Russell Moore, President of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Commission tweeted the following comment shortly after a Staten Island grand jury decided not to indict a New York police officer in the death of Eric Garner.
And then the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention issued a press release in which Moore wrote:
“I’m stunned speechless by this news. We hear a lot about the rule of law—and rightly so. But a government that can choke a man to death on video for selling cigarettes is not a government living up to a biblical definition of justice or any recognizable definition of justice. We may not agree in this country on every particular case and situation, but it’s high time we start listening to our African American brothers and sisters in this country when they tell us they are experiencing a problem.”
I thought these communications to be ill advised and tweeted this response,
Suffice it to say, the feedback I received was less than pleasant; and, it completely misrepresented my thoughts and feelings on the topic. So here is further clarification.
There are four reasons why I believe the comments of Russell Moore and the ERLC were inappropriate and incendiary.
1. The comments of Moore were emotionally charged reactions, not well reasoned responses. The ERLC consistently states that it is its desire to show churches how they should respond in the midst of difficult cultural crises. Well, do we really want our churches and pastors out there emoting in the public sphere in a manner inconsistent with James 1:19-20?
“My dearly loved brothers, understand this: Everyone must be quick to hear, slow to speak, and slow to anger, for man’s anger does not accomplish God’s righteousness.”
Any speech that begins with “I’m stunned speechless…” is probably not going to be what we want our churches and pastors sharing in the marketplace of ideas.
The highly emotional state in which Moore describes himself is probably responsible for the three subsequent mistakes that I think he made in this press release.
2. Moore accuses the state / government of choking a man to death for selling cigarettes. That is not just irresponsible emotionally charged rhetoric, it is dishonest. The confrontation with police may have begun with illegal commerce but the struggle that led to Garner’s death occurred when he resisted officers who sought to take him into custody. An institution of the Southern Baptist Convention has the obligation to be honest at all times, but especially when the circumstances are as troubling as they are in this case. And, it is probably best not to use misinformation at the same time you are accusing the government of murder.
3. Moore states that the grand jury’s findings do not represent Romans 13 justice. The core theme of Romans 13 regards our Christian duty to submit to government. Is Moore suggesting that there is no longer any requirement to submit to the authority of the government since the government has defaulted on its obligation to its people? I think this is a very dangerous road to go down. And the irony is almost too much, in that the scuffle occurred when Garner refused to submit to being handcuffed by legal authorities.
4. The fourth reason I think the ERLC statement is ill-conceived is that it inserts race into the situation. I am aware of no evidence that this confrontation was the result of racial profiling or racial discrimination. It is my understanding that police were responding to local shopkeepers who had complained that Garner was hurting their business. I do not think it helps race relations in our country to act as though every questionable confrontation that includes an ethnic minority is inherently an act of racism. We have much work to do in achieving the unity of which Christ spoke in John 17, and that unity will not be achieved by inserting race into every situation, and especially when you are at the same time accusing the state / government of institutional murder.
So yes, for the four reasons above I am disappointed by the ERLC’s incendiary statement and I hope a more level-headed response will follow.