On #Ferguson, Listening, and Believing
I don't have a catchy angle for this one folks. No hook. No draw-em-in, pithy, humorous intro to prove this post will be worth reading. I have only the stomachache that kept me up last night, hours past when I meant to go to bed. A stomachache prompted, I believe, by what's going on two thirds of the way across the country. In Ferguson, Missouri.
Believe me, I'm as surprised as any of you that this whole Ferguson thing is eliciting any thought from me at all. What does it matter to me? For one thing, I live in Oregon. Geographically, Ferguson could not be less on my radar. Additionally, I have had maybe one or two run ins with police in my whole life, none of them significant (traffic ticket, maybe some domestic dispute when I was a kid), all of them cordial enough. Plus, ya know, I've got that whole, white guy thing going. Well, mostly white. I'm actually pretty significantly Indigenous on my dad's side but I can pass for white, so let's count it. I have a few black friends, but none I've had the opportunity to sit down with and discuss the particulars of this situation. So what's my deal?
To be totally honest, on a purely intellectual level I don't actually understand what's going on with any of this. At all. Sure, I get the details of the case well enough; I've heard all the same tidbits and soundbites you have. But I do not logically, or even experientially understand Ferguson's extreme response to the grand jury's decision. Granted, I believe the shooting was unjust, and am grieved over the system's failure, but the property damage? The looting? The pacifist in me chafes against these attempts to react by lashing out. How is all this frustration going to accomplish anything?
But that's just the thing about frustration, isn't it? The point is not to accomplish, but to express. Frustration is the soul's knee-jerk reaction to that which ought not be. And it is this frustration, more than anything else, which has grabbed hold of me, of my heart and my gut. I see and hear the news reports, the facebook posts, the tremendous tension in this country, and it has elicited something in me. Something small, barely noticeable but for my generally sensitive nature.
Please allow me at this point to clarify something: I have no idea what the Brown family, Ferguson, and our black brothers and sisters are going through right now. I can't even begin to actually feel or understand the full, embodied pain, confusion, and betrayal. And that's sort of my point, the only angle with which I can approach this topic at this time:
I don't get it.
I see the way our black friends and neighbors have responded to the news, I see their grief, and to be honest it goes clean over my head. It makes no sense to me because I've never had to deal with what they do; I've never had to live in their skin. I have no idea how horrifying it must be to live in fear of the police, and to have that fear validated time and again by one senseless shooting of an unarmed teenager after another.
|There is rioting, protests, militarized police units in the streets of Ferguson tonight, and I don't get it.|
So in the absence of such understanding, I have options. I can, as some have, dismiss the extreme reactions as opportunistic and savage. I can pass judgment on Ferguson and laugh off the pain black Americans are expressing in wake of these events. I can consider it all to be an unfortunate but isolated incident, or even stand with a police officer who shot an unarmed black teen.
These solutions are all quite tempting, mind you, because they would allow me to continue to live in a world where racism is dead, where all people enjoy equal protection and opportunity under the law, where things are essentially as they should be. I would rather live in this world. And I, as a white American, get to pretend I do. But our black friends cannot. They are forced to live in the world as it is, a world which sees them as "other", as "dangerous".
This thought leaves me deeply uncomfortable, even guilty, but such guilt and discomfort absolutely pale in comparison to the actual fear and oppression ingrained into the black experience in this country.
Alright, so you may at this point (reasonably) ask what right I have to speak to these issues. How could I, a white male, possibly know these particular facets about the black American experience?
The answer is simple enough: it's because I listen, and I believe. I take the people of Ferguson, and black citizens across the country at their word. I trust them when they share their experiences with race and oppression. I do not second guess them when they explain how one teen's shooting by a police officer could mean so much to them personally.
This is the second option, friends: to listen and believe.
We can either, from our own majority perspective, project certain assumptions onto our black friends regarding their own experiences, or we can trust their voices, believe their stories and attempt to express empathy for and solidarity with them.
On an individual level, I can either assume that, because I have never seen or experienced racism firsthand, it does not exist, or I can believe my nonwhite friends and neighbors when they share how real and painful it is.
I can dismiss the frustration surrounding Michael Brown's shooting as extreme and unnecessary or I can ask questions, seek understanding, and trust the perspectives of those truly affected by it.
The key, friends, is understanding that my own singular perspective is not sufficient evidence to make judgments about the intentions, feelings and experiences of others.
I don't and can't know what it's like to be black in this country.
I don't and can't understand what it's like to fear for my life based on the color of my skin.
So I listen and I believe.
And I give up the need to control this conversation, which is fundamentally not about me.
Then why bring it up at all? Great question.
It's because I have been told that I may use my position of privilege to advocate for those who don't have it. While my voice ought not be one deciding the terms of this conversation, it may well be lifted up to shed light and spread awareness.
So allow me to shine my light on other perspectives, on those voices to which we really should yield the conversation at this time. [These are voices of Christian leadership, because as someone in ministry it is through this lens that I have approached the situation, but their thoughts are incredibly enlightening and helpful either way.]
Here Christena Cleveland appeals to white Christians during this pivotal time.
Here Lisa Sharon Harper explains how Ferguson must be a catalyst for change.
Here some other Christian leaders express their own perspectives and calls to action.
Finally, let me make one last appeal to my white Christian brothers and sisters. I would like to remind you, as I needed reminding, that Christ is on the side of the oppressed. He stands outside the gate with the marginalized and the outcast. Further, I would like you, at this time to see that the fear, frustration, and sense of loss in the black community right now are real. You may not agree with every action taken in response to these feelings (I certainly don't), but you and I don't really get to dictate the terms of this conversation. The impulse may be strong, but we need to lay it down. We need to give up our power and privilege, at least in this moment, or may God strip it from us.
After all, we worship a God who modeled love for us by laying down His power even to the point of death. To the point of death. If the God of the universe can die to show His love, we can at least stop talking, stop assuming, stop projecting long enough to listen. And in doing so, we will model the cruciform, sacrificial heart of our God.
Lord Jesus Christ have mercy on us, sinners.
Bring us peace, bring us mercy, but not without bringing justice for those unheard, for those oppressed.
Lord, forgive us for neglecting your beloved children, for even unwittingly benefiting from their subjugation.
Lord teach us how to give up power, as you did. Teach as how to sacrifice, as you did. Teach us how to love, as you are.
Lord have mercy.
Christ have mercy.