Our nation is in a very loud, emotional argument about race, crime, laws, and “the system.” In The Gospel in Black & White: A Missiological Perspective on Ferguson I suggest that we attempt to view this dialogue as if we were a disinterested third party, paying attention only to be able to bring about a peaceful reconciliation between the two warring factions. In this piece, I’d suggest the same stance, but I speak primarily as a white evangelical to white evangelicals. I would like to address the problem of communication, particularly the use of “black on black crime” as a rebuttal to the concerns of African Americans who are decrying the systemic abuse of their young men.
I would ask our black friends to forebear while I direct this specifically to white Christians. We are not used to being addressed as a collective, the privilege of being the majority. And for my white Christian friends who are already miffed by the use of the word privilege in this context, please forebear. What are we saying as a white Christian community? What are we being understood to say? Much is getting lost in the communication. As ambassadors of Christ we must fix this problem because our main goal ought to be to communicate Christ, his Good News, and show to the world that we are his disciples because we love each other.
Missiologist David Hesselgrave said it best: “Communication is the missionary problem par excellence.” And in his masterful history of Europe, historian Tim Blanning began with this powerful statement:
“Communication is central to human existence. Apart from basic physical functions such as eating and defecating, waking and sleeping, nothing is more central. Whether the form it takes is symbolic, as in speech, or physical, as in travel, it is communication between people and people, or between people and places, that weaves the social fabric (3).
Christian friends, we have a communication problem and it is tearing apart the social fabric of our nation, even negatively affecting families and churches.
On the following pages I will attempt to dissect one counter-argument, used often like a knock-out punch, by whites when feeling defensive and overwhelmed by the criticism of blacks about the number of blacks that have been killed by police officers.
The argument goes something like this:
If blacks are so concerned about #blacklivesmatter why don’t they start doing something about black on black crime?
This is then followed with statistics of black on black crime and sometimes screenshots of statistics from, for example, the O’Reilly Show are put up as evidence of the grotesque difference between the number of black men killed by white officers and the numbers of black people killed by black people, or the disparity between the number of whites killed by police officers as compared to the number of blacks.
Rather than discuss the merit of the data, I would like to address the argument itself, particularly as it comes across on social media and in the context of family discussions around the dinner table. Something is not right about this argument. What is it?
The arguments are in and of themselves forms of communication that package the desires and fears of the communicators to the hearers, held together by the glue of moral reasoning. But we cannot hear the arguments. What we actually are distracted by is the data, because conclusions are supported on both sides by facts. Facts, however, are not truth. The truth of a matter is much more difficult to assess than merely culling data and facts to support our point of view.
Good Communication Understands that Facts and Truth are Not the Same Thing
First, facts and truth are not the same thing, especially when we are dealing with the truth as it relates to souls. Nations have souls. Collectives have souls. People are souls. In the conflict of souls we must understand that truth and facts are not the same thing. Truth is always more than facts when it comes to the truth of souls. Truth cannot contradict facts, but facts can be marshaled together, logically connected, and presented as a reasonable lie or misrepresentation of the truth. More than just data, truth is meaning, context, understanding, intention, heartbeat, big picture, and soul. The facts will support truth, but the facts never guarantee truth. The truth is always much harder to come by than the facts.
This is why in a conflict of souls it is extremely important that we attempt to understand the souls to get to the truth of the matter. Anyone that has ever tried to help two hurting people come together knows that what is said and what is meant are often two very different things. As Christians who long to be peacemakers in our society we should strive to understand the truth of a situation instead of shouting down our challengers with indisputable data.
People who think that they can assess truth on the grounds of facts alone are people who will never serve the peace of souls in the long run. Many whites need to understand the pain that many blacks feel because of the decisions in Ferguson and New York. We need to come to grips with the fact that factual accuracy and legal precision can team up to promote a lie. We must listen to trusted Christians in the minority group who are, by their protests, suggesting to us the reality that systemic injustice can flourish with just the facts and the truth can die at the hands of the law. They don’t believe truth was served despite the facts that legally exonerate the officers.
On the other hand, some of our black friends need to understand that the law will never adequately serve truth. The legal system is a slave of facts. Most are already aware of this painful reality experientially, but even as they fight for fairness in the judicial system, it is imperative that they understand that no person and no new law will be their messiah. Justice will only come through sustained pursuit of peace. This takes generations of black and white peacemakers who know that truth and facts are not the same thing.
Good Communication Depends on Respecting the Categories of Moral Reasoning used by the Aggrieved Party
This is more complex, but I believe it is absolutely vital for thoughtful communication. In a deep argument with another person we cannot switch categories on them in order to misrepresent their argument. This is more subtle than just pretending they said something they did not say. This is actually using their words against them by responding to a different kind of argument than they are making. Husbands and wives have pulled these shenanigans for years. But allow me to explain:
The average Freshmen in college learns about the difference between consequential moral reasoning and categorical moral reasoning with the noxiously overused illustration of the trolley car on a track. They are told to imagine being the conductor of the trolley car that is careening toward five unaware workers on the track ahead of them. However, in the track ahead of them there is a switch that will steer them on to another track on which there is only one worker. They are then asked what they would do? Most say that they would immediately switch tracks and kill one person for the sake of saving five people. In this case, consequential moral reasoning makes sense to most Freshmen. Fewer deaths are better than more deaths is the justification of their quick decision.
But the same Freshmen are less confident when asked what they would do if they were on a bridge that overpassed the tracks on which the out-of-control trolley was running toward the five unsuspecting workers and they had the opportunity to push on to the tracks a fat man that will be killed, yes, but stop the deadly trolley from killing fiver workers. Most struggle with this one.
At this point, the professor pedantically and purposely “mocks” the students for wrestling with the question, suggesting that they stick to their fewer deaths is better than more deaths rationale. But, of course, it is not that easy. Usually, Freshmen ethicists are then introduced to a Kantian categorial moral reasoning in which some things are always right or wrong. While it is conceded that consequential moral reasoning is not always immoral, it is also emphasized that this kind of reasoning is generally weak reasoning. It is usually over-simplified as a simple ends-justifies-the-means rationale.
Now, enter the “black on black crime” riposte. (I use the word riposte here on purpose because it is most often used as a checkmate, end of conversation.) The African American community is rebuffed by the cold, hard facts of “black on black” crime. The implication is obvious: They should shut their mouths, stop complaining, and quit killing each other.
Some problems with the argument..
First of all, it is a very subtle ad hominem argument because it portrays the argument of the black community (and, therefore, disparages the black community) as a classically weak argument based upon consequential moral reasoning. It pretends that the African American community is only concerned about the mathematics of the situation, the consequences, the numbers of their tribe being diminished, and that the essence of their argument is that too many black boys are getting killed. Thus, the easy rebuttal is, “Well, stop killing yourselves then.”
When white Christians use this argument against black Christians they are essentially dismissing their moral concerns as merely utilitarian while emphasizing the “otherness” of their community, the very problem that the black community is trying to eliminate. It is “otherness” in the liberty and justice for all that is at the very heart of the problem according to most of our black brothers and sisters in Christ. To say in response to their concerns about the slaying of black men at the hands of our government that they just need to worry themselves first and foremost about “black on black” crime is not a helpful communication even though it is factually true that more blacks die at the hands of blacks than do by the gun of policemen. This is, in my mind, a racism that pervades the white rhetoric even if it is not consciously in their minds when they blurt it out.
The “black on black crime” rebuttal is an insult to the intelligence and morality of the Christian African American community because they are, in fact, presenting to the nation a concern that is grounded, not on consequential moral reasoning, but on categorical moral reasoning. If their concern was strictly utilitarian they’d settle for a deal like this: if you can cut your black on black crime by 50% we will guarantee the diminishment of police brutality by 50% and then fewer black boys will be killed. Of course, they would not accept this because they are not grounding their concerns in raw utilitarianism. They are, in fact, making a complaint about systemic injustice that is supported by sound moral reason; to answer their argument as if it is merely a utilitarian argument is gravely insulting.
If I may detour a little bit just to say that I find it very disturbing when whites make the argument because it is a not-so-subtle way of saying, “You people.” Your kind needs to take care of itself. Survival of the fittest. While the black community issues its complaint with the we/them language regarding the systemic issues in our country, it is immoral and unjust for white Christians to issue a counterpoint to their we/them differentiation with a you/them rhetoric. Too many Christians think that blacks do not have the right to use we/you rhetoric because it is racist. However, I would argue that in an argument between two collectives (in this case, the dominate white culture and the minority black culture) it is justifiable that one party have more leeway with the we/you rhetoric than the other party.
Suppose white evangelicals are incensed that their children who are being justly incarcerated for their bad behavior are getting targeted in prison for sexual molestation because they are Christian and no one likes Christians. Suppose the prison guards turn their heads the other way whenever one of our children is getting molested. Suppose we decide to band together and object to the systemic “turning of the head” toward our children, saying that too many of our children are getting molested in prison. We use a we/you rhetoric when we go to the streets to protest our grievance. Now, suppose we are told on Fox News the IRREFUTABLE (because it would certainly be shouted) fact that most Christian children who have ever been molested were molested in the Church and that if we really care about the sexual crimes against our children we should address the issues of the Church first. Furthermore, we are scorned by the talk show hosts for using we/you rhetoric when this is a concern that affects all Americans.
That would be systemic injustice toward our children and the response of the conservatives would smack of anti-Christian bias to us even if all they were doing was being sloppy in their argumentation.
Welcome to the plight of the African American community.
In the case of the molestation of children in the Church, the fact that the facts are irrefutable ignores the truth of the matter that concerns us. If we were making a simple utilitarian argument then the facts shouted at us by unconcerned citizens would be relevant. But we are not making a utilitarian argument. We are making a moral argument grounded in categorical moral, biblical, and American reasoning: that we are a land with the promise of justice for all and systemic isolation of any people group is categorically unjust.
The “black on black crime” argument is racist because it ironically discriminates racially by the very people who are using it to rebuke blacks for not being good Americans and desisting from crime. It forces African Americans to think of crime in terms of “black on black crime.” I am white. I do not have to think about crime in terms of “white on white crime.” I don’t have to think in terms of “black on white crime.” I get to think about crime just as crime, as if I am a human being in a world of human beings who are potentially criminal. Yet we verbally chastise the African American community for being race hustlers and thinking of themselves as a collective instead of individuals while simultaneously demanding that they think in terms of “black on black crime”.
Good Communication Feels the Aggrieved Party
We need to feel what the other one is feeling to get at the truth of a matter. I always wondered what “bowels of mercy” in the King James Version of Philippians 2:1 meant. It’s uninterestingly translated affection in the ESV, but the word is more like guts, intestines, entrails, or bowels. While I cannot be certain, I think that it is possible for Spirit-filled Christians just to feel along with other Christians in our gut. The black community wants to be fully and freely and safely American. Can’t you feel that? It’s an instinct to feel with mercy.
If Christian whites really want Christian blacks to feel like they are a part of us then we should refuse to use we/you rhetoric when talking to them about systemic injustice. Because the system is something is not just fact, but feeling. Let me explain:
Going back to our Freshman philosophy illustration of the trolley on the track. Supposing it is your loved one that is the lone person on the track that is selected in order to save the lives of the five who were on the other track. You could live with the quick thinking rationale of the conductor because you might have done the same thing in the flash of a moment. But suppose this same accident happens again. And again. And each time the lone person on the track happens to be a loved one of yours and the five workers that just so happen to be members of the conductor’s family. No matter how rational the decision, you’d begin to suspect something was wrong systemically because your loved one was always isolated on a track.
We could all feel along with this scenario even if we knew that, rationally, it was just a string of bad luck. But this illustration fails because it doesn’t get at the heart of the meaning of the word systemic.
Systemic is a word that talks about the whole. When the black community rises up in protest about systemic injustice they are saying, “We are all sick.” To retort that they need to take care of themselves is to say, in essence, “you are not part of the whole.” But there are two reasons why white Christians in America should feel what they are saying and hurt alongside the black community besides the fact that we are all human. The first is that we are Christians in one body and if any members of the body hurt we should not dismiss them with political jargon, partisanship, and cultural bias. Secondly, we are Americans and as horribly as we have treated the black community we have begun the long process of restoration by saying, loudly, that they are Americans too.
Just as we would want American government to look into the abuse of our children (defined narrowly as Christian children) in prison on the grounds that we are American, so we cannot ignore the cries of our black brothers and sisters who say that they are being unfairly singled out by our system with trite and flippant data about “black on black” crime. Instead, we should recognize the American principle that we are our own government, we are governed by us, and that blacks who feel the weight of systemic unfairness are feeling it, not from them, but from us. Furthermore, it is not they alone who are suffering, but we are suffering the systemic injustice of us on us.
Our gut should tell us something. We have to have Solomonic analysis when he threatened to cut the baby in half. The real mother objected passionately because she couldn’t bear to see her child die. The person with the most emotional investment is the one who might lead us to the just solution. Look past the vitriolic criminality of looters on the street and look into the faces of the godly, black mothers and fathers. Your gut should tell you they have a point. To dismiss the truth hidden in the looters’ excesses is akin to rejecting the claims of Christianity hidden in the excesses of Benny Hinn. As Christians we do not like it when our cherished feelings are rejected on the grounds of excesses that have been done in the name of Christianity by other people. How can fair-minded white Christians do this to the black community generally?
The irony here is that the black community is not monolithic, but our “black on black crime” argument treats them as “you people” and “your monolith.” Yes, the black community is coming before the nation for justice as a black community, but they are not a monolith. There are many ungodly among them. There is, of course, a criminal element. To choose to let the criminal element be the voice of the black community is to voluntarily choose to not understand the black community.
We are a nation that must find a just solution to our anxiety and the true mother in this scenario is not the system. It is not the criminal element. It is not the looters. The true mother, the woman who agonized through the birth of civil rights and will mourn the setback of unjust analysis of Trayvon Martin, Ferguson, Garner, is the hundreds of thousands of God-fearing, upright citizens who are black. It is these people, the majority of the black community, who are not getting heard in the media because the truth of these Americans is a narrative that doesn’t fit the narrative of white conservatives who feel defensive about anything that criticizes their idyllic conception of America and the more liberal media that favors the splash and sensationalism of the “angry black man.”
It is a tragedy that white Christians cannot quickly perceive who the real mother is. I think we could get to the truth of this problem, despite the facts, if we decided to embrace good communication with black Christians and remembered these three simple rules:
- Good communication understands that facts and truth are not the same thing.
- Good communication depends on respecting the categories of moral reasoning used by the aggrieved party.
- Good communication feels the aggrieved party.
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