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A United Evangelical Response: The System Failed Eric Garner

What pastors, professors, and others are saying about the grand jury's decision not to indict.
A United Evangelical Response: The System Failed Eric Garner
Image: Thabiti Anyabwile / Twitter

On Wednesday, a Staten Island grand jury announced its decision not to indict police officer Daniel Pantaleo, who put an unarmed black man in a chokehold that resulting in the man's death. Law enforcement attempted to arrest Eric Garner, a husband and father of six, for allegedly illegally selling cigarettes in July. His death made national news after a video was captured of the altercation, where Garner, who suffered from asthma, said repeatedly, “I can’t breathe,” as law enforcement brought him to the ground.

Not all evangelicals believed that Darren Wilson, a Ferguson, Missouri, police officer who killed unarmed teenager Michael Brown in August, should have been indicted in a recent grand jury hearing. Others were silent on the issue. But Wednesday’s events brought a more forceful, and more united response that justice had not been served. Christianity Today presents a selection of these responses below. (See also our editorial, :"What One Racially Divided Family Can Do," by Mark Galli.)

Propaganda
Hip-hop artist
“Okay now do you believe us?! People swear we make this stuff up. That the ‘media’ is spurring on the civil disharmony. … No charges. None. Let that sink in. My own daughter said, ‘Daddy I’m scared for you because when police kill black men [they] don’t get in trouble!’ What do I tell her?!!” (Source: Twitter)

Christena Cleveland
Associate professor of reconciliation studies, Bethel University, St. Paul, Minnesota
“The church needs less Niebuhrs (privileged folks who talk about justice) and more Bonhoeffers (privileged folks who live & die for justice).” (Source: Twitter)

Thabiti Anyabwile
Assistant pastor for church planting, Capitol Hill Baptist Church, Washington, D.C.
“My 8 year old’s question: ‘Who stops the police when they do something bad?’ Afraid I’d have to say, ‘Not the grand juries.’ #ICantBreathe.” (Source: Twitter)

Austin Channing
Resident director and multicultural liaison at Calvin College
“You can be tired after you have cried and marched, written and preached, shouted in town halls and voted, taught and cried some more. But your words are not enough. I need you to do. I need you to do justice. I need you love mercy. This is what God requires of you. Will you humble yourself? Will you practice justice in the world for your brothers and sisters? Will you love mercy? I mean love it. Will you love having mercy- resisting oppression, resisting punishment, resisting judgment. … What use have I for a Church that doesn’t believe I am worthy of justice, love and humility?” (Source: Twitter)

Bradford William Davis
Staff writer at Christ and Pop Culture
“If you got mad about Hobby Lobby or that Rachel Held Evans book, but you’re chill tonight … well.” (Source: Twitter)

Trillia Newbell
Consultant for women’s initiatives, Southern Baptist Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission
“The hard truth is that racism and the way it strips man of his dignity will be with us until the consummation of Christ’s kingdom. This is why the Church must be a safe place for difficult discussions about race. We must not only be unafraid to discuss it, but acknowledging that it still exists in many places in our country and can often be hidden away in our own hearts. We cannot be passive. Just like all temptations, pride and arrogance toward others must be confronted and fought with the truth of God’s Word. Don’t make the assumption that it is something you or your friends or your congregations can ignore.” (Source: ERLC).

John Perkins
Founder, Christian Community Development Association
"It seems like our nation is out of control, and some of this is the result of our polarization and our own victimization in both the black and white community. We have not found ways to confess to each other our wrongdoings and haven’t been able to make the kind of peace that could come from having that type of conversation. We haven’t been able to take the responsibility as God’s people or as citizens. As a nation, as individuals, and as communities, we need to start taking responsibility for our communities. As blacks, we need to take some responsibility for how we raise our children, and the whites need to take responsibility for their lack of forgiveness and imperialism and for some of the failure in our school and education systems. We also need to take responsibility for not training our police officers to affirm the dignity of humanity. We are all victims and have not found ways to truly reconcile to each other. I think that is the issue before us, and our task is learning how to actually communicate and have conversations, so we can get at some of these issues."

Beth Moore
Founder of Living Proof Ministries
“There is no unseeing what we have seen. No unhearing what we have heard. No more claiming we didn’t know. We rise loudly for what is right.” (Source: Twitter)

Trevin Wax
Managing Editor, The Gospel Project
“Tears at the table tonight. Hard to make it through a meal when your mind is on anything but food. Hard to explain the tragedy of Eric Garner to your son and daughter, why it matters, and why we care. But we do care. Because… we’re humans. Created in God’s image. Fearfully and wonderfully made. That’s where we start, with a God who sings over His people with love and delight.” (Source: The Gospel Coalition)

Eugene Cho
Pastor, Quest Church, Seattle
“Dear Church: The ministry and call to reconciliation is not an option. It is part of our identity and discipleship as followers of Christ. Reconciliation begins when we acknowledge that something is broken. Not only are we broken but a system is broken. Both needs to be engaged.” (Source: Twitter)

Anthony Bradley
Associate professor of theology at The King's College, New York City
“Do words like ‘suspect’ provide a license for depersonalization & therefore, justifies inhumane treatment in minds of some? #Personalism. In others words, when we ‘call someone a ‘suspect’ do we still see him/her as a person?” (Source: Twitter)

Trip Lee
Hip-hop artist
“Don’t nobody wanna hear our pain / That’s how I’m feeling when I’m flipping through them twitter comments, all I feel is rain / They telling me get over it’s old / That stuff don’t exist no more / But that don’t ring true when I look in these streets / So it’s real when I feel like it coulda been me.” (From the song “Coulda Been Me,” released today)

Mac Pier
Founder of The NYC Leadership Center
"The death of Eric Garner is obviously tragic and disturbing. Every life is sacred and the loss of this young man is no doubt heart wrenching for his family and frankly, for any of us who view life from a Biblical worldview. His death is indicative of one of the many wounds that exist in our fragile city. Social inequities are not uncommon, but that fact doesn't justify indifference or violence. Heartbreaking events such as this shout to us to set aside personal agendas and genuinely seek the common good for our city and its residents. As the Body of Christ, we have a great opportunity to not only tell people about the love of Christ, but to demonstrate it. His love and grace is more than sufficient to heal us all."

Derek Minor
Hip-hop artist
“The only way our nation will heal is if people begin to empathize with one another. We don’t have to agree, but we can hear each other out. We don’t have to understand each other’s hurt, but we can be there to console one another.” (Source: SoundCloud)

Joshua DuBois
Author, The President’s Devotional
“Please assume, for a second, that we may be right. Give us, for a moment, the benefit of the doubt that justice is this country is unequal. If we’re even partially right that the state does not protect us like it protects others, ask yourself: what can I do to change that? White friends, GOP, evangelicals: reach out to your electeds. Say you’re disturbed by this. They hear from us; they need to hear from you. Do not talk about reconciliation if you are not willing to take a reconciling step. Don’t pray for justice if you won’t work for it. (Source: Twitter)

Fred Sanders
Professor, Torrey Honors Institute, Biola University
“I’m especially encouraged by the fact that more Christians, and more kinds of Christians, are paying attention. Even people who think Michael Brown was being a thug and Eric Garner wasn’t perfect have been stunned by the back-to-backness of these two stories of legal processes following the death of black men at the hands of the police. It’s a punch in the gut followed by another punch in the gut, with no time in between to catch a breath: ‘I can’t breathe.’ Think about how the one-two punch feels, and then imagine yourself feeling it as a one-two-three-four-five-six-when-is-this-ever-going-to-stop sequence. This is a key opportunity for empathy, for sympathetic imagination, for looking at things from the perspective of another group of people.” (Source: Scriptorium Daily)

Samuel Rodriguez
President, National Hispanic Convention Leadership Conference
“Eric Garner should be alive today. The silencing of his voice and termination of life must be addressed with conviction and compassion. Law enforcement officers place their lives on the line daily and for that we stand with gratitude. Nevertheless, as Christians we must repudiate any and all abuses, engagement of excessive force, and actions that harm rather than ‘serve and protect.’ May the shalom of God rest upon all of our communities as we address these issues with truth and love.”

Gabriel Salguero
President, National Latino Evangelical Coalition
“In the recent days, what is increasingly clear, is that there is an entire segment of society who feels that the justice system has continuously failed them. Whatever people feel about the individual cases in Missouri, New York, and Ohio we can all agree that the church must be at the forefront of repairing the growing chasm between law enforcement and communities of color.”

Jim Wallis
President, Sojourners
When the decision about Eric Garner was announced, the young people we had met the night before called and asked us to join them in the protest they had just organized at a U.S. Courthouse in downtown St. Louis—and we did. Faith leaders and pastors stood alongside black and white young people who chanted ‘I can’t breathe’ in front of a line of police. America, we have a problem. It’s past time to fix it, and the church must stand alongside a new generation of young leaders and help the nation find the way forward.” (Source: The Huffington Post)

Leroy Barber
Executive Director, Word Made Flesh
“The decision not to prosecute the officer responsible for Eric Gardner’s death is highly disappointing. It further sends a message that black men’s lives don’t matter. We stand today with the Gardner family and every black man struggling to be human in our society.”

Leith Anderson
President, National Association of Evangelicals
"All our hearts are heavy when there is grief and loss. Jesus came to bring peace on earth and good will among men. Our nation must respond to Ferguson and Staten Island as a call and opportunity to acknowledge and address racial injustices, poverty and conflict. I have prayed for God to bring unexpected good from multiple tragedies."

Mayra Macedo-Nolan
Community Outreach Pastor, Lake Avenue Church, Pasadena, California
"The church (made up of each of us as followers of Jesus) must boldly take up our prophetic role as agents of reconciliation and workers for justice to dismantle the sin of racism in our country - both personal, individual sin and the systems these sins have created. We must examine our lives, our contributions to and gains from these systems - repent, courageously confront and work for change on behalf of our hurting brothers and sisters. This is the tangible ministry of reconciliation that Jesus came for and what we celebrate during this season of Advent. Good News that does not bring life and hope to the family of Eric Garner, and black men, women, and children in our country, is not good news at all."

Albert Mohler
President, The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary
“One of the things that Christians need to recognize, is that these two cases, related only in terms of the grand jury involvement, are present cases in which many people among us, including many African American followers of the Lord Jesus Christ, are asking very deep and pressing questions about whether or not the American justice system is fair and not only fair in a general sense, but fair quite specifically, to African Americans.” (Source: AlbertMohler.com)

Russell Moore
President, Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission
“We've heard a lot in recent days about rule of law, and that's exactly right. We need to be emphasizing rule of law. And a rule of law that is biblically just is a rule of law that carries out justice equally. Romans 13 says that the sword of justice is to be wielded against evildoers. Now, what we too often see still is a situation where our African-American brothers and sisters, especially brothers, are more likely to be arrested, more likely to be executed, more likely to be killed. … We have to acknowledge that something is wrong with the system at this point and that something has to be done.” (Source: ERLC)

Lecrae
Hip-hop artist
"I was pulled over last month in Chicago after a show. The driver said, ‘They are gonna pull us over cause it’s too many of us (black and Hispanics) in this car and this area is known for that.’ The cop pulled us over and after recognizing me let us go. Never said why we were being pulled over. I have tooooons of stories. I wish I didn’t. Some foolish rappers make it difficult for the good ones just like some foolish cops make it difficult for the good ones." (Source: Facebook)

Ekemini Uwan
Author, Reformed African American Network
"With each death of my unarmed brothers I feel a palpable loss. I have shed too many tears, and I am tired of grieving for my brother and sisters. What is a black life worth? Can we live like everybody else? These are the questions at the root of these atrocities. Sadly, America has answered us with a a resounding 'nothing' to the former, and 'no!' to the latter. These injustices threaten to eat away at my very soul." (Source: Sistamatic Theology)

Carl Lentz
Pastor, Hillsong Church, New York City
"MLK once said that violent protests are not to be condoned but need to be understood.. He called it 'the language of the unheard'..these current events absolutely transcend race and politics..speaks to a greater unrest and frustration towards cultural injustice that is deeply rooted.. Because our hope is Jesus, not politics, we can find peace in the storm." (Source: Instagram)

Jon Tyson
Pastor, Trinity Grace Church, New York City
“Black lives matter” (Source: Twitter)

Redeemer Presbyterian Church
New York City
"These events show again how deeply race shapes the way we see life, understand justice, and relate to one another. In the Old Testament book of Amos, and elsewhere in the Bible, we see that God holds all nations accountable for how they treat the least powerful groups and persons in their societies. As U.S. citizens, we in Redeemer leadership join with many others who, while honoring the members of law enforcement who put their lives on the line each day, nonetheless call for changes to our justice system so that it works more fairly and equitably for everyone. As Christians, we can do two additional things. First, we must pray—that God would bring our nation both peace and justice. Second, those of us who are not members of racial minorities, and who are therefore not as directly touched by these issues, must refuse to let ourselves be unconcerned or too busy to care. We must remember that we were saved by the one who was excluded and crucified outside the gate. We should spend time listening to voices that we may have previously ignored and embracing the call to work for reconciliation and right relationships in our city. In this advent season, we are called to look to the Lord’s coming by an examination of our hearts and in hope for a day when all things will be made new." (Source: Redeemer Presbyterian Church)

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