Wednesday, August 20, 2014

An Open Letter to Thabiti Anyabwile


I have been enriched and blessed by your ministry – specifically your writing – on many occasions. You have challenged me and pushed me to think differently about a whole host of issues. And, I have been better because of it.

The events unraveling in Ferguson are not much different. I understand and agree with your call for evangelical leaders to do more than simply lament what has happened, and what is happening. I agree with your assessment that we have tended to ignore who our neighbor really is; that we have often failed to speak on behalf of the poor, the oppressed, and the disenfranchised. Frankly, we have failed to do so because there is little in it for us. After all, unemployed, young black males are not the folks needed to build multi-million dollar facilities and international ministries. You are right to call us to more. To something better. To put the gospel into action.

I am reaching out to you in this way, because I have no method of contacting you directly. I attempted to send you a direct message via Twitter, but that option was unavailable to me. So, I have turned to my own, little read blog, to do so.

I mentioned you in a tweet today about the #Ferguson situation. That tweet read: “Defending criminal behavior because of perps skin color is sin, not understanding.” I included both you and Matt Chandler in that tweet for a reason. In both of your writings over the past few days I have detected a blindness to your own biases. A blindness to wanting to know what really happened between Officer Wilson and Michael Brown before we issue calls for actions or even make laments. That blindness was illustrated in your reply to me: “By that, do you mean we shouldn’t defend Wilson because he is white? I didn’t think so.” In so doing, you dismissively made the very kind of racial stereotype that you would call others to avoid.

You assume(d) that, because I am white, my tweet was a blanket defense of Wilson and an indictment of Brown. When, in reality, it could just as easily been read as a defense of Brown. But, you did not read it that way. Why? Simply and sadly, you judged my tweet by the color of my skin, not the content of my character – to borrow a line from one of my heroes. I’m saddened by that because, until men like you and I can engage with each other without making sinful assumptions, we will never become the kind of evangelical community that can offer help and hope to the people in Ferguson, and beyond.

Thabiti, I have immense respect for you. You have far more eloquence and are far sharper than I am on a wide variety of issues. It is for that reason that I ask you to consider, for a moment, why you would call on evangelicalism to “stop putting people on trial before you grant them mercy” and at the same time you yourself act as judge and jury by declaring police officers “perpetrators” when they have been involved in the shooting of an unarmed person. ( Do you not know that there are justifiable reasons that law enforcement officers (and private citizens in some states) have for using deadly force, even when an assailant is unarmed? Thabiti, if you want a consistent, gospel-saturated call to action by evangelicals, you must not only lead the lament. You must be consistent to do yourself what you call on the rest of us to do.

Grace to you,
Rob Pochek


Thabiti Anyabwile said...

Hi Rob,

Grace to you. Thank you for your letter and for your godly concern that I and others act with consistency and integrity regarding our highest principles. I appreciate the challenge and the gracious way you offered it.

Can I ask you a question? Your tweet.... Was it in fact a defense of Wilson and an indictment of Brown? Were you taking that position? And when offered against my call to pursue justice, was the tweet reasonably interpreted that way?

If that's not what you were defending, I owe you and I offer you my sincerest apology.

But if it was what you were doing, even if less stridently than I assumed, then isn't my retort on point?

I didn't assume what I assumed because you are white. I assumed what I assumed because in calling my and Chandler's comments on Ferguson a "sin" and "defense of criminal behavior." you betrayed your own sensibilities and prejudices. You're here trying to help me see my blindness. In my reply tweet I was trying to help you see your own.

Which illustrates an important reality: We need each other to see. We really do. That's why I'm thankful for your open letter. That's why I hope you hear my tweet again. You didn't declare what your assumption really was. I leave that to your own private self. But ask yourself if I assumed correctly about your assumption and what that means about your blind spots.

I'm doing the same with your letter. And I can assure you of at least one thing: I am very interested in the specific facts of the shooting and for the truth to be known based on those facts. All parties deserve and need that. I'm not opposed to facts. I'm opposed to those appeals to "all the facts" that seem to me to be veiled attempts to ignore a pattern of injustice that we actually don't need Brown/Wilson to substantiate. For me, that pattern of injustice is the big point. I'm happy if this particular incident proves to be an exception to the pattern. But the silence about the pattern is sinfully irresponsible.

Thank you for your thoughtful engagement, brother. I pray the Lord's richest blessings on you and yours.

Grace and peace,

Pastor Rob Pochek said...

I am honored you would reply. In all sincerity of heart, my intention was to ask "everyone" to step back and realize that neither individual involved - Officer Wilson nor Michael Brown - should be given a pass simply because of the color of their skin. I also recognized that everyone who would read the tweet would read their own biases into it – white readers assuming I was talking about Brown, non-white readers assuming I was talking about Wilson. Truth is, the statement applies to both men.

To your point, I recognize I have biases. I fight them and their pull every day, through the power of the Holy Spirit. Some days I am more successful than others. I understand Matt’s intentions in his article. As a white male I have not had the experience of being followed in a store simply because of the color of my skin. When I hear sirens I think “help is on the way” not “here comes trouble.” And, I recognize that, while I understand that intellectually, experience is a different kind of teacher.

I come from one of the most racially divided parts of America – Southern Illinois. According to James Loewen’s book Sundown Towns: A Hidden Dimension of American Racism, Illinois had more “sundown towns” than Mississippi. The city of St. Louis is right across the river from where I grew up; my uncle lives just outside of Ferguson in the town of Florissant.

In addition to living in a racially divided area, both of my grandfathers were avowed racists; one was a Nazi sympathizer, the other a Communist. They both refused to attend my wedding, which worked out well because they were not invited. You see, my wife was not white enough for them. Indeed, one grandfather went so far as to “check her veins” to make sure he could see the ‘blue” in her veins. So, in addition to battling the world, the flesh and the Devil, my own family history is one that has caused me to make an intentional effort to beat back sinful racism when I find it creeping into my thoughts, actions, and words. Again, I do not always win.

I agree with you that we will never have “all the facts” about this case (or many others like it). Nor, do we need all of the facts to grieve the death of another young black male. For the record, I have found the handling of the investigation by the authorities to be slip-shod, at best. Michael Brown deserves better. Officer Wilson deserves better. The people of Ferguson deserve better.

At the end of the day, we agree on far more about this case than we disagree. My prayer is that this situation will be unlike the many before it. Too often we have gotten worked up for the cause of the day, but then failed to do anything lasting about it. My prayer is that an honest, heartfelt, gospel-saturated conversation about race in America can not only begin, but can blossom into something fundamentally transformative in our lives, cities, and churches.

God bless you and your family, Thabiti.

Rob Pochek