An Open Letter to Pastor Robert Jeffress
Grace and peace.
I greet you in the Name of our Lord and Liberator, Jesus Christ. I have been moved to write you this letter because our country – which Maya Angelou aptly called “these yet to be United States” – has accelerated her descent into destructive division. A spiritual eclipse of decency, honesty and integrity has left this country in the frightening darkness of emboldened racism. Hate and greed have grown bolder.
Recently, you used your significant platform as a guest contributor on Fox News to throw gasoline on the fires of racial conflict. You drew a dangerous connection between the NFL controversy and North Korea – whose leaders have engaged in a war of words with our president.
“These players ought to be thanking God that they live in a country where they’re not only free to earn millions of dollars every year, but they're also free from the worry of being shot in the head for taking the knee like they would be in North Korea,” you said to Fox & Friends host Ainsley Earhardt. Of course, “earn” is the operative word, since they haven’t been given any money, and clearly you think these players aren’t free to think for themselves and to protest.
“And I think tens of millions of Americans agree with President Trump when he says they ought to be called out for this,” you continued, arguing there is "a better way to protest social injustice without disrespecting our country.” Unfortunately, like most who make that claim, you didn’t tell us how. That suggests there are no preferred methods of protest from your privileged perspective. Protests for justice and equity are always disruptive because, as Martin Luther King, Jr., reminded us, social change does not “roll in on the wheels of inevitability.” Change takes place through discomfort. Protests, even peaceful ones, are uncomfortable.
Sadder still, you didn’t cite the reason for the protests you denounced: the slaughtering of unarmed Black folk by cops. You didn’t call these actions evil or disrespectful. The courageous athletes who take a knee don’t disrespect the flag or the national anthem. The flag is disrespected when we fail to honor our pledge of allegiance to “liberty and justice for all.” The flag is disrespected whenever Black bodies are unjustly haunted and harassed by officers in blue.
Your words hurt. They are morally irresponsible. They border on blasphemy. You fail to see the fundamental contradiction in your argument. You would be shot in the head in North Korea for taking a knee to pray and preach your version of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. I would not want that for you. Don’t you see that Black people don’t have to go to North Korea to be victims of state sanctioned murder? Unarmed teen Jordan Edwards will never earn millions of dollars in the NFL. He wasn’t in North Korea when he was shot and killed by a cop in Balch Springs, Texas. Neither was Clinton Allen there when an officer of the law in Dallas shot him. Twelve-year-old Tamir Rice was nowhere near North Korea when he was shot and killed less than three seconds after an officer of the law exited his vehicle and executed him in a park. Walter Scott was running from a police officer who shot him in the back and manipulated the scene to cover his crime. Yet another brokenhearted Black mother lost her son; still more devastated Black children lost their father. Scott wasn’t shot in North Korea, but in North America. I could go on and on. I hope you get the picture by now. Killing black people in the name of the law has aborted – a word I know you appreciate as a pro-life advocate – Black lives at an epidemic rate.
The policing system serves as the frontlines of a criminal justice system that is often criminal, racist and unjust. This unjust system has made America – not North Korea – the most incarcerated nation on the planet. The NFL players you viciously attacked are protesting racism and social injustice, particularly in the police use of the outlawed Chokehold, a powerful new book by Paul Butler you should pick up. They are speaking out against the spread of The New Jim Crow – an instant classic you should read – of mass incarceration that keeps America from becoming a “more perfect union.” No wonder Dr. Michael Eric Dyson articulated our heartbreak in his great book Tears We Cannot Stop: A Sermon to White America. Please read it.
Our nation is now reaping the whirlwind of social turmoil that it has sown in the wind of unrepentant racism, systemic injustice and white supremacy. Too often white churches have been complicit in this tragedy with their appalling silence. Modern day prophet Jim Wallis says that’s “because they’re more white than Christian.”
Several years ago you graciously accepted an invitation to be interviewed on my radio show, Freddy Haynes Unscripted. I was sincerely shocked when you affirmed the rightness of the civil rights movement at the end of our conversation and declared that had you been around you “would have marched with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.”
Now I’m wondering which Dr. King you were referring to? It must have been the sanitized myth of the “apostle of nonviolence” that America created in order to fit her narrative of exceptionalism. Were you speaking of marching with the Dr. King who thundered “I Have A Dream” at the great March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom? That’s usually the convenient Dr. King that Americans are comfortable with. I would remind you that before he eloquently articulated his dream, he narrated our nightmare as a “drum major for justice.”
Do you recall this section of his prophetic poetic proclamation? “There are those who are asking the devotees of civil rights, ‘When will you be satisfied?’ We can never be satisfied as long as the Negro is the victim of the unspeakable horrors of police brutality.” If you would have marched with Dr. King then, you should be standing with our courageous athletes now against the “unspeakable horrors of police brutality.”
Since it is impossible for you to march with Dr. King, you should take a knee with former San Francisco 49er star Colin Kaepernick, and Seattle Seahawks star Michael Bennett, who are taking a stand against the “unspeakable horrors of police brutality.” Sadly, and sinfully, these unspeakable horrors have terrorized our communities since the birth of this nation. The slave patrols, Black Codes, the Convict leasing system, Birmingham Public Safety Commissioner Bull Connor and Selma Sheriff Jim Clark reflect the use of policing as a weapon of oppression.
I will share something with you that I never talk about. My best friend, the late Rev. Dr. Marvis P. May, and I, both graduated from the now defunct, but never dead, Bishop College in Dallas, TX. We decided one year, while attending summer school at Bishop, to visit your prestigious First Baptist Church, then considered the largest church in the United States. First Baptist’s pastor, Dr. W.A. Criswell, had pastored and preached to presidents. He had also at one point been a staunch defender of segregation. Fortunately, he changed his theological stance. This was the summer of 1981. Marvis and I were warmly welcomed and received by the greeters and ushers. We enjoyed the experience and were happy to say that during our college matriculation we had visited the historic First Baptist Church of Dallas.
After the benediction, members of First Baptist continued to bless us with their kindness and engaging fellowship. After exchanging courtesies, Marvis and I went to retrieve the car we had borrowed from a fraternity brother. When we exited the parking lot we mistakenly turned the wrong way down a one-way street. We immediately corrected our course and drove in the direction of the impressive gothic structure. That's when a police siren from behind us arrested our attention. Through the rear view mirror I could see the police officer pointing, telling us to pull over. I intentionally parked in front of First Baptist hoping that this would be a pleasant and not deadly stop.
The officers got out of their vehicle and aggressively approached us. Both of us were nervous. We were told, in rather vulgar terms, to get out of the car. No, they didn't ask for my license and registration. Immediately, we were handcuffed and bent over our car. The officers weren’t satisfied. We were moved and told to get on the sidewalk face down. Honestly, we were pushed to the ground. I still recall the pain I felt from the knee of the officer in my back. All of this was taking place in front of the church where we had just worshipped. Marvis asked, “Why are we being held?” The cops ignored our question, and instead barked at us, “Shut up until I tell you to speak nigger.”
I was hurt and humiliated. Embarrassment and anxiety clouded my emotional skies. Surely they wouldn't do anything to us in front of this church. I grew angrier by the second. There were still worshippers filing out of First Baptist. They didn't allow our predicament to interrupt their walk to their cars. People we had just worshipped with simply glanced at us as they continued on their way. Marvis and I were both dressed in suits, but, contrary to the advocates of respectability politics, our fine clothing didn't stop the police from making us "eat the sidewalk.” Our sharp dress didn’t cause our fellow worshippers at First Baptist to stop and intervene in the sweltering sun of a Dallas July summer afternoon. Like the priest and the Levite in the parable of the Heroic Samaritan – I refuse to say “good” Samaritan as if all the rest were bad, similar to how we have more recently pitted “good” Negroes against the masses of bad Black people – folk just passed us by “on the other side” without helping.
In hindsight, I wonder what conclusions were drawn by those we had worshipped with, those who had warmly received us, as they passed by on the other side? What did they see when they saw us, dressed in suits, fresh from worshipping in their sanctuary, but handcuffed with our faces to the hot sidewalk? Did they see our humanity stamped with the image of God? Did they see the Imago Dei, or the Imago Negro?
And what do they, and you, see now? What do you see as Terrence Crutcher is killed by an officer even though his hands are up? As angry as I was at the cops for stopping us because we “looked like we were up to no good” – yes that is the “scientific” rationale offered to us by our violent pursuers – I was most angry at those I had just worshipped with who passed by on the other side.
Thankfully, a courageous and kind gentleman emerged from the worship facility of First Baptist and decided to ask what was wrong. He proceeded to tell the police officers that we had just worshipped with them. The officers were shocked. They asked, “Are you sure it was these people?” The man firmly said “yes!” The officers, attempting to justify what they did, responded, “Well, maybe they just look like someone we were looking for?” They helped us up from the sidewalk. Our suits weren’t nearly as dirty as our worship experience had become; our spirits were now stained by this embarrassing experience. The man who was kind enough to put his privilege on the line for us went back into the sanctuary. We got in our borrowed car and silently drove back to campus.
I am sharing this humiliating and heartbreaking episode from my life because it offers you a metaphorical choice with real ramifications. Will you choose to pass by on the other side and pontificate from your perch of privilege about athletes disrespecting the flag or national anthem? Will you choose to use your privilege as the pastor of one of the largest and most historic churches in the country and do like the church member who intervened on our behalf? He didn’t rush to judgment about us. He used his privileged whiteness to empathetically enter into our predicament and, as a result, our predicament was transformed.
Pastor Jeffress, if you would do as the anonymous member did we would begin to transform a justice and policing system that is destroying lives, breaking up families and hurting communities. Will you make that “pro life” move?
You have boldly declared that racism is a sin. I agree with you. God hurts when God’s children are mistreated because of how God created them. Black people in our country live with this mistreatment everyday. We experience racism from individuals and institutions, through micro-aggressions and systems. The policing and criminal justice system is most vicious because police officers have the power of the state behind them. I’ve done more than one funeral in this country where I’ve tried to comfort a family whose unarmed child or father was killed by a police officer who was not held accountable.
Please understand why the football players are protesting before you attack them. You’ve never had to give your children “the talk.” You don’t know the feeling of wondering, when the police stop you, if this is a life or death stop. Your privileged skin has insured that your life always matters.
In light of your unequivocal statement that “racism is a sin,” I’m inviting you to move from declaration to demonstration.
You and I should invite Colin Kaepernick and Michael Bennett to Dallas and listen to them. Let’s have a constructive conversation about what we can do to insure that America is truly a place of “liberty and justice for all.” It would be a powerful statement for you and I to invite both of them and come up with solutions to the problems of the policing and justice systems that oppress people of color in our country.
Dr. King, who you would have marched with, lovingly chastised the Christian church of his day for being thermometers and not thermostats. I invite you to use your prestigious and privileged platform to fight against racial injustice. You said racism is a sin. You’re right, now I invite you to not just “talk about it, be about it.”