Gospel Gardening: Ferguson and Beyond


Gospel Gardening: Ferguson and Beyond

Gardening(1)

Something is wrong with our garden. God cares about it. We should too.

There are weeds preventing water from reaching the soil. There are plants suffering drought. There are areas where soil nutrients are being overtaxed. Recent events are a reminder that our garden in America is unhealthy and is in desperate need of maintenance; specifically when we look at the powder keg that is race in America.

A few examples: The shooting fatality of Mike Brown in Ferguson. The choking fatality of Eric Garner in Staten Island, NY. The shooting fatality of John Crawford III in a southwestern Ohio Walmart. The shooting fatality of Ezell Ford in Los Angeles. The shooting fatality of Darrien Hunt outside of Salt Lake City, Utah. All unarmed African Americans killed while being arrested or in custody.

There are also certainly huge issues within the African American community. High absentee father rates, high incarceration rates, and high recidivism rates remind us that there are significant issues without clear answers. But one thing is clear, regardless of what side of these issues you’re on.

Something is wrong with our garden. God cares about it. We should too. 

Sadly, some of us know this and are apathetic and uncaring. Others of us don’t know that we should care. Within American evangelicalism, both groups route their apathy and/or ignorance in hollowed out churchy platitudes like “Racism is bad, but sin is the real problem” or “Racism will never end until Jesus returns). Platitudes like these, even if true, provide convenient ways to ignore the holistic mission of God in all the world to which He has called his people.

We are created to be Gospel Gardeners

Part of the reason I think we (including myself) can become apathetic or ignorant on issues of systemic injustice is because of how we are likely to answer this question: “What is the oldest job in the world?” If your answer is “Prostitution”, you’d be wrong. (Thanks a lot Rudyard Kipling!)

We learn what the first vocation given by God actually is in Genesis 2:15,

“The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to work it and keep it”.

The first job given to Adam was two-fold: To work it (Hebrew word ‘abad’ meaning to tend, prepare and cultivate) and to keep it (Hebrew word ‘shamar’ meaning to preserve or guard it).

The garden was the place where God created man to dwell. We were created to cultivate and protect the garden. We were created to be Gardener-Guardians. Although Adam and Eve were kicked out of the original garden, our garden is wherever God’s people are. God always expected his image bearers to tend the garden. We see this in the OT:

Zechariah 7:9-19 “Thus says the Lord of hosts, render true judgments, show kindness and mercy to one another. Do not oppress the widow, the fatherless, the sojourner, or the poor, and let none of you devise evil against one another in your heart.”

Psalm 82:3-4 “Give justice to the weak and the fatherless; maintain the right of the afflicted and the destitute. Rescue the weak and the needy; deliver them from the hand of the wicked.”

Micah 6:8 “He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but you do justice, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God?”

God has called us to always care about the garden. This includes both individual sin issues, as well as systemic injustices. Sadly, we usually emphasize one at the expense of the other. And in the case of American evangelicalism, we avoid the issue of systemic racism and injustice by emphasizing individual sin exclusively.

On the Sunday after the Travon Martin/George Zimmerman decision, or the Sunday after Mike Brown’s death, many majority culture, predominately white churches were largely silent. Church went on like usual. Conversely, many ethnic minority churches were heavily conversant on that Sunday morning. For those churches, Sunday was a day of heart wrenching mourning.

God shows us that caring for the garden means we mourn with those who are mourning. We don’t have to necessarily agree on the reason for their mourning. We still mourn with them because they mourn. This is how community in the garden is supposed to work.

Something is wrong with our garden. God cares about it. We should too.

We struggle with caring because we are beholden to an abrogated and truncated gospel.

We fail to do justice because we don’t understand it. It’s been hijacked politically. Regardless of your political flavor, you have an understanding of justice that likely isn’t God’s definition. Justice in scripture means to make things right. It means fulfilling mutual obligation.

When justice is mentioned in scripture, you normally see these words close by: widow, fatherless, poor, hungry, stranger/immigrant, needy, weak and oppressed. This means we don’t turn a blind eye and/or a deaf ear to those who are unjustly affected by a broken system.

It’s why I don’t believe believers (gospel gardeners) should avoid the news. A lot of us avoid the news because it’s so “negative” and “sad” and it gets us down. This isn’t only because we can be apathetic or callous. For many of us, injustice can be so overwhelming because of the sheer enormity of the issues. We can’t begin to think about how we could ever fix the problems, so why expend emotional and intellectual capital on it? I believe this is the subtle way that, as American evangelicals,  we anesthetize ourselves from mourning injustice. In so doing, we grieve the heart of God.

Something is wrong with our garden. God cares about it. We should too. 

We mourn the ways in which the garden doesn’t work. God hates injustice! He hates when people use power and privilege for exploitation and not human flourishing.

If righteousness means making things right within, then justice means being made right without! This means that, to quote Jim Wallis, “Your faith may be personal, but it is never private”. God’s mission isn’t just to redeem broken people, but to redeem broken systems. We are called into a relationship with Christ in which we are changed and re-oriented to use our passions, talents, gifting and vocation to advocate for human flourishing.

So how should Christians respond?

As an African American pastor of a new multi-cultural church plant in Atlanta, I don’t have the luxury of ignoring the ways in which the garden doesn’t allow for people to flourish. I can’t avoid the fact that there are at least two different perspectives of law enforcement in my own household. My wife (who is White and grew up in an upper middle class white suburb of Chicago) had an experience with police officers quite opposite from me (a Black man who grew up in Detroit). We both have experienced being pulled over and although she was driving, the first question the white police officer would ask is “Ma’am, are you ok???” as if to imply that this woman had to have been with me against her will.

Don’t get me wrong. I also have family members and friends that are exemplary police officers. The issue isn’t about how great or horrible cops are. Beyond anecdotes, the point is that we have a huge challenge to cultivate and protect our garden. How do we do this?

Well, a good gardener always looks for the things that may inhibit the garden’s flourishing.

  1. Listen, Learn and Locate: This means we look for weeds. We learn the reasons weeds exist. This means being slow to speak and being quick to listen to others’ accounts of how the garden doesn’t work well for them. This means we don’t use our experience as the litmus test for whether or not their experience is legitimate. We listen and learn. What does law enforcement look like in our garden? What does access to good education look like? What does access to good jobs look like? What do family structures and dynamics look like? What systems are in place that unfairly and unintentionally benefit some and harm others?
  1. We Engage: This means we engage in prompt weed removal to prevent more weeds from becoming established. This keeps weeds from robbing moisture and nutrients from other plants. This also keeps from allowing a haven for pests and disease to exist. When we see injustice, we become burdened and we act. Whether it’s predatory lending, or exploitative check cashing businesses, we work to end their existence. Even if we do it imperfectly, we still image God well when we do.
  1. Monitor: We look for symptoms of disease or pest problems regularly. Individual sin is definitely at play in all forms of injustice. That’s not going to be eradicated on this side of eternity. This means we expect to see systemic injustice arise in myriad forms. We need to keep a watchful eye as we guard the garden.
  1. Expect: While injustice won’t be eradicated completely, we can see signs of hope. The beauty of our hope being rooted in the resurrection, is that we have a new life and new creation to look forward to. But this doesn’t mean we hide in our prayer closets in our bubbles and wait for Jesus to rescue us. Saying “racism will always be here so it’s silly to rail against it” ignores the holistic gospel mission of God.The reason the Lord’s prayer includes “Your kingdom come, your will be done in Earth as it is in heaven” is because in caring for the garden, we become signposts for the kingdom that is coming. We give a picture of what perfect community looks like in Revelation 7:9-10 “After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, and crying out with a loud voice, “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!”

Mike Brown’s death is bigger than whether or not he “deserved” it, or whether or not he “brought it on himself”. I’m not sure if we’ll ever truly know that. What we do know is that this forces a larger courageous conversation that needs to be had by American Evangelicals. A conversation guided by this question, “How is our garden doing? Any other response, whether it’s looting or ignorant passivity is at best lazy, and at worst blatant disregard for the heart of God.

Something is wrong with our garden. God cares about it. We should too. 

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6 thoughts on “Gospel Gardening: Ferguson and Beyond

  1. Darryl, I have been looking for a chance to call you and talk about this. I knew you would have some great insight and wisdom and share it in a way that honored God and promoted the Gospel. Thank you for such great words. Of course we still need to grab a phone call and some time together.

  2. Hey there DF, great comments. Unfortunately, we can now add Tamir Rice to the list of incidents. Thinking of your point to Engage, I wonder if there is a way to facilitate discussion with police in our local community. Town hall-type discussions maybe? Maybe with some sort of mediation? I worry that everyone is just going to keep talking amongst themselves to the people they already agree with, thus making it hard to change anything.

  3. Great stuff brother! I finally got a chance to read this. It would be good to explore what this “gardening” looks like a place that is predominately African American in it’s leadership and population such as Gary or Detroit. I see looting and passivity at play in my location.

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