beer is not the answer

In his excellent book, Unpacking Forgiveness, Chris Brauns makes the point that forgiveness means reconciliation, and it’s impossible to be reconciled with someone who has not repented and asked for forgiveness. Since no party has yet admitted they were wrong, I am not sure what Obama’s beer party on Thursday afternoon is going to accomplish.

It’s become clearer each day that Henry Louis Gates sinned against Officer Crowley. The 911 caller was not practicing racial profiling. She did not mention the race of the suspects, and when asked said that she thought perhaps that one might be Hispanic but she didn’t know. Neither was Officer Crowley. According to a black man and what appeared to be a biracial woman on Cambridge’s police force, Crowley did his job well and the only person who seemed concerned about race was Gates.

It’s also obvious that President Obama sinned against Crowley and the Cambridge police department when he extemporaneously said that they had “acted stupidly.” His later attempt to say that his remarks weren’t “calibrated” properly reveals once again how silly we sound when try to avoid blame for something we did (“misremembered”, anyone?).

Wouldn’t it be refreshing—and wouldn’t it be the first step toward genuine healing—if Gates, Obama, and even Crowley (if he sinned against Gates in ways that have not yet been substantiated) repented of whatever way they had wronged the other and asked for forgiveness? Their reconciliation would become an enduring symbol and catalyst for the racial reconciliation which everyone says we need in this country. I’d drink to that. [Dear Cornerstone board member, this last sentence is a metaphor and is something I’d never do, even if Jesus asked me to join a toast for the happy reconciliation of the races].

I have a couple of outstanding questions:

1. I believe that racial profiling is a problem that requires discussion with the goal of fixing, but doesn’t Gates’ claim in this instance cheapen our perception of the problem? If I was a black man, I would be angry with Gates for discounting my genuine experience of racial profiling with his apparently overly-sensitive reaction. If what happened to Gates constitutes racial profiling, then the easy solution to this “problem” is to just get over it.

2. As a white man (and I know I’m white, as Stephen Colbert would say, because I buy my shirts from L. L. Bean), I would be receptive to Gates saying that he over-reacted in this instance, but he did so in part because of his and his community’s past experiences. Just because the white officer may be cleared in this instance does not mean that white people bear no responsibility for creating a culture in which Gates over-reacted. It wasn’t that long ago that we treated black people like animals, which is far worse than anything Gates said to Crowley. I don’t know the right mechanism for this—whether through government, church, or individuals—but have white people apologized to black folks for the fifties and sixties (or worse, slavery)? If repentance is the first step to reconciliation, then this is something we must do (and given the appropriate venue, I don’t know any white people who wouldn’t eagerly do this).

3. On The Newshour with Jim Lehrer, David Brooks observed that the incident between Gates and Crowley may have been as much about class as race. A black upper class friend-of-the-President Harvard professor may have been annoyed that a middle class white cop was asking for his I.D. in his own home. Perhaps Gates was tired from his trip, perhaps he didn’t know that his home had been broken into while he was gone, and perhaps he didn’t consider that he himself had just forced entry, but for whatever reason he chose to take the officer’s questions personally. Regardless, this “teachable moment” must begin with repentance—from all sides who have sinned. Otherwise it will teach us the wrong kind of lesson.

Editorial note:  I have asked my new colleague, Royce Evans, to keep me honest by reading this post and responding from his black perspective.


Add yours →

  1. I was going to blog about this too, but I just never get around to blogging anymore.

    I thought that Obama “acted stupidly” in saying that the police “acted stupidly.” Does he have any idea what kind of effect a statement like that makes on young people living in urban environments who look to Obama as a symbol of hope? Young people who already often have tense relationships with police and authority figures. And now the President himself says that the police acted stupidly. The LAST thing a statement like that will do is help race relations in this country.

    The beer party is a sorry excuse for a band-aid over a very damaging knee-jerk response.

  2. I don’t know…I think I’d go ahead and drink with Jesus and suffer the consequences. 🙂

    As for your question: “…but have white people apologized to black folks for the fifties and sixties (or worse, slavery)?”; personally, I don’t feel obliged to apologize for the sins of my “fathers”.

    You suggest that with the appropriate venue that you don’t know any white people that would not eagerly “repent”. You don’t know me personally, but as your “brother in Christ” I can assure you that there is nothing for me to repent of here.

    As for “group repentance”, I would have no problem if our government were to somehow (and one-time only) reach out to the black community with true and sincere repentance (not reparation!); but to suggest that we as individuals should feel guilty about our nation’s history is, in my opinion, over-reaching.


  3. Mike,

    As I look at this whole situation, I agree with you on some points about Gates, however, I think that Crowley also should have handled things better. I don’t think he was stupid, as Obama claimed. But he could have defused the situation with Gates had he handled things differently. For instance, when Gates asked for his badge and identification #, Crowley’s response was merely “Sgt. Crowley.” Massachusetts like most states requires its police to have badge #’s and carry ID cards because in the past , there have been police that have lied about their names, making it difficult or impossible for citizens to file complaints about their behavior after they’ve departed a scene. Gates asked Crowley to comply with Massachusetts law by furnishing his full name and badge number, and all Crowley told him was that he was a sergeant and that his last name was Crowley.

    Crowley also follows Gates into his house when Gates goes to get his I.D. According to the police report, Crowley’s assessment at that time was that Gates probably wasn’t a suspect. He should have stayed on Gate’s porch. And when Gates went to try to call Crowley’s superior on the phone (while telling him that he didn’t have any idea whom Crowley was messing with), Crowley gets on his phone and calls for back up. Police don’t like their authority challenged. Telling the dispatcher to “keep the backups coming” clearly wasn’t necessary even when you are being wrongly accused of being a racist.

    By this time, Gates had produced the proper I.D., yet had raised his voice towards Crowley. Crowley then requests that Gates talk with him outside about the situation. By this time a slew of police had arrived and Gates was still upset at the situation. This is when Crowley handcuffed and arrested Gates for Chapter 272, Section 53 of Massachusetts’ state code, which states,

    “Common night walkers, common street walkers, both male and female, common railers and brawlers, persons who with offensive and disorderly acts or language accost or annoy persons of the opposite sex, lewd, wanton and lascivious persons in speech or behavior, idle and disorderly persons, disturbers of the peace, keepers of noisy and disorderly houses, and persons guilty of indecent exposure may be punished by imprisonment in a jail or house of correction for not more than six months, or by a fine of not more than two hundred dollars, or by both such fine and imprisonment.”

    It made it alot easier to arrest Gates for this on his porch, rather than in the house because when he was yelling at Crowley, because it was disturbing the peace outside and the other officers were witnesses to that. It does give a possible impression of entrapment because no one could hear a disorderly and disturber of the peace Gates inside, but they could outside.

    Although Gates did not treat Crowley with proper respect, this incident should not have warranted an arrest. So I agree that this incident probably was not racially motivated, I fully disagree with his fellow police officers that Crowley did his job well.

  4. Mike,

    I don’t know enough details of this event to get into the particulars (I’ve been taking a quasi-sabbatical from news and politics since the election. My spiritual life has needed it.).

    But I agree with your desire for mutual repentance for anything each party did in order for the beer party to have any relevance to life or value to society. (But I can’t wait to see how they will make having a beer together look both laid back–the only way to have a beer–and still proper, and presidential. That should be entertaining. Just wait until everyone talks about which kind of beer they have.).

    But, I do want to respond to Jason that his comments seem a bit blind to the under-the-surface tension and hurt that continues despite the fact that he and I have never committed the sins of our fathers.

    Actually, being from Amish/Mennonite decent, I’m not sure my fathers even committed anything wrong (Did Amish have slaves? I don’t really know, but I doubt it). Regardless, we white folks have a hard time appreciating the lingering hurt and distrust that exists because for many minorities there still remains subtle and not-so-subtle hints of racism. It’s hard to see this when you seldom (if ever) really talk to and get to know someone who is black.

    I do think that as you say, in “the appropriate venue” I and many other white people would love to make clear our regret for white behavior in the past and our desire for all tension to end and wounds to be healed, so that we all can flourish together. (I don’t really know how to best do that either.)

    To say this process is unnecessary simply because by historical coincedence we were not actually there when slavery happened, seems insensitive and like I said, a bit blind.

  5. Darrell,

    I appreciate your heart and reasoning for your desire to express our “collective” regret over the “white behavior in the past” and I very much have the same “desire for all tension to end and wounds to be healed, so that we all can flourish together”; but to suggest that each of us as white individuals should feel guilty for the “lingering hurt and distrust that exists” and then to call us individually to “repent” is to continually live in that historical context without ever rising above it to actually live out the reality that we are all equally deserving of respect as “image-bearers”.

    If you are calling me as an individual white man to “repent” for the sins of my fathers, when do I stop? Do I have to “repent” toward every individual black person that I happen to meet? I would be “repenting” for the rest of my life. At some point this has got to stop and we must “move on”.

    I didn’t suggest that a certain “process” of repentance is unnecessary. I’m not blind to the lingering racism in this country (on both sides) nor to the understandable mistrust that has very often strangled the life out of black communities. But again, to suggest that I as an individual white person should feel some necessary personal regret on the part of our forefathers such that I should be willing to “repent” is to strangle the life out of me. Again, when do I stop?

    Like I said, I appreciate these sentiments from you and Mike and I agree…up to a point. And as I said before, I think it would be beneficial to have a “collective” repentance (not reparation) that can have a positive affect on all communities in moving our nation forward. But we must not continue to live in the past–we must move forward. And I don’t think we do that by calling the individual white person to “repent” for the sins of our nation as a whole (unless the individual white person is personally guilty, then by all means he/she should repent).

    There will always be the ignorant among us (white and black) who will never see one another as equals and deserving the respect associated with our being created in the image of God; and all of us (white and black) will have to live with that. But I don’t think that I’m being insensitive to this issue simply because I don’t feel the urge to repent for something that I have not contributed to.

    By all means let’s somehow make it clear collectively as a nation that we are repulsed by some of the things we did in the past and then let’s move on. But please don’t try to lay some guilt trip on me or anyone else because we happen to be living at a time when we are experiencing the fruit (bad fruit) of our nation’s history.

    I don’t think I’m being unreasonable, insensitive or blind.

    In Christ (and joyfully sharing communioni with people from “every tongue, tribe, nation”…and race),


  6. Jason,

    I appreciate your response. We’re very close to the same page. I’m certainly not suggesting you should personally repent of anything you haven’t done to every black person you see. Good grief.

    You did seem to reject any sort of regret in your previous post. You said you do not feel obliged to apologize for past sins. Apologizing and being clear about our corporate regret is not the same as personally repenting as you describe.

    We should all feel a sense of regret (even if it is corporate rather than over personal actions) for the sins of the past and let that regret move us into careful introspection and openness about whatever wrongs we may be committing today. Without that sense of regret, we can be blind to our own versions of prejudices (even beyond racial). Perhaps a way of saying it is white people need to have a sense of solidarity with the black community, share their pain (as much as we can), and bear one another’s burdens. That is in contrast with saying, “It’s in the past. Get over it.”

    To dismiss repenting or regret for the sins of our fathers as outright as you seemed to in your previous post I think may be hurtful to some and unfortunately comforting to others.

    But I can stand corrected if I misread you.

  7. Darrell,

    I don’t always present my thoughts as eloquently as I can, but I think your third paragraph is very well-said and in the spirit of what I believe. And what you say is basically one of the ways that we manifest the call of how we as Christians are to live our lives in this world.

    My concern is that if we continue to “navel gaze”, so-to-speak, we will not, as a nation nor as individuals, rise above our past to actually consider another invidividual in terms of who they are as a person. At some point we need to be able consider others as individuals rather than first considering his/her race and all the sin that has been historically perpetrated against them as a community.

    I guess my question would be this:

    How can we be faithful to another person simply as a fellow human being (image-bearer) without regard to race if, as you suggest, we need to be moved to ‘introspection” by a sense of regret just to be able to interact with that person as one who is equally deserving of the respect due to him/her as a fellow human being?

    Did that question make sense?

    Thanks Darrell.


  8. Jason and Darrell: why don’t you guys go have a beer? 🙂

    Seriously, I do think that we are pretty much on the same page on this one. I come from the same Amish stock as Darrell (many of my cousins are Yoders!), so my people have been mistreated by the white man as well (happy birthday, John Calvin, now stop killing us!). I think we agree that we do bear collective responsibility for the sins of our ancestors (we’re not atomized individuals as the Enlightenment would say), and that in an appropriate venue it would be right and restorative for us to ask forgiveness for slavery and segregation. And then if the other side responded in kind, imagine the reconciliation and beer guzzling that would result!

    Joel: thanks for your good insights. None of us know precisely what occurred, but you make a good case, that even according to Crowley’s own police report, he could have calibrated his actions differently. If he agrees with your assessment, I hope that he is man enough to offer the first apology.

  9. First, let me thank my colleague for his invitation to weigh in on the discussion at hand. Not being in possession of all of the facts, nor having been present as the events unfolded, I will limit my comments to those born of five decades of living as a black man. Discussions of race are always tricky because they are shaped in a plethora of contexts and as such are not cut and dried. It is difficult to process current events through the lens of history but it is necessary to obtain a sense of the resentment, suspicion and distrust that is a part of the African-American experience in the United States.

    Additionally there is the dilemma of framing discussions with a multitude of perceptions as part of the process. It is unreasonable to expect everyone to see the same event in the same way, to have similar feelings and ultimately come to the same conclusions. Difficult but not impossible. I agree there is a sense of “blame-fixing” as opposed to an ownership of personal responsibility in light of this event. Indeed this is a teachable moment (reference CNN article re:Colin Powell’s take on the incident) and all individuals involved have a personal and civic responsibility to assess his or her own behavior, attitude, etc. as a Christian I have a personal and moral obligation that requires my thoughts and actions be tested through the scriptures and that they are reflective of a personal commitment to Jesus Christ. This supercedes a response based solely on perceived, implied and even direct slights, slurs and insults.

    As a black man am I angered and concerned, that racial profiling exists and is practiced in the home of the free and the land of the brave, of course I am. Do I have a responsibility in spite of this to insure my response in these and similar situations, is a morally, civically and socially acceptable one, of course I do. To quote one of my favorite commercials “we answer to a higher authority”, and this must be the lithmus for what is or is not appropriate actions and response.

  10. Jason: The hope is that through the introspection we can move forward together with understanding and healing, rather than just skipping past the issue. The introspection is temporary. And we shouldn’t let the difficulty of the task keep us from dealing with it head on.

    But beyond the racism issues, in general, I don’t think introspection should ever stop because it is part of making sure we continually confess and repent of all our sins, rather than be blind to them. Most every argument I have heard for moving forward instead of “navel gazing” has come from someone that seemed more concerned with not bothering to navel gaze than anything (they seemed afraid of even starting). Not that you’re doing that (I have no way of knowing). Life should always include an appropriate level of movement and introspection. To stop either or to be paralyzed by either is unwise and unhealthy.

    Royce: Thanks for your comments. I’d love to hear your thoughts on the whole “we need to apologize for the past” discussion, if you care to participate.

    Mike: Thanks for the invitation. Anytime!

  11. Since Darrell and I don’t live in proximity to each other and can’t have a beer together (until the consummation, anyway), is it all right if I have a couple for the both of us? 🙂

    Thanks Mike and Darrell,


  12. Dr. Wittmer – is your use of brackets in this blog post an example of writing something you may not agree with??? 🙂

  13. JB

    I used ( ) in this post, not [ ]. That is an important distinction not to be missed!

  14. “[Dear Cornerstone board member, this last sentence is a metaphor and is something I’d never do, even if Jesus asked me to join a toast for the happy reconciliation of the races].” (copied from post)

    Dr. Wittmer – are you sure about that?

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