From a modified transcript of today’s edition of The Briefing:
I first addressed the situation in Ferguson back on August 12th, which was then the first opportunity I had to speak to the issue. Since then I have not addressed the question because I wanted to stand by what I said back on August 12th. We should not speak to the facts on the ground until we know what those facts are. The facts we know now are pretty much the facts we knew then—that there was an 18-year old African American young man who was shot 6 times, twice in the head and four times in the forearm by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri. We know that also there was an immediate backlash in terms of controversy, cries of racism, and then moral protest that led to over 10 days of successive riots and protests—some of them breaking out into violence, some of them to which police responded with military tactics. We also know that now the Attorney General of the United States and the FBI are involved in an independent investigation to find out what exactly took place. We also know that yesterday in Clayton, Missouri—a suburb in the west of Saint Louis—a local grand jury was convened with the very same aim, to try to determine exactly what happened.
The one thing that Christians committed to a biblical worldview have to understand is that the facts never cease to be important. We simply cannot move to judgment until we know exactly what took place and why. Thus we have to resist the very real temptation to say too much. And that is what has worried me in terms of my own responsibility on “The Briefing.” Actually, my point here was very well made by President Obama himself—because in statements made earlier this week responding to the situation in Ferguson, the President said, “I have to be very careful about not prejudging these events before investigations are completed.” The President continued, “I’ve got to make sure I don’t look like I’m putting my thumb on the scales one way or the other.” That’s a very good and important statement from the President of the United States. And quite frankly, it’s a statement all of us should take to heart.
We do know this much. It is an unmitigated tragedy. It’s a tragedy that an 18-year old young man is dead. We also know that the tragedy is complicated by the fact that this was an unarmed African American teenager. We know that there are any number of other complications as well to be revealed in the investigation, which we are assured will be undertaken not only by local authorities but also by federal authorities. And after all, Eric Holder is the first African American attorney general of the United States and one who has spent his life as an activist and advocate in the civil rights movement. In this case, he is uniquely equipped and qualified to deal directly with the questions on the ground in Ferguson, Missouri. The rest of us need to hold back and allow the justice system to do its work.
That doesn’t mean that we should suspend justice on these questions indefinitely. It means the time for judgment is after the facts are determined. And even if there are competing facts, at least the facts need to be set out as they are claimed in order that we can have an understanding—each to ourselves and commonly as citizens—of what this situation really is, how it happened, and what it means. Once we have those facts, we need to move to the kind of moral judgment that justice requires. But a part of the biblical worldview that is made abundantly clear even in the Old Testament law is that evidence (in other words, the determination of the facts) never ceases to be the first and foremost important question.
But there is another dimension to this… “Americans need to lead with empathy.” That too is something important to the Christian worldview. We need to lead with empathy, understanding that the ability to empathize is an ability to understand every single human being around us as our neighbor. Love of neighbor—one of the most important commands of Christ—…should lead us to lead with empathy… And in this case, that means we empathize with those in the African American community who are outraged at what they see as racial injustice. It means we empathize with those who look at the situation and see it as part of a larger pattern of inequity and injustice against young African American males.
We need to lead with empathy. But that empathy needs to be expressed in ways that do not prejudge the facts on the ground and lead to an immediate and premature understanding of exactly what happened. Sometimes (as every parent knows) you need to put an arm around someone and let them cry before you ask them what happened. Even when we see people expressing outrage—in clearly inappropriate, violent, and illegal ways—we need to understand that behind them are many people who are not violent who are equally offended, who are not protesting, who are equally hurt. And we need to realize that empathy—and indeed leading with empathy—is a very important first act.
There’s a double problem in so many of these crises. There’s an immediate temptation to say too much. And then on the other side of them, once those facts are determined, there is often the reality of saying too little. The Christian responsibility in a situation like this—and we are all inadequate to the task—is to say just enough at the right time. And until the facts are more clarified—something that is the responsibility of our justice system at every level—that’s about the most we should now say.
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