The Ferguson Moment—A Moral Test for the Nation
- Al Mohler President, Southern Baptist Theological Seminary
- 2014 1 Dec
This is an edited transcript of The Briefing podcast from early Tuesday morning, November 25, 2014, hours after the Ferguson, Missouri grand jury announcement.
The grand jury decision Americans were waiting for came Monday night in the suburbs of St. Louis, Missouri. As the Washington Post reports,
“A grand jury on Monday declined to indict police officer Darren Wilson in the fatal shooting of an unarmed black teenager, resolving a secretive, months-long legal saga and reigniting powerful frustrations about America’s policing of African Americans.”
The lead article on the issue in the New York Times offered a similar view of the facts:
“A St. Louis County grand jury has brought no criminal charges against Darren Wilson, a white police officer who fatally shot Michael Brown, an unarmed African-American teenager, more than three months ago in nearby Ferguson.”
The reporters, Monica Davey and Julie Bosman, go on to say,
“The decision by the grand jury of nine whites and three blacks was announced Monday night by the St. Louis County prosecutor, Robert P. McCulloch, at a news conference packed with reporters from around the world. The killing, on a residential street in Ferguson, set off weeks of civil unrest — and a national debate — fueled by protesters’ outrage over what they called a pattern of police brutality against young black men. Mr. McCulloch said Officer Wilson had faced charges ranging from first-degree murder to involuntary manslaughter.”
But as the news reports uniformly indicate, the grand jury found no probable cause to bring an indictment on any one of these crimes against Officer Wilson.
For the most part, the announcement is exactly what legal analysts expected. It is very difficult to bring a charge against a police officer who was involved in this kind of shooting in the line of duty. In almost any jurisdiction, this kind of police shooting would have led to an internal affairs investigation—not to a grand jury consideration. But the political stakes in Ferguson, Missouri were always high—especially after the images of the body of Michael Brown on the ground on a residential street in that city spread throughout St. Louis and the world.
As big a story as the announcement from the grand jury was in itself, the aftermath has become an even larger story, and exactly the kind of larger story that was feared. For what happened in the aftermath of the announcement from the grand jury was an outbreak of violent protests that set at least some parts of the neighborhood of Ferguson, Missouri on fire.
Furthermore, the protests in the St. Louis area turned violent with police reporting widespread automatic gunfire in the city. Americans saw a constant video stream of arsonist protesters and looters rampaging through some St. Louis neighborhoods. As the night wore on, the Federal Aviation Administration stopped all incoming flights into St. Louis’ major airports, citing automatic gunfire in the immediate area of the airport as the cause. As the evening wore on, protest spread to other major American cities as well. In the aftermath of the grand jury’s announcement, the family of Michael Brown, including his parents, called for protests to be peaceful, but their own admonition was not heeded.
Furthermore, as the evening continued, President Obama spoke to the nation from the White House about the decision of the grand jury in Ferguson, Missouri. Christians trying to understand what is at stake in this very sad spectacle should pay particular attention to President Obama’s comments. The president stated,
“As you know, a few moments ago, the grand jury deliberating the death of Michael Brown issued its decision. It’s an outcome that, either way, was going to be subject of intense disagreement not only in Ferguson, but across America. So I want to just say a few words suggesting how we might move forward.”
In one of his most important public statements to date, President Obama continued saying,
“First and foremost, we are a nation built on the rule of law. And so we need to accept that this decision was the grand jury’s to make. There are Americans who agree with it, and there are Americans who are deeply disappointed, even angry. It’s an understandable reaction. But I join Michael’s parents in asking anyone who protests this decision to do so peacefully. Let me repeat Michael’s father’s words: ‘Hurting others or destroying property is not the answer. No matter what the grand jury decides, I do not want my son’s death to be in vain. I want it to lead to incredible change, positive change, change that makes the St. Louis region better for everyone.’ Michael Brown’s parents have lost more than anyone. We should be honoring their wishes.”
As the president continued his remarks, he turned to address law enforcement officials saying,
“I also appeal to the law enforcement officials in Ferguson and the region to show care and restraint in managing peaceful protests that may occur. Understand, our police officers put their lives on the line for us every single day. They’ve got a tough job to do to maintain public safety and hold accountable those who break the law. As they do their jobs in the coming days, they need to work with the community, not against the community, to distinguish the handful of people who may use the grand jury’s decision as an excuse for violence—distinguish them from the vast majority who just want their voices heard around legitimate issues in terms of how communities and law enforcement interact.”
Finally, the president said,
“We need to recognize that the situation in Ferguson speaks to broader challenges that we still face as a nation.”
The president’s comments were restrained and responsible. As a matter of fact, it’s hard to imagine a more suitable and responsible set of comments for a president to make—much less the nation’s first elected African-American president.
The president went on to talk about the cooperation needed between the police and the community during this time:
“Working with law enforcement officials to make sure their ranks are representative of the communities they serve. We know that makes a difference. It means working to train officials so that law enforcement conducts itself in a way that is fair to everybody.”
This is a fundamental statement that virtually everyone should agree with. The difficulty is pulling that off in the context of heightened tensions. In a truly tragic juxtaposition, even as the president was speaking such judicious words, the media displayed a video stream of burning buildings, looting and vandalism, and protesters committing violent actions in the street.
The president’s statement also included these very important words:
“But what is also true is that there are still problems and communities of color aren’t just making these problems up.”
When you think about how President Obama should address the issue, once again it’s hard to imagine how a statement could be more judicious and responsible than that. He went on to say,
“Separating that from this particular decision, there are issues in which the law too often feels as if it is being applied in discriminatory fashion. I don’t think that’s the norm. I don’t think that’s true for the majority of communities or the vast majority of law enforcement officials. But these are real issues. And we have to lift them up and not deny them or try to tamp them down. What we need to do is to understand them and figure out how do we make more progress. And that can be done. That won’t be done by throwing bottles. That won’t be done by smashing car windows. That won’t be done by using this as an excuse to vandalize property. And it certainly won’t be done by hurting anybody. So, to those in Ferguson, there are ways of channeling your concerns constructively and there are ways of channeling your concerns destructively. Michael Brown’s parents understand what it means to be constructive. The vast majority of peaceful protesters, they understand it as well.”
In his comments on the decision, the prosecutor pointed to the 24-hour news cycle as a catalyst for many in the culture to rush to judgment on this issue. While it’s easy to understand the society’s rush to judgment, it is also impossible to excuse it. This reminds us of something very important. What we see on television or social media is only a micro picture—a very small fraction of what is actually taking place. It’s very dangerous to assume we know the entire story just by witnessing the images of violence in St. Louis. Many news media outlets, for example, gave almost no attention to the many peaceful protests that were occurring simultaneously.
At the same time, what the media did broadcast was horrifying. One of the most important things the president said last night is that Americans believe in the rule of law. He rightly noted that the decision was the grand jury’s to make. What the president did not say, probably for sake of time and clarity, was that the very existence of the grand jury is one of the great civil rights protections Americans have by virtue of the United States Constitution. Grand juries, made up of ordinary citizens in the community, exist as a buffer between the police, the prosecutors, and the people so that the police and prosecutors are prevented from bringing frivolous charges on inadequate evidence against an individual. That is a very important protection the United States Constitution grants us.
The grand jury considered between 60 and 70 hours of testimony, including the rather unusual opportunity to have face-to-face testimony from Darren Wilson himself. In keeping with the rules of the grand jury, the officer agreed to meet before the panel without the benefit of his own attorney. The grand jury was charged with a very serious responsibility. It had to look at the evidence, indeed it had to sift through the evidence, using its own authority to subpoena witnesses and to compel testimony from them. At the end of the day, the grand jury found that there was no adequate evidence to find probable cause to charge Officer Wilson with any of the available criminal counts against him, which ranged from counts of murder all the way down to manslaughter.
When the president spoke of the importance of the rule of law he pointed to the importance of civilization. One of the things that Christians should think about very seriously in this matter is the fact that this kind of justice system, the very existence of the grand jury and its responsibility to deliberate these issues on behalf of the people, is a testimony to the rule of law as an achievement of civilization. This requires community trust and cohesion; it requires the furnishing and the nourishing of institutions—including the judiciary, the police, and an entire system of customs and patterns of laws and statutes that make order within the society possible.
At the same time, we must note several important points. Even as we recognize the necessity of these judicial systems, we must also hear the accusations from those who argue that the system is broken. In one sense, Christians understand that every system is only as good as the frail and faulty human beings who are involved in it. There is no perfect system because human beings comprise these systems. This means that some of the accusations and concerns coming from the African-American community must be taken very seriously. Christians should be at the forefront of demanding that these concerns be thoroughly vetted, heard, and considered. After all, we know that as important as these systems are, every system breaks down due to human sin. It is no insult to the system or to society to make certain that we are continually watching to see if we are living up to our ideals—including the ideal of equal justice before the law.
Furthermore, we cannot forget the lessons of history. African-Americans can document many miscarriages of justice in which the police and law enforcement officials were very clearly using the rule of law as a weapon rather than as a protection for African-Americans. Christians operating out of the biblical worldview understand the importance of law. Furthermore, we understand the importance of maintaining institutions of social stability in order to protect human flourishing. Yet we must also remind ourselves that justice is an achievement, an achievement that must be true for the entirety of the society. If any within our society are on the underside of the rule of law, not because they have broken the law but because the law is being wrongly applied or it is being selectively enforced, then we must respond. Injustice to one ends up eventually being injustice to all
The images coming out of Ferguson also remind us of the fact that the kind of reform that is needed in our society cannot be brought about by flouting the justice system with the kind of injustice that was seen on the streets. The rule of law cannot be improved, nor corrected—much less reformed—by lawlessness.
It will take some time for the dust to settle on this case and there may be further legal issues yet in the future. But this much is clear: the people of St. Louis have a great deal of rebuilding to do—the rebuilding of trust, the rebuilding of social institutions, the rebuilding of cohesion, the rebuilding of the relationship between the police and the people. Those are very high responsibilities.
The nation as a whole also still faces the responsibility to look at the questions of race and the law, of law enforcement injustice, of righteousness and mercy, and the rule of law. The nation must consider anew what must be done in order to make our system of justice even fairer for all. Yet that type of reform would require a level of honesty that was notably absent from almost every dimension of this controversy. We can be almost sure that after some period of protest things will calm. They always do. But that does not mean that the problem has gone away. Christians know that the responsibility is ours to make certain that problems are not merely swept under the rug and that we do not look for a false peace.
President Obama’s words last night were a very good start. This might be an opportunity for his personal presidential leadership to be demonstrated in a way that could lead to a significant gain for the entire nation. In the final analysis, Christians looking at the events and the images coming from Ferguson should be prompted to remember just how urgently we need to pray for our nation and for our communities. We need to pray for the Brown family grieving the death of a son. The reality is they had a son who is now dead whom they loved. At the very least, Christians must pray for that family as they suffer a grief compounded by the events of recent days—even as their own call for peaceful protest was flaunted by so many protesters.
We also need to remember to pray for those who are also involved in this in ways that others might not remember. We need to pray for the police, we need to pray for those in legal authority, we need to pray not only for the Brown family but also for the Wilson family, and we need to pray that all will be protected from harm. We need to pray for peace in all of our communities, even as we recognize that the Bible teaches us that peace is the product of righteousness. Where there is no righteousness, there is no peace.
In the immediate aftermath of the events in Ferguson, the Wall Street Journal Editorial Board made this statement:
“One measure—perhaps the measure—of a civilized society is the respect it shows for the rule of law. The decision by a grand jury not to indict Ferguson, Missouri police officer Darren Wilson for shooting unarmed black teenager Michael Brown is such a test for America.”
That is a profoundly important sentence. The events in Ferguson, the larger context of conflict between African-American communities and the police, the continuing scar of racial division in America, the immediate aftermath of the decision by the grand jury in Missouri—all of these things point profoundly to the fact that they are a test for America. One of the most encouraging aspects of President Obama’s comments last night was the fact that the president spoke very carefully—even hopefully—as he cited improvements in race relations in America and his hope that these kinds of challenges can be met by responsible Americans. We must pray and work so that the images of brokenness so apparent in the aftermath of the grand jury’s decision can be transformed into images of wholeness.
From time to time, every nation, every people, and every community faces a series of tests—moral tests, economic tests, political and social tests. These events represent a huge moral test for America. Ground Zero of that test is the community of St. Louis, Missouri—especially the neighborhood of Ferguson. But intelligent Christians operating out of a biblical worldview know that this is not just a problem for Ferguson. It is the problem of the human heart. As Christians, we understand that the Bible and the Bible alone gives us an adequate understanding of where these problems reside, where they come from, and how they can only be solved. These tests can bring out the best or the worst in a people, a community, or nation. As we look at the situation in America, let us fervently pray that this test will bring out the best and not the worst of all the American people.
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Publication date: December 1, 2014