American Baptist Leaders Call for Examination of U.S. Criminal Justice Systems

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American Baptist Leaders Call for Examination of U.S. Criminal Justice Systems

VALLEY FORGE, PA (ABNS 12/8/14)—In response to the Staten Island, N.Y., grand jury ruling in the case of New York City police officer Daniel Pantaleo, 34 national and regional leaders of American Baptist Churches USA (ABCUSA) have issued a statement calling for a national examination of the U.S. judicial system as well as the nation’s criminal justice institutions.

After deliberating less than a day, the grand jury decided there was not enough evidence to prosecute the white officer whose chokehold on Eric Garner, an unarmed African American man, led to the Garner’s death.

The American Baptist leaders express outrage at the grand jury decision and call for change in U.S. criminal justice systems, obviously infected by virulent racism, across the country. The time is ripe for prayer and action:

American Baptists have been called to be Christ’s witnesses for justice and wholeness within a broken society. We have been led by the Gospel mandates to promote holistic change within society. As Christians and leaders of American Baptist Churches USA, we have a pastoral and prophetic concern for what we are witnessing. We are profoundly troubled by these recent events: the taking of human life by agents of the state and the inadequate standard of accountability to which these agents were held. The U.S. criminal justice system suffers from a perversion that allows the role of prosecuting criminal behavior to be converted into defending that criminal behavior, thereby subverting the judicial means of determining guilt or innocence.

We affirm the anger and grief of all people of good conscience; people committed to justice and peace; people who are outraged by the senseless killing of Eric Garner and the evolving national pattern of erecting “blue walls” of immunity and lack of accountability in far too many of our police forces. We, as American Baptists, draw upon our faith and our faith legacy to proclaim we believe that all people are made in the image of God and that the right to human dignity, to be respected and treated as a person without regard to race, is foundational to our faith.

Racism is the belief that one race is innately superior to all other races. It is the devaluing of persons in terms of their intelligence and potential for contributions to a given society because of their race by one or more racial groups who have an economic, social and political position of power in that society. Racism, whether individual or corporate, is a sin against God. With grief we find racism to be one of the most pervasive examples of sin in our country.

Therefore, with other Christians as well as ecumenical and interfaith partners, we stand in solidarity with all African Americans who continue to live in fear of the ignorant, innate, institutional racism that threatens the lives of millions of young black men, women and children every day. We recognize our individual and corporate responsibility to work for racial justice and will initiate and support actions toward the elimination of institutional racism. Therefore, as American Baptists, we:

• Recognize that violence against minorities has been a continuing factor in American society. We will challenge the covert and overt violence that is the tool which gives expression to the hatred of one racial group for another.

• Recognize the responsibility to protect the rights of and support opportunities and equity for racial minorities in the political, economic, social, educational and judicial systems in this country. We will initiate and support actions to enable persons of all racial backgrounds to become full participants in and beneficiaries of the life of this country.

• Will continually examine our own roles and attitudes to eliminate any vestiges of racism and we will work to witness for racial justice which is implicit in the Christian faith.

• Recognize that concern for racial justice is not confined to American Baptist churches. We will work with other religious, ecumenical and secular groups with similar concerns to secure racial justice.

Tragically, racism and violence too often go hand in hand in the United States of America. In our society violence is deeply rooted and constitutes a hazard to our public health and well-being. It demands both a prophetic witness and a pastoral response by American Baptists. Modern U. S. society was born through violent ways, through the subjugation and exploitation of many of its peoples. The multiple horrors of the destruction of native peoples, the enslavement of African peoples, and the exploitation of immigrants are major strands of a web of economic, cultural, political, and societal behaviors that have inevitably led to violence.

The culture of violence is manifested both in the pervasiveness of overt acts of physical force and in the more subtle dynamics by which harm is persistently done to people. As Christians we are conscious of the violence around us, but we have often been numbed by its frequency and enculturation in our lives. Rather than being witnesses to Christ’s transformative power, we have made choices that reflect our own rootedness in a violence-ridden society. This sad reality requires continuing reflection, confession and committed action as disciples of Christ.

Racism, combined with violence, has exacerbated the strained relationship between the criminal justice system, including police action, and communities of color. American society has become increasingly violent, and police officers are called to enter that violent world and put their lives and careers at risk to protect and serve the whole society. Overworked and understaffed police departments lead to stress and strained relations. Police officers’ duty places them in danger both physically and emotionally. By being on the front line and confronting all sorts of violent activities, some police officers develop a shield of insensitivity towards persons in the community.

Violence can distort the perspective of the police, causing them to see the community or certain segments of the community as enemies. When this happens the guardianship bonds between police and community are broken and the police themselves are viewed as a threat by the people in the community. Situations of increasing animosity can develop, which are often fed by racism and emotional stress to produce an explosive climate. If unchecked, these situations will undoubtedly lead to an increase in police misconduct and police brutality.  It is an outrage when excessively reactive responses on the part of law enforcement officers, who should be trained as professionals, result in loss of life.

Police officers, local politicians and community leaders — and churches as moral and social pillars in the community — must work to counter these powerful dynamics of social violence. Paul speaks about the struggle between good and evil in the book of Romans as he addressed Romans, Roman soldiers, Gentiles, Jews and Christians. He states, “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good” (Romans 12:21). Jesus calls us the “salt of the earth” (Matthew 5:13a), signifying the preserving and healing capacities Christ’s disciples are to bring to the world in which they live.

We pray for nonviolent demonstration and official response to the outrage that now grips these United States. Violence is not the path to justice — it is the root of all injustice. Silence in the face of injustice is not an option. We therefore cry out with a loud voice for justice in our land, plagued by racism.

We agree with New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio: “Anyone who believes in the values of this country should feel called to action right now.” As leaders of American Baptist Churches USA, we stand in solidarity with those bearing witness through prayer, protest, and vigil. We call for a national examination of our judicial system and other institutions spiritually perverted by racism.

It is with a sense of divine leading that we acknowledge that the God of the Bible is the God of life who calls us to shalom, the well-being of all creation. We affirm a belief that, through the biblical vision of shalom and the example of Jesus Christ, the Christian community is called to respond prophetically and pastorally to the existing reality of violence in the world. When the ambiguities and moral complexities of a situation demand that we make difficult choices, we must act as faithfully as we know how, with a humble dependence upon the grace of God.

Therefore, as a sign of our prophetic calling, we call upon all American Baptists, American Baptist churches, and American Baptist organizations to:

• Be peacemakers, builders of God’s shalom;

• Work for the prevention of violence, the peaceful resolution of conflicts and just reconciliation;

• Advocate for a more responsible media; and

• Challenge ideologies, structures, politics and policies that lead to violence;

As a sign of our pastoral commitment to stand against violence, we call on American Baptist churches and other American Baptist organizations to do the following:

• Call on churches to preach the life-transforming power of Christ, applying this message concretely to our tendency toward violence;

• Educate ourselves on the constructive use of conflict;

• Educate ourselves about the violence in the media and culture and to advocate for corrective measures as part of our responsibility as disciples of Christ;

• Facilitate the development of conflict-resolution teams, violence prevention strategies and nonviolent means of political and social change;

• Promote the inclusion of victims in the process of creating solutions to issues of violence;

• Identify and utilize effective models of healing for those who have been victimized by violence;

• Join with other organizations to act locally and nationally to curtail violence.

In times like these, some are tempted to live and act as though clouds of despair are inevitable. But we are a people of passion and prayer and we continue to proclaim, along with the 19th century poet James Russell Lowell in “The Present Crisis”:

“Truth forever on the scaffold, Wrong forever on the throne, —

Yet that scaffold sways the future, and, behind the dim unknown,

Standeth God within the shadow, keeping watch above his own.”

As a nation, the United States cannot heal its broken society until there is honest reform to systems that institutionalize and legitimize racist practices and perpetuate violence.

The 34 leaders of American Baptist Churches USA below have signed this statement to express their personal perspective about the Staten Island grand jury ruling and the need for change in the U.S. criminal justice system. Their titles are included for identification purposes only and do not reflect their organizations’ endorsements.

Rev. Dr. Judy Allbee
Executive Minister
American Baptist Churches of Connecticut

Louis Barbarin, CPA
Executive Director
Ministers and Missionaries Benefit Board

Rev. Stephen H. Bils
Executive Minister
American Baptist Churches of the Central Pacific Coast

Rev. Yvonne Carter
Executive Minister
Cleveland Baptist Association

Valoria Cheek, Esq.
The American Baptist Extension Corporation

Rev. Dr. Samuel S. Chetti
Executive Minister/CEO
American Baptist Churches of Los Angeles, Southwest and Hawaii

Rev. Dr. Kendrick E. Curry
Interim Executive Director/Minister
District of Columbia Baptist Convention

Rev. Soozi Whitten Ford
Executive Minister
American Baptist Churches of Indiana and Kentucky

Rev. Joan Friesen
Executive Minister
American Baptist Churches of Greater Indianapolis

Dr. Josué D. Gómez, Esq.
ABCUSA Hispanic Caucus

Rev. Dr. Larry L. Greenfield
Regional Minister
American Baptist Churches of Metro Chicago

Virginia R. Holmstrom
Executive Director
American Baptist Women’s Ministries

Rev. Dr. Perry Hopper
Associate Executive Director
Ministers and Missionaries Benefit Board

Rev. Dr. Debora Jackson
Executive Director
Ministers Council ABCUSA

Rev. Dr. Clifford Johnson
President, American Baptist Home Mission Societies
Pastor, Shiloh Baptist Church, Wilmington, Del.

Rev. Dr. James E. McJunkin Jr.
Executive Minister
Philadelphia Baptist Association

Rev. Dr. A. Roy Medley
General Secretary

Alan Musoke

Rev. Alan G. Newton
Executive Minister
American Baptist Churches of the Rochester/Genesee Region

Rev. Dr. Donald Ng
President, ABCUSA
Pastor, First Chinese Baptist Church, San Francisco

Rev. Dr. Anthony G. Pappas
Executive Minister
American Baptist Churches of Massachusetts

Rev. Dr. Walter L. Parrish II
Executive Minister
American Baptist Churches of the South

Rev. Dr. Marshall Peters
Executive Minister
Mid-American Baptist Churches

Rev. Randall L. Rasmussen
Executive Minister
American Baptist Churches of the Dakotas

Rev. Dr. Charles E. Revis
Executive Minister
American Baptist Churches of the Northwest

Rev. Perkin Simpson
American Baptist Foundation

Rev. Dr. Lee B. Spitzer
Executive Minister and Senior Regional Pastor
American Baptist Churches of New Jersey

Rev. Robin Stoops
Executive Minister and Regional Missionary
American Baptist Churches of Nebraska

Rev. Dr. Reid S. Trulson
Executive Director
American Baptist International Ministries

Rev. Dr. Marilyn P. Turner
Associate Executive Director for Missional Life and Leadership
American Baptist Home Mission Societies

Dr. Deborah Van Broekhoven
Executive Director
American Baptist Historical Society

Rev. Dr. Steve Van Ostran
Regional Executive Minister
American Baptist Churches of the Rocky Mountains

Rev. Tom Wiles
Executive Minister
American Baptist Churches of Rhode Island

Rev. Dr. Michael A. Williams
Executive Minister
American Baptist Churches of Michigan

Rev. Dr. Aidsand F. Wright-Riggins III
Executive Director and CEO
American Baptist Home Mission Societies
Judson Press

American Baptist Churches is one of the most diverse Christian denominations today, with over 5,200 local congregations comprised of 1.3 million members, across the United States and Puerto Rico, all engaged in God’s mission around the world.