Last Sunday was Pentecost, the time when we celebrate the outpouring of the Holy Spirit upon the Church shortly after the crucifixion, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus. Acts, the sequel to the Gospel of Luke, makes it clear the Holy Spirit was a Spirit of reconciliation and forgiveness. And it’s important to recognize that the Spirit of God was set in stark contrast to the spirit of the age, and every age and generation, in this fallen world, which is often a spirit of rage and vengeance.
Jesus was unjustly condemned through the deceitful testimony of false witnesses. He was wrongfully executed for bearing witness to the truth. He was brutally beaten and savagely tortured. Yet when he was raised from the dead, he did not come back with a vengeance. He did not come back to get even as one might expect from a typical tale in the ancient world or from Hollywood in our modern world. Jesus died and rose again not to get even but to bring forgiveness and reconciliation, even for the very ones who conspired and railed against him and had him murdered.
He commissioned the disciples with the same message of forgiveness and reconciliation for those who would receive it through repentance. He empowered his disciples to carry out that ministry with the outpouring of the Holy Spirit. And it was an empowered message accompanied by signs and wonders, but not coercion through violence. Christians gained power in the Roman Empire through preaching and teaching and love for each other and outsiders alike, and through their faithful witness in martyrdom.
Right from the start we see the Spirit bringing people of different tongues and places, natural born Jews and Gentile proselytes, together (Acts 2:5-12). The Spirit brought people of different Jewish factions together, Pharisees, Sadducees, and Zealots. The Spirit brought together those who had persecuted Jesus and his followers with those who had been persecuted. The Spirit brought together Judeans and Samaritans despite the long hostility between them. The Spirit brought together Jews and Gentiles and the rich and the poor all to be a part of the same family of God. The Spirit of God is a Spirit of forgiveness, reconciliation, and peace.
The Holy Spirit, then as now, stands as an alternative to the spirit of the age, which often manifests itself as a spirit of rage. Jesus’ followers—much more the many Jews who never accepted the message of Jesus—were hoping for a Messiah who would come immediately in vengeance to destroy their pagan oppressors. There was a spirit of insurrection fueled by hatred and ethnic pride in the air in Jerusalem. This spirit animated people like Barabbas, who had been arrested for riotous and murderous insurrection (Mark 15:7; Luke 23:19). At Jesus’ sentencing this spirit perhaps inspired the people to have Barabbas released instead of Jesus. It was like an invisible combustible gas that would eventually cause Jerusalem to go up in flames in 70 A.D. This was the spirit that Jesus warned about and delivered people from and the flames were a manifestation and symbol of the eternal flames of hell that Jesus also warned about. In large part when Peter called for his hearers to save themselves from that corrupt generation (Acts 2:40) he was pleading with them to allow the Spirit of God to free them from the spirit of rage.
The spirit of rage is the work of the devil, the slanderer, Satan the accuser, who works through wicked people to stir up strife and sow discord and hatred.
A worthless man plots evil,
and his speech is like a scorching fire.
A dishonest man spreads strife,
and a whisperer separates close friends.
A man of violence entices his neighbor
and leads him in a way that is not good.
Whoever winks his eyes plans dishonest things;
he who purses his lips brings evil to pass.
Gray hair is a crown of glory;
it is gained in a righteous life.
Whoever is slow to anger is better than the mighty,
and he who rules his spirit than he who takes a city.
Proverbs 16:27-32 ESV
Today there are those who rightly discuss what they call America’s “original sin” of racism and work for justice, peace, and reconciliation. There are also some who rail against America because of this original sin of racism and act as if it is the unforgivable sin. They seem to demand that the current generation pay in full for the sins and injustices of all previous generations for the past 400 years. They seem to insist that racism has so corrupted America that the whole system has to be burned to ground and something entirely new put in its place.
Professor Cornel West, a Christian socialist, says America is a failed social experiment. He apparently sees it as a government and economic system for which there is no hope of redemption. Apparently, for West every wrongful death of every black person at the hands of a white person is a manifestation of white supremacy and racism regardless of the facts of the situation. He and many others, politicians and media pundits included, seem to know this to be true before they know anything other than a black person was allegedly wrongfully killed at the hands of police or other white citizens. Many politicians, media pundits, celebrities, and even preachers immediately portray the situation in the worst possible light and highlight each incident as an example of how the whole “system” is totally corrupt.
A clergy colleague shared an article claiming that modern policing in America is inextricably linked with slavery and expressed the opinion that the whole system of law enforcement has to be abolished and started over. The media and certain politicians insist that each incident is evidence of an epidemic of racially motivated killings of blacks in America. Celebrities insist that black people are being hunted down every day in the streets and these incidences are all like modern day lynchings. Theologians and preachers talk about each incident as an example of a pattern, even a pandemic of racially motivated hate crimes against blacks. They also seem to suggest we have made little to no progress since the beginning of the struggle for civil rights. Well-meaning others, who just want people who are hurting to know they care, repeat the same refrain. These are accusations and verbal condemnations that have set the country ablaze with rage emotionally and physically in light of very real atrocities and tragedies.
The truth is the media highlighted incidences are rare occurrences statistically speaking. As of March 31, 2020 there were 228 citizens shot by police; 31 of them were black. Last year 9 unarmed black suspects were killed by police; 19 unarmed whites were. The total number of unarmed citizens killed by police was 41. The way some in government, media, and academia spin and sensationalize the stories of real people and real tragedies is irresponsible, deceitful, and dangerous according to many of those who study the actual data. Those who make these misleading and exaggerated accusations end up sowing further division, resentment, and vitriol that leads to far more calamities for everyone, including minority communities especially. It also impedes real and needed reform from taking place. This is the conclusion of many who have carefully studied the data, which do not reveal the supposedly clear and irrefutable pattern that is so often touted. The data needs to be analyzed in context apart from the hyperbole and cherry picked cases. (Please listen to this detailed discussion about what the data actually reveals. It’s long but you can’t gain understanding from mere soundbites, internet memes, and short video clips).
The fact that some studies show that black suspects are 2.5 times more likely to be killed by police than white suspects does not mean it was all because of racism and white supremacy any more than the fact that all interracial crime between whites and blacks involves a black perpetrator and white victim 85% of the time means it is all or even mainly motivated by race. It’s also worth noting that Professor Roland Fryer’s research surprised him when he found no difference in lethal force used by police against black verses white suspects. Others have found similar non-disparities. While black men may be more likely to be killed by police, black men also commit a disproportionate number of murders (50%) and are disproportionately more likely to try to kill police officers (43%). Police officers are 18+% more likely to be killed by black man than unarmed black men are to be killed by police. The clear and pervasive pattern of racism that is assumed is wrongly assumed based on media hype. Suggesting that each incident is an example of a pervasive pattern of racism and that people are being killed by police for no good reason every single day is misleading in the extreme. Last year of unarmed citizens killed by police 19 were white; 9 were black, out of a total of 41.
Black men are far more likely to die at the hands of other black men than police. Professor Fryer’s new research shows that unnecessary and overly pervasive scrutiny of police departments will likely only lead to more crime and loss of life in those cities. He doesn’t argue that investigations of police departments should not be done, he merely suggests that careful consideration must be given to the unintended consequences. In some cases it could be a sharp rise in violent crime and cost many, many more lives. (Again, please watch the discussion of the facts in the video linked above).
Does this mean racism does not really exist? Of course not. I was reminded of the sad legacy of racism at a community prayer meeting yesterday morning as I sat in fellowship with white and black Christians, including a fellow Methodist of the AMEZ denomination. We were in fellowship on Tuesday but worshiped in separate churches on Sunday in large part because of the sad legacy of racism. I reminded the group of that sad history. We had a pretty frank discussion of that legacy and the exaggerated media hype of current events.
Racism is being presumed as a motive in current events even before all the facts of a case are known. In some cases, this is driven by an ideology that sees white supremacy and racism as inextricably, hopelessly, and irredeemably woven into the very fabric of the American system of government and economics. I once witnessed a lecturer with that viewpoint dismiss a black woman’s concern about the overwhelming amount of black on black violence in cities, including her own, as a distraction and itself as a problem also caused by white supremacy. It’s a doctrine of systemic total depravity that is far more extreme than the most extreme Calvinist understanding of total depravity among individuals.When racism is presumed and assumed in this way, is there any way to ever rule it out as a motive? If it explains everything does it really explain anything at all? (Consider the following from “experts” in this NPR article: “. . . the risks of congregating during a global pandemic shouldn’t keep people from protesting racism, according to dozens of public health and disease experts who signed an open letter in support of the protests. ;White supremacy is a lethal public health issue that predates and contributes to COVID-19′).
Take the cases of George Floyd and Ahmad Arbery. The former seems to be a clear case of police brutality with malice; the latter seems to be a clear case of stupidity and possibly racial profiling on the part of civilians recklessly trying to make a citizen’s arrest without legitimate cause. All that many in the media needed to know, however, was that black men were apparently wrongfully killed by white men. Then they ran with the predetermined narrative and indicted not only those particular white men but also the whole system. They did not even seem to want to know anything about the backgrounds of the white men, whether they may have expressed any racist views or were affiliated with any racist organizations. They did not need to know if there were any particular specific policies or procedures or laws that intentionally and explicitly promoted racial bias in either case. All they needed to know was that black men were apparently wrongfully killed by white men, period. As Kmele Foster, himself a black man, says, that presumption and the promotion of that narrative by the media is not only unhelpful and distracting, it is dangerous (again see the video link above). And the proof is in the nihilistic and murderous rage that has engulfed our nation and set so many of our cities ablaze.
There are elements of society that simply want to burn the whole thing down by any means necessary. Some, including clergy, have made excuses for the rioting, looting, and violence. Some have heaped praise upon it and continue to add fuel to the fire. Some are comparing the riots, which have hijacked and perverted legitimate peaceful protests, to the Boston Tea Party. There was a very direct relationship between the British government and the British East India Company that allowed the latter a monopoly. This included taxes without the represented consent of American colonists. I’m not sure how this is like the relationship between federal and local governments and Target, Aldi, Wendy’s, Auto Zone, and many other small businesses, many of them owned by minorities in minority communities. And what about a church being set on fire? I can’t see how the Boston Tea Party is so similar.
But what the analogy does tell us is that many see this as a political revolution. And they are willing to incite, encourage, and support riotous and violent rage toward those ends. And the violence has in some cases led not only to attacks against police but also savage beatings of private business owners, men and women, young and old. We must reject this violence totally and absolutely and also the leadership of those who makes excuses for it. If this is what some will do to gain power, what do we think will happen if they actually succeed by intimidating enough citizens to give them a bigger stick?
They say there can be no peace without justice, but there can be no justice without truth. But so many have retained a notion of justice while rejecting the notion of truth or at least its necessity to bring about real justice. The real danger in this whole movement is that it may sweep up the whole nation into a spirit of rage and revenge and its all consuming, devouring fire. God invites us to be saved from the inferno by repenting and receiving the Spirit of reconciliation, the Holy Spirit of forgiveness, peace, righteousness, justice, and . . . truth.
Racism may be America’s original sin; it is an inexcusable sin, but it is not the unforgivable sin. Deliverance from evil is not possible apart from forgiveness. May God have mercy on us and save us from the spirit of rage so that cooler heads may prevail. Come, Holy Spirit and blow your cool refreshing wind into our hearts and over our land.