NASHVILLE (BP) – The collision of fear and mistrust has driven the violence upon violence that killed two black civilians and five police officers in three separate states in as many days, Southern Baptist pastor Lee Wesley told Baptist Press.
“There is a fear on the part of police officers when they go into the black community, and that fear heightens their approach to these problems,” said Wesley, whose pastorate Community Bible Baptist Church is in Baton Rouge, La., where two white police officers pinned Alton Sterling nearly immobile and shot him dead in a parking lot early July 5. Sterling, 37, had been accused by a 911 caller of displaying a gun while selling CDs outside a convenience store.
“On the other side, the side of African Americans, particularly black men, you have the mistrust factor,” Wesley told BP. “We don’t trust you because in the past you’ve not treated us right. You’ve abused us over years. And whenever you have fear and mistrust colliding, almost invariably you’re going to have some violence.”
Grieving with the suffering, Southern Baptist leaders offered spiritual comfort and wisdom.
“As we see our nation in turmoil, we readily obey our Lord’s command to love and pray for all people, especially those who have recently suffered immeasurable loss in the tragic deaths of their loved ones,” Southern Baptist Convention President Steve Gaines told BP. “May God pour out His mercy and grace on our nation as we bow our hearts humbly before Him. May He grant us understanding, love and forgiveness.
“This is the true way of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, and His followers,” said Gaines, pastor of Bellevue Baptist Church in Memphis, Tenn. “This is the way we will choose to live as Southern Baptists.” For Gaines’ full statement go to stevegaines.org/july-tragedies/.
Killed a day after Sterling, 32-year-old Philando Castile was shot four times at point-blank range July 6 as he sat in his car during a traffic stop outside St. Paul, Minn. According to Castile’s girlfriend Diamond Reynolds, who was next to him in the vehicle, the black man was attempting to comply with a white police officer’s request for identification when the officer shot him. Reynolds recorded a portion of the incident on her cellphone before police arrested her with her 4-year-old daughter sitting in the car’s back seat. Castile had been driving with a busted tail light, police said.
Also dead are five Dallas police officers shot by at lone sniper during a July 7 protest related to the killings of Sterling and Castile. Seven more police officers and two civilians were shot but survived, Dallas Police Chief David Brown said at a press conference after police killed the sniper, identified as 25-year-old Micah Xavier Johnson of Mesquite, Texas, with a bomb squad robot, and arrested three suspects. At least two of the slain officers have been identified as Dallas Area Rapid Transit agency officer Brent Thompson, 43, and 32-year-old Patrick Zamrippa.
The violence is everyone’s problem, said Byron Day, president of the National African American Fellowship of the SBC, a group representing close to 4,000 pastors.
“I am calling on all Southern Baptists to see these tragic events not as an African American problem but as a problem for all of us,” Day told BP. “I appreciate and respect our law enforcement officials. … Nevertheless, I am deeply grieved to hear of these recent deadly shootings that appear to be racially motivated.
“I am prayerful and hopeful that our legal authorities will investigate the situation thoroughly and provide genuine and truthful answers to a country that is looking for a solution once again to racial disharmony,” said Day, pastor of Emmanuel Baptist Church in Laurel, Md. “This is a delicate situation and I pray that justice will be served for all parties. All Southern Baptists need to pray for our dedicated men and women in law enforcement and for racial harmony in our country.”
SBC Executive Committee president and CEO Frank S. Page, who has appointed several ethnic-specific advisory councils aimed at including all Southern Baptists in convention life, reminded Southern Baptists that their years-long labor toward racial reconciliation is not in vain.
“Over the past several years, messengers to the SBC annual meeting have called on Southern Baptists to be faithful ambassadors of reconciliation in their personal relationships and local communities. We have called on all Christian men and women to pray and labor for the day when our Lord will set all things right and racial prejudice and injustice will be no more,” Page told BP. “I’ve reached out to leaders of our Baptist work in Louisiana, Minnesota and Texas to let them know we stand ready to assist their churches as they lead out in the ministries of grief counseling and racial reconciliation.”
Page extended hope found in love.
“The culture of violence, fear and death that grips our nation can only be overcome by the power of unconditional love and equal justice under the law for all people, including people of all races as well as law enforcement officials who serve and seek to protect our neighborhoods and communities,” Page said. “We cannot turn a blind eye to the racial tensions in our country or allow ourselves to become numb to the reality of the deep pain experienced by all these families. The senseless killings that are sweeping through our land must cease.”
SBC immediate past president Ronnie Floyd has sponsored dialogues and prayer vigils aimed at racial reconciliation, hosting at the 2016 SBC annual meeting the president of the predominantly black National Baptist Convention USA, Jerry Young.
In a joint statement to BP, Floyd and Young reiterated their commitment to racial reconciliation while expressing sympathy to the families of the victims.
“We are reminded that violence and retaliation are never the solution to our frustrations and anger,” the two wrote. “May all know that we are resolved as spiritual leaders in this nation, to do whatever we can do to help bring America together.
“May the wisdom of Martin Luther King, Jr. provide us the needed encouragement today. ‘Returning violence for violence multiplies violence, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars,'” the two quoted King. “‘Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.’ Now is the time to come together in love and unity, praying for America.”
Fred Luter, the first black pastor to serve as SBC president, joined other Southern Baptist leaders in calling the church to action.
“It is an ideal time for the church to be that healing balm in the community and the country,” said Luter, pastor of Franklin Avenue Baptist Church in New Orleans. “Let’s pray for a healing among our races in America.”
In Baton Rouge, anger, confusion, frustration and bitterness have been expressed and observed, said Pastor Wesley, who has encouraged calm while attending various vigils, rallies, conversations and press conferences in the Louisiana capital.
Together Baton Rouge, a community group of 45 institutions and churches representing various Christian denominations, Muslims and Jews, will host a community-wide guided conversation July 12 at noon at St. Paul Catholic Church near the site where Sterling died. Together Baton Rouge hosted a press conference July 7, and participated in a prayer vigil several pastors hosted at Living Faith Baptist Church.
Wesley encourages Southern Baptist pastors to counter and hopefully prevent violence by building relationships and being available to the community.
“Build relationships with people, all people, across racial lines, across denominational lines. Be available to talk to people outside of your church, in your community” Wesley encouraged. “Show compassion, sow love — not just lips, but action. Be on the ground. We can’t stay inside the walls of our church and build relationships.”
Southern Baptist ethicist Russell Moore blogged of the stark differences in realities facing black and white youths in the U.S.
“My oldest two sons are learning to drive. I have many fears, but I’ve never worried about one of my sons being shot after being pulled over. My perspective is thus radically different than my African-American neighbor or colleague or fellow church member,” Moore blogged at russellmoore.com hours before the Dallas shootings.
“Notice the differences even on social media over the past couple of days. An African-American colleague of mine noted that the divide is glaring, with black evangelicals interacting with this set of news while many white evangelicals continue on discussing the presidential race or the upcoming Olympics, with no reference to these shootings,” Moore wrote. “That divide ought to cause us to reflect on how we’re experiencing the culture differently, and what implications that has for our unity and our witness.”