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…