On Monday morning, December 22, I had a meeting scheduled with a group of five pastors (three African-American pastors and two Caucasian pastors) to discuss how we might stand together in the midst of the racial tensions in Milwaukee. Ironically, as we were walking into the meeting, the Milwaukee County District Attorney’s office announced that there would be no charges in the Dontre Hamilton shooting case. This quickly changed the agenda and sense of urgency within our meeting.
The Dontre Hamilton case has added to the stream of cases, particularly over the past year, which raises questions about systemic issues of racial disparities in the implementation of justice in our nation. Along with the well-known cases of Trayvon Martin in Florida, Michael Brown in Ferguson, and Eric Garner in New York, the shooting of Dontre Hamilton increases the subtle sense that something is amiss in the way African-American men, even if committing crimes, are experiencing the implementation of justice in our nation. This is a complex situation that is bigger than just one element, whether law enforcement, educational opportunities, employment possibilities, or more.
I have talked with many individuals over the past few weeks who are trying to understand exactly what happened, what the meaning of this outcome is, and how we should respond as Christians in the face of these challenging times. As a pastor of a multiethnic church here in Milwaukee, I believe that the strongest witness happens when we journey together across our diverse backgrounds into a learning process that involves listening, speaking, and some very healthy reflection. Regardless of your opinions on the above matters, as followers of Jesus Christ we must approach these issues based upon God’s Word in the Scriptures.
A clear biblical response to this situation is to grieve. The Apostle Paul writes in Romans 12:15, “Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn.” We should mourn with the family of Dontre Hamilton, who lost a loved one in a way that no one would ever desire. Regardless of our ethnicity, we should mourn together as one with the African-American community who sense that things are not as they should be. Regardless of our opinions, we should mourn for the tragic killing of two police officers in New York City in an apparent act of vengeance for the outcome of the Eric Garner case. Regardless of our politics, we should mourn over our own city which ranks so highly in ethnic segregation, poverty, violent crime, racial disparities for incarceration, and more. A healthy biblical response is to grieve about this local situation in Milwaukee, as well as the situation that is shaking our nation.
As we grieve, we must also raise a prophetic voice for righteousness and justice. The Old Testament prophets critique the authorities of their day again and again for failing to bring justice into the courts of law. It was the prophet Amos who spoke judgment upon Israel for failing in this regard. He said, “For three sins of Israel, even for four, I will not relent. They sell the innocent for silver, and the needy for a pair of sandals. They trample on the heads of the poor as on the dust of the ground and deny justice to the oppressed” (Amos 2:6-7). God has a concern for justice and righteousness coming together in the public square. While we know no human being or system can ever fully represent God’s pure justice and righteousness, we still have a responsibility as God’s people to call authorities to pursue the ways of righteousness and justice in our public realm. Where there are questions of a miscarriage of justice at any level, the people of God must move beyond party politics to seek for righteousness and justice for all.
At the same time, we must also bring the love of Jesus Christ into our prophetic voice. Jesus was the one who revolutionized the broken human tendency for wrongs endured to become wrongs inflicted. Jesus said, “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven” (Matthew 6:43-45). Even as we stand up for righteousness and justice, we must not let any movement become a cycle of vengeance, where violence is added to violence. The Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., whose legacy of non-violence on civil rights advocacy is unparalleled in our country, once wrote, “We have, through massive nonviolent action, an opportunity to avoid a national disaster and create a new spirit of class and racial harmony.” Violence cannot create a community of peace.
In the midst of this, we must stand together across the normal human dividing lines with prayer. The only hope for us as the church and the nation is to move into the dream of God described in Revelation 7:9, “a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb.” The starting point for this is prayer; our ongoing conversation with the living God together. Prayer is not a meaningless aside from meaningful action, but is an essential activity for any movement hoping to bring good. When we pray, we humble ourselves together before the living God. When we pray, we see ourselves and the world more clearly. When we pray, we enter into praise of a great and good God. When we pray, we begin to confess the sin and brokenness that grips us and others. When we pray, we are moved to call out for God’s power to be poured into a world that deeply needs Him. Prayer is where true unity and transformation begins.
So, please join me in prayer. Pray for the families who have lost loved ones in painful and violent ways. Pray for God’s guidance and protection over the police officers who serve our city and around the nation. Pray for the pastors and community leaders around our city, who seek to forge a new way forward that is constructive and meaningful.
Discussion, prayer and planning continue amongst many of the pastors around this city. As pastors in Milwaukee, we are deeply grieved and concerned about the unresolved tensions that these events bring to the surface in our city and nation. Not only that, but we are also committed to not only address these issues but also work toward long-term solutions that bring healing and hope for our churches and for our entire city.
At this time of year, we are on the verge of celebrating the birth of Jesus the Messiah. At Jesus’ birth, an angel announced to a humble group of shepherds: “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people” (Luke 2:10). Christmas is a time when we worship God for dispelling fear and bringing joy through the good news found in Jesus Christ. As God’s people, the church, may we also bring the good news and shine the light of Jesus Christ into a world hungry for hope in the midst of darkness.