Eric Garner’s Neighbors and the Talking Heads of the Visible Church

“’…and you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.” – Jesus

As is obvious to anyone who keeps up with the news, there has been a considerable amount of public reaction and commentary to the case of Eric Garner and the officers who arrested him (I won’t summarize, in detail, the facts of the case in this blog). Garner was arrested for selling loose cigarettes on a New York street. During the course of his arrest, Garner died. As a result of Garner’s death, a grand jury was convened to consider charges against the arresting officer; the officer was not indicted.  Protests, especially among minorities, erupted across the nation as a reaction to the grand jury’s decision. Additionally, a considerable amount of public commentary about the Garner case has come from the celebrities of Christendom, the talking heads of the visible church, about the gospel, legal, and societal ramifications of the garner case. I have not seen any of them point out that Eric Garner died while failing to love his neighbor.

“Every time you see me you want to arrest me, I’m tired of this, this stops today…I didn’t do nothing…I’m minding my business, officer…” –some of the last words of Eric Garner

Prominent Christian leaders (few of whom are lawyers or sociologists) often feel compelled to issue public statements about incidents such as the Garner case (or the recent case of Michael Brown). From what I’ve observed, these comments are often far from helpful. Charges of racism (Garner was black) and injustice abound as well as suggestions to prevent further tragedy. By proving reactionary commentary, the talking heads of the visible church seem to be taking the advice of politician Rahm Emmanuel who famously said, “You never want a serious crisis to go to waste. … This crisis provides the opportunity for us to do things that you could not before.” In the case of Garner, there is an opportunity for white evangelical church leaders to get the ear of minorities. The Southern Baptist Convention (my own denomination) is the largest evangelical denomination in America and is, historically, quite racist. It was founded by southern slaveholders in 1845 who wanted to separate from northern Baptists who opposed American slavery. Although the Southern Baptist Convention officially repented of its racist past in 1995, the stigma of its history remains. This stigma is so great that one of its former presidents led a narrowly successful push to (optionally) rebrand Southern Baptists as “Great Commission Baptists“. Convention leadership hopes to swell its dwindling membership numbers by attracting previously disaffected hispanics and blacks. The Garner and Brown cases have presented an opportunity to make statements that tickle the ears of disaffected minorities. A comment from Russell Moore, President of the Southern Baptist Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, epitomizes this kind of race-hustling. In reaction the decision of the grand jury not to indict Garner’s arresting officer, Moore stated:

“I’m stunned speechless by this news. 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. 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.”

To their credit, some notable Southern Baptists, such as Pastor Randy White and Pastor Kevin Stilley, have denounced Moore’s comments. Russell Moore basically accuses the arresting officers of killing Eric Garner because he was selling cigarettes.  He then adds the theological commentary that such action is contrary to a biblical definition of justice.   It is, but such action is not what actually happened.  Moore, a former Dean of Theology at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, should know better than to make such irresponsible theological pronouncements. Doubling down on his opportunity to be heard by minorities, Moore has announced a racial reconciliation summit. This summit will be bankrolled by the tithes and offerings of every day Southern Baptists who may disagree with Moore’s take on the Garner case. Some points of note about the Garner case are as follows:

  • Eric Garner was physically unhealthy. He died during the course of an arrest he resisted. He was by no means choked to death “for selling cigarettes”.
  • Eric Garner had a history of resisting arrest and a criminal record that included more than 30 arrests dating back to 1980 on charges such as assault, resisting arrest, and grand larceny which the police we likely aware of when they sought to arrest him last. His rough handling was reasonably warranted.
  • It has been reported that a black police officer supervised Garner’s arrest. This cast doubts on any assertion that Garner died because of a racist police attack.

These are interesting points, which certainly contradict Moore’s (premeditated?) reaction to the grand jury decision. Other reactions have, like Moore’s, noted the petty nature of the particular crime for which Garner was arrested. He was selling unlicensed cigarettes. In New York, cigarettes are a heavily taxed commodity. Garner was selling cigarettes in a way that subverted the payment of those taxes. Even those who have taken no issue with the way Garner was arrested have opined that his crime was a small-time and perhaps did not warrant police attention. From a secular perspective of justice, a case can be made that Garner’s crime was too petty to warrant police attention. (A case can even be made that high commodity taxes, such as those Garner was evading, are unjust.) No such case can be made from a biblical worldview. By selling unlicensed cigarettes, Eric Garner was not loving his neighbor. As the Bible teaches, this is no petty crime. Loving one’s neighbor is, according to Jesus, the second greatest of all the commandments. The very moral law of the Old Testament hinges on loving God and one’s neighbor. Eric Garner’s crime was reported to police by local shop owners. The cost of compliance with laws and regulations is substantial for shop owners. Eric Garner was essentially undercutting his neighbors (shop owners) by selling a commodity in a way that they could not legally sell it. Perhaps cigarette selling and general business-permit regulations to which shop-owners must adhere are petty and unnecessary. However, there is no petty way to not love your neighbor.  Eric Garner wasn’t loving his neighbor when he died.

In light of the Garner case, Christians should reflect upon the ways they might not be loving their neighbors and repent of those times when they haven’t done so. Rather than use controversial news as a timely source of publicity, they should reflect on what scripture might have to say about the death of Eric Garner. Paul, an Apostle of Jesus Christ, wrote the following to the church in Rome:

“For rulers are not a cause of fear for good behavior, but for evil. Do you want to have no fear of authority? Do what is good and you will have praise from the same; for it is a minister of God to you for good. But if you do what is evil, be afraid; for it does not bear the sword for nothing; for it is a minister of God, an avenger who brings wrath on the one who practices evil.”

Eric Garner told the police as he was resisting arrest, “I’m tired of this, this stops today.” It did stop…that day, with his death.

[Contributed by Seth Dunn.  This post can also be found at my personal blog.]

*Please note that the preceding is my personal opinion. It is not necessarily the opinion of any entity by which I am employed, any church at which I am a member, any church which I attend, or the educational institution at which I am enrolled. Any copyrighted material displayed or referenced is done under the doctrine of fair use.

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