This morning Chicago woke up to learn that our Little League Champions, Jackie Robinson West, have been stripped of their title, ostensibly for using players from outside league-prescribed boundaries. Throughout the day I’ve watched as friends have posted their reactions on social media and one type has caught my eye. It goes something like this: Yes, it’s really sad that these young men have to suffer the consequences of adults who made bad decisions, but rules are rules and this was the right decision. I especially noticed this particular reaction because I agree with its logic in theory.
But only in theory.
There was an emotional reaction on social media today that was also worth noting. This one goes something like this: It is no consequence that the first all-black champions are the ones who are being targeted for violations. This would have never happened to a mostly-white team from the suburbs. It’s an emotional reaction because it’s almost impossible to prove. But does that mean it’s wrong?
I’ve written about this extensively and I don’t have the time to cite the endless examples now, but the fact remains that young, black men in this country face an incredibly uneven playing field. From how they are perceived in classrooms to how they are profiled on the way home from school, young African American boys have to work twice as hard and be twice as good as their white peers.
So yeah, all things being equal we Chicagoans could be frustrated about the coaches and other adults who made poor decisions and then move on. But all things aren’t equal and it’s the worst that this team who inspired such joy has been made into a reminder of something so wrong.
Most of you know my oldest son and you know that, like his younger son, he is adopted. You may not know that my son can trace his ethnicity through Filipino people, Puerto Rican people, and, especially, African American people.
My son is five years old. This means that in seven years he will be twelve years old, the same age Tamir Rice was when two Cleveland police pulled up to check out this “young black male” while he played with a toy gun a friend had recently lent him.
In seven years he will be the same age Tamir was when he was confronted by a white police officer had been deemed emotionally unstable and unfit to serve in his previous policing job.
In seven years he will be as old as Tamir who had exactly two seconds before that emotionally unstable, police officer pulled his gun and shot him twice.
In seven years he will be the same age of Tamir who, after being shot, was left unattended on the ground for four minutes. Rather than administering first aid to the mortally wounded child the officers tackled his fourteen-year-old sister who was running to his aid. They handcuffed her and put her in the back of a police car where she watched her brother bleed.
In seven years my son will walk in Tamir’s shoes. In twelve years he will walk in Trayvon’s shoes and Jordan Davis’ shoes. In thirteen years he will walk in Michael Brown’s shoes.
After Michael Brown’s killing, Ta-Nehesi Coates wrote about the despair his death elicited in so many parents. We cannot protect our children because racism in America is not merely a belief system but a heritage, and the inability of black parents to protect their children is an ancient tradition.
I think about my son and I think about these other sons and I think about the truth and desperation of Ta-Nehesi Coates and I feel anger.
When we consider that that it has been forty-seven years since Rev. Dr. King was gunned down in Memphis and yet we are still trying to convince this nation that Black Lives Matter, I get angry.
When we consider that it has been fifty years since the voting rights act was passed, sixty one years since separate schooling based on race was unconstitutional, and yet we are still fighting to protect voting rights and still fighting for quality education for all, I get angry.
When we consider that it’s been one hundred years since Ida B Wells shone the spotlight of her journalism and rhetoric on the rampant lynching of unarmed, innocent African Americans and yet today we face the mass imprisonment of black and brown citizens, a reality unprecedented anywhere else in the world, I get angry.
When we remember that the Civil War ended one hundred and fifty years ago yet our nation remains unconvinced about the basic personhood of black and brown people, I get angry.
When we remember that the first Africans were stolen from their continent four hundred years ago and brought to America, when the wealth and power of this nation was purchased with the sweat, blood, suffering, and deaths of the descendants and kin of those enslaved Africans, and when America has the audacity to place the blame of black suffering at the feet of black people, I get angry.
When we hear pundits lie and spin about the suffering and prejudice faced by brown and black people, when they ignore the white supremacy that has been this nation’s religion for hundreds of years, I get angry.
I’m angry this morning because what James Baldwin wrote was true in 1972 and it’s true in 2015:
The truth is that this country does not know what to do with its black population now that the blacks are no longer a source of wealth, are no longer to be bought and sold and bred, like cattle; and they especially do not know what to do with young black men, who pose as devastating a threat to the economy as they do to the morals of young white cheerleaders. It is not at all accidental that the jails and the army and the needle claim so many, but there are still too many prancing about for the public comfort.
I’m angry this morning because theologian James Cone is truth when he writes, “Whites cannot separate themselves from culture that lynched blacks, unless they confront history & expose sin of white supremacy.” Yet, how many of us white people are willing confront that history and expose that sin?
I’m angry this morning because of the lies our nation continues to tell. I’m angry because we kill our prophets and then sanitize and commercialize their legacies. I’m angry because my son is five and soon he will be twelve and then seventeen and then eighteen. And, if I’m honest, I’m angry because the injustices of this earth seem so entrenched that I wonder whether there is any realistic hope for anything different.
We are not the first to wonder about earth’s injustices. The young church in Ephesus who received Paul’s letter wondered about these things. Within this center of imperial and oppressive power they struggled to know how they would maintain their new identities as followers of Jesus. Like us they had to ask, How will we resist the unjust and wicked powers that surround us? How do we worship the Lord in a place such as this?
Our passage, Ephesians 1:17-23, shows two ways the early church answered this question. As we listen to their answers, as we see their example, I hope that added to the anger we might feel today will be hope. After all we are not the first to face the injustices of earth. We are not the first to walk closely with righteous anger.
The first thing Paul directs the church to do is to focus on God’s power as exemplified through Jesus’ resurrection and rule. Notice the passage:
17 I keep asking that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the glorious Father, may give you the Spirit of wisdom and revelation, so that you may know him better. 18 I pray that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened in order that you may know the hope to which he has called you, the riches of his glorious inheritance in his holy people, 19 and his incomparably great power for us who believe. That power is the same as the mighty strength 20 he exerted when he raised Christ from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly realms, 21 far above all rule and authority, power and dominion, and every name that is invoked, not only in the present age but also in the one to come. 22 And God placed all things under his feet and appointed him to be head over everything for the church, 23 which is his body, the fullness of him who fills everything in every way.
A simple way to summarize Paul’s run-on sentences in verses 18 and 19 would be: I pray that you would know the power of God. Not some generic power or some generic god. I want you to know the power of the living God who raised Jesus, the Messiah, from the dead. This is what Paul wants.
Some of us tend to focus on the unjust and corrupt powers that surround us. And we need to see these and call these out. But they can never to be our primary focus. Because there is no life there. There is no hope there. A person lost in the dessert and dying of thirst will only find it so helpful to have his circumstances described to him. What he needs is someone with a way out of the wilderness. He needs the hope that despite how terrible things appears, there is a way out.
It’s the same for us. We have to be honest about the corrupt powers and sources of injustice in our city. But these cannot be the primary focus of our sustained attention. They cannot be our only focus. No, our primary focus must be on the one who elicits not anger but awe. Our focus must be on the one who elicits in our hearts not pain but praise. Our focus must be on the one who compels not despair but delight. Our focus must be on the one who compels not worry but worship. Our focus must be on the one who provokes us not toward apathy but toward action.
In other words, we must focus our best attention not on the corrupt, impotent, and fraudulent powers of this world, that peddle in division and destruction. Rather, we are called to fix our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith. We are called to focus our gaze on Jesus who, for the joy set before him, endured the cross, scorning its shame. We are called to behold the One who even now is seated at the right hand of God the Father, far above all rule and authority, power and dominion, and every name that is invoked, not only in the present age but also in the age to come.
This was the secret weapon held by many of the leaders and participants of the Civil Rights Movement. Of course they looked at the injustices around them; many of those women, men, and children were forced to experience profound injustices every single day. But as clearly as they could describe those corrupt powers and as precisely as they could articulate what needed to change in America, many of those individuals had an even greater and more determined focus: their Savior. And so they could experience the worst of racial injustice without being overcome by it. They could taste the venom of hatred without it ever taking their hearts hostage.
We can see this focus on God’s power through Jesus in one of Rev. Dr. King’s sermons, this one in New York City in 1967 as he made clear his opposition to the war in Vietnam.
I would yet have to live with the meaning of my commitment to the ministry of Jesus Christ. To me, the relationship of this ministry to the making of peace is so obvious that I sometimes marvel at those who ask me why I am speaking against the war. Could it be that they do not know that the Good News was meant for all men—for communist and capitalist, for their children and ours, for black and for white, for revolutionary and conservative? Have they forgotten that my ministry is in obedience to the one who loved his enemies so fully that he died for them?
See, it’s not simply that we focus on the only genuine and authentic power in the universe, the power of God. It’s that when we worship and esteem Jesus our lives actually change. One of the ways we change is that we begin to see the resources of heaven that are available to those of us who are citizens of that kingdom.
22 And God placed all things under his feet and appointed him to be head over everything for the church, 23 which is his body, the fullness of him who fills everything in every way.
Paul says: God has placed everything under the feet of Jesus, the head of the church. Our incorporation in Jesus means that the power that is at work and available through Jesus is available to us as well! So Jesus can say things like:
18 “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19 Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. [Matthew 28:18-19]
12 “Very truly I tell you, whoever believes in me will do the works I have been doing, and they will do even greater things than these, because I am going to the Father. 13 And I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. 14 You may ask me for anything in my name, and I will do it.” [John 14:12-14]
As we are given the Spirit of wisdom and revelation and as the eyes or our hearts are enlightened we see and worship our powerful Savior and we also discover that his power is available to us. To put it differently, when we see Jesus in his power we discover the resources of heaven that are available in our struggle against the injustices of earth.
So to the question, How will we resist the unjust and wicked powers that surround us? the first answer is that we focus on God’s power as exemplified through Jesus’ resurrection and rule. When the power of God is our focus all of the corrupt powers slide into their rightful place. We don’t ignore them, we don’t downplay them, but we allow them to take their rightful place beneath the feet of Jesus who will make all things right.
The second answer to that question comes on the heels of the first: We discover and utilize heaven’s resources against earth’s unjust powers. We could spend the rest of the year looking into the resources of heaven. I have time for just four.
The first resource is reconciled community. Drawing from 2 Corinthians we say that our church identity is a reconciled and reconciling people. Through Jesus God has reconciled us to himself and to one another. This would have been one of the radical implications of the Gospel to the church in Ephesus and it is no less radical today.
Reconciled community begins to deconstruct the racism we are all regularly exposed to. Social scientists call this implicit racial bias. That is, we are formed culturally to associate certain positive and negative characteristic to people based on things like skin color. But within a diverse church community, these implicit biases are not only challenged, they are slowly replaced by other, more generous and loving biases.
Reconciled community also requires that we stay. One of the defining legacies of Chicago is white flight and reconciled Community is the opposite of white flight; it requires that we stay, that we remain present. We don’t walk away from people who are different. We remain with the knowledge that we are family.
A second resource of heave that is available in our struggle against injustices is our secured identities. In Christ Jesus we have identities as God’s children that are secure and eternal. We don’t have to defend ourselves or prove ourselves. We can live with confidence from our place as beloved and empowered children of God. But there is more.
When our identities are securely in Jesus, we find that our ethnic & cultural identities are affirmed. Deep within Christian belief is that God loves us as we are. We are not required to become something different in order to be accepted. The church has gotten this wrong at times, requiring that individuals learn a new language or dress in a different cultural style. But these are aberrations of the Gospel. Our country slices and dices, marginalizes and sidelines based on skin color, accent, grammar, traditions, the shape of a person’s eyes, nose, and even height! But not within the Kingdom! This community is meant to be the place where every one of us experiences the radical hospitality and acceptance of Jesus.
Having secured identities in Christ also means that we can be protected from the co-option and coercion of the corrupt powers. In his book Liberty to the Captives Raymond Rivera points out that in different seasons the church will cooperate with or resist the powers. In one sense it is easier to resist than cooperate, but when we are clear on where our authority and identity comes from we can also cooperate without being co-opted.
The third resource of heaven is courageous truth. Jesus said of himself in John 14:6, I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. We are followers of the Truth so we aren’t afraid to tell the truth. A great example of this is found in that same speech Rev. Dr. King gave against the Vietnam War. He knew this speech would make powerful enemies. Yet he had to tell the truth.
Perhaps a more tragic recognition of reality took place when it became clear to me that the war was doing far more than devastating the hopes of the poor at home. It was sending their sons and their brothers and their husbands to fight and to die in extraordinarily high proportions relative to the rest of the population. We were taking the black young men who had been crippled by our society and sending them eight thousand miles away to guarantee liberties in Southeast Asia which they had not found in southwest Georgia and East Harlem.
As King demonstrated, followers of Jesus deal in the currency of the truth, regardless of its consequences. This means that we tell the truth about injustice We resist the tendency to soft-pedal. When media attempts to redirect our attention by talking about black-on-black crime or “thug” culture or the so-called crisis of fatherlessness, we call bull-sh*t. And we tell the truth.
We also tell the truth about Jesus .To those who think Jesus is only concerned with our souls after we die, we tell the truth about the Kingdom of justice and mercy and peace that Jesus came to proclaim and inaugurate. And to those who think that Jesus is one interesting morality teacher among others, we tell the truth about the Son of God who chose the cross to put to death the sin and rebellion within our hearts and who resurrected victoriously over evil and death.
Finally, in our struggle with the injustices of earth endless grace is another of heaven’s resources available to us. Fundamental to Christianity is the belief that salvation comes through God’s grace alone. Late in this letter to Ephesus Paul writes, 9 For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— 9 not by works, so that no one can boast. But too often we treat grace as Christianity 101. In fact, grace is the air we breathe. It is the sustaining reality of our relationship with God and our status as citizens of the Kingdom of Heaven. And it is the grace of God that allows us to pursue God’s justice in an unjust world. How?
God’s endless grace allows repentance and forgiveness to be normal for us. So much justice work is built on getting it right: saying the right things; knowing the right things; doing the right things; identifying the right strategies. But you will not always get it right! And if you’re counting on always getting it right it’s only a matter of time until you get it very wrong. What then? But if grace is our starting point than our goal isn’t to get it right, it’s to quickly confess when we get it wrong: when we wound, ignore, flake out. And when grace is our starting point, when we know how dependent we are on God’s mercy and grace, we can also quickly forgive when others confess their sin against us.
Endless grace also reminds us that we bear witness to Jesus regardless of the circumstances. This is and important reminder that we are not called to change the world. I’ve met many people who in their youth wanted to change the world. But things didn’t change as quickly as they hoped or in the ways they expected and so the walked away. They traded in their dream for justice for the so-called American dream of comfort and complacency.
In one of his speeches King said that, “The arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice.” This is God’s grace, that his work is constant and gentle and eternal. And it is God who does this work with we as his representatives. Despite the heaviness of our world, God’s grace means there can be a lightness about our work.
I began by acknowledging my anger. I end by confessing my hope. My fiver year-old and five month-old sons, beautiful boys with complexions darker than mine, are growing up among you. They are growing up among a people who are learning to be captivated firstly by God’s beautiful and transformative power. They are growing up among a reconciled community; among women and men who know and love who they are; among people who will tell them the truth about this world’s injustices and the truth about this world’s Savior; among a people who will speak to them words of grace, who show them how to live this way of grace.
I remain angry. But not only angry. God, through his Old Testament prophet Zechariah, called his people, prisoners of hope. In this world of injustice, may it be true that we are prisoners of hope whose eyes have been opened to see the authority and power and resources of heaven that are at our disposal in our struggle against injustice.
I’ve been so encouraged by the online support to my blog posts and social media updates about our church’s engagement with the justice issues raised by the recent non-indictments in Ferguson and New York. Of course there have been a handful of dissenters – “stick to talking about god instead of race relations” – but these have been a drop in the bucket compared with the positive and thoughtful comments. Thank you!
One thing I’ve picked up on from some comments is that many of you want to support things like Sunday’s #BlackLivesMatter protest but you don’t attend a church or live in a community where this is possible. Some of you may even feel a bit guilty because it doesn’t seem like there is more that you can do besides showing your support on social media. To those of you in that camp I have one suggestions and two requests.
First, though places like the south side of Chicago get much of the attention when it comes to issues of injustice it’s safe to assume that these same issues are at play wherever you live. They may not be as obvious or destructive, but there are undoubtedly ways in which injustice is at work in your zip code. And there are certainly people around you who care about these things. Find them and jump into whatever small efforts are already in place. Don’t become so distracted with what’s happening over there that you miss the opportunity right where you are.
Now to the requests. Pray for us. That’s the first thing. It’s easy to think about justice issues through partisan lenses, but our church is very aware of the spiritual nature of this fight. We have to think theologically about the issues, Christologically about the solutions, and, in all things, act with courage and humility. See why we need your prayers?
Here’s the second request: Would you consider a financial gift to one of the churches in our Bronzeville community? One of the churches that has been involved in this work of justice faithfully? One the churches with the courage to protest on Sunday and the focus to continue once many others have moved on? Urban ministry is wonderful work and also very hard. Many of the financial resources that are available elsewhere are scarce in our neighborhoods, though we celebrate the many ways God provides for us.
There are many churches I could point you to who would benefit from your generosity; I’m choosing these three because they are located in Bronzeville. Pastor Chris Harris of Bright Star Church was the first pastor to welcome me to Bronzeville years ago. He has opened many doors of opportunity to our church as we seek to serve and love our neighbors. His church is often at the lead of community development and I’m honored to be a part of several initiatives that have been started by Pastor Harris. Pastor Michael Neal of Glorious Light Church has become a close friend. He opened his church’s space to us earlier this year for a justice conference we hosted. Our churches also worship together every six months. Pastor Neal has initiated a literacy program in the neighborhood among many other initiatives focused on education and health. Both of these pastors and their churches are faithfully proclaiming and demonstrating the gospel of Jesus in our little corner of Chicago. I’m very happy to urge your financial support of their ministries.
The third church? You can probably guess that our young congregation, New Community Covenant Church, would also welcome your generosity. We’re still at the early stages of this journey to justice, but in our less-than-five years we’ve taken some important steps, especially in the area of racial reconciliation. We will continue to give ourselves to loving our neighbors and building a diverse community that can only be understood through the lens of the gospel.
Would you consider a financial gift to one or more of these churches? Give to Bright Star Church here. Give to Glorious Light Church here. Give to New Community Covenant Church here. I’m spending today with representatives from these churches and other organizations as we continue our long-term work on trauma prevention and intervention in our neighborhood. Long after the media attention has moved on, we’ll continue to be praying and working for God’s kingdom to come in Bronzeville as it is in heaven.
Regardless of how you do it, please know how valuable your support and encouragement are to those of us in the thick of this work. Thank you!
On a related note, one of the more disheartening responses to these race-related events has been that of self-purported Christians. Some have posted crap along the lines of “calm down” or “focus on the Gospel” (to which I suggest they read this). More people, however, have said nothing, choosing not to take sides. And by their silence, they have actually chosen to take a side. As a person of faith, it confounds me when Christians think Jesus would have stood on the sidelines. Throughout his entire life, he did anything but that. The guy was neither feckless nor neutral. He did not wait feebly, going to and from the temple, praying quietly for the world from the comfort of his home, until a spaceship took him back to heaven. It confounds me—confoundsme—what some Christians think this faith is all about.
My stance on the murders of Michael Brown and Eric Garner is not merely a result of working in journalism (oh, that “liberal media”), living in an urban area, and having loved ones of different races and backgrounds. Faith compels me in a way that not even my most progressive sensibilities can. But it is also that which reminds me to extend forgiveness to those who don’t get it. And sometimes I think that’s the hardest part for me.
Our friend Esther is her typical insightful self in this piece about Ferguson and Eric Garner. I’m especially glad for the way she identifies faith in Jesus as her rationale for pursuing justice, even as she wonders at how many Christians miss the connection.
After the first protests (in person and online) emerged in response to Michael Brown’s killing in Ferguson it was common to hear complaints and confusion about those who protested. I experienced a bit of this misunderstanding and disagreement for some of the things I wrote in the days following the young man’s death. Of course, misunderstandings and disagreements are inevitable and aren’t generally reason enough for me to (re)explain myself. In this case, however, the events in Ferguson along with the pushback provide an opportunity to clarify why I believe protesting the killing in Ferguson is a logical, normal, and Christian response.
My reading of the Bible provides the understanding of what it means to live as God’s adopted people, including our responses to events like those in Ferguson. There’s nothing especially novel about this; people of faith look to their scriptures and traditions as the basis for their practical ethics. For example, I’ve recently spent time with some Jewish rabbis who have articulated a compelling Biblical rationale why they must advocate for undocumented immigrants. Drawing from their scriptures (the Christian Old Testament) they cannot avoid the mandate to show hospitality and seek justice for the foreigner within our nation’s boundaries.
But, to be fair, many Christians who highly esteem the Bible saw no need to speak against the events in Ferguson. I think I know why. In the (mostly) white Evangelical world with which I’m familiar it is typical to see the work of justice as peripheral to proclaiming the Gospel. One respected acquaintance recently cautioned that I should take care to keep my Christian priorities right, by which this person meant the clear articulation of the Gospel. Earlier this year another friend approvingly cited Billy Graham’s decision not to involve himself with the Civil Rights Movement because it would have distracted from his singular task of evangelism.
The problem with these separations between evangelism and justice is that the Bible makes no such divisions. The biblical assumption, rather, is that those who have known God’s love will in turn show God’s love, not simply in the individual ways we Americans tend to default toward but also in the corporate and systemic ways so much of the Old Testament is concerned with. So Billy Graham’s decision to avoid the Civil Rights Movement may have won him wider audiences, but his implied message that allegiance to Jesus required no reorienting of prejudices and systemic injustices was at odds with the biblical narrative. It’s hard to see from where in the Scripture one could make the case that such thin conversion is God’s desire or the Christian’s goal.
“From that time on Jesus began to preach, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.'” So records Matthew at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, the implication being that the has-come-near kingdom would provide the backdrop for his work and words. The kingdom of heaven is seen implicitly in Jesus’ many interactions with those on the margins and more explicitly in the Sermon on the Mount and the parable of the sheep and the goats. Jesus’ vision of justice will always contradict our own cultural assumptions of justices, but there is no denying that his kingdom is a just kingdom whose citizens express compassion, mercy, and justice even as they proclaim the kingdom’s nearness in Jesus.
All of this, it seems to me, leads Christians to pursue justice as a natural and normal expression of our location within God’s kingdom. Our work of justice will often flounder and many times be ignored by societies bent on efficiency, but we seek justice anyway as a sign to the kingdom that has come near.
Does the apostle Paul’s directive to obey governing authorities in the book of Romans weaken any of this? No. The vision Paul articulates is of governing authorities who exercise equitable judgements and serve the common good. When the governing authorities abuse their God-given power it becomes inevitable that Christians will have to choose Christ’s rule over that of their government. In such moments, Christians will still seek to submit to the authorities even while pushing against their corruption. The non-violent Civil Rights Movement is surely our nation’s clearest experience of this theological vision.
But what of Ferguson specifically? How do the above convictions play out? Maybe it will be useful to rehearse two of the common complaints I’ve heard about those who protest Michael Brown’s death. The first has to do with the legal process; the second with where those who grieve and protest should instead direct their energies.
About the legal process, some have argued that no protests should have been registered until it is proven whether or not the police officer acted wrongly. It’s a sane point on the surface with a seemingly just logic: the judicial process in our country is the level ensuring that each of us is treated fairly. The problem is that this isn’t the logic of our judicial system. Those of us who don’t know this experientially need only to read a book like Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow, notice studies like this one about the racial inequities of police searches in Chicago, or push past the pundits to learn of the long history of police misconduct in Ferguson.
It only makes sense to wait and trust the judicial process if that process has been proven equitable in the past. But it hasn’t. And it isn’t. Consider then how a rebuke to wait sounds to someone who has been run over by a system that purports to serve and protect. When the protestors in Ferguson were told to wait, that justice would be served, it’s likely they were being lied to. Far too often justice has not been served to black and brown people in this country. Why should we assume differently in this case?
This is why, in a previous post, I referred to Michael Brown’s death as a murder. I don’t mean to say that I know that the officer murdered Brown as per a legal definition. But I do know that legal definitions only make sense when they’re applied equally and such equality has thus far eluded our country. And so it is that a young black man like Jordan Davis can be murdered but we can’t bring ourselves to call what the white man did to him murder. Saying that Michael Brown was murdered is a small attempt to tell the truth about a system that lies about the ways that certain groups of citizens suffer and die.
Within this atmosphere of deception and twisted logic it is entirely right for a Christian to protest the death of another unarmed African American man before the judicial process has run its course. When Christians spoke out quickly in Ferguson they were doing two theologically appropriate things. First, they were telling the truth about the ugly system which took Michael Brown’s life. Second, they were giving notice to those leading the legal response to Brown’s death that they were being watched carefully. The judicial system would be held to account, judged by it’s role to issue justice with fairness.
The second complaint about the protestors I’ll consider is the one that chides those protesting for focusing too much on the past. The rationale here, as I understand it, is that while inequalities may exist, it does little good to continue reviewing how these have been expressed in the past, even the very recent past. Rather, those who wish to change their circumstances should focus on their future and do their best despite the odds. This may sound callous, but it’s a sentiment I’ve heard expressed frequently in the wake of Michael Brown’s death.
There are some good reasons why downplaying history is always a bad idea and chief among them is how our present circumstances are unintelligible without a historical view. Ta-Nehesi Coates’ recent essay on housing discrimination is a perfect example of just how important this is. But setting aside such common sense reasons to look to the past, there are two Biblical precedents that should keep Christians from privileging the future over the past. We can first consider the Psalms, which over and over again give voice to a people who are looking to their history and crying to God for justice. These songs open passages of complaint to God, petitioning – even demanding – God’s righteous action on behalf of the suffering. On the other side of this backward look, we also find God’s people looking back to find their culpable role in history. From exile the people, even generations removed from the original sins against God, learn to lament, to identify themselves with those whose injustice and idolatry had mocked God.
In response to Michael Brown’s death, and the history that cannot be separated from it, it is entirely right for Christians of all races to look to the past. For some this look back will prompt the sorts of angry, fist-shaking prayers we find in the Psalms. God’s name will be invoked as protector and judge. Others of us will look back and, if we have eyes to see, will find much to lament. We’ll find ourselves back there and we won’t like what we see. For us the look back will prompt grief, repentance, and an identification with a story we’d previously held at arm’s length.
Perhaps it’s not surprising that generally it’s people from the majority culture who counsel against the historical perspective. We sense that if those who have known the oppressive heel of the society which has benefitted us look back – particularly if they are our Christian kin – we too may be compelled to look back. And maybe we know that when we do, we will be forced to put on new lenses through which to view Michael Brown and others like him.
There are very understandable reasons, subtly whispered into our society’s ear, why the protestors in Ferguson were quickly discounted and called into question. But, as I hope I’ve reasonably articulated here, for the Christian, there are far better reasons to see past these uncreative and repetitive deceits and to respond to injustice boldly in light of the kingdom that is drawing near through Jesus.
Last night Michael and I joined a group of clergy to pray and petition for justice on behalf of Michael Brown. We were already in the St. Louis area with our families for a few days of vacation and when word came about the clergy march the timing and location seemed too providential to ignore. I won’t go into the play-by-play of our evening, but the experience was unlike any I’ve had.
This morning I woke up thinking about some of the lessons I’m walking away with from our short time in Ferguson. My perspective is incredibly limited: I’m an outsider who spent a few hours in a place where others have lived their entire lives. Even so, I want to hold onto some of my experiences, despite how incomplete they are.
The Anger Is Real
It seemed that many of the protestors, like us, where from places other than Ferguson. Yet there were some locals too and it was their response that most caught my attention. In addition to the anger about Michael Brown’s death, there was also a barely contained rage about the way their city had been occupied by the police for over a week. All around were flashing lights, blocked streets, and check points. The protests from these citizens were not a show for the cameras but rage from an occupied people.
The Tension Between Symbolic Actions And Local Solutions
Ferguson has become a symbol for the ever-present oppression experienced by many Americans. Many of the young people we interacted with last night had come from around the country to protest. They were certainly concerned with Michael Brown’s death, but their perspective was broader- systems and policies were within their sights. I thinks this is OK and probably necessary, but at some point local leadership will need to gather the local stakeholders to determine Ferguson’s strategy going forward. Hopefully the symbolic actions can be a catalyst for local voices to articulate particular strategies for this city. It would be a shame if the big picture perspective – as important as it is – were to drown out those who will live in Ferguson long after the media leave.
Chanting Is Easier Than Praying
Michael and I were under the impression that there would be organized times of prayer as we marched in Ferguson. This never happened. Honestly, it would have been hard. The noise, flashing lights, and adrenaline made it far easier to chant loudly – No justice, no peace! Hands up. Don’t Shoot! – than to pray quietly. I wondered though, driving home, what it would have been like had small groups of clergy stopped occasionally during the march to join hands a pray. I wonder if some of the besieged citizens would have welcomed prayer. I wonder whether the omnipresent police would have relaxed, even a little bit. I don’t know, but it was an important reminder that prayer is the Christian’s first choice, always, regardless of how chaotic the surroundings.
Police Intimidation Is The Worst
There were plenty of kind police officers whom we interacted with last night. But this didn’t change some important facts: some of our fellow marchers had been harassed and arrested earlier in the week; everywhere you looked were men (I don’t remember seeing a single woman officer) with guns, clubs, and intimidating vehicles; we were not aloud to stop moving and any time we did there was an officer who would quickly urge us to move. Michael and I began to breathe more easily as we walked away from Ferguson around midnight and the guns and gazes of the law enforcers receded behind us. I cannot imagine living under the constant threat of intimidation, whether on this grand scale or with the constant question each time I saw a police officer. I can’t imagine it, but there are many who can.
There is plenty that we experienced last night that will take some time to process. Despite the chaos and intimidation, I’m very glad we went. It is important that Christians show up to places like Ferguson – including such places in our own neighborhoods that will never get this attention – and bear witness. We bear witness to any way the image of God is debased in people anywhere. And, equally important, we bear witness to God’s presence and movement in the places others have deemed God-forsaken.
Since first learning about the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, MO I’ve been thinking about different things I’ve wanted to write. Parenting a newborn and some travel have kept me from blogging, which is probably not a bad thing: most of my initial thoughts have been articulated far better by others. If you’ve not done so, please check out these articles: The Cross and the Molotov Cocktail by Christena Cleveland;Black Bodies, White Souls by Austin C Brown; Black People are not Ignoring ‘Black on Black’ Crimeby Ta-Nehisi Coates. Please leave a comment with additional reflections you’ve found helpful.
With all of the good, insightful, and prophetic things that have been said since Michael Brown’s tragic and completely needless death, there is one small thing I’d like to explore here. I have in mind those white people who were surprised by the slowly revealed details from Ferguson as well as the reactions of grief and rage from that community.
It was impossible not to know about Robin Williams’ recent death. The outpouring of support, remembrance, and grief was everywhere. The conversations about depression and suicide that ensued were needed and important, a silver lining to a sad ending.
Williams died the day after the streets of Ferguson erupted in anger and fire, the “language of the unheard” as Rev. Dr. King would have explained to us. On that day and the ensuing days it was common to hear and read a version of this question: Why does the suicide of an actor command so much more of our collective attention than the murder of a young man and the lament of his community?
The question is entirely legitimate and just, though any expectation that the attention to these very different deaths could have played out any differently misses something true and wrong about America. In this country there have always been some lives that matter more than others. A white, male, celebrity like Williams occupies a place within our society that cannot be ignored. You couldn’t remain ignorant of his death even if you wanted to. Michael Brown, on the other hand, occupied a very different, almost invisible place. And yes, it’s true that Williams was a celebrity and so his death within a culture of celebrity-worshippers took on added, almost religious dimensions. But consider that even after Ferguson erupted in protest and even after the ugly facts of Brown’s death began to come to life, most white people had little understanding of the story, if they’d heard of it at all.
There’s nothing right about the death of a white actor taking precedent over the murder of another young, African American man, but there’s also nothing surprising about it. White America exists within a bubble which filters out the abuses and indignities suffered upon black and brown people. In the late 1950’s James Baldwin traveled to Charlotte, NC to document attempts at integration. He wrote, “I was told, several times, by white people, that ‘race relations’ there were excellent. I failed to find a single Negro who agreed with this, which is the usual story of ‘race relations’ in this country.” The same sentiment, with slightly different language, would be expressed by many white people today. Racial injustice is not something we think about because it’s not something we see.
If we’re honest, we’re OK with our blindness. It’s far easier to talk about Robin Williams than Michael Brown. After all, a celebrity’s death asks nothing of us while, were we to take actually see it, the epidemic of alienation, incarceration, and murder of black men demands nothing short of a total rearrangement of the American way of life. A way of life that has benefitted some of us in tremendous ways. Better to remain blind than to give up our way of life.
Of course, this is not an option for those of us who are Christians. Jesus asked his followers, “Do you have eyes but fail to see, and ears but fail to hear?” Well, the answer has too often been yes, but it doesn’t have to remain so. But if white Christians are to begin responding to injustice we must first develop the discipline of seeing.
What is a discipline of seeing? It begins by acknowledging that there is much that we from the majority culture will not naturally see. I recently heard Dr. Carl Ellis point out that much of the marginalization that is experienced by people of color is systemic and by default. It is a marginalization that is so tied to how our society works that it is impossible for some to avoid and almost impossible for others to see. Acknowledging that my experience of America is warped allows me to begin seeing more clearly how others experience this place and its prejudices.
A discipline of seeing compels me to seek new guides. I begin to understand that Michael Brown’s death doesn’t represent something aberrant but disturbingly normal. This realization, and thousands others like it, make plain the extent of my blindness. If I am to walk the narrow path in this newly-revealed reality I will need those who can point the way. Authors, pastors, and entire neighborhoods become voices I cannot live without if I am to avoid retreating into my former isolation. These women and men of color – all with distinct stories and perspectives, all standing outside the so-called privileges bestowed upon me – become the sources of wisdom I cannot do without.
As I begin to see more truthfully I can properly lament the death of a beloved celebrity while not allowing it to overshadow what is going down in Ferguson. That is, I’m able to grieve what is genuinely worthy of grief and not just what I’m told to feel badly about.
Theres a final thing about learning to see: the death of Michael Brown and the tumult that continues in Ferguson is quickly visible and important to those with eyes to see, but their sight is not limited to a series of events at a distance. A discipline of seeing means, that though my privilege works to blind me, I will notice how the injustices of Ferguson play out in my city and neighborhood. Michael Brown and Ferguson cannot become prominent but ultimately powerless symbols for those with eyes to see. Rather, the prejudices and pressures that are at work there must also be admitted to here.
Learning to see carries this great risk for those content with blindness: seeing leads us to grieve; seeing leads us to act. An enlightened sympathy for injustice at a distances bears no resemblance to Jesus’ expectation that his followers walk with those who suffer. The discipline of seeing allows me to grieve rightly a young man’s death a long ways away while stepping into the path of those same forces of death that even now wreak havoc on my neighbors.