This week, I saw a torrent of debate about who reached for the gun and why police don’t shoot people in the leg rather than taking their lives. Neither angle seems to capture the bigger story at play on the evening news and fueling protest marches across Missouri.
On Sunday I preached to my church on race, current affairs and how to process — in a biblically loving way — what has been happening to brothers and sisters in Ferguson. (See video below) Talking about race and current affairs can be taboo in evangelical churches, and it was interesting as I saw a few couples exit the back door as I spoke.
Last week, I penned my thoughts on why we should pray for the saints in Ferguson. It was the outgrowth of my personal frustration and the pain I feel over the misunderstandings on race that can pervade the majority culture. Here is what I wrote:
[Thoughts on Ferguson and the Christian ethic of prayer and solidarity]
Have you prayed for the saints in Ferguson?
Have you felt the helplessness and vulnerability of black mothers around the country whose sons stand an astronomically greater chance of incarceration?
Have you wept with black fathers who worry if they’ve reminded their sons or had “the talk” enough times for them to remember to avoid any conflict or confrontation with the law or those with weapons (whether justified or not) because of the greater risk they face as men of color?
Have you prayed for the beleaguered and fatigued black community in America who endures — in way too systematic a fashion — the monthly news of another unarmed black man or woman killed because someone was afraid?
Have you looked at and grieved the systems and structures that far too often have privileged the majority culture?
Have you felt the sting of unfairness … the scourge of hopelessness … the venom of bitterness? You, who wish others would turn their emotion into prayer and a quest for endurance and hope rather than looting and protesting — have you yourself turned this narrative to prayer or cried aloud to the God of comfort as well as the God of justice?
You who would argue one side of another black killing — do you not realize that there is also another side? A side that requires lament, grief and understanding as a family will soon bury a son who died too soon? Can you not choose grief that dignifies instead of challenging those who are actually suffering, not merely analyzing, current affairs?
For those of us who believe the Kingdom of God transcends nation, culture and race—have we prayed for the saints in Ferguson?
In my Sunday sermon, I talked about the history of racism and injustice and read one of the more telling statistics that played a large role in shaping my understanding of just how crazy our racist past was.
In his book, Slavery By Another Name, Douglas Blackmon tells the story of two white men convicted for the murder of black indentured servants. The documentary version of the book shortens it stating, "In the spring of 1921, Williams and Manning each faced an all white jury in a Georgia State Court. Both were found guilty and given life sentences. Within a decade, both had died in prison.”
What is shocking is the concluding remark, “Williams was the first southern, white man since 1877 to be indicted for the first degree murder of an African American [in Georgia]. It would not happen again until 1966.”
Almost a hundred years of violence and lynching. One murder conviction. Shocking.
I also recounted how ludicrous it is to me that white businessmen will make millions of dollars selling tons of marijuana in Colorado and Washington while prisons are filled with scores of young black men imprisoned for selling handfuls of the same. As Michelle Alexander notes, there are more African Americans under correctional control today than were enslaved in 1850. The scales are not fully balanced.
Many watching the anger of protestors on their TV screens don’t understand, and feel like they can’t stand with, the protesting community in Ferguson because they aren’t acquainted with the racist history or the second-class treatment many who are marching are keenly acquainted with. In short, there isn’t a depth of shared experience between those standing on different sides of this sad affair.
I sense the fatigue and angst everyone — on all sides — has with this conversation, but I believe Ferguson needs to continue.
It needs to continue long enough for the bridge-builders to be able to make connections on both sides and establish an economy of mutual understanding.
It needs to continue long enough for the moderate voices to be able to educate and the right articles to circulate throughout the Internet — both conveying a deep, nuanced, and historical perspective that will help all involved grow toward unity; or, at the minimum, help us understand the view point and experience of the other.
There is a high degree of frustration and tension in the air. For many, that means we have to restore calm and alleviate the tension as quickly as possible. In short, we need to make the awkwardness go away and get back to normal life.
In the Civil Rights Era nobody won in the midst of the mess — not the dominant systems and structures or the people being arrested in protest. It was frustrating, awkward, and tense.
Then, over time, the dam was breached and change came.
That can often be the pattern for large-scale cultural change — that nobody wins until everybody wins. That frustration exists until we all begin to change.
That’s why, as much as I hate the turmoil and what it must be like for people living in Ferguson and for restaurants losing business; as much as I hate the anger in the debate over law enforcement and the cynicism that abounds on both sides; as much as I detest the endless stream of ill-advised rants on social media — I believe there is a need for Ferguson, or at least the conversation that has stormed onto the headlines, to continue.
It needs to continue because race relations in America needs to evolve.
Here are some helpful links or sources to further understand race history and race in America today:
Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Color Blindness, The New Press, 2012
David Oshinsky, Worse Than Slavery: Parchman Farm and the Ordeal of Jim Crow Justice , The Free Press, 1997
Leroy Barber, (Forthcoming) Red, Brown, Yellow, Black, White—Whose More Precious In God’s Sight?: A Call for Diversity in Christian Missions , Jericho Books, 2014
Bryan Stevenson, keynote address at The Justice Conference 2014 in Los Angeles, https://vimeo.com/90682764