How Jesus saves through Michael Brown and Eric Garner

How Jesus saves through Michael Brown and Eric Garner December 5, 2014

i cant breatheOne thing that I never tire of pondering as a Christian is how Jesus’ cross saves me and what it saves me from. Growing up evangelical, the answer was simple: Jesus took the punishment for my sin to save me from an angry, perfectionist God who wanted to burn me in hell forever. But this explanation looks nothing like the salvation that takes place in response to Peter’s first sermon about Jesus’ cross in Acts 2. Peter says nothing whatsoever about hell. So what does he say that people need to be saved from? He tells the crowd, “Save yourself from this corrupt generation” (v. 40). And how does the cross accomplish this salvation for Peter? It causes his hearers to be “cut to the heart” (v. 37) after Peter tells the crowd that they killed their messiah. They are saved not by being legally exonerated in some abstract heavenly courtroom, but by having their hearts mortally wounded by their implication in the murder of their king. In other words, Jesus’ cross saves them by unmasking their sin and putting it on public display in the ugliness of his brutal death. None of the modern formulaic Romans Road “four spiritual laws” account of salvation was part of the experience of the original three thousand converts to the Christian faith. Since we are two thousand years removed from Jesus’ crucifixion, it’s an abstraction to associate our sin directly with Jesus’ cross, so we cannot be saved in the same manner as the first 3000 Christians, unless we recognize that our sin continues to crucify Jesus in places like Ferguson, Missouri and Staten Island, New York in the murders of Michael Brown and Eric Garner.

There are three places in Acts where the phrase “cut to the heart” is used. In Acts 2:37, the crowd that is “cut to the heart” by Peter responds with abject humility, saying “Brothers, what should we do?” So Peter baptizes them and they become the original Jerusalem church. In this first case, being “cut to the heart” results in repentance. But in Acts 5:33 and 7:54, the Sanhedrin council of religious authorities are “cut to the heart” in a very different way by the testimony of Peter and Stephen respectively (the phrase in Greek is dieprionto tais kardiais, which should be translated literally “cut to the heart” as it is in the King James Bible even though the NRSV translation paraphrases it as “enraged”). The cutting of the Sanhedrin’s hearts has the opposite result from the crowd that was saved by Peter’s sermon. They are hardened into rage instead of being broken into repentance. In Peter’s case in Acts 5, his life is spared by Gamaliel who warns his fellow religious authorities that they might be fighting against God if they kill Peter. In Stephen’s case in Acts 7, he is taken out and stoned to death. When people are “cut to the heart” by the recognition that they have blood on their hands, they either respond with remorseful surrender or angry defensiveness.

So “cut to the heart” can have two opposite results. Kind of like how there are two opposite ways to respond to the naked injustice that has been put on display by the crucified bodies of Michael Brown and Eric Garner. The more that the river of blood from dead black bodies makes it impossible to say that we don’t live in a racist society anymore, the angrier it makes white people who resent being cut to the heart by the conviction of the core defining sin of American society whose existence they adamantly refuse to recognize. Meanwhile other white people see this injustice and are put to shame by it, which becomes the means of their salvation from “this corrupt generation” in which racism is alive and well.

What if the deaths of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, John Crawford, and all the other black men who die every 28 hours at the hands of police are the means by which Jesus is separating the sheep from the goats among his professed followers just like he describes in Matthew 25:31-46? Michael Brown, Eric Garner, and all the rest of these men are not blameless Jesuses anymore than any of the rest of us sinners are, but Jesus makes it very clear that whatever we do to the least of our brothers and sisters, we are doing to him. How we react to their deaths is a test that reveals whether we are sheep or goats. Which way will our hearts be cut? Will we be offended when people talk about racism and say that they’re being divisive and promoting violence? Or will we be like the crowd that got saved because they asked Peter and the apostles, “Brothers, what should we do?” How many white people in our country right now are willing to say to our brothers and sisters of color, “What should we do?” with complete sincerity and radical submission, willing to listen closely and obey, whatever the answer is.

I don’t think that you get to consider yourself “saved” by your belief that Jesus died for your sins if you are not also cut to the heart by the ways that you participate in Jesus’ crucifixion in the world today. It’s ludicrous to say that Jesus died for your sins if you’re unwilling to admit that you have crucified Jesus, you who have always minded your own business, you who say you’re a sinner just because it’s theologically correct even though you would draw a blank if asked to name your most recent sins, you who have a couple of black friends, you who resent being blamed for your ancestor’s mistakes that should be buried and forgotten with the past. You yourself have crucified Jesus and his black brothers and sisters just like I have.

Peter said to that crowd of three thousand in Acts 2:36, “Therefore let the entire house of Israel know with certainty that God has made him both Lord and Messiah, this Jesus whom you crucified.” He said to the crowd, You did this! Even though no one in that crowd literally drove the nails into Jesus’ flesh. Nor is it likely that any of them were directly part of the Sanhedrin council that condemned Jesus to die, because of the clear contempt with which this same Sanhedrin reacted to Peter and James in Acts 5:33 and 7:54. Some of Peter’s crowd may have been part of the mob in the street that yelled, “Crucify him!” Or perhaps they were oblivious bystanders who refused to stand in the way of this clearly demonic injustice that was occurring. But all of them owned Jesus’ murder as their own sin because they understood their sin collectively as the sin of the “entire house of Israel.” Even though each of them could have said very legitimately by our false individualist standards: How dare you accuse me of a crime I had no part in! Peter would never get an indictment from any grand jury today for the claim that he makes in Acts 2:36. He would get laughed out of the courtroom.

I’m sorry to say that I am part of the crowd that continues to yell, “Crucify him!” because my prejudices and fears are part of a national racist discourse that shaped Darren Wilson with such paranoid fearfulness that he literally thought Michael Brown was a demon. I am no different than the elderly couple who saw John Crawford playing with a BB gun in a store outside of Dayton, Ohio, and presumed the worst, causing the hysteria that resulted in his death. Or the cop who thought 12-year old Tamir Rice was twenty years old and opened fire on him within two seconds of arriving on the scene. As I am cut to the heart by seeing the sin of my people unmasked in these naked injustices, Jesus is saving me from the defensive self-justification by which I damn myself to hell. My salvation happens when I recognize that Jesus can’t breathe and I am the one choking him. I still have much repentance left to work through.

It’s impossible to witness these tragedies without being cut to the heart one way or another. So will you be defensive and angry or will you be contrite and penitent? Will you join the crowd who said to Peter, “What should we do?” Or the crowd who took Stephen out and stoned him to death? Jesus is saying, “I can’t breathe.” Will you be convicted and saved or offended and hardened?

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  • One of the tricks to getting people to see the problem is that we keep using the word “racism,” where we should really probably be using the word(s) “bigotry” or “unfair discrimination.”

    Most of the whole “Michael Brown was a thug who assaulted a cop and look at how Those People are rioting, not content with all of their free welfare we give them, what a bunch of animals” crowd honestly don’t think they’re racist. They consciously acknowledge that black people are not genetically inferior to white people; thus, in their minds, they’re not racist.

    What they’re afraid of isn’t so much “black people”; black people who dress in polo shirts and khakis and smile a lot and enunciate their words like white people and walk like they have a stick up their ass are perfectly fine! But black people that dress a certain way, carry themselves a certain way, talk a certain way (let’s call it “urban”) – the way that most young black men dress and carry themselves and talk because that’s popular culture and it’s the environment they grew up in – those are scary.

    Never mind that those young men might be honor students who love Jesus and their mamas and do charity work and have never gotten into trouble in their lives. They can’t be. If they were those things, they’d dress in khakis and polo shirts and walk like they had sticks up their asses and enunciate their words like white folks do! “Maybe if they didn’t dress and act like criminals, we wouldn’t think they were criminals,” they say.

    Of course, this is just as unfair as if I said that anyone who had a pick-up truck and dressed in blue jeans and T-shirts and listened to country music must make crystal meth in the back of the trailers that they must live in, or anyone in a business suit must be a corrupt embezzler who does insider trading and snorts mountains of cocaine on a daily basis. If we started saying that maybe Those People shouldn’t dress that way and we wouldn’t think those things about them, they’d cry “reverse racism!” to the heavens.

  • Rebecca Bec Cranford-Smith

    Yes. Yes. Yes. Thank you.

  • I’m writing (procrastinating) tomorrow’s sermon, and the appointed lectionary text is the oh-so-familiar “Comfort my people, says your God.” We want to identify ourselves with Jerusalem in this text, but are we really? Or are we actually Babylon (at best, Israelites who’ve assimilated into Babylon’s culture), heaping punishments onto God’s people and about to find ourselves on the receiving end of some divine retribution?

    • That’s a very interesting take! Thank you.

      • You’re welcome! Wish I could take credit for it; it’s a train of thought that I picked up from multiple commentators.

        • Well, you know…. great minds think alike. If any idea pops into your head, Snommelp, it prob has been stated elsewhere… Whoever thought that that would be a compliment? Not I, at least at first, when someone else said the same thing about me.

          That is an interesting correlation that you found, I have to admit! That passage does seem to point the finger right at us…

  • Morgan,
    Is there not something particularly unique about who Jesus is that makes it true that we all crucified him? It was our sins which put him on the cross, yes. But this is true of the Son of God, not every human being that ever lived.

    The bible also speaks good news to those who are in Christ – there is now no condemnation for them who believe in Jesus as their Lord. Heaping guilt on white people just by virtue of their being white is, IMO, unnecessary and misses the role of personal responsibility we ALL share. I get the whole “white guilt” thing heaped onto us at Duke. I just don’t believe it anymore, and think Jesus would say to those who keep pointing fingers at their past or their skin color as justification for what they do, “What’s that to you? You, follow me!”

    • Jesus’ cross shows us, among other things, what we have done to the least of his brothers and sisters that we have also done to him. It’s not about heaping guilt onto white people for being white. It’s about recognizing that the presumptions of our hidden white supremacy are part of our “friendship with the world [that] is enmity with God.” Examining ourselves for hidden racism is no less a part of our sanctification than repenting of porn addiction or any other sin.

      • This is what I mean by white guilt: “you who resent being blamed for your ancestor’s mistakes that should be buried and forgotten with the past.”

        I’m not to blame, nor are you, for our ancestor’s mistakes. I am not to blame for being white. Nor are you. And how others perceive that is not my burden, nor yours, to bear.

        Of course we should examine ourselves for hidden racism, as we should all sin. We are not all born racists but sinners – and racism is just one of the many ways the sin of pride expresses itself. Just because a person is white, however, does not mean they are racist, nor should it mean they have to fear their “hidden white supremacy.” And regarding porn addiction, yes, that’s something I needed to repent of. It would be wrong, however, if I said every male must do the same and that they are “hard hearted” if they disagree with me, refusing to be “cut to the heart” for their sin. That might be true for many men, but not for all. Same with racism.

        • Though I see this as a valid point (Ezekiel 18 points out that the person doing the sinning is responsible, that G-d holds us accountable for our own actions, not for the actions of our fathers), isn’t it true that we pick up a lot of our racism from our parents and grandparents? They in turn picked it up from their’s and right on up the tree?

          There is another saying in Sacred Scripture, “iniquity … down to the third and fourth generation” (Exodus 20.5; 34.7). I think this actually has a lot to do with this. We fight racism within our hearts and mind, and yet at the same time, we find it because the seeds has been sown there since childhood.

          What some people have thought about this ancestral guilt is actually our own, passed down from our ancestors through upbringing. Thanks for bringing that up. I learned something new today.

          • No doubt we certainly learn to sin more boldly because of certain influences in our lives. Children raised in racist homes will probably be racist themselves without God changing their hearts. Morgan can correct me if I’m wrong, but I don’t think he limits white guilt to blood relations but is actually saying all white people – whether you grew up in a racist home or not – are guilty and are racist.

            But not all white people are racists, not all cops are bad, and not all black people are criminals. It’s wrong to make broad generalizations or label people as something simply because they are this or that. Isn’t that in and of itself racist? To call all white people racist is racist!

            One day we will stand before the Judge and not one of us will be able to blame our parents for our sins. If I am acting in a racist way its because I’m a sinner and need Jesus to heal me of my prideful vision. It’s not because I’m white, but because I’m human. Mike Brown can certainly, I hope, depend on God’s mercy, but that mercy won’t be contingent upon Mike Brown convincing God that he acted criminally because his great great great grandparents were sold into slavery. We will all answer for our own sins, not the sins of our tribe’s skin color. This should be both liberating and sobering.

          • We are guilty because our country is. We participate and receive benefits from a system that is racist. In that, I do agree. That is why I must be a part of the solution and hold the system accountable. If I turn my eyes away from the evil, or simply deny that I am part of that, then I am in essence allowing it to happen again and again and again.

          • I would argue that the reason you (and I) must alleviate the suffering of others should not be out of guilt but love.

            As a Christian I’m called to love my neighbor – regardless of race. Period. And as a Christian I can say I am not condemned nor will I bear white guilt because someone tells me i am racist because I’m white. There is freedom in Christ, no longer am I defined by being slave or free, white or black, but as a child of God.

          • Yes and that love is what causes me to do what needs to get done.

          • Sometimes though, guilt is a powerful motivator for love. If one truly loves, but does nothing, guilt may actually be the fuel needed to get one out of complacency.

        • All white people are born racist just as all of us are born with the taint of Adam’s sin. I’m not talking about color of skin. I’m talking about our culture. Racism is something we have to be delivered from no differently than we need to be delivered from original sin in general. It is part of the particularity of original sin in our cultural context. We cannot avoid the assumptions about reality that we have inherited culturally. These assumptions cause violence to black people. We have to actively unlearn them. It’s not that we’re trying to be racist; it’s that we have to proactively dig into our assumptions in order to be expunged of racism. I don’t see any reason to deny the specificity of this particular form that the sin of pride takes in white people who have not taken steps to address it in themselves. Defensiveness about racism only seems necessary to me for white people who are trying to justify themselves rather than accepting Christ’s justification.

          • I Disagree, and feel that your calling all white people racists is itself racist and only serves to perpetuate the problem. It’s fine to say we are all human and therefore sinners, but how that plays out in each of us will be different. You may struggle with racism but it doesn’t mean every white person does

  • For what it’s worth, the day after the Ferguson decision I penned some things I hope my black children learn through all of this, Which can be found here:

    I don’t want my kids – white or black – enslaved to the idea that they are either forever guilty for sins they themselves never committed (Lord willing) nor feeling as though they are forever victims and therefore justified in acting sinfully.

  • Billy North


    Thank you for your post it was really interesting on a lot of levels. The way you were able to take a current cultural social issue and weave in atonement theory is brilliant. I’ve not seen that done in quite this way; very unique!

    I have always felt that our view on the atonement is fundamental. You were able to show the implications of that practically on how we live out our faith.

    I hope you explore this theme more in your future writing.



  • Yes. It is true. I have been struggling with the issue of race. I am not KKK and I certainly am not “blatantly aggressive” towards others (at least most of the time, anyway). Still, when I am alone at night, and I see a black man standing on the corner street, I wonder if I am going to be harmed in some way. When I see a Hispanic guy, I wonder how he came into this country (mostly convinced it wasn’t legal). Racism is within me, there is no doubt. This is something I am not proud of.

    I am a product of my own culture. When I first heard stories about Tamir Rice, Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Treyvon Martin and plenty, plenty others… I often thought, what did they DO to get themselves killed. I automatically assumed the police officers (except for the Martin case, where it was a neighborhood watch guy) were acting in the right, that they had to protect themselves, etc, etc. Some of these stories make it much harder to do so.

    Yet, despite all that, even if there were no racism found within me, there is blatant racism found in the system that I participate in. That is the point, isn’t it? What am I doing about it? By not saying or doing anything about this, but turn the other way and hope it goes away, I automatically become part of the problem. I become complacent, no? So, what must be done? What can I do?

    The only way I know how to deal with this problem is to first look within myself. Then, I start talking to people, my neighbors, my coworkers and my parishioners. Educate, inform and enlighten. But it starts with me.

    Thanks for your message Morgan.

    • Yeah the crowd in Jerusalem listening to Peter call them out for Jesus’ death didn’t say #notallwhitepeople. They owned it as their sin because of the collective actions of the “entire house of Israel.”

      • Morgan, I think you are comparing apples and oranges. The new converts in Acts 2 rightly concluded, via the conviction of the Holy Spirit, that their sins put required a sinless man to die in their stead. This is why they were cut to the heart. Every human since can rightly conclude the same thing, and find salvation.

        It is a mistake to make the unique death of Jesus and our participation in it the same as every death that ever happens. Mike Brown was not Jesus. My response to his death need not be, nor should be, the same as my response to Christs death.

        • You’re eisegeting the text Chad. They are cut to the heart by Peter’s word that they crucified their messiah. All that abstract Romans Road modern theology is not part of Acts 2.

          • No, I’m not. Are you really wanting to say that Jesus’ death and our participation in it is not unique to all life and death before or since? You aren’t responsible for Mike Browns death, Morgan, but you are for Christs. Carry the guilt of the former if you like but I fear it only serves to distract us from the latter.

          • You’re obfuscating with this. How you described Acts 2:37 was eisegesis. The reason I am guilty of Jesus’ death as he says in Matthew 25:40 is because I am part of the social order that crucified Mike Brown and continues to trample the least of Jesus’ brethren. I perpetuate this demonic worldliness with both my idolatry and injustice. You seem to be operating with the victimless, solipsistic doctrine of sin of standard conservative evangelicalism in which sin is a demerit with God rather than something which actually causes damage to other people. My sin angers God because of God’s solidarity with the people who are crushed by the injustice created through my idolatry joined together with all the other greedy gluttons in the world. Jesus’ cross is of course unique; it’s the reason that Michael Brown’s death has meaning.

          • “You seem to be operating with the victimless, solipsistic doctrine of sin of standard conservative evangelicalism in which…”

            I have no idea what you mean by this apart from observing your desire to label and pigeon hole me into some group so as to dismiss me. It’s been a long time since I’ve visited your blog but it seems not much has changed. You have a gift with words Morgan, it’s a shame they can’t be more life giving and constructive.

          • The Lord be with you, Chad.

  • Don’t assault cops. Don’t resist arrest.

  • Gregory Nelson

    I work in Ferguson. I live in the white suburb of St. Charles, nearby. People here are confused. People in the First United Methodist Church of St. Charles don’t want to talk about it. We know something is wrong in St. Louis, and Detroit, and New York. In short, we know something is wrong in America. But we just don’t have the faith to talk about it.

    We are the problem. We are the sinners. We are the shooters, the chokers, and so on.

    Where are the black cops choking white men?

    Before communion we always confess. Of all the prayers we pray by rote, moving over the words like mindless automatons, these are our most hypocritical; “I confess that I have not heard the cry of the needy. I have not helped my neighbor.” Sounds nice, but we don’t really mean that, do we?

    I say our faith is still weak, even if we tithe and go to the committee meetings at church. What I mean by that is that we have not been born again.

    We say we have. We call ourselves Christ followers. So easy to say. But what does it cost? You don’t have to give up a thing to say it.

    But you have to surrender your whiteness to be it.

    Isn’t it telling that we call ourselves white? It is the color of innocence, the one thing we are not. We are guilty. But if you don’t know Jesus loves you being guilty is hell on earth.

    We don’t know we are loved. When you know He loves you despite your guilt you don’t care about anything else anymore. You know the death penalty is wrong immediately when you know this love.

    Remember, Missouri is a very active death penalty state. Executions here don’t even make news anymore unless we screw up the poisons and the guy is executed in some more gruesome fashion.

    This state, this nation, is the killer state, the killer nation. We are the problem. We all shot Michael Brown.

    Come Holy Spirit, and fill the hearts of the faithful. Kindle in them the fire of your love so that they may be transformed.

    Let us abandon our claims of whiteness. We are not white! Losing our whiteness is the best thing that can ever happen to us. We don’t have to pretend to be white anymore.

    We can break our hearts of stone because we are still loved by the very one we hung on a tree.

    It changes everything.