The standard and accepted practice in response to social tragedies, “injustices,” or the real presence and consequences of evil, has been a kind of self-reverential activism that includes hashtags and virtue-signaling that are exchanged for but reflective of moral indignation.
One obvious problem with these socially dramatic displays of moral outrage is that it’s more about the person or people – actors, really – who participate in these moral plays than it is the victims of inevitable tragedies or confronting injustice where it exists. It’s more important that the social virtue of those wanting to be perceived, judged, and applauded as “good people” is to take a clear and courageous stand against the presence and aftereffects of evil, even if that means standing assuredly but alone.
This moral preening was the issue on Friday, July 8, on Fuller Seminary’s Pasadena Campus.
At noon, more than 100 students, alumni, staff, and faculty – all dressed in black – engaged in a theatrical moral play to “bring attention to” and “protest” what they called the “unjust deaths” of Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge, and Philando Castile in Minnesota, last week.
Organized by students in combination with Fuller’s William E. Pannell Center for African American Church Studies, the “protestors” staged a so-called die-in, accompanied by prayers, scripture readings, and what Fuller called a “rallying cry from Pannell Center Director of Operations Jeanelle Austin.”
Fuller’s explanation of the event partially reads,
We need the church, [and] the body of Christ, to stop being passive and silent as people who are made in the image of God are gunned down,”[Austin] said… “We must build off of our sorrow and create bridges of hope, healing, and restoration for the communities we serve. We must join in the work of justice and healing together—wherever we are in the world, and whatever our skin color may be.”
As demonstrators lay on the ground, many held small placards with the photos and names of black men and women who have died from police violence or in police custody.
… President Mark Labberton was unable to attend due to travel but praised the demonstration: “Our lament and sorrow, our repentance and resolve must show itself in actions that bring change—within Fuller and within the American church and society,” he said. Seeing the Fuller community gather together in solidarity was a source of encouragement for attendee Dean of Students Steve Yamaguchi. “It expresses the heart of Fuller as I know it… we will not be silent, and we will not allow people to be erased.”
As a Fuller Seminary alumnus, this moral confusion disguised as “activism” is nothing short of troubling and unproductive for several reasons.
Admittedly the shootings of both Sterling and Castile (videos of which can be easily found and viewed across social media) are very unsettling. Understandably, it’s suitable and expected that people pray for – and grieve with – those who lost a father, son, brother, nephew, uncle, friend, and loved one – regardless of why they were shot and killed – but especially since it happened in such a public manner.
Yet, there is simply not enough comprehensive information available (yet) to properly contextualize their deaths as legally or morally “unjust.” That isn’t to say that these men deserved to be shot and killed because we don’t have enough information to make that declaration either, which is why it’s best to wait until all evidence is made public before concluding.
For Fuller’s activist community or anyone to qualify what happened as unjust and reflecting a national trend without corroborating evidence is deliberately preserving a socially damaging, racialized script that reinforces destructive stigmas tarnishing both blacks and police officers. That alone disqualifies any sense of morality or compassion these “protestors” sought to display. It’s also unbecoming of a Christian witness.
And this melodramatic moralizing about the “image of God” (blacks) being “gunned down” also needs to be addressed. Of course, murder is wrong, and deaths like these are complicated and lamentable. Still, I wonder if these virtue-signaling demonstrators, including those from Fuller’s African American Church Studies program, have held similar protests for black victims of abortion. In 2013, an estimated 429,000 abortions were performed on black women. These deaths, without question, can be labeled as unjust. Considering abortions also murder those created in the image of God – much more so than blacks that die from police confrontations – have these demonstrators donned black clothing and held die-ins in solidarity for these casualties?
Have they mourned in solidarity for the innocent victims of the plague of black violence? A Chicago gang member enticed nine-year-old Tyshawn Lee into an ally with the promise of buying him candy but shot him several times in the head instead. Hadiya Pendleton was shot in the back and killed by a thug while standing in a park with friends; she was 15 years old. Yvonne Nelson was an innocent bystander shot and killed while leaving a Starbucks for an afternoon coffee; she was only 49.
I doubt there were any people clad in black, “dying” in solidarity while calling for the end of injustice for them and others like them.
Fuller’s President Labberton and Dean of Students, Steve Yamaguchi, should be embarrassed for encouraging and condoning the substitution of simple acts of justice and righteousness for the real thing. Allowing this kind of performance “activism” undermines Christian integrity and obligation to do actual acts of mercy and righteousness, including mourning, rather than substituting them for the selective moral outrage that accompanies Pharisaical acts of “social justice.”
Because this is happening in seminaries across the country, it’s no wonder that people see Christians as ineffective concerning racial issues. We go along to get along, sacrificing the transcendent gospel of Christ for repeated and false narratives of “justice” and victimization.