A Baffling Inconsistency

A Baffling Inconsistency

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Published:
August 27, 2020

This week America again confronts the consequences of its racist past and present. Jacob Blake has joined the too long list of unarmed Black men and women who were shot extrajudicially, most often by police.[1] The only difference between Blake and those already on this list is that it seems Blake will survive his encounter with those charged to protect and serve him. And so the cycle begins again. There are protests. Black people in America (myself included) raise the alarm of unjust and discriminatory treatment, only to be met with either sympathy, apathy, or disgust from society at large, but no meaningful move towards change, let alone justice.[2]

It is probably an unfruitful pursuit to continue to try and figure out how to get people to care about this injustice. It seems we will all have to live with the fact that there will always be those who see Black people shot by police and believe that the issue is either not important enough,[3] or worse – that it is the fault of those being shot as opposed to those doing the shooting.[4] The problem for me is that I find many of these same people are those who I am supposed to call brothers and sisters in Christ. When considering the apathy of the Adventist Church as a whole (and many local churches) on this issue I am still struggling to find a cause for this apathy. It is true that in a previous post I raised one theory, but that seems more like an indirect or unconscious cause.

One interesting theory comes from the realm of religious liberty.[5] The Adventist church is well known for its staunch conviction in the separation of church and state. It is that view which motivated me to choose religious liberty as my area of academic study. The church’s steadfast belief in removing itself from political questions often makes church leaders reticent to wade into what may be seen as political or partisan issues. While in seminary I anecdotally heard, several times, that the church did not take a bigger role in the American Civil Rights Movement because leaders did not want to be seen as taking sides in a political matter. It is certainly possible that Adventist history could be repeating itself in this moment. Addressing police brutality is certainly a political issue that will, by its very nature, have legislative answers. So the church walking into a potential minefield could certainly have unforeseen repercussions and might be more than the organization may want to take on. That seems plausible and understandable.

On the other hand, that theory seems weak for three reasons. One, the Church (or any particular local church) would hardly have to wade into political waters to take a strong stance on the matter. It should not take much to unequivocally state that the pattern of these murders is wrong and the church supports the safety of everyone in society to live free of fear, especially from state agents. The church could then hold itself out as a community resource and conduit to help improve the environment between police officers and citizens, in the communities where these churches are. Obviously a church could do more than that if they wanted. I present these ideas as mere examples of the least that could be done.

Two, in our zeal to protect the separation of church and state, we sometimes forget what it is for. The separation of church and state is a two-way principle. The church should have nothing to do with the state because the power of the state has the ability to corrupt the ideals of the church. The state should want to have nothing to do with the church because there should be no cause to use the imprimatur of religion to control the freedom of self-determination for members of society. The point is that none of these things are at issue if the Church (or a particular church) were to espouse the idea that there is no cause for unarmed citizens to be shot in the back by law enforcement. The church would just be another institution asking society to play by its own rules. A church is certainly within its purview to do that.

The third reason is also the reason why I think something more problematic may be at work in Adventism’s reticence to be involved in this issue.[6] Segments of the church (and the Church as a whole) have often felt it proper to be involved in political issues at particular times. For example, Adventist religious liberty organizations got involved in the same-sex marriage debate in California in the late 2000s. This involved advocacy to vote in a particular way on a state constitutional amendment. More recently, Adventist Church religious liberty people were involved in creating the Fairness for All Act, an attempt to balance rights for the LGBT+ community, with concerns about religious liberty. If the Church is willing to assert themselves on these questions then why don’t they want to do the same on issues of race specifically? The only apparent answer is that the Church (and many local churches) has calculated what it will cost – with their membership – to take such a stand. Some churches can afford to take no position because there is no one among their membership (or at least not a critical mass) who will really be hurt by their inaction. So they remain silent. In churches that are diverse we largely see the types of statements that attempt to straddle the line, hoping to address the issue, but also not offend the “very fine people on both sides.”[7] In my estimation the same can be said of the statement released by the Church in the wake of the murder of George Floyd.[8]

To be clear – these pastors and leaders know that there are people in their church who believe that police brutality against Black people in this country is not an issue. That the murder of unarmed Black people by the state, and the resultant conversation about the way racism continues to affect our present in this country and in our church, is a myth – a hoax. Thus racism is a problem our nation already solved, according to people who rarely have any experience on the subject. And so pastors find themselves in what amounts to a Catch-22 – they either agree with their members or they have to decide whether to cause division in their church by doing the right thing and addressing this divisive issue in all its fullness. I may be wrong, but it certainly seems like many of these pastors and leaders made their decision – and in both outcomes Black people, and Black members of this church, lose. “Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose.

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[1] Two notes here. One, at some point even the most ardent detractors will have to ask themselves why this happens so often. Two, there may be a need to clarify terms. I tend to use the word extrajudicial to describe these shootings because it allows for the inclusion of incidents where the perpetrators assumed the prerogatives of law enforcement in murdering their victims (the murders of Trayvon Martin and AhmaudArbery are examples of this inclusion). Moreover, in both of these cases we see the assistance of state actors in delaying adjudication after the fact, which only further justifies their inclusion in a list of this type.

[2] In case anyone needed evidence of discriminatory treatment, I present the case of Kyle Rittenhouse. Mr. Rittenhouse came armed to the protest in Kenosha, shot three protesters (killing 2) and the police on scene allowed him to pass right by them without so much as a backward glance despite the fact that several people pointed him out and let police know what he did just moments prior to him moving past the police.

[3] I am being charitable to those who raise the issue of violent crime in cities where Black people are often the victims. I find it very rare that someone who raises the issue of “Black on Black” crime in Chicago, for example, actually cares about crime and Black victims in Chicago.

[4] Though I often wonder how this would be different if White people were being shot disproportionately to the general population. I think now is a good time to explain (again) that the issue with police shooting unarmed Black people is that police are actors of the state, meting out punishment without due process of law. And they are rarely tried, let alone convicted, for their crimes.

[5] Of course for the sake of argument I am excusing out of hand the most obvious reason for the apathy of White Adventists on this issue.

[6] And also why they didn’t want to be involved in the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s either.

[7] I hope everyone hears the sarcasm and cynicism in the use of this quotation.

[8] In all candor, this piece was written before I saw the NAD’s statement about Jacob Blake. I believe that statement is at least a small step in the right direction.

 

Jason Hines is a former attorney with a doctorate in Religion, Politics, and Society from the J.M. Dawson Institute of Church-State Studies at Baylor University. He is also an assistant professor at AdventHealth University. He blogs about religious liberty and other issues at www.TheHinesight.Blogspot.com.

Previous Spectrum columns by Jason Hines can be found at: https://spectrummagazine.org/author/jason-hines 

Image Credit: Unsplash.com

 

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