Pittsburgh Presbytery General Minister pens pastoral letter following last week’s acquittal
by Sheldon Sorge, General Minister to Pittsburgh Presbytery | Special to Presbyterian News Service
Editor’s note: Sheldon Sorge, General Minister to Pittsburgh Presbytery, wrote the following letter to the presbytery after a white police officer was acquitted of all charges last week following his shooting an unarmed black teen, Antwon Rose.
“My letter is part of my weekly attempt to address difficult social or ecclesial issues through explicitly theological and biblical lenses,” Sorge wrote, “and that is what our ministers report being especially helpful.”
His letter is shared with the denomination with that hope in mind.
PITTSBURGH — The legal exoneration of the man who killed Antwon Rose last summer has sent yet another shock wave through our community. It seemed inconceivable that a man shooting and killing an unarmed boy who was fleeing from him could be found innocent of wrongdoing. Yet that is precisely what the jury determined. It is claimed that their decision hung on a single factor, that the killer was an on-duty police officer. In Pennsylvania, police are legally given discretionary latitude to shoot at anyone they deem to be a danger to themselves or to others. Yet what is “legal” and what is “right” can be very different.
As people of God with the hope of the kingdom burning within us, we are especially distressed when we see how wrong things in this world still are. It is utterly wrong for any person to take the life of another who is fleeing from them unarmed, especially when the one fleeing has done the killer no wrong. It may be legal if the one doing the shooting is a police officer, but it is wrong. And let us not mince words here — systemic institutional racism that criminalizes black men lies at the root of the disorder. The chances of Antwon Rose being shot and killed in this circumstance were he white would be very different.
This is not to meant to vilify Officer Michael Rosfeld, who killed Antwon Rose. But we must acknowledge that a society that categorically criminalizes black men (unless they can prove themselves to be non-criminal) immediately pits our officers of the law against black men in general. People of God with the kingdom in their hearts know that such racism is utterly foreign to God’s intention, and that we must resist it within us, among us, and around us with every ounce of our strength. The first step toward such resistance is simple acknowledgment of the endemic racism in which we are enmeshed.
God became incarnate in Jesus of Nazareth to set right in this world all the disorder human sin had unleashed. Scripture calls it “reconciliation” — God was in Christ getting human lives right with God, and thereby right with each other. (2 Corinthians 5:16-21) When the Bible speaks of being saved, it sometimes says we have been saved (by the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus), at other times that we are being saved (by growing into the people God has designed us to be), and sometimes that we will be saved (from all enmity in the coming kingdom). The same is true for reconciliation.
We have already been reconciled to God and each other, through Jesus Christ. Yet we are still being reconciled. And we will be reconciled finally only when God’s kingdom is fully manifest in the new world. We are living in the penumbra between the darkness of hostility and the light of reconciliation.
We who have already been reconciled across all human differences “groan inwardly while we wait” for the full manifestation of our identity as reconciled children of God. Indeed, even the Spirit groans with us “with sighs too deep for words.” (Romans 8:22-27) Groans. Sighs. Ours and God’s. How broken and wrong things remain around us.
How broken and wrong that a young man with great promise loses his life so senselessly, just as he feared he would simply because he was black. How broken and wrong that the family who treasured him and counted on him will face a future without him. How broken and wrong that a criminal justice system pits officers of the law, whether in legislatures or courts or on the streets, against males of color.
The church is called to be a city set on a hill, demonstrating that God’s reconciling work in Jesus Christ does indeed end the hostilities that ravage the world. It is impossible for us to be reconciled to God without our being reconciled to one another. In the church we know ourselves to be bound as fully to people who look and think different from us as we are to those who are just like us. We have been reconciled. It’s a done deal.
Yet we are still being reconciled, and are a long ways from being fully reconciled across lines of race even within the church. It is wrong that only 4 percent of our denomination is African American in a country where 12 percent of the population is black. Groans and sighs over this abound especially in the church, because we know this is not how the kingdom of God looks.
And so we cry out to God, “Set things right, O Lord! Set things right within us by your convicting Holy Spirit. Set things right among us by the reconciling power that unites us to one another by uniting us to Jesus Christ. Set things right in the world through the witness of your people who have always been called to join you in turning the world upside down.” (Isaiah 29:16, Acts 17:6)
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