Understanding Ferguson’s Fires (updated)

Source: nbc.com

Source: nbc.com

[Updated: I updated this post to incorporate other responses published since I wrote the original.]

In Ferguson, Missouri a grand jury declined to indict a white police officer who shot a young African-American man last summer. When the decision not to indict was announced protests and violence ensued, with several fires set as some residents expressed anger and frustration, and other protests occurred around the country.

In a blog comment reprinted on Christianity Today, African-American pastor Bryan Lorrits wrote,

Over the years I’ve been challenged by my white brothers and sisters to just “get over” [events perceived as involving racism]. Their refusal to attempt to see things from my ethnically different perspective is a subtle, stinging form of racism. What’s more is that it hinders true Christian unity and fellowship within the beloved body of Christ.

My purpose with this post is an attempt  to explain this difference in perspective to my white brothers and sisters (of which I am one), and to help people understand why there is often an angry reaction to situations such as that of Michael Brown and Ferguson. In pulling together this post, I draw on what I have learned by studying race and American politics for more than twenty years. I also suggest some solutions from a Christian perspective. As you might imagine, it’s often complicated, but here goes a blog-length attempt.

Why are they angry?

There are obvious immediate causes: the unarmed African-American man[1] shot by a white police officer; the decision not to indict; the militaristic environment after the shooting, and so on. But the reality is that there are longer-term factors at work here. First, there is the perception (or reality) of racism on the part of the authorities in the situation. Second, there are race-based social and economic frustrations in many of America’s communities. Let’s take these apart carefully.


White people view racism quite differently than do black people. When whites are asked to define racism, the answer is usually something like, “when a person treats another person badly or negatively because of their race or ethnicity.” But when African-Americans are asked to define racism, the answer is usually something like, “a system in which racial groups are treated differently.”

The reasons for these two different views are socially and historically complicated. White people in general do not define themselves in terms of their ethnicity, nor do they view themselves as a social, economic or political group that has any specific common interests. (There are obvious exceptions to this, such as those whites who do view their race as their main relevant social characteristic. These people often end up in white supremacist groups, but are a very small portion of the white American population.)

African-Americans, on the other hand often see their primary relevant group characteristic as being their race or ethnicity. They have a high level of what social scientists call “group identification,” a strong psychological attachment to their group. This leads to a strong feeling of “linked fate,” the idea that what happens to one person in their group is likely to be relevant to one’s own life. So when a black person is shot by a white person, there is a psychological link made between that event and an awareness that this could happen to anyone in the group, including oneself.

White Americans simply don’t think this way based on our racial category, but we sometimes do in other areas. For example, as a home schooler, when I hear about a bad event (child abuse, or social worker’s abuse of powers), I often will say to myself, “I really hope that wasn’t a home schooler.” Why? Because I perceive that what happens to other home schoolers could also happen to me because I am a home schooler. Or if a child abuser is a home schooler, that reflects badly on home schoolers generally and makes us more likely to be viewed badly by society. This perception is due to my strong social identification as a home schooler and my sense of linked fate with other home schoolers.

The System and its Outcomes

Because African-Americans have higher racial group identification and attitude of linked fate, they view their relationship to the American political and criminal justice systems differently than white Americans do. A very important historical fact to remember is that for at least two centuries in the US, the legal and political systems did in fact define people and their status in society in race-based terms. In the South especially, the “Jim Crow” social environment used the law specifically to treat blacks and whites differently, and unequally (See an excellent article on this here). Thus one major reason the African-American community defines itself in that way is at least partially because the political system did so for so long.

While whites might optimistically hope that several decades after Brown v. Board of Education and the Civil Rights Acts the group-oriented mindset of African-Americans might have lessened, the reality is that group identity and linked fate still are quite important. To say that they shouldn’t be important is to miss the point that they still do matter to our neighbors.

In fact, the system itself seems to reinforce the sense that the group is systematically disadvantaged, not due to problems of individual motivation or a sense of entitlement, but because of intractable, long term social and economic outcomes in society. Here are just three examples:

The public education system, which is broken and dysfunctional in so many ways, is a particularly harsh environment for black (and Latino) boys. See a report here).

Family income in the black community is persistently lower than other racial or ethnic groups. This is illustrated in this graph:

Racial differences in household income, 1967-2012 Source: businessinsider.com

In terms of interacting with the criminal justice system, the legacy of race-defined unequal treatment still rears its ugly head. See this op-ed on crime statistics.

Differences like these produce the perception that the system is largely rigged against people of color, and persistent differences reinforce those perceptions.

That is not to say that this perception about bias in “the system” is universal among African-Americans. For example, following Ferguson, Pastor Voddie Bauchum reflected on his own experiences, writing,

“for many of those years, I blamed “the system” or “the man.” However, I have come to realize that it was no more “the system” when white cops pulled me over than it was “the system” when a black thug robbed me at gunpoint. It was sin! The men who robbed me were sinners. The cops who stopped me were sinners. They were not taking their cues from some script designed to “keep me down.” They were simply men who didn’t understand what it meant to treat others with the dignity and respect they deserve as image bearers of God.

It does me absolutely no good to assume that my mistreatment was systemic in nature. No more than it is good for me to assume that what happened in Ferguson was systemic. I have a life to live, and I refuse to live it fighting ghosts. I will not waste my energy trying to prove the Gramscian, neo-Marxist concept of “white privilege” or prejudice in policing practices.”

There is, however, in the black community a broad tendency to blame the system because of low trust in the system, for which there are plausible historical reasons. It is true that social, economic, educational, and political advances of black Americans occurred through governmental involvement. Nonetheless, there is a broad perception of stagnation in that progress over the last forty years. Whether white people think this it is unreasonable for black people to think this way is entirely beside the point.

Why Political Solutions Fail

In the big picture, political efforts to solve these problems will fail, because politicians are notoriously bad at changing peoples’ attitudes and hearts. More to the point, I have become convinced that there are individuals and groups in politics and society who have no interest in pursuing genuine healing and solutions to America’s longstanding race problems. They make their money, sell their books, and win elections by taking advantage of black anger and frustration and white complacency, resentment or ignorance. They are liberals and conservatives, Democrats and Republicans, black and white. If the “race problem” goes away, so does their income stream and their political advantage. So we can’t look to politicians and talking heads to get us out of this mess.

Christian Solutions

The solution, it seems to me, is just as complicated as the problem, but that is not an excuse to ignore it. As a Christian, what am I to do when Ferguson situations come up? And how am I supposed to think about these problems? I think the Bible speaks in two specific ways—to me as an individual, and to the church as a social organism. The solution is not going to be borne out of a crisis, but out of a long-term systematic commitment of people of faith and their churches.

As an individual, I am to be an instrument of peace (as the old Catholic prayer goes) in my community (Matt 5:9; James 3:18). I can do this by praying for peace in communities where there is unrest, but also in the hearts of people whose hearts are broken or hardened. I must humbly check my own attitude and seek understanding of others’ situations (Phil 2:3-4). This is one area where the social justice movement of Christianity is correct—we are to strive for justice in our communities and to work on behalf of those who are oppressed in God’s eyes (e.g., Psalm 10, Psalm 146). Am I trying to be understanding of the frustrations of others, or do I just view Ferguson-like violent outbursts as unruly mobs engaged in unjustified riots? Am I personally working to be an ambassador of reconciliation (2 Cor 5:18-21) across racial and ethnic groups in my community?

Our churches are supposed to be voices of truth and reconciliation in our communities. Is your congregation making opportunities to partner across racial and ethnic lines where you live? Martin Luther King, Jr. often observed that “eleven o’clock Sunday morning is the most segregated hour and Sunday school is still the most segregated school of the week.” If your congregation is virtually entirely of one race, is your church leadership doing anything about that?

As Christians we must continue to acknowledge that Christians sometimes were on the wrong side of race conflicts; that some Christians twisted scripture to support their own personal racist beliefs; and that some of those wounds are still painful to brothers and sisters and neighbors. And yet, Christianity provides an extraordinary—indeed a supernatural—means of reconciling the races, and unifying people in our communities. In the Bible we are repeatedly instructed that the arbitrary social groups of society are supposed to be set aside in the church, where

There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free man, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus. (Gal 3:28)

do not hold your faith in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ with an attitude of personal favoritism. (James 2:1)

For by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body, whether Jews or Greeks, whether slaves or free, and we were all made to drink of one Spirit. (1 Cor 12:13)

Therefore I, the prisoner of the Lord, implore you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling with which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, showing tolerance for one another in love, being diligent to preserve the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit, just as also you were called in one hope of your calling; one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all who is over all and through all and in all. (Eph 4:1-6)

Instead of being angry or looking on in disbelief, pray for peace, walk humbly, and strive for understanding and peace in your own communities.

[1] I use the terms African-American and black interchangeably here. I also use the term race (and variants) to refer to different groups even though I believe there is only one race—the human race—with different ethnicities and skin tones.

Why I am Convinced God Exists: Introduction

Michael Angelo's Creation of Adam (Source: Wikimedia.org)

Michael Angelo’s Creation of Adam (Source: Wikimedia.org)

In the spring of 2013, I set out on an intellectual journey. I realized that I hadn’t ever really engaged with the question of God’s existence for myself. Oh, I had learned a few arguments about God’s existence, but I hadn’t wrestled with the question on my own terms, to see if it really is rational and reasonable for me to believe it.

I had to bring my own mind to bear on the problem for a couple of reasons. First, as a reasonably intelligent person and a trained social scientist, I believed that I possessed a mind capable of addressing the question. Second, as a Christian who takes the Bible text seriously, I had to be obedient to key principles contained in scripture. One was Jesus’ own words, paraphrasing the ancient Hebrew pillars of The Law:

And he answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.” (Luke 10:27, NAS; see also Matthew 22:37 and Mark 12:30)

I knew that Jesus had added “all your mind” to the Hebrew text (compare, for example, Deuteronomy 6:5, 10:12, and 13:3), so I reasoned that by saying love God with my mind he probably meant something like, “Apply the intellectual processes and capabilities of your mind for the purpose of loving God.” And while I had long been a student of The Book (that is, The Holy Bible), this wasn’t a topic on which I had focused. Another principal is embodied in the verse,

sanctify Christ as Lord in your hearts, always being ready to make a defense [an argument or explanation] to everyone who asks you to give an account for the hope that is in you, yet with gentleness and reverence (1 Peter 3:15)

The context for this instruction is the Christian’s likelihood of having to endure suffering and intimidation for the sake of the gospel. As a Christian, then, I had to have arguments and explanations at hand that would enable me to take a stand and defend my own beliefs. Moreover, I’m instructed to do this with gentleness and reverence. I don’t know about you, but I am least likely to be gentle when I feel the least confident in my own abilities and information; when I am simply regurgitating other people’s beliefs and opinions that I agree with, and I get a serious challenge, I tend to react out of frustration and with sarcasm. So I found that I had to get to a place intellectually where I personally owned the argument for myself, and could communicate it to others with a good attitude. Even if some discussion partners would resort to intimidation, my conscience had to be clear (1 Peter 3:13-16).

Now, eighteen months later, I can confidently give an answer to the question of God’s existence that reflects my own careful thinking and evaluation of different perspectives. I’ve looked at Christian, atheist, Buddhist and Hindu (among others) answers to difficult questions, and used some basic logic and my professional training in research methods and causal logic. I make no grand claims to be a physicist, logician, molecular biologist, geologist, philosopher, or theologian. I’m just a reasonably intelligent guy thinking systematically about one of the most important questions with which humanity has to deal.

I acknowledge that the way I tend to approach the questions had to have been influenced by some of the apologetics to which I had already been exposed prior to this journey, and so I already know that there are critiques of every argument and line of reasoning that make sense to me, and I’m okay with that. But here’s the thing: No one person has sufficient knowledge and expertise about every field and subfield that are relevant to this conversation. We all have knowledge and explanatory gaps in which we defer to trusted experts, and I’m no different.

How much information is enough?

As a political science professor I study people’s voting decisions—that is, why they prefer one candidate over another and why they do (or do not) vote. While I might think people ought to gather complete and perfect information about candidates, policy differences and their impacts, I now know empirically that no one does this. People simply acquire enough information to make a choice: sometimes it is given to them, sometimes they happen upon it accidentally, and sometimes they intentionally seek it out.[1] Importantly, almost no citizen does independent original research about candidates and policies. Almost everyone relies upon experts and other trustworthy compilers of information from which they obtain their needed information. Some people acquire pure propaganda, others try to find relatively “objective” sources, while others rely on heuristics (information shortcuts) that enable them to make a quick judgment that has a good chance of being accurate.[2]

My process, therefore, was not to develop my own professional expertise, research agenda, or even a deep familiarity with the original professional academic research in any of these areas. Rather, I did my best to evaluate other people’s work while also thinking systematically through my own ideas and considering in broad strokes the alternatives. And that has to be enough. (Even if I wanted to acquire professional expertise in some of these fascinating areas, I already have a full-time job and my lovely bride has said she is not going to put me through graduate school again!)

Why Even Bother?

Finally, what did I actually hope to accomplish in this process? First, for myself, I wanted to think systematically about whether God exists, because that piece of information has consequences for many other areas of my life—especially how I treat other people. Second, I wanted to be able to evaluate whether a rational, thinking person can come to a reasonable, logical and coherent conclusion that conforms with reality as we know it. To put it another way, can an intelligent, thoughtful person come to an informed coherent conclusion about whether God exists and answer “Yes”?

If, after thinking intelligently and critically I could come to the conclusion that God exists (or least probably exists), then I no longer have to feel insecure or threatened by skeptics who say theists are stupid, ignorant, and irrational. (The list of highly intelligent people who believed in the God of Christianity is long and impressive, and includes Galileo, Thomas More, Isaac Newton, Louis Pasteur, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, George Washington Carver, C.S. Lewis, Chuck Colson, and Francis Collins.) Finally, I wanted to be able to lay out a reasonable case for my conclusions that will hopefully make sense to someone who believes that God doesn’t exist or that is wondering if it’s even rational to do so.

In short, my goal is to describe my journey–what arguments and evidence make the most sense to me. I hope you’ll join me, and find my reasoning…well…reasonable. If you are a current believer in the God of the Bible, I hope you are challenged to undertake this exercise on your own. If you are a current non-believer in God, I hope you will at least find my conclusions reasonable, even if you don’t end up agreeing with me.

The Question I Should Have Been Able to Answer

In 2013 I had a Facebook conversation with an atheist in which I was challenged with a question that, as a long-time Christian, I should have been able to answer. But I couldn’t put together a quick response—that is, I was not prepared to give a defense for the hope that is in me. The simple question was, “What has convinced you that God exists?”

What is Faith?

It was hard to answer because I have always believed that God exists. Even in the years when I rejected the Christian faith, I knew in my heart that God existed. I rejected Christianity in that season of my life not out of rationality but simply out of a desire to live my life as if He didn’t. So I had some homework to do, because I knew enough that if I answered, “I just have always known,” or “by faith,” my answer would be unsatisfactory even to me because faith is not really about how we know things. Rather, faith is the result of experiences and information that give us confidence regarding things for which we don’t have experiences and information. Let me give you a couple of examples.

I have faith in my wife’s marital fidelity, that she would not commit adultery. What does “have faith” mean? Does it mean that I just know in my heart that she will not commit adultery? How do I know she won’t? Well, I just know! Isn’t that goofy? I didn’t just meet her and decide she would be faithful to our marriage vows. No, I spent a lot of time getting to know her, watching her behavior, evaluating her character, and talking with her about what marriage means. I thus came to the conclusion that she would not commit adultery in future unknown situations because her character and behavior had given me credible information (from her past) that supported the conclusion.

I will be getting on an airplane to travel to New Orleans this January. I have faith that the plane will get me there. What does that mean? Do I just know that 200,000 pounds of metal will successfully levitate to 30,000 feet above the earth and descend safely a couple of hours later? On what basis would any reasonable person think such a thing? Here is how: I understand that there is a law of gravity and that with an aerodynamic design and a sufficient amount of forward motion, even a 200,000 hunk of metal can be held aloft in a controlled way. I don’t personally understand all of the physics of the thing, but I know that other people do and have designed airplanes to leverage those physical laws in order to make planes work reliably. Moreover, I know a lot of people who have flown on planes, and they testify that it works. Even better, I have personal experience flying; in fact I have flown the Chicago to New Orleans route a couple of times, and made it! Thus I have faith—that is, I trust that even though I don’t understand it all, the physics of flying has a successful track record and works reliably—that the plane I board in Chicago next January will successfully fly me to New Orleans, even though I haven’t taken the flight yet.

To return to the point, saying that I believe that God exists by faith doesn’t mean I just know He exists without or despite any corroborating reasons or evidence. Faith means, as it does in every other situation in which people use the word, a reliance on past evidence, arguments, testimony and experiences that leads me to a conclusion that I can leverage for future situations about which I don’t have information, until I gain better understanding or get to the future. (From a Christian perspective, this is what the meaning of faith is in Hebrews chapter 11.) I develop trust with regard to the unknown future based on the known past; if the known past gives me enough information to trust in the future, it also could give me confidence that explanations exist for things I don’t understand no matter when they occurred.

Obviously, this means that I disagree with the new atheist definition of faith as “belief without proof” or “pretending to know things I don’t know.”[3] I don’t know how planes work and I’m not a psychic, but I know they have worked pretty reliably in the past. I don’t know for sure that every plane will always fly safely, but, on balance, I have faith that in the future planes will generally work as designed. Thus, even though I don’t know a lot else about the future, my belief in future planes working is based on the past evidence, or proof, that planes can and do work.

How would I know?

With all that said, for my own curiosity’s sake I wanted to be really specific and thoughtful and carefully evaluate the evidence, arguments and experiences that lead me to conclude God exists. And, to be completely honest, I simply had never done any real mental work to really understand why I really believed that God really exists. I had even memorized and taught some basic apologetic arguments for God’s existence, but I had never really wrestled with the problem itself, for myself.

As a political scientist, before I collect or analyze data I have to think about the appropriate research methods that are appropriate for finding an answer to a question. For example, if I want to understand presidential decision making in foreign policy, I wouldn’t use a survey of the American public, I would interview the small number of people who have actually observed presidents working through foreign policy decisions.

Thus, regarding the question of God’s existence I had to ask: What evidence or arguments (or both) are even appropriate to address the question of whether God exists? This got me thinking about the standards of evidence that people normally use for making decisions, and that scientists normally use for drawing conclusions about whether a statement or hypothesis has support. The next part of my analysis thus briefly discusses these standards, much of which are familiar to most people.

Then I address different questions that seem to me to be central to the question of how I would know whether God exists. First, what are the possible answers to the question Does God Exist? Second, in what possible kind of reality could God exist? Is it likely that such a kind of reality does exist? Third, what about things I know exist—where did everything come from? Where did I (as a member of humanity) come from? This is the question of origins. Fourth, what about the problem of evil—why do I (along with most humans and cultures) have a nagging feeling—an intuition—that evil is real? And if evil is real, how do I know? And where did it come from? And why do humans have such an overwhelming sense that it matters?

My Conclusion: God Exists

Here is the basic outline of my conclusions. I will share my more detailed thinking on each point as we move forward. Let me say that these statements might sound a bit weird to my Christian friends; the statements might even sound like I’m hedging my bets. But this is how I’m getting to my conclusion without starting with the assumption that God exists.

  1. A force or being or entity that I will call “God” either exists or doesn’t exist, so there is only one true answer to the question.
  2. Logic and evidence lead me to conclude that an immaterial/ spiritual realm almost certainly exists apart from material reality. Additionally, the two realms probably interact with each other. Thus, there is almost certainly a realm in which an immaterial God could exist, and an immaterial God could interact with material reality.
  3. Evidence and logic lead me to conclude that the material realm almost certainly had an originating point in time and a source external to itself. Additionally, there is no evidence that life could have originated from non-living matter alone. The force that produced material reality and life must be greater than material reality and the living beings within it. It must be powerful enough to bring every material thing into existence and to impart life into nonliving matter.
  4. Evidence and logic lead me to conclude that Evil is real; therefore Good is real. The intuition of good and evil, and the concepts themselves must have a source. It’s quite plausible (though I’m not sure that it’s necessary) that the source exists outside the people or cultures that make nearly universal moral judgments about certain actions or events.

All told, I conclude that it is entirely plausible, if not highly probable, that God exists. In fact, because either God exists or doesn’t exist, the preponderance of the evidence points to God existing rather than not existing. Thus, based on the evidence and logic, I conclude that God exists. This doesn’t quite get me to the God of The Bible, but at least I conclude that God is a highly reasonable and intelligent being, external to the material world, powerful enough to create material reality and life itself, and imbue mankind with an inherent sense of good and evil.

In the next section I will lay out my underlying assumptions in pursuing answers to my questions, as well as addressing the question of the standards of proof for or against God’s existence.

Next: How Could I Know Whether God Exists? My Assumptions


[1] See, for example, Anthony Downs, An Economic Theory of Democracy (Addison-Wesley-Longman, 1957); Samuel Popkin, The Reasoning Voter (University of Chicago Press, 1991); Herbert Simon, “A Behavioral Model of Rational Choice,” in Models of Man, Social and Rational: Mathematical Essays on Rational Human Behavior in a Social Setting (Wiley, 1957).

[2] Party identification is such a heuristic. A Republican who knows only that one candidate is Republican and the other is a Democrat can make a pretty accurate prediction that on most issues, on balance, the Republican candidate will agree with her, and the Democrat will disagree with her. And she will be right.

[3] Boghossian, Peter. 2013. A Manual for Creating Atheists, chapter 2.