A reply to an open letter to the PCA by executives
According to the Scriptures, an accusation of wrong-doing requires every fact supporting the accusation be confirmed by witness testimony (Deuteronomy 19.15), and that verdicts be rendered, not on the basis of appearance but on the basis of righteous judgment (John 7.4). Moreover, it is a sin to demand an accounting of individuals for sins they themselves did not commit. I believe it safe to assume that these requirements hold true whether the subject of the accusation is an individual or a group (eg., ethnic, racial, national, etc). Assuming all of that, our PCA coordinators and presidents (hereinafter, “executives”) failed to perform the aforementioned ethical obligations in their Open Letter of 4 June 2020 (hereinafter, “open letter”).
According to these executives, the deaths of George Floyd and Ahmaud Arbery, among others, are unquestionable instances of systematic mistreatment of blacks and other people of color. Ostensibly, the circumstances of these deaths are irrelevant, which flies in the face of other provisions of scripture, such as that, at times, a man bears some responsibility for his own death (see Ezekiel 33.4). Arbery wasn’t shot simply for being a black man. In their open letter, executives uncritically (and in violation of the ninth commandment) accept the narrative that Arbery’s killers went hunting for black men to kill, when, in fact, he was shot in the course of a struggle over a firearm during an alleged citizen’s arrest, a struggle Arbery initiated, whether justified or not. Calling his death a tragedy is understatement, but in a struggle over a firearm someone will likely be injured or killed. Had Arbery been white, there might have no story. But he was black; and that fact alone, apparently, makes his killing a racist act.
One would think, reading the open letter, that Floyd was the only man upon whom a neck restraint was ever applied in Minneapolis. On the contrary, since 2015, Minneapolis police have applied that type of restraint 237 times. In 30% of those cases, the subjects were white; in 60% they were black. In only 44 of the 237 total cases were any subjects rendered unconscious. (Floyd’s seems to be the only death.) Certainly, looking solely at the per capita difference between whites and blacks it is easy to infer racial bias in the use of neck restraint: more blacks than whites. But that inference is predicated upon at least two assumptions: (1) that blacks and whites proportionately encounter police, but that blacks simply receive harsher treatment, even by black officers or (2) that blacks disproportionately encounter police for no other reason than that they are black. One possibility only few will mention is that blacks come into contact with law enforcement more frequently on a per capita basis than other ethnic groups because they commit more crimes. (Note, I am not saying this is the case; I am identifying, and questioning, the assumptions that justify the claim that only racial bias and systematic mistreatment, and never the subject’s own actions, explain the disparity.)
Simply put, the race differential alone cannot be allowed as evidence of targeting, certainly not if we are applying the Scriptures and our confessional standards. The Scriptures require that the accused receive much better than that sort of dismissive treatment, even when the accused is a system. Do the authors of the open letter recognize an obligation not to judge by appearances but rather with righteous judgment (John 7.24)? What if, difficult as it may be to believe, appearance is not reality? What if disparity is not, according to the Scriptures, sufficient evidence of systematic mistreatment? And what if the disparity is not what has been reported?
Reading the open letter, one should wonder if the authors are aware that last year police killed 55 unarmed people. If they are aware, then clearly, in their view, 25 of those lives can be ignored, while the remaining 30 demonstrate systematic mistreatment. In fact, however, it may not. A joint study by Michigan State University and the University of Maryland of every police shooting in every precinct (since 2015) found, among other things, that (1) more whites are killed by police, (2) controlling for crime rates, whites are disproportionately killed by police officers, and (3) blacks are more likely to be killed by black police officers.
It’s possible that the study is flawed in some way, but its claims should be considered before sins are confessed, guilt assessed, and penance proffered. But then, poring over statistics probably doesn’t feel quite as spiritual as hand-wringing over institutional sins, the sins of people either long dead or dying off. Confessing and doing public penance for sins you didn’t commit just feels better than the push-back resulting from denying the charge, or suggesting that the evidence is flawed somehow.
We are to believe no exculpatory evidence is needed. The fact that George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery and now, Rayshard Brooks, were black is the only evidence we need that those deaths are racist, three more examples of the systematic mistreatment executives write about. But if Scripture is to be our guide, then that fact is not sufficient to establish the claim; for if it does so, then we must ask how to categorize the deaths, at the hands of police, of subjects of other races. If the executives will simply, and arbitrarily, add each and every death of people of color to the pile of evidence that the system is mistreating them, regardless of the facts in the case (and the circular reasoning), then what do they make of those other deaths, the ones not being counted? The Scriptures require more attention to detail, more attention to factors other than race in ascertaining racial bias. A method of analysis which has it otherwise is not derived from Scripture, and does not give the accused his due.
There are questions which, in the interest of justice, must be asked, regardless how unpleasant, especially if we are admonished to heed the Scriptures, confess guilt, take responsibility, listen and act. The accused, even when the accused is a group, class, or system, are entitled to ask questions before admitting responsibility, before confessing guilt, before engaging in public penance. And in this day and age we should recall that neither the Scriptures nor our confessional standards permit the proposition that denying, or even questioning the charges or the evidence, constitutes an admission of guilt. Quite the contrary: they require a presumption of innocence.
Reflecting on the study I referred to above, we should consider that the problem is not with racial bias in law enforcement. The problem is with policing. We, Americans, regardless of ethnicity, are a violent people, with a murder rate of 4.8 (compared to Japan’s .4, Germany’s .8, Australia’s 1, France’s 1.1 and Britain’s 1.2). Possibly, police violence is an extension of that violence. Psychiatrist M. Scott Peck made a similar observation in his 1983 book, People of the Lie, connecting the massacre at My Lai, with the psyche of the American populace in 1968.
True reform is needed. But we are not going to get the reform we need because we cannot see the problem; and, it appears, we will not see the problem because a class of other people also being killed by police is left out of consideration. The authors of the open letter could have demonstrated real cultural, intellectual and spiritual leadership in taking up the question of policing as a problem in which law enforcement violence correlates with violence in the culture at large. But they did not.
We are in the waning days of a cultural cold war, a revolution, which will be a hot war soon enough. As the revolution proceeds, Americans may look to various denominations for spiritual, even intellectual and cultural leadership. If the open letter is indicative of what they can expect of the PCA in the future, then Americans can rightly conclude they will not receive leadership from us. All they will get is the repackaging of revolutionaries’ terminology, talking points, and goals – all dressed up and paraded around as applications of the gospel. Like liberation theology.