Thursday, September 20, 2007

The Jena Six

Today tens of thousands of African-Americans rode buses to a place called Jena Louisiana to support six black teen-agers who were initially charged with attempted murder following an assault on a white classmate. The whole thing began when a group of black students decided to sit under a tree that was a traditional “unofficial” gathering spot for white students. Some of their classmates responded to this ‘offense’ by hanging three nooses from that tree. That was followed by an assault on a white student by six (now known as the Jena 6) African-American students. Those students were arrested and charged with attempted murder and crime that if convicted would have resulted in them spending decades in prison. Though these charges have been dropped others remain.
One of the main issues is the apparent disparity in justice. Should a teen-ager involved in a school fight be charged with attempted murder? Would that had been the charge if the altercation involved two white students?
But there are other issues involved, ones that we’re all too familiar with. Once again simmering ethnic tensions that lie just below the surface of our society have boiled over. Once again the real divisions within our nation have been laid bare. Once again we have the opportunity to really sit down, talk this through and perhaps begin to find some answers. And once again that won’t happen. But in case we ever do here are a few talking points for the church to consider.

For my white (or Asian, Jewish, Hispanic, Indian or Arab) brothers and sisters out there please consider what I’m getting at. I’m not asking you to agree or accept the black viewpoint on this, but just to consider our witness within this context. Why do so many black folks feel so alienated in America? Why does this case resonate with us in such a profound way? Why would tens of thousands of people take time off from work and school to make such a statement? Is it possible that African-Americans are treated differently in the justice system or is it really our imagination? Part of my concern with our biblical witness is the tendency for some (though not all) white evangelicals to discount any real possibility of deliberate systematic racism. It’s as if we’re convinced that man is sinful and thus culpable of idolatry, blasphemy, murder, adultery, greed, lying etc. but not systematic ethic partiality.

If you’re still having trouble identifying with the way many black folks feel and think about this please consider the following example. Imagine you live in a town where you are the minority and your children attend the local school in which the ethnic tensions woven into the fabric of your town play out in that school. Think of how you might feel if your child comes home and tells you that that some of his friends violated the space of the majority group and their response was to hoist posters of the burning Twin Towers. Now imagine how you might react when after a fight your child is arrested, sent to jail, charged with attempted murder and awaits trial before a Muslim prosecutor, a Muslim judge and an all Muslim jury. Are you sure that you’d be completely free from believing that ethnicity would play no part at all in the situation?
Another thing to consider. How would you minister to the families and protestors if you have the opportunity? Would you say that the young man got what he deserved, that black folks once again are over-reacting that they need to realize that we live in a nation of laws that must be obeyed? Could this be an opportunity to identify with those who aren’t in power or control as a witness of the gospel? How could you use this situation to speak to your congregation about the issues of ethnicity that plague our land? Could you lead them to think through these issues biblically or just fall back on conservative ideology?

For my black brothers and sisters. Are we really concerned with injustice or only injustice that involves unfair dealings with white people? Would our leaders have organized a march into a black neighborhood where a child was killed but no one dared come forward lest he or she be blacklisted as a ‘snitch’? If such a march were called would we go? While racism is still an issue in America do we run the risk of leading black folks to believe that all of our major problems and challenges are due to race? Again would we have been as nearly concerned with the Jena 6 if they had gone to jail for assaulting an African-American classmate? What responsibility do we have as the black church to pursue true ethnic healing and harmony? Is it enough to say that we’re the subdominant culture and therefore have the luxury of waiting for whites to make the first step?

Furthermore, how does the black church pursue unity with our other ethnic brothers and sisters in a time like this? Do we close ranks with other African-Americans or can we learn to both identify with our people and pursue ethnic harmony with our other brothers and sisters? Also this is this a good time for us to disciple our folks regarding the biblical response to racism. We can begin by affirming that violence, revenge and retaliation are never, never, never, never an option. It’s crucial during a time like this for us to point out that the young men who engaged in violence should receive some kind of punishment. Our primary responsibility is not to secure temporary justice for those of our ethnicity (however important that is) but to lead our people to embrace, believe in and order their lives after Jesus Christ. Part of the process of will involve developing and practicing a biblical approach to racism and injustice. This will especially serve us in addressing our congregations regarding ethnicity and injustice. When teaching on this issue will we merely parrot the standard liberal lines or seek genuine biblical truth?

Finally brothers, what is our responsibility to navigate the rough rapids of race in a way that demonstrates our unity, promotes the gospel, honors Jesus Christ and helps our society through this contentious issue? Will we just stand by, take our respective sides and watch our society continue to stumble in the haze of hostility or will we stand out, speak humbly and live boldly by standing side by side demonstrating the gospel’s power to bring unity despite our differences.

To Him Who Loves Us…
Pastor Lance


Anonymous said...

Thanks, brother.

It's worth noting that there is no apparent Louisiana statute (at least that I could find, see La. Rev. Stat. 14:40 et seq.) allowing prosecution for the noose threats. But that in itself is an injustice. There ought to be a law prohibiting it. The only laws I found prohibited intimidation of public officials, or cross-burning.

It's outrageous that intimidation of private citizens is permissible.

Pastor Lance said...

i also read that angle on the story. apparently it's legal to hang nooses from trees even though it would seem to violate the federal statutes against terroristic threats or intimidation enacted after 911.

i wonder how it would have played out if the federal gov't had arrested those who hung the nooses and they faced the possibility of real jail time.


Anonymous said...

Thanks for this thoughtful analysis. This kind of wisdom is desperately needed in this situation.

This sums it up, "One of the main issues is the apparent disparity in justice."

Would that we hated injustice as much as God does. Thanks again.

Stephen Ley said...

Well said! I thank God for pastors such as yourself that bring the gospel to bear on issues of race. Too often the church's first reponse to situations like this has been based on political calculations and white middle-class assumptions.

Grace and peace.

Ann Addison said...

Good post. Thanks for speaking to both African American and white Christians. I pray the church will grow in this area.

Jim said...

Thanks for your post, Lance. Groaning for the day when the King comes and sets us free to the glory of the children of God, til then may we learn more and more to live out what Ephesians 2:15 says we are. . .

With you for the Gospel,


Anthony said...

Thanks Lance!! The evangelical silence on this case is unbelievable. Thanks for showing real leadership and addressing this issue.

--anthony bradley

One White Viewpoint said...

Thank you for taking the time to post on this. We definitely need more black pastors willing to speak out on all sides of the issues involved in this case. You ask a number of good questions and as a white guy I don't mind responding. You asked your non-black brothers and sisters:

Why do so many black folks feel so alienated in America?

I've traveled our country from coast to coast and I can confidently tell you the answer to that question depends largely where (geographically) one happens to live. I grew up in the ethnically diverse San Francisco Bay Area and so my first trip down south (for business) was in utter shock to me. I had no idea that things were still "like that" but I should've known. But I also had to wonder how much self-segregation was at fault.

Your question might also be asked: How and why have blacks continued to alienate themselves from America? When I look at so-called "black culture" (albeit from afar) I'm always frustrated by the entrenched "da 'bru'thas vs. whitey" mindset woven throughout black culture and perpetuated by black media. Black culture has an entire vocabulary set up to hurl pejoratives at other successful and or educated blacks. No, it's not nearly that bad and other races. Not even close. The concept of Uncle Tom or oreo is not seen in the Asian community. Southern Baptist pastor and noted speaker Voddie Baucham recently discussed in an interview how frustrated he had become with so many segments of the black community after he successfully "walked through the doors" that "they (the black community) had prayed for so long." Whitey didn't alienate him, his black brothers and sisters did.

You also mentioned the term "snitch." It says something to white America when BET (Black Entertainment Television) does an entire reality series on rapper "L'il Kim" and the days leading up to her going to jail rather than testify (you know, tell the TRUTH) about a shooting. BET's tagline? "She's going to prison with her mouth shut and her head held high." Guys like me remember things like that when we see blacks marching in Jena carrying "No Justice, No Peace" signs on behalf of thugs who beat a man unconscious. You're lamenting black alienation -- in the justice system in this case -- when black media loudly proclaims 24/7 that thwarting the justice process is honorable and celebratory? Sorry, Lance, you'll have to solve that one yourselves.

As for the events down Louisiana, there are whole bunch of things not being considered. I once studied law, so I take a legal interest in this case. First, as for the charges of "attempted murder" seeming excessive, that really depends on the facts of the case -- which, of course, we don't really have, do we? Now what's interesting here is that no one is contesting the guilt of the six individuals. But a charge of attempted murder is just that; ATTEMPTED murder. With attempted murder it's the intent in the "attempt" to take the life of another that sustains the charge. Simply beating someone -- be it simple assault or aggravated mayhem -- does not constitute attempted murder. However, beating someone while screaming, "Your a** is dead!" and continuing to beat them into unconsciousness might very well satisfy the charge of attempted murder. The fact that the victim survived is as irrelevant as the speed of his recovery. Again, we don't know all the facts behind the case wherein a prosecutor believed the case would sustain an attempted murder charge. Prosecutors sometimes over-charge in aggrivated cases, while filing lesser charges as well, in an attempt to see what sticks. This happens to white people, too. Second, while thoroughly disgusting and sinful in the utmost, hanging a noose from a tree absent any specific and provable threat at an individual might well constitute ugly but legal free speech. Expressions of hatred, racial or otherwise, are protected speech (see R.A.V. v. St. Paul, US Supreme Court, 1992). This is why the local prosecutor, and later the federal Department of Justice that investigated the matter, has been unable to bring any charges against the students that hung the nooses. Intimidating? Certainly. Criminal? It appears not.

Let me state the plainly obvious: if the races in this situation were reversed, the black students gathering under a tree with nooses would have been portrayed in the media as "engaging in constitutionally protected free speech in protest," and the six white kids who beat a black kid would be subjected to both state and federal hate crimes and aggravated assault (or even, attempted murder) charges, likely facing life in prison. So yes, there is disparity of justice, just perhaps not in the way you're thinking.

In answer to your question about how I would feel if my son were charged in a Muslim-controlled environment with crimes such as these, my answer would depend entirely upon his guilt or innocence. If he were innocent, and will be screaming it from the rooftops and justifiably afraid of excessive charges and the absurd punishments which Islam enacts under Sharia Law. However, if my son were guilty, then as a Christian parent I would bear the burden and obligation to encourage him honestly confess to the crime, rather than plead not guilty and violate the many passages against bearing false witness. As for harsh sentencing, the available sentences are spelled out in most statutes. The case in Louisiana is no exception. It's been said, "If you don't want to do the time, don't do the crime." The problem is, as many in the white community see it, the black version of that statement is, "If you don't want to do the time, show them your skin color, call the media, and then call Al Sharpton." Black Americans will continue to alienate themselves so long as they continue to rally around thugs and the demonize honest witnesses (oh, sorry, "snitches").

Black America can rest assured that the 99% of white America (and other races, too) would be utterly appalled at another Emmett Till. This case is nothing like that and you all know it.

Pastor Lance said...

thanks for your response. I appreciate your thoroughness and honesty. My feeling (and it's just that a feeling) is that a majority (no I don't know how large) of my white Christian brothers and sisters believe as you do concerning these issues. I don't know if you've read other entries on my blog but I have addressed some aspects of black self alienation (,,
and our responsibility to solve our problems ourselves (,

I suppose my questions are these: should we as the unified church attempt to address the alienation of black people even if it is self-alienation as a witness of the gospel's power to reconcile people to God and one another? Should we decide that black self-alienation and destructive culture is really just a sociological issue and one that the gospel doesn't address collectively but individually when individuals believe in Jesus Christ? Is this the problem of the black church and thus should they make it the focus of their witness to the secular black community? If that's true should black ministers like brother Baucham leave their white congregations and denominations, abandon efforts to pursue ethnic unity and seek common cause with the black church in an effort serve our people? I ask this because it seems that many of my white brothers and sisters feel as you do concerning the black church's responsibility to address the problems within the black community and yet at the same time applaud efforts of individual black ministers who come out of the black church and join mainly white denominations. However I wonder can you have your cake and eat it too?

You're probably right in saying that there are a whole host of issues and facts that aren't being considered. You view this from a strictly legal point of view but please allow me to cast a historical perspective on this whole incident. I don't know for sure but it's possible that the black and white residents of this small town have lived there for at least a couple of generations. If that's the case it could be that the students involved have relatives with first hand knowledge and experience of seeing loved ones lynched. Perhaps you believe it shouldn't, but the pain of that era still runs deep and is all the more grievous when we see it repeated by a new generation. I recognize that hanging nooses from trees is protected free speech and I'm encouraged that you believe that it's 'thoroughly disgusting and sinful in the utmost' but please consider this: If I as a black believer have a responsibility to deal with the thugs in my collective community what is your responsibility to deal with the racists in yours?

Though I didn't ask how you would feel if it were your child involved I suppose your response indicates that you could view the issue in an absolute objective manner regarding ethnicity and for that I commend you. Frankly I don't think I could.

Again thanks for your insights and your willingness to speak plainly. And you're probably right in claiming that if six white kids had beat up a black child while it may have been treated as a hate crime. However my brother your insights didn't further any consideration of the church's drive toward a unified witness on this issue. Like other conservatives you tell us how the liberal media would react if the situation were different, that black folks are all too willing to flash the race card when we break the law and that in the end this really isn't that big of a racial incident at all. Please understand me. I'm not trying to be caustic at all but since we're speaking plainly there are times when I wonder if we'll ever become a unified church or be cursed to remain on our respective ethnic sidelines until the return of our Lord. But more so I wonder if we even care.


Wesley Handy said...

Pastor Lance,

Even though I recognize that inequalities in the prosecution of the law exist. I wonder if the problem is deeper than the cases themselves.

I appreciate your call for white folks, like myself, to be understanding. I know from experience that white people are quick to judge, and quick to forget about it and become indifferent.

Personally, I think the problem lie in how these issues are resolved. Often, black people rally around the accused, or victim, in other cases, and white people, afraid of saying anything that could get themselves in trouble, set back and usually favor the law. So if the accused is set free, black people feel justice is done and white people feel there has been injustice, or if the accused is condemned, the white people feel justified (internally) in their prejudices and black people sense injustice. But by picking sides by race, we are setting ourselves up for failure. What if people rally around their own race for other reasons? Like, shared experiences of past injustice and a lack of resolution of the issue. And, for white folks, indifference to the plight of the African American, since, hey, they have equal rights too. I mean, if the justice system favors those folks, then I have been served an injustice.

The problem really isn't injustice, in my opinion. I am not trying to argue against you here. I believe there are inequalities in the prosecution of the law. But the problem is unresolved hate, anger and fear on both sides.

I wrote on my blog here how we (white and black) have lost Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s dream of racial unity.

My question is, How can we handle these situations in a way that lead to unity?

ronjour locke said...

Thank you, Pastor Lance, for your thoughts concerning Jena 6. They have provided wise insight for me as I have tried to think through the whole affair in a God-centered, cross-magnifying way. We live in a very complex world, when two parties can have two different views on the same matter and call it "justice". O that we were as passionate about the Gospel as we are protesting, that God would give all within our communities the mind of Christ to truly discern between truth and error, and the Holy Spirit to produce love within our hearts. There is a need to cry "foul!" like the prophets of old, but let us not forget that only the Gospel is the power of God unto salvation.

Pastor Tony said...

Thank You Lance.

I pray for the day when the evangelical church will be as passionate about adressing issues of systematic injustice as we are about other issues (abortion, gay marriage, N.T. Wright etc.). I also pray for the "black church" that we will be as passionate about addressing issues in our own communities like the "no-snitch code" (as though this were some high moral code by which we ought to live). Than you for your wisdom. I needed this.

Pastor Tony

Thuyen Tran said...

Actually this kind of incident (with six beating down a person even after he was unconscious) can warrant at least legally an attempted murder charge, depending on nature of attack. Law professor and civil rights activist Carol Swain (who is black) pointed this out in an article and also in her statements about the facts of Jena case. Btw, she lost her brother due to a similar type beatdown from teens, and those teens in the case of her brother's dead were indeed charged as adults for first degree manslaughter:

And there is precedent to charge teens as adults and for substantial jail time. See case of white teens who faced up to twenty years for beating of a black individual (though they ended up being sentenced less than that amount of time):

So to say that the black teens are tried as adults facing possible substantial jail time proves the prosecutor is racist is neither fair nor honest on the parts of the likes of Jesse Jackson and his types, who undoubtedly know teens regardless of color can be tried for heinous crimes as adults in this country.

I am in no way saying Jena is not a racist town. I don't know for sure one way or the other.

Nor do I know whether or not the prosecutor is racist. Charging teens as adults by itself does not prove that is the case.

I am simply saying if it is mistreatment to try them as adults, say the same thing about white teens tried as adults as well in South Carolina.

Even if it involved them beating a black person.

As for me, I think in treating teens as adults is appropriate in both the case of white teens beating a black person case in SC and the case of black teens beating a white person.

Here is another angle not explored often. One of black defendants is Mychal Bell who has four priors.

If people really want equally for all involved by that logic, everyone needs to commit five heinous crimes of assault, battery, and robbery before being tried as adults with threat of long sentence looming. After all, Bell got four out of jail free cards.