, , , , ,

I celebrated my 32nd birthday on this Thursday and what I decided to do was to watch a very long documentary called OJ: Made in America by Ezra Edelman. This was an extraordinary and sobering documentary. For full disclosure, I did not watch this documentary because I was a fan of O.J. Simpson the football player; I knew that he was a Hall of Fame football player, but his playing days were over far before I was born. I watched this documentary so that I could get more detailed insight into the so-called “Crime of the Century”. I wanted to know more about the history of race relations in L.A. and the cultural backdrop that led up to the famous case. I was about 10 years old when this case occurred so I didn’t remember much about the case. However, what I did remember was the reaction from all sorts of individuals when the verdict was announced. For some adults that I knew, there was unrestrained jubilation, while for others, there was restrained anger and disappointment. (For those who care about the OJ Simpson case itself, I would advise that you see Part 3 and Part 4 of the documentary).

Response from Michael Wilbon

After viewing the documentary, I read two articles from African-American journalists concerning their commentary of the case. In the article entitled O.J. was the Lesser of Two Evils, Michael Wilbon reflects on his personal interactions with O.J when he was a young journalist. Many people who are in my age group probably have forgotten how well-respected and well-liked O.J. was. During his younger years, Wilbon recalls

In 35 years of covering sports and intersecting with some of the most famous men and women on the planet, nobody has been any better company, more engaging, a better storyteller or more accommodating than Simpson. The O.J. that Ezra Edelman so brilliantly captures early on in O.J.: Made in America.

In discussing the case, Wilbon gives the perspective of many African-Americans over an older generation:

It wasn’t like black folks, particularly of a certain age, didn’t know what and who Simpson was (or who he wasn’t). It’s just that we also knew what the Los Angeles Police Department was, who Marcia Clark was, who Mark Fuhrman was.

Now, as then, white friends and colleagues reacted with horror when they perceived we were “rooting for O.J.”

Why are you rooting for him to escape the police? Why are you cheering his acquittal when there was so much evidence against him?

Why? Because there has been overwhelming evidence against white murderers and rapists for 400 years. and when black victims got no justice, there was usually zero national outrage. To quote Malcolm X, perhaps the chickens had come home to roost. Turnabout brought some teeny-tiny measure of a sense of universal justice, if not justice in our legal system.

Now, it’s important to note that Michael Wilbon is an experienced journalist, which means that he has chosen his words carefully. Note that there is an implication that the verdict satisfied “a sense of universal justice”. This was not the opinion only of Wilbon, but it was also the opinion of numerous Black leaders during the time of the trial. Some have stated that O.J.’s verdict was a direct payback for the Rodney King verdict.

In reflecting on the trial, Wilbon comes to the following conclusions:

What Made in America has done, in my case, is hardened my original positions. It has nothing to do with whether I believe Simpson committed the murders (I do). But the fact that [Marcia] Clark [the head prosecutor in the O.J. case] arrogantly presumed that she would connect with black female jurors – as if she was Oprah – only to find out the black female jurors hated her. The fact that she and Bill Hodgman [the third prosecutor of the O.J. case] are still essentially lamenting on camera that they were unable to rig an all-or mostly-white jury enables anybody who looks closely to see their true colors. Clark isn’t as loathsome as [Mark] Fuhrman, who is nearly as dangerous now as he was then. He proclaims on camera “They found a flaw in me,” as if his racist policing was merely a flaw.

Black folks I know who actively disliked Simpson because of his declared “racelessness,” had little trouble choosing sides. Simpson versus the prosecution – which was both arrogant and, relative to the defense, incompetent – was a no-brainer. It’s even more fascinating now, more than 20 years later, than it was then.

Response of Eugene Kane

In the article Cheering for O.J. Wasn’t My Most Shining Moment, Eugene Kane presents a stark contrast to Michael Wilbon. Kane begins his article with an honest admission:

Yes, I rooted for O.J. Chances are, you did, too. It probably wasn’t your most shining moment. It certainly wasn’t mine.

Whereas Wilbon’s article reads like a vindication of his original position, Kane’s article reads more like a confession of guilt after 20 years of reflection. I will let Eugene Kane speak in his own words:

Over the years, I’ve occasionally felt guilty about abandoning my initial conviction that Simpson was a murderer who somehow escaped being held accountable for his heinous crimes out of a surreal sort of reverse political correctness. I even briefly assumed the default position that my immediate euphoria about Simpson’s acquittal was the residue of centuries of so many black men convicted and even sentenced to death for much lesser crimes, including their fraternization with white women

I’ve never spent much time grieving about the death of Nicole Brown Simpson or Ron Goldman. To do so would have been inauthentic. But in my quiet moments, I knew I should have cared more about the deaths of two innocent souls. I knew no past injustices were being made right and the racists in the L.A. police department would remain just as racist even as Simpson went free. I knew it wasn’t a civil rights case by any stretch of imagination. It was a straight-up case of vengeful murder by an egomaniac who believed he could get away with it.

Like so many, my reaction came because I had been blinded by the manipulation of facts by a masterful African-American attorney and infected with a relentless groupthink victim mentality that allowed us to get swept up in an emotional tsunami against our better, more reasonable judgments. My brief surge of euphoria was short-lived. I remember feeling drained that day, spiritually and physically and embarrassed, unwilling to join in the celebrations and high-fives even while cautiously allowing that yes, the verdict seemed just to me. You know: to us.

So many years later, I know now that having the courage of your convictions is a moral test of character that should hold true even in the midst of a swirling storm. It’s as stark as being set adrift in a life raft and having to decide who lives and who dies based on nothing other than righteousness. I failed that test when I rooted for Simpson’s acquittal. I suspect many of you did, too. May God forgive us and have mercy on our souls.

Questions for Self-Reflection

Having summarized the articles, I want to ask several questions in self-reflection.

It’s important to note that both journalists agree that O.J. was responsible for the murder. It’s also important to note that after 20 years of reflection, black and white Americans generally agree on O.J. Simpson’s guilt. That being said, which article do you most identify with today? Which article do you think best represents a Christian response?

For those who cheered the verdict initially, has your position changed (like Eugene Kane) or has your original position been hardened (like Michael Wilbon)? In retrospect, are you ashamed of your response today and if so, is it a cause for repentance?

For those who cheered the verdict initially, is it a valid Christian perspective to ignore one injustice because numerous past injustices have occurred? Is this a biblical view of justice?

For those who were mortified by the verdict initially, were you aware of the equally substantial evidence of corruption within the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD)? If so, were you unaffected by it? In retrospect, are you ashamed of your response to this corruption today, and if so, is it a cause for repentance?

An Application for Racial Reconciliation

These initial questions now set the groundwork for the reoccurring discussions within the broader Reformed and evangelical community concerning racial reconciliation. There has been much discussion, writing, and disagreement concerning this topic over the past few years, especially after the deaths of Trayvon Martin, Eric Courtney Harris, Walter Scott, Eric Garner, Freddie Gray, Sandra Bland, and, most recently, the Emanuel Nine. The impression that I’ve gotten (as a Black man) is that the onus is on white evangelicals to address the problem of racial reconciliation because of the historical record of white evangelicals during the Jim Crow era. However, when I think of the concept of reconciliation, I think of two parties who are in enmity with each other, not one party who is hostile towards another friendly party. So this leads to my next question: Is racial reconciliation a two-way street?

The O.J. Simpson case serves as a great case study example because it not only revealed the differences in perception between black and white Americans; it also revealed the general animosity between both groups historically. Unfortunately, it also demonstrates that the response from Christians is pretty much the same as the response from the unbelieving world. With regards to racial reconciliation, my question is whether or not Black evangelicals are acting hypocritically in this discussion. Can we honestly say that there are no prejudiced and bigoted views that Black evangelicals have of “white people”? Asked in another way, are we applying equal standards in the racial reconciliation discussion? Or do we assume that the “majority culture” bears the brunt of the responsibility?

For example, we have been told from numerous Black evangelicals that we should weep for the families of Trayvon Martin and Tamir Rice. I agree with this sentiment; however, is the same standard applied when black police officers kill white youths from Black evangelical pastors? In relation to the O.J. case, where was the mass call for mourning over the death of Nicole Brown and Ron Goldman from Black evangelical pastors? Where are the current calls of repentance regarding this matter?

Moreover, we were told that the callousness of white evangelicals regarding the Trayvon Martin and the Tamir Rice cases indicate an insincerity concerning matters of justice. I agree with this sentiment; however, is this same standard applied towards Black evangelical pastors?

Moreover, we are told that white evangelicals need to couple the preaching of the gospel with action towards to the poor, the oppressed, the marginalized and the mistreated (usually in reference to African-Americans). Again, I agree with this sentiment; however, is this same standard applied towards Black evangelical pastors in regards to poor, oppressed, marginalized, and mistreated white Americans?

These are just some questions to ponder and consider whenever we talk about racial reconciliation.