The Recent Shootings and What to Say This Sunday
Here we go again.
After the recent news of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile—black men shot to death on camera by police officers—many black people find themselves tapping back into their tender and emotionally exhausted tear ducts. Frustration, anger, confusion . . . these all accompany the silent lie that seems to continuously echo in our ears that says: “they don’t care about you.”
Then, within hours, we hear the heart-wrenching news of five police officers killed apparently in retaliation.
The pain is real. The exhaustion is real. The families ripped apart by what they believe to be murders are real. The pain and anger many in the black community feel is real. And brother-pastors, those individuals are going to be in our churches; they’re in our churches as members already, and Lord willing, they’ll come this Sunday to hear of hope.
In the somewhat recent past, I was encouraged to answer a question: “How do we respond to a cultural crisis over race?” Here, I thought I would share five suggestions for how we as pastors should respond to these recent shootings in the upcoming weeks, starting this Sunday.
1. Black lives matter in your church.
Before you go out trying to heal the world, how about first trying to heal your church? While I’m encouraged by some white pastors who appeal for counsel from others, I’ve quite frankly been surprised over how few of them actually listen to their own members.
You don’t need an “expert” black person, as if such a category exists—and you shouldn’t be stepping over the thoughtful black Christians the Lord has placed in your church to get the opinions of more famous black people outside your church to help you know how your own members feel.
Be sure to talk to your members about this. Talk specifically to the black members. If you know there are those in your church who struggle with these situations more than others, give them a call and see how they’re doing. Your first priority should focus on your immediate context. Let us not be guilty of desiring to be seen as sympathetic, while ignoring the opportunity to sympathize with actual people.
Some brothers seem eager to develop strategies for the nation while overlooking their own members. God has not called you to tend to the whole world, but he has called you to shepherd the flock that is among you (1 Pet. 5:2). One implication of this is that social media should not be the primary way you are processing and engaging with people. Tweeting does next to nothing, even if it seems like it does. An admonition from our Lord seems appropriate here: “Beware of practicing your righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them” (Matt 6:1). Who cares about what you tweet to your followers, if you aren’t engaging the people under your pastoral care?
2. Now is the time.
By now, no pastor in America has an excuse for himself or his church for being ignorant of these issues. If you are as helpless now as you were a year ago when you were asking for counsel about racial issues, perhaps your requests were not sincere. Now is the time to listen in all the ways we were saying you should. Now is the time to have those lunches that provide opportunities to enter into the suffering of your people. Now is the time to sympathize with those who are deeply struggling. Now is the time to implement all that stuff you’ve read on blogs or written in your sermons during the last racial crisis.
People are hurting and want to be heard, and you can give them an ear and learn. People are suffering and weeping, and you can suffer and weep with them. People are crushed and feel worthless as human beings, and you can give them encouragement in their imago dei. People have soul-wrenching questions about justice and righteousness, and you can give them the hope of the gospel.
Pastor-brothers, this is what we do! By the grace of God, we care for people. This is the basic and necessary work of a pastor. We enter into their lives; we don’t require them to enter into ours. We pursue the struggling sheep. We pick up the wounded and carry them ourselves when they are too faint to walk. The Lord promises through the Good Shepherd, that “I will bind up the injured, and I will strengthen the weak” (Eze. 34:16). Until then, we are to care for his precious flock as he would (Acts 20:28).
3. Conference, anybody?
Hearing from sharp minds about tough issues is a gift to any pastor. Clearly, among the reformed community, there is a severe ignorance and lack of helpful thought on racial justice issues. In March 2017, there is a conference coming that should further many of these conversations in helpful ways that the challenges of our age seem to be calling for. Consider coming to the “Just Gospel” conference. It will be led by men who are theologically precise and minorities—so the dominant voice will be of those who are both comfortable and competent to speak carefully about the Bible and matters pertaining to justice and race.
4. Pray for the police.
While writing this article, I found out that five officers were shot dead, and many others wounded in Dallas at a protest. Pastors, we must remind our people not only that policemen’s jobs are important, but their lives matter, too! We must pray for the families of those slain officers who suffered for doing good.
Many brave men and women devote their lives to facilitate our safety, and we should and must support them, giving them the honor they are owed. Pray for the Lord to fill precincts with just and righteous officers who wield the sword with justice and humility (Rom 13:1-7). Pray for your city and neighborhood in particular, following the apostle Paul who exhorted our brother Timothy this way: “[May] supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all people, for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way” (1 Tim 2:1-2).
Pray that officers would be servants of peace and preservers of life. Pray that the officers in your area would be courageous and have a high view of the dignity of people regardless of their skin color. And pray for their protection! Let us pray that the officers in our neighborhoods are respected and honored, and that those officers use their authority to truly protect and serve.
5. But what about this Sunday?
Friends, what your church needs most this Sunday is to hear the gospel proclaimed in power.
Of course, the gospel applies to absolutely every situation. But your people need to know how it applies to both the Alton Sterling and Philando Castile situations and the long dark tradition of racial injustice, as well as how it applies to retaliatory violence (see Luke 9:55). Depending on where you pastor, some congregations will have never heard the names of these two men, and if that’s your context, you’ll need wisdom as to whether or not they should learn those names this Sunday. In other congregations, everyone will have heard their names and seen their faces. They’ll be acutely aware of the tension surrounding those situations.
Some folks might feel indifferent, some might feel outraged, and most will want to know what God thinks. Some churches will choose to change the sermon because of this situation in an effort to bring a Word from the Lord in season, while other churches may choose to stay the course with their current sermon series and trust the providence of God in the planning of it (our church is in this latter group).
Either way, however you engage this situation, the most important name this Sunday is Jesus. Jesus knows about suffering (1 Pet 3:18, Heb 2:9). Jesus knows about justice (John 5:30, Matt 12:18–21). Jesus knows about racial tension (John 4, Luke 10:30–37, cf. Gal 2:11–14). Jesus knows about being wrongfully treated (1 Pet 2:21–24). Jesus knows about surprise tragedy and perishing souls (Luke 13:1–5). Jesus knows our weaknesses, and he knows how to sympathize with us (Heb 4:15). Jesus knows how to show mercy to criminals, and he knows the penalty for sin, for he has suffered it for us (Rom 5:6–8). Jesus knows about living in a wicked world (John 1:9–11, John 3:19), and he knows about dying at the hands of wicked men (Acts 2:23).
And he knows about the glories of heaven, where God himself will wipe away every tear from our eyes, where there will be no more death, no mourning, no crying, no pain (Rev 21:3–4)—where everyone is invited to take refuge with God. Our Savior knows.
So the gospel speaks to suffering saints and also to a weary world—and the message is one of hope. The hope of forgiveness for our sins. The hope of eternal life with God. The hope of escaping our just punishment and being given what we didn’t earn in Christ. The hope that in a wicked world, we can actually be the righteousness of God in Christ!
Brothers, whatever we choose to share about Alton or Philando this Sunday better adorn the gospel, not eclipse it. As valuable and important as their names are, there is one name that stands infinitely high above them, the name above every name. This Sunday, brothers, give your people what they need; give them Jesus.