As I Was Saying

Brown Bodies, Starbucks, and the Gospel

As I Was Saying is a forum for a variety of perspectives to foster faith-related conversations among our readers with the goal of mutual learning, even in disagreement. Apart from articles written by editorial staff, these perspectives do not necessarily reflect the views of The Banner.

I have been thinking the past few days about the biblical story of Ananias and his wife Sapphira. Their story is a simple and tragic tale, and it begins with a man named Joseph.

Led by the Holy Spirit, Joseph sold a plot of land he owned. In a gospel act of generosity, Joseph gave every cent from the sale of the land to the leaders of the emerging church to use as they deemed fit. The Bible reports that as a consequence of this grace-filled kindness, the community of faith gave Joseph a nickname: Barnabas. The new name meant “encouragement.” For the foreseeable future Joseph would be known as Barny, encouragement personified.

Ananias and Sapphira watched this chapter of Barny’s life unfold. Awestruck, something caught the attention of their heart, and it wasn’t the Holy Spirit’s work in and through Barny. Nor was it the generosity inherent in Barny’s applied gospel living. No, what caught the attention of Ananias and Sapphira was the adulation of the crowd, epitomized in Joseph's new name. So it was that this couple sold a plot of their own land, estimated the minimum donation needed to buy themselves a reputation for Christ-likeness, and then gave that sum to the church. To seal the deal on perceptions of their devotion the couple claimed that their gift was everything that they had received. They let everyone wonder at the way in which they were “all in” for the cause of Christ. But their devotion was a lie. The Bible records that for the sin of lying to the Holy Spirit, Ananias and Sapphira were not rewarded with a new name, a new reputation, or the esteem of others. Instead their duplicity led to death.

The desire of Ananias and Sapphira to appear generous, sacrificial, and gospel-like far outweighed their willingness to do that which is actually generous, sacrificial, and gospel-like.

So what do Ananias and Sapphira have to do with brown bodies, Starbucks, and the gospel?

Recently in Philadelphia two black men were arrested at Starbucks. They hadn’t bought a coffee and were reportedly waiting for a friend to arrive; something many of us have done on more than one occasion. However, in this case their presence was apparently so intolerable and/or fear inducing that the manager called police. The whole incident seems to reek of bigotry, hatred, and ignorance.

The general response to this event has run the gamut of what we have come to expect: protests, calls for boycotts and firings, press releases, promises of implicit bias training, the tsk-tsking of white people sipping lattes, and so on. Consistent in its absence also is any sense from the church that the gospel has anything to say to this moment in time and the myriad of other times people of color are mistreated simply because, well, they exist.

To some, that will sound like hyperbole. But more and more these days it seems that a return to basic gospel propositions is necessary to reawaken our understanding of what it takes to be like Christ. For instance, the gospel asserts that every person of every color bears the image of Almighty God. As such, every human being is entitled to be present, and in their presence be treated with dignity. In fact, for Christ followers it is arguably the case that dignity is wrapped up in the gospel expectation that Christ-followers will deliberately honor the others in our lives. Consequently, two black men should be able to be present together at a Starbucks without any problem. And should it ever happen they were mistreated because of the presence of their black bodies, the church and individual Christ-followers ought to stand firmly front and center, demanding dignity and honor for all.

Thinking through what should happen in Starbucks seems pretty simple. However, consider the gospel implications for each of our own lives. What sorts of demands does the gospel place on us in this moment of racism and the many others that permeate our culture? Surely we are called to muster more than minimal sentiments of shared regret. These feelings only serve to put us in the territory of Ananias and Sapphira—doing the bare minimum to appear spiritually correct.

But what of being Barny? Could he help us in this moment? While the vast majority of police officers strive to serve and protect every citizen, what does it mean to be Barny when some officer pulls over, chokes, shoots and/or targets people of color for what seems to be no other reason than the color of their skin? What does “all in” gospel living demand of the church when a black man is shot 8 times while armed only with a cell phone in his grandmother's backyard? What will it take to awaken the white part of the church to the fact that pushing all for the sake of the gospel isn’t altruism but rather is the expected norm for those who claim to die and rise with Christ?

The story of Ananias and Sapphira unsettles me. Far too many times I think I know the bare minimum required of me to appear just spiritual and concerned enough to be seen by others, and perhaps even gain a reputation for being like Jesus. However, when it comes to matters of race I find that far too often the truth is that I am unwilling to do what it actually takes for the radical, multiplicity celebrating, grace-for-all, inclusive gospel to be lived out. The truth is that I would more often prefer to be known for good and righteous deeds than actually die to myself and do and say the very things that the Gospel demands. And, like Ananias and Sapphira, it is costing lives—both spiritually, and, in the case of black and brown lives, literally.

This story was changed with minor corrections on April 30, 2018 to avoid incorrectly implying a motive to the shooting of a black man in his grandmother's backyard. Further minor revisions were made on May 3, 2018 to improve factual accuracy. 

 

Editor’s Note: With respect to charges in the comments section below by some that the author and we, at the Banner, are perpetuating a false narrative concerning the Starbucks incident, I would like to draw our readers’ attention to the facts as reported by the international news service agency, Reuters: https://www.reuters.com/article/us-philadelphia-starbucks/black-men-arrested-at-starbucks-hope-scandal-sparks-change-idUSKBN1HQ1VI

In that news report, the Philadelphia Police Commissioner Richard Ross, “apologized to Robinson and Nelson and said he had made the situation worse. Ross told a news conference he had been unaware that Starbucks’ policy was to allow people to remain in its cafes without making a purchase. Police will draft a policy to deal with similar situations, he said.” Readers can watch and listen to the video of Commissioner Ross’ press statement here: https://www.pbs.org/newshour/nation/watch-philadelphia-police-chief-apologizes-to-men-arrested-at-starbucks-shop

Starbucks’ CEO Kevin Johnson has also apologized for the incident, as reported in this article: http://time.com/5241426/starbucks-ceo-apology-philadelphia/ . He said that in this scenario “it was completely inappropriate to engage the police.” 

Therefore, we stand by our decision to publish this opinion article.

 

About the Author

Geoff Vandermolen has been an associate pastor, church planter, and lead pastor. He now serves as director of vocational formation at Calvin Seminary.

See comments (21)

Comments

Assuming the author accurately understands what actually happened at the Starbucks, I couldn't agree more.  That said, what actually happened is less than clear, perhaps not at all clear, especially to members of the general public who necessarily rely on various media outlets (none of which have their own political bent theses days -- yes that is a facetious statement) to "know" what happened.

In my occupation, we learn quickly not to prejudge, and for good reason.  But I'm convinced that disinclination should be a generally acquired practice.  If it doesn't become that, our society is in a bit of a bad way.

Thank you, Geoff! I'm challenged and encouraged by your words here. You took us deeper into the story of Ananias and Sapphira and challenged us to go deeper into discipleship as well. Thanks!

I have noticed that recently writers, including this author, use the word "body" instead of "people" to refer to black and brown people.

i suspect that this rhetorical practice originated with Tahinisi Coates in his effort to show the victimization of black people.

I find this use of language dehumanizing and a bit creepy.  Can't we just say "people"?

I would think you could find a betterteachable example of racism closer to home rather than jump on this media bandwagon. Have you heard the transcript of the call to police? Did you see the (black) police chief stand up for his officers' actions? You didn't mention that the two men were asked twice if they would like to order something and they admit they refused and then said "go ahead, call the cops." This is a store in downtown Philly, I would assume they have hundreds of customers of color every week and presumably don't have them escorted out, right? This isn't a park bench or library, it's a business and despite what you say, I would never refuse multiple times to place an order and then refuse the police request to leave and I doubt you would either. There is so much more to this incident than "brown people" vs. white people but it's hard to solve actual problems if we only see things through a racialized filter.

Geoff & Banner Staff,

Please also understand, I have stopped my purchase of Starbucks wares for a number of reasons, mostly their stand for Planned Parenthood. They have a completely anti 'body' position on this and other issues, there is no support here from me.

My first question is to Geoff and Staff, did you read ANY of the articles which stated the locations policy? If not, I suggest you read this one from another source I do not support. They are not conservative by any stretch of the imagination, and toe a particular line of thought. Maybe that's why their on their way out of business.

http://time.com/5241671/starbucks-philadelphia-bathroom-rights/

Unfortunately, almost every writer used this issue as an opportunity to tell 1/3rd of the story. Here's at least a part of the other stories not covered.

As was reported in the above and EVERY other article I read, this Starbucks has a NO loitering policy. NO loitering means, nobody can stay unless they purchase a product. If they do, they are welcomed to stay as long as they desire to sip that beverage. This policy WAS known by policy, Starbucks headquarters, and the men who stated they were not leaving and resisted arrest. I did not notice Geoof mentioning ANY of this in the article, but it WAS mentioned in the above article and EVERY other article I've read.

The policy of the location refuses ALL PERSONS no matter their skin color to hang around without purchasing products from their store. Which means...... quite possibly, the hatred, 'bigotry', and IGNORANCE are with those who wrote the articles without taking into account the policyof loitering in the store.

So, Geoff, AND STAFF, if YOU were not aware of the policy, YOU should read the above article again, verify it against the thousands written by AP, UPI, etc... writers who mentioned the policy, and UNLESS you have ACTUAL proof of bias in that store, need to retract the article and offer an apology to the manager and police!

If you KNEW the policy, and decided to write it Geoff, and STAFF decided to allow it to be written with such race baiting article anyway, I'd suggest repenting to God right now. That is slanderous and might even be against brothers and sisters in the Lord. Either way, an apology needs to be forthcoming at bare minimum!!

No eat or drink policies are mostly the 'law of the land' for most eateries. Even McDonald's doesn't want non-paying customers to sit around in their stores. You're not allowed to just hang out in Texas Roadhouse or Olive Garden to wait on friends unless you're going to order up! Starbucks should be ashamed for hanging a store manager out to dry on a policy they knew full well was in affect. This just cements my decision to never step foot in their locations ever again.

I also noticed the 'Do Justice' article has caused an uproar as well as 'Smudging' based on un-biblical teachings. The gospel of Christ is not to be changed. There are no barriers for anyone from any tribe or nation to come to Christ, but they are then in the tribe of Christ. The OLD ways are tossed aside and the new take over.

I'm concerned for the denomination of Christian Reformed Church. This may seem harsh, but I don't think it is any more so than publishing partial truth which may besmerch many other persons character for the sake of social gospel 'story' telling. If you have ANY evidence that this manager or police are BIASED which means actual, not perceived, please apologize to all affected including Banner Readers.

Your job is to write about people and the things of Christ. Injustice is one of those things, but needs to be done with balance and vetting. Doctrine IS important as well. Let the secular 'news' agencies tell 1/2 stories, but THe Banner isn't secular. You're supposed to be Christian and look at things from every angle.

I live in a small town where many of the downtown establishments have signs posted that their washrooms are for "customers only". This Starbucks was no different. The store policy is that you buy something if you want to use their facilities. These men used the washroom but refused to buy anything. Just because they say that they were waiting for someone doesn't nullify the requirement to buy something. Stores and restuarants maintain their facilities because of 2 primary reasons- local bylaws and customer service. 

Keeping a washroom clean doesn't come free. It takes employee time and is no small task to accomplish when anyone can walk in a lodge a complaint that the facilities weren't up to snuff. Every establishment is allowed to set its own policy and some places, like McDonalds, don't mind if someone walks in a uses the facilities. But to take up precious space at a table when you are buying nothing only adds insult to injury. Square footage is not cheap and when you have paying customers who are not able to find a place to sit because none paying ones are occupying the spots then you as a store owner have a problem.

I strongly suggest that the author listen to the recording of the incident. You will see that there was no racial animosity on the part of the manager or the police, who incidentally were also Black. Parking one's rear end in a restuarant's seat without patronizing it is no different than parking your car in a space that is reserved for customers only while you shop elsewhere. If you do the latter your car can be towed and then you will have to pay to get it out of impound. If you do the former then the police will be called if you refuse repeated entreaties to buy something. Anyone who is grown up enough to say no deserves what is dished out. That's what I told my children and these 2 grown men should have learned that same lesson in their home.

This was not a case of bigotry. And I think that the church should be extremely careful when it sticks its nose where it doesn't belong. Being a busy body is condemned in the Bible and that goes for this case also. Learn your facts first. Minorities aren't always right. I am Black and I know that some of the biggest bigots and entitled people reside within the Black community.

Are we sometimes, maybe often, too quick to accuse, to label, to pick a side to be on, to get out on the street and protest? Should we not have investigations, hearings, and perhaps court procedings before making a decision on incidents that we have not witnessed and about which we have little knowledge? Are we issuing pronouncements and deciding who who is good and who is bad (or a blessing or not a blessing) on the basis of incomplete information and personal opinion or bias? Do we automatically agree or disagree with someone because of who they are, or what we know to be their political orientation or other beliefs?
Do we disparage an entire group of people, sometimes large numbers of brothers and sisters in Christ, because of the action of one or a few? Is it possible that sometimes our interpretation of things is incorrect or perhaps no better than that of the person with whom we disagree? Do we call someone a liar when that person merely misunderstood or was mistaken or had incomplete information?

   No matter your take on this situation, it's a great reminder that our faith should surely inform our words, actions, politics,...For the Church not to stick it's nose into this kind of business or any kind of business for that matter seems incongruous to me. Ideally, our faith should permeate every and all aspects of our lives.

I have posted the following response to the charges that we should retract this opinion piece and to the facts regarding this incident as a footnote to the article above.

Editor’s Note: With respect to charges in the comments section below by some that the author and we, at the Banner, are perpetuating a false narrative concerning the Starbucks incident, I would like to draw our readers’ attention to the facts as reported by the international news service agency, Reuters: https://www.reuters.com/article/us-philadelphia-starbucks/black-men-arrested-at-starbucks-hope-scandal-sparks-change-idUSKBN1HQ1VI

In that news report, the Philadelphia Police Commissioner Richard Ross, “apologized to Robinson and Nelson and said he had made the situation worse. Ross told a news conference he had been unaware that Starbucks’ policy was to allow people to remain in its cafes without making a purchase. Police will draft a policy to deal with similar situations, he said.” Readers can watch and listen to the video of Commissioner Ross’ press statement here: https://www.pbs.org/newshour/nation/watch-philadelphia-police-chief-apologizes-to-men-arrested-at-starbucks-shop

Starbucks’ CEO Kevin Johnson has also apologized for the incident, as reported in this article: http://time.com/5241426/starbucks-ceo-apology-philadelphia/ . He said that in this scenario “it was completely inappropriate to engage the police.” 

Therefore, we stand by our decision to publish this opinion article.

Just another example of bearing false witness in service to the politics of vitimology. 

Companies will always apologize for P.R. reasons.  What about the assertion that a man was shot "for talking on his cell phone"?  Another untruth.

Dear Eric Van Dyken,

Are you saying that Police Commissioner Richard Ross is lying to the public when he gave his press statement "that Starbucks’ policy was to allow people to remain in its cafes without making a purchase"?

Hello Chong,

I don't believe that I made any statement about Police Commissioner Richard Ross, and I don't particularly care to. 

Do you contend that police officers shot a man because he was talking on his cell phone? 

Does this author guard and advance the good name of the police officers involved when he makes that statement?  Or rather does the author condemn rashly without a hearing, as we profess is prohibited in the ninth commandment?  Whose motivations is this author qualified to know and judge?  

Dear Eric,

I was confused at first by your pithy comments. I initially wrote a comment which I deleted because I realized I misunderstood you. I see you are now making a different assertion - about the one sentence late in this article about the shooting of a person on his cell phone. To that, I will say that we took it on good faith that this reporting is true: https://www.cnn.com/2018/03/22/us/sacramento-police-shooting/index.html

There is also a wikipedia entry on that shooting as well: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shooting_of_Stephon_Clark

My initial question about the Police Commissioner was to your 4:13pm (4/30/2018) comment: "Just another example of bearing false witness in service to the politics of victimology." I thought you were referring to my Editor's Note or to the Reuters article my note referred, as it is not clear as to which example you were referring to at the time. 

Thank you.

Dear Eric,

I have re-read your 5:12pm comment and I think I now understand that what you are taking issue with in that sentence is not, as I intially thought, with the fact that he was shot but the suggestion for the REASON he was shot - simply because he was talking on his cell phone. So, my apologies. 

I have corrected the sentence now to replace "for" with "while" to take away the possible suggestion of motive but keeping the author's point about the fact the man was unarmed. I have also clarified the sentence that he was in his grandmother's backyard, and not in his own backyard as was implied originally. I had not originally read motive into that sentence. 

Thank you.

https://www.longroom.com/discussion/985734/report-starbucks-manager-who-called-cops-on-black-men-was-feminist-sjw

Hello Chong,

I am thankful for your willingness to make that change.

I remain concerned for the following reasons:

1.  You replaced "for" with "while", yet that is not accurate either.  There is nothing in the public reports to suggest that the man was merely standing there talking on a phone and then was shot.  We know he had a phone in his possession.  Beyond that we do not know if he was using it or how he was holding it.

2.  The man was not shot 20 times, but 8, so the author is not truthful in this regard either.

3.  The author speculates as to the motivation of police officers in Starbucks when he says "Inexplicably, the police too found their black presence worthy of arrest."  The author has no way of knowing anything about how the officers felt about their "black presence".  Officers are called all the time to remove customers/patrons/persons from stores for various reasons at the request of store management.  It is not their job to know Starbucks policy, and from the police commissioner quote, they were not aware of it. 

4.  Making unfounded judgements about the motivations of police officers is a violation of the ninth commandment.  The author does not know what judgements the officers in the shooting case had to make, and he should not be impugning them.  The CRC has done this in the past concerning Mike Brown, to the shame of the church.  In fact the OSJ still to this day maintains and forwards an article written by staff that says that Mike Brown was killed because of his skin color, which is a malicious lie.  This is the type of rash condemnation without a hearing that the Heidelberg Catechism anticipates and condemns. 

Dear Eric,

Pardon our delayed response. I have made further revisions that addresses the inaccuracies you pointed out. 

Thank you.

This is something of a fascinating story, including the aftermath.  Starbucks has apparently now changed its policy to eliminate the rule that users of the Starbucks space (living room like sipping areas and bathrooms) are also required to "buy something."  It doesn't take a PhD in economics to figure out that rule will won't work, which means the rule will eventually change back, or the living room part of the Starbucks stores will begin to disappear, or the rules will be ignored and manipulated.  Result: Starbucks will become a bit dishonest and manipulative in order to defend itself from bad PR resulting from a rush to judgment (in my view), or go out of business (a choice unlikely to be made).

It would be good to learn this lesson as well as the one the author thinks we need to learn from this "Starbucks story."  No, I don't believe a  Banner article that rushes to judgment in order to take advantage of a politically correct moment will by itself change Starbucks' world.  But I do think the aggregate of all the media hype (as in hyperbolic rush to judgment) about this politically correct opportunity will change Starbucks' world.  The question is: Will it change Starbucks world -- and the business world in general -- for better or for worse?  I think clearly for the worse.  Why?  This sort of rushing to judgment, this sort of seeing whatever might happen as an opportunity to score political points in a society that is so, so politically polarized, is destructive at a foundational level.  Starbucks changing it's policy in an unworkable way to accomodate the politics of what happened, divorced from the reality of what happened is Exhibit A.

What I would hope is that Reformed Christians would be more patient (let the facts actually get out), more thoughtful (look beyond the opportunity to score political points), and less polarizing (resisting the undo urge to promptly frame media stories as part of an oppressor/victim narrative), than others.  But I'm not seeing that.  Jumping to conclusions and interpret through political narrative lenses (this isn't the first time) doesn't help the cause of social justice, or even justice, but hurts it.  I think we can do better.  We should do better at least.

Perhaps the best video to watch about this incident is that which is not the most circulated.  It is a video done by the Philly police department.

See at: https://www.facebook.com/phillypolice/videos/10155712644170910/

We would like to draw readers' attention to the video of the press conference by the Philadelphia Police Commissioner, on April 19, after his initial video statement on April 14, linked also at the bottom of the article: https://www.pbs.org/newshour/nation/watch-philadelphia-police-chief-apologizes-to-men-arrested-at-starbucks-shop

In that news report, the Philadelphia Police Commissioner Richard Ross, “apologized to Robinson and Nelson and said he had made the situation worse. Ross told a news conference he had been unaware that Starbucks’ policy was to allow people to remain in its cafes without making a purchase. Police will draft a policy to deal with similar situations, he said.” 

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