Last night, on my flight from OKC to Chicago, I was glued to Southwest Airlines’ free TV and watched the news coming from Ferguson. In seminary, we lived a few neighbors away; I also worked with several folks from Ferguson at UPS. I learned about “driving while black” from Barry, who was from Ferguson. I heard lots of very personal stories about the racial tensions in Saint Louis from both whites and blacks.
I’ve also been privileged to study the long civil rights movement from some wonderful scholars at West Virginia University and the University of Oklahoma. I wrote an MA thesis on the topic of Fundamentalism, Civil Rights and Modern Conservatism. My dissertation will cover much of that ground. I have spoken at the oldest African-American church in Jackson, Mississippi on this topic as well as a Civil Rights academic conference at Mississippi State University and a denominational seminar with Drs. Ligon Duncan, Carl Ellis, Sean Lucas and Otis Pickett. (You can read one of those papers here Race and Christianity in the US)
None of those things prepared me for last night.
Last night hurt. Overlooking my shoulder were two older African-American women, anxiously waiting the grand jury decision. When I told them there would be no trial, of the woman said, “I knew that would be the case.”
As both a pastor and scholar, I hurt. I hurt because I’ve read so many accounts of violence, disappointment, inequality, and hate toward African-Americans over the past 400 years. I hurt because I lived near Ferguson. There are good people there. I worked with some of them. I hurt because an unarmed, eighteen-year old died. I hurt because I do not think for a second anyone wants to be the most hated man in the country by a large number of people, while simultaneously receiving kudos from white supremacists, and knowing they will always be the police officer who made global headlines for something not-so-heroic. I hurt because watching the prosecutor made me cringe because, from a rhetorical standpoint, he did not seem to demonstrate the compassion needed for such a significant announcement even if he is 100% correct on the issue. And I hurt because a great city, Saint Louis, was called a powder keg because of deep racial issues back in the 1990s, and the explosion occurred this year.
Deep down, I believe I hurt because things are not the way they are supposed to be. We shouldn’t live in a world where unarmed kids die. We shouldn’t live in a world where people leave racist, anti-black comments on a gofundme.com account that raised over $500,000 for the police officer. We shouldn’t live in a world where people profit from violence through media and sensationalism. We shouldn’t live in a world where peaceful protests are disrupted by looting. We shouldn’t live in a world where black kids are called “thugs” and police are called “pigs.”
But we do live in that world. We need to be honest about that. We also need to realize that we do not have all the answers about the Ferguson case and maybe no one will. But it is still appropriate to grieve. It is still appropriate to care. It is Christian not to dehumanize Michael Brown or Darren Wilson, however hard that may be for you or me. We must weep with those who weep and mourn with those who mourn.
I still believe there are ways forward. For, white folks like myself, we need to be humble and listen to the stories of our African-American friends. We need to take these stories seriously. We need to earn trust and respect even if we “didn’t do anything to them.” We need to ask questions and learn. We need to practice solidarity.
As a majority white church, which I want to see change, we need to be friends with our African-American churches and learn from them. We need to partner with them. We need them to teach us how to love our city in new ways. We also need to rely on them for prophetic understanding of our culture because the Black Church in America has functioned as a prophetic, and persecuted, witness in our nation.
We (whites) also need to stop saying things like, “well that was fifty years ago,” or “the Civil War ended in 1865,” or “why are they complaining…” because the effects of sin affect society for a long time. Just because slavery ended and legal Jim Crow laws were annulled does not mean there are structural and societal consequences. Both individuals and societies reap what they sow.
We need to pray. Pray for our city. Pray for Oklahoma. Pray for Ferguson. Pray for our nation. And pray for our world. As Christians, we are called to be a people of prayer. We do not have all the solutions to the problems and we must go to the one who calls us to Him to ask for wisdom.
We need Christ. Jesus showed us true solidarity with his fellow person in his earthly ministry. He made deep, abiding relationships with people who were not like him. He loved. He served. He cared. He listened. He suffered. Ultimately, Christ’s life, death and resurrection point us to the reality that he is making all things new. In the meantime, we long for the day where things ARE the way they are supposed to be. We long for the day where there is no more racism, no more inequality, no more tears, no more pain, no more suffering and no more sin. We long for it so much that we stand for it and live for it. We follow the pattern of life, death and resurrection with a deep love for God and love for our fellow person.