Christians React With Grief to Grand Jury’s Decision In Death of Eric Garner

Protests over the grand jury decision not to indict a police officer involved in the death of Eric Garner continued in New York City and across the U.S. (Michael Nagle/European Pressphoto Agency)
Protests over the grand jury decision not to indict a police officer involved in the death of Eric Garner continued in New York City and across the U.S. (Michael Nagle/European Pressphoto Agency)

Black and white Southern Baptists reacted with grief following a grand jury’s decision not to indict a white police officer in the chokehold death of a New York City man despite a widely viewed video of the incident.

A Staten Island grand jury declined Wednesday (Dec. 3) to bring an indictment against officer Daniel Pantaleo in spite of a ruling by the New York City medical examiner’s office that Eric Garner’s death was a homicide. Pantaleo is shown in a video posted online restraining Garner, 43, with a chokehold and forcing him face down onto the sidewalk with the help of other officers. While prone, Garner is heard saying at least eight times, “I can’t breathe.”

K. Marshall Williams, president of the SBC’s National African American Fellowship, called the grand jury’s action an “outrageous verdict” that is “a clarion call to us to be light in the midst of so much darkness.”

“I cry out to the Lord this morning, for my spirit is deeply grieved and filled with righteous indignation, as I mourn with the family of Eric Garner as they endure the pain of this visualized injustice,” Williams said in a written statement for Baptist Press.

“I’m stunned speechless by this news,” said Russell Moore, president of the Ethics & Religious liberty Commission (ERLC). “We hear a lot about the rule of law — and rightly so. But a government that can choke a man to death on video for selling cigarettes is not a government living up to a biblical definition of justice or any recognizable definition of justice.”

The Staten Island jury’s refusal to indict Pantaleo came at an incredibly raw time for African Americans regarding treatment by the police. The Dec. 3 decision followed by only nine days a St. Louis County grand jury’s decision not to indict white police officer Darren Wilson in the shooting death of 18-year-old Michael Brown. No incriminating video existed of Brown’s August death in Ferguson, Mo., and witnesses provided conflicting accounts. The failure to indict still met widespread criticism and protests.

Trillia Newbell, the ERLC’s consultant for women’s initiatives and an African American, said the Garner case — as well as what happened in Ferguson — “is yet another reminder that all is not well in America. It’s a reminder that racial tensions and divisions are high. It’s a reminder that there is a glaring racial disparity in our justice system.”

Moore agreed, saying African Americans — especially males — “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 something has to be done,” he said.

“We may not agree in this country on every particular case and situation, but it’s high time we start listening to our African American brothers and sisters in this country when they tell us they are experiencing a problem,” Moore said.

“For those of us in Christ, we need to recognize that when one part of the body of Christ hurts, the whole body of Christ hurts,” Moore said. “It’s time for us in Christian churches to not just talk about the Gospel but live out the Gospel by tearing down these dividing walls not only by learning and listening to one another but also by standing up and speaking out for one another.”

Bart Barber, pastor of the First Baptist Church in Farmersville, Texas, and a former Southern Baptist Convention first vice president, called Garner’s death “needless and tragic.”

“As I witness rising tension between black Americans and American law enforcement, I am reminded that for much of our modern history (and in many places even today) Baptists have suffered under antagonistic relationships with the civil order,” Barber told Baptist Press in a written statement. “This reality should dispose us to relate sympathetically with those who feel they are in the same situation today, should instruct us as to how Christians ought to behave in confrontations with the law and should encourage us that Christ can bring reconciliation and even camaraderie between those who were once estranged. Let us pray for God to bring about the same outcome today.”

Williams, senior pastor of Nazarene Baptist Church in Philadelphia, urged the church toward “inexplicable unity and a radical obedience to the Greatest Commandment [to love God, as in Matthew 22], which will set the platform for healing and reconciliation through an unprecedented spiritual revival and awakening. We need prophetic voices all across our convention to passionately pray and unashamedly sound the trumpet against all unrighteousness. Because of His unending love for all men, let us acknowledge the problems and lead the charge to assemble all the saints for peace and justice.”

Walter Strickland, special adviser to the president for diversity at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, wrote that “the barrage of verbal epithets and violence must come to an end and dialogues laced with Christ-like humility must take its place,” in a Dec. 4 commentary.

“Environments need to be cultivated where individuals can be heard on their own terms, without their lived experience being invalidated by another’s,” Stickland, also a theology instructor at the North Carolina seminary, noted at his website.

“Finally, after each of us has given an honest and sustained effort to stand in one another’s shoes, as Christ modeled in the incarnation, we as a society can begin to work together to address the individual and systemic issues that trouble us as a nation.”

Strickland asked, “Where do we go from here? I’m convinced that the resources to move forward are in the gospel of Jesus Christ.” Every person is “blinded by their sinfulness,” which “can only be healed by the one who is without blinders, limitation and sin – Jesus Christ,” he wrote.

“[T]oo many Christians have long forgotten the humility of Christ demonstrated in the Gospel and its inherent role in our lives … to help us overcome our often truncated understanding of his world,” Strickland said. “It’s only by imitating the humility of Christ that we can ‘consider others as better than ourselves’ (Philippians 2:3) and therefore lessen the division in our country.”

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SOURCE: Baptist Press
Tom Strode

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