Baltimore and the Credibility of Our Theology

Reformed ministers of the past ordinarily paid some attention to things like riots in the streets of their cities, and spoke and wrote on them with force at times. Granted, some of those riots were over religious issues, but not all of them. Either way, it is fitting that we devote at least a long post to the situation in Baltimore this week.

Practical Precision

The debated details of our theology are important for gospel ministry. If, however, those debates leave us with nothing helpful to say on Baltimore's brokenness, one may well wonder what use is our theology, just as many activist-minded evangelicals, who find studying the finer points of theology a waste of time, often do. But it is true that any theology not up to the task of dealing with reality as we find it in those rubble-strewn streets, burned-out police vans, and finger-pointing political leaders--any theology, that is, not up to the task of dealing with sin and death and all the pervasive ill they work in this world--is practically worthless.

Reformed theology is up to that task, however, as some Reformed folk demonstrate daily by their labors in similar communities. Indeed, our theology seems designed for exactly this kind of work. So the question concerns the rest of us who profess and minister out of Reformed convictions. Are we up to the task?

Losing ourselves in the subtleties of Reformed theology can be just as diversionary, in a Pascalian sort of way, as burying ourselves in work, or drinking ourselves stoned, or bing-watching TV (see Pascal, Pensées, 136). Jonathan Edwards put a fine edge on this knife--loving to study and debate our theology is no sure sign of saving grace, he argued--and events like the Baltimore riot press that point to our chests.

When we come up from our studies, do we have anything credible to say to the Gray family or the officers assigned to impossible beats (including those just hastily charged) or Toya Graham, the mother of six who found her son hooded up and ready to riot and drove him off the streets? Those who do the work of an evangelist are well-practiced in answering these kinds of questions and know the value of Reformed theology, down to the details, in the ministry moment. (That is one reason why Mark should write that book.) The problem of merely diversionary theological interest is that it turns our theology into a nerdy sport, which is unworthy of Christ and no use to his people or the world.

Pennsylvania Avenue

Last summer the Baugus boys diverted themselves to a day of fishing on the Chesapeake. I took my place on the bow of the boat, next to a retired black couple. The husband, it turned out, lived his whole life on Pennsylvania Avenue, epicenter of this week's riot. He had finally moved away in despair, however, but was still passionate about the place he had so long called home. As we talked it over, his hatred of the drugs, gangs, violence, and prostitution that plagued the nighttime sidewalk outside his front door was clear. But the issue that finally drove him out was the apathy and corruption he observed among the police assigned to his community. This retired city employee was exhausted by the injustice of living under a police presence authorized to use up to deadly force who appeared to care very little for the good of those they were supposed to serve, some openly abusing their power for selfish gain. He wanted the police to do their jobs and do them well, lamented the breakdown of trust and hope, and commended the police in his new community because they cared enough to try to get it right.

Toya Graham, mother of the would-be rioter, thinks throwing rocks and bottles at police officers is "stupid" and not the way to seek the justice she and her neighbors want out of their city officials. When asked the next day why she drove her son off the streets, however, she tellingly explained, "that's my only son and I don't want him to be a Freddie Gray."

Winning Credibility

How many Ref21 readers live in fear that if the police ever picked up our son or brother for doing something stupid he might end up dead? That is a very vivid prospect for Ms. Graham.

Flip comments like "my son would never do something so stupid" are just that, flip (personally and theologically). Dismissive attitudes that seize the indefensible acts of some to condemn whole communities or sweep away their long-standing complaints just compound the problem. Whether this mother's fear of the police for her son is justified or not--and whether the charges brought against these six officers are warranted or not--the people who live in the neighborhoods along Pennsylvania Avenue in Baltimore, and along many other arteries of America's cities, have seen and heard enough not to trust the authorities they need to make their communities livable.

The police in America's violent cities have a very dangerous and nearly impossible job to do and deserve our respect and support as they do it, including decent pay and reasonable protections under the law. Stoning them, literally in the streets or metaphorically in the courts, just piles injustice on injustice. But refusing to hear or take seriously the complaints our neighbors have been making for decades is also unacceptable, and to act as though this problem is all one-sided is theologically and morally naïve. Sin never sleeps and is an equal-opportunity corruptor--that's our theology.

During the civil-rights movement in Mississippi, racists would do things like bomb the homes of those who dared to complain of injustice. When the local police showed up they sometimes accused the homeowners of staging a publicity stunt. Churches that kept silent and refused to call the sins of the privileged and powerful "sin" lost all credibility in those communities, and still struggle to regain it.

A former student of mine at RTS Jackson--a very good student who considered doctoral work in philosophical theology--lives and ministers in just such a neighborhood. He moved his family in and worked on building up relationships and being a faithful minister of Christ in that community. Although he experienced modest success, he also struggled to break through what many describe as a racial or cultural barrier, which turns out to be as much about credibility as anything.

That changed the day he was accosted by the police while walking home through the neighborhood. A couple officers pulled up and threw him to the ground in the middle of the street--in broad daylight--and began questioning him roughly and accusatively. They apparently couldn't understand why a white man would be walking down this street in this neighborhood and simply assumed he was involved in nefarious deeds and treated him accordingly, as though guilty. His neighbors took note. Now he had crossed a line and entered into their experience. Suddenly, he had a measure of credibility he formerly lacked and our theology--the theology that compelled him to spend his life in that place and undergo that kind of treatment, if need be--had an expanding audience.

Our theology is up for this formidable task. Are we up for winning the credibility we need to preach the gospel to all people in all places? It only takes, it seems to me, the consistent, faithful living out of our theology whose end is love.