-filled, evil mob, pushing the race card over and over and making whites feel guilty for being “privileged”. I am disgusted.

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  5. I have to agree with mlotek. I worked as a police officer for 24 years before retiring. I never shot anyone, thanks be to God!! I do understand that this officer may or may not be in the wrong. What if the story of him being attacked in the car, then being charged outside the car is really the truth? You will have already demonized him and knowing officers who have had to shot and kill people, they already demonize themselves enough. Just something to think about. Just because Mike Brown was black doesn’t make this a race motivated shooting. Just because he was unarmed doesn’t no make this an unjustified shooting. We just don’t know yet. While we can sympathize with the family. While we can pray for peace for them. We can all also pray for justice, even if that means the officer ultimately is exonerated. We should also be praying for him and his family as they face threats, much of these are racially based if you take a look at them. I am white. My godson, whom our best friends adopted as a small infant, is black. Certainly, I don’t have your years of experience and fear, but though him I have some understanding of what he experiences. By the way he is a successful, married man now and has never had a problem with the police.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Jim, thanks for bring the perspective of a law enforcement agent. I don’t think there’s anything in my post that demonizes the law-enforcement officer involved. I know a lot of cops and they are all good officers. But I also don’t believe that the black community is just fabricating their experience of police mistreatment. There is a reason the whole city of Ferguson responded to the death of Mike Brown.

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  6. By the way, the death of Mike Brown will not kill The Church!! The gates of hell will not even prevail against Her. At least that is what Jesus said.

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    1. To be clear: when pastor Thabiti says if the church doesn’t respond to oppression the church is “dead,” he means that the church has ceased being the church that Jesus calls it to be. He’s being rhetorical. When Jesus said “the gates of hell will not prevail against the church,” he meant death. That image means death cannot hold the church, just as death could not hold Jesus, because the power of his resurrection is now in those who believe in him.

      The two comments don’t have anything to do with each other.

      But, yes, I agree with you (and I’m sure Thabiti does too), there will be a continued presence of the church in history until Christ returns.

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  7. I guess it’s been long enough now for you to realize that Mike Brown, straight off a strong armed robbery, accosted the responding police officer, tried to take said officer’s pistol, and got his stupid, thuggish self shot dead. He didn’t have his hands up, wasn’t trying to give up, wasn’t begging to not be shot. He bum rushed the cop, as only a deranged idiot would do, and got himself shot. So, stop feeling so bad about it, and stop making generalizations about whites, the church, or the justice system, as none of them had a thing to do with his death.

    Liked by 1 person

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