Am I My Brother’s Keeper?: Four Black Presbyterian Ministers Respond to Ferguson
Social issues can be like a tsunami once you get involved with them; they can flood over you and sweep you away. The Ferguson situation is no different. Once again, issues of race and justice are on full display in high definition, to always remind us that progress is no savior. Even in 2014 people, places, and things still need to be redeemed. Right now, there are so many voices, Christian and non-Christian, speaking at each other, but hardly with each other. Go to Twitter, Facebook, or blogging sites and it’s not hard for you to find a voice that projects the narrative you want to portray.
Many times these are tribal voices regurgitating their tribal responses and commentary. “It’s justice!” “It’s injustice!” “It’s a lack of personal responsibility!” “It’s a failure of a broken system!” “It’s not about race!” “It is about race!” The tsunami will sweep you away.
Ecclesiastes tells us that for everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven (Ecclesiastes 3:1). Today is the season; today is the time for yet another voice to speak about the Ferguson situation. This is the voice of four Black Presbyterian ministers from the Presbyterian Church in America. We believe it is necessary for us to respond and to do so with a collective voice.
The Common Thread That Unites Humanity
A common thread unites all of us as human beings. It’s not race, culture or social status; It’s not even theology, politics, or sports. The thread is the scriptural truth that all people are created in the image of God. While this may be a foundational truth for many, it is good for us to re-visit the doctrine of the image of God.
The account of creation in Genesis 1 repeatedly states, “God saw that it was good.” God shaped and fashioned his creation into a good and beautiful place. The Hebrew term translated “good” may also mean “excellent of its kind.” God created the most excellent of his works on the sixth day. On that day, God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness.” (Genesis 1:26) This is the common thread that unites all of humanity. The image of God is the reason why every human life has value, dignity, self worth and significance. This is true from the womb to the grave. God gives each of these qualities equally to us all. No single race or culture has more value and dignity than another one. Our different shades of skin color don’t make us inferior or superior. Instead, our differences show us the diversity among God’s children. Each ethnicity reflects the image of God differently. Asians are not Asian by accident. Blacks are not black by accident. Whites are not white by accident. Latinos are not Latino by accident. We are who we are by divine design. Ethnic diversity showcases the manifold wisdom of God. All of us are fearfully and wonderfully made. “Just as a statue is the image of what it portrays, even so we are the image of God on earth,” says Ray Pritchard.
The Divine Injunction
All image bearers on earth are also given a divine injunction. The Lord God gave it to our first parents in the Garden of Eden. The injunction is known as the cultural or creation mandate. The Lord tells Adam and Eve, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth” (Genesis 1:28). The mandate to rule and exercise dominion is good, a benefit to mankind. History has many examples of the benefits, just as we have examples in our time. But now, we live east of Eden! The fall into sin has fallen on everyone. It has broken us all. As Paul says in Romans 3, “None is righteous, no not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God. All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one.” All image bearers are now broken image bearers. This means all people groups and ethnicities have issues and are stained by sin.
The fall didn’t just do damage to human beings. In fact, all of creation is under the curse of sin, even the blessings the Lord put in place before the fall. Work is under the curse sin. Marriage is under the curse of sin. The creation mandate is under the curse of sin. Neither of the three are sin, they’re just under the curse. This means broken image bearers will use work, marriage, and the creation mandate in broken ways. The way we rule and exercise dominion subvert God’s intent. It was never meant to be applied to other human beings. Fellow image bearers are not to rule and exercise dominion over each other, but because of personal sin, we do. We will even create broken systems to help us do it.
Cain ruled over his brother, Abel. He didn’t value his brother’s life, as a fellow image bearer. So he murdered him. And what was the question Cain asked the Lord God? “Am I my brother’s keeper?” No, he was not his brother’s keeper. This is the state of mankind as we exist today. We’re not naturally our brother’s keeper, especially of those image bearers who are different than us. Mankind has a natural bent to rule and exercise dominion over each other. The subversion of the creation mandate has led to slavery, sex trading, child abuse, oppression, murder, Jim Crow, genocide, broken systems, racism, internal racism, and all sorts of evil. All image bearers, from all ethnicities, are guilty of a subversion of the mandate.
The Way Sin Works Itself Out
Sin works its evil self out in two ways in our broken world. This is something we’ve learned from our friend, Dr. Carl Ellis. There is personal sin and alien sin. Every single human being is equal when it comes to personal sin because all of us have a sinful heart. Now, alien sin is sin placed on another person by someone or something else, like a broken system. We’re not all equal when it comes to alien sin. Historically, in America, African Americans have had a lot of alien sin placed on them and no matter much our society progresses there will still be generational effects in place. Many have said, “Get over it, that’s in the past, stop crying race and take personal responsibility.”
But there are biblical examples of broken systems. Hebrew people in the Old Testament were under an oppressive Egyptian system (Exodus 1-12). Even in Acts 6, a distribution system had to be instituted to serve the neglected widows of one group of people. The Hebrew widows received their daily distribution, while the Hellenists widows were neglected. Personal sin and alien sin are always at play in any society. There will always be brokenness in the midst of progress, personal brokenness and systemic brokenness.
When people seek to rule over other people, either personally or through a broken system, it further wounds the already broken image of God in them. The words, ‘Black Lives Matter,’ has become a slogan for what is happening in Ferguson, MO. But these words are much bigger than Ferguson. They originated in the words the Lord God spoke to Cain in Genesis 4, The voice of your brother’s blood is crying to me from the ground.” This is the cry that every oppressed person cries, whether domestically or globally. It’s the cry our African ancestors have been raising since the day they came to America in chains. The words, “Black lives matter,” is the cry of a broken image bearer. It’s a cry for the church to listen, but will we listen?
Every single human life has value, dignity, self worth and significance, regardless of their ethnicity, economic status and cultural brokenness. So, here is the question all of us need to ask: “Am I my brother’s keeper, particularly the keeper of the brother who is different from me?” If so, the ways we respond to Ferguson and similar tragedies will be more biblical and a lot less political.
The challenge presented to us now is to re-write the script. We cannot react the same way we did following the Rodney King verdict in the 90’s, the tragedies following Hurricane Katrina in the early 2000’s, and Trayvon Martin’s tragic murder in 2012. Despite some progress, each time the opportunity for lasting change came it faded away while we remain entrenched in our ideological frameworks. Instead this is the time to move forward to begin to address issues of racial justice redemptively rather than ideologically.
For instance, many black churches and neighborhood organizations within black communities are seeking to address the challenges of crime, poverty, fatherlessness, hopelessness, and despair. Just because they aren’t known doesn’t mean they do not exist. We’ve participated in some of these efforts and can tell you that they do exist and are run by thousands of dedicated unnamed neighborhood volunteers. A good first step is to encourage evangelical churches to seek partnerships with black churches and other neighborhood organizations to address some issues leading to racial and ethnic injustice.
Our hope with this brief exhortation is to encourage those within the evangelical church to view these challenges not merely as the problems of black people, but as problems that concern our Lord Jesus Christ—worth the attention of all of those who claim to follow Him. We do so because every time a tragedy such as the one in Ferguson occurs we’ve seen and read dozens of responses from evangelicals who in effect say that these problems must be solved by black communities alone.
We should demonstrate our commitment to the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ which speaks directly to the issue of redemptive ethnic unity. Scripture teaches that through His sinless life, sacrificial death and bodily resurrection our Lord Jesus has secured a multi-ethnic people who are bound together in unity to worship, love and serve Him. (see Gen. 12:3; Ps. 67; Isa. 2:1-5, Isa. 49:1-6; Mt. 28:18-20; Lk. 24:44-49; Jn. 3:16, 10:14-18; Acts 2:39; Rom. 8:28-30; Eph. Chs 1-3; Rev. 1:5-6, 5:9-10.) For the evangelical church the witness of the gospel is so sacred that any opportunity to highlight its beauty, power, wisdom and love is one that cannot be ignored. Consequently, working with black churches and neighborhood organizations can become a key aspect of the church’s overall witness, given our society’s ongoing struggle with issues of race, ethnicity, and the gospel mandate regarding redemptive multi-ethnic unity.
We have a basic biblical commitment to express love toward those we can. Biblical love is not just the absence of malicious thoughts, feelings or intentions toward a particular person or group of people. It is not a distant indifference toward those with whom we believe we have no connection. Biblical love is not simply the acts of kindness we show toward those who are like us and whom in some way we believe are deserving of our kindness. Biblical love is the tangible kindness and compassion we get to show toward those in need because we have the means and opportunity whether we realize or accept that we really do have a connection (see Luke 10:25-37). Partnering with black churches and neighborhood organizations gives the evangelical church a prime chance to put into practice what we’ve studied about God’s love as fully expressed in the person and work of Jesus Christ.
There are other reasons the evangelical church should pursue ongoing partnerships with black churches and neighborhood organizations but let us leave you with one more. Doing so gives us an opportunity to actually get to know a group of people that we tend to speak about but don’t really know. Getting to know them will afford us the privilege of serving with them, listening to them, and praying with them. It can help us see these communities as not just places plagued with various social pathologies, but as places filled with people much like us. That doesn’t necessarily mean that those in the evangelical church will see eye to eye with them regarding the various issues of race and ethnicity in our society. However, should the evangelical church choose to step forward with the virtues of our Savior like humility, gentleness, patience and loving tolerance (see. Eph. 4:1-2) we just might see the living God not only do a work within us and our children, but a work that moves our society to a renewed interest in our Savior and the glorious, eternal, multi-ethnic worshiping community that is His church.
Rev. Alex Shipman is senior pastor of The Village Church in Huntsville, AL (PCA). Rev. Lance Lewis is senior pastor at Soaring Oaks Presbyterian Church in Elk Grove, CA (PCA). Rev. Irwyn Ince is senior pastor at City of Hope Church in Columbia, MD (PCA). Rev. Mike Higgins is a retired PCA Army Chaplain (COL) and presently serves as the Dean of Students of Covenant Theological Seminary and as pastor of South City Church (PCA) in St. Louis, MO.