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.
On Friday our family was the recipient of an act of kindness that still has us talking. Some new friends who have quickly become dear to us were moving from one Chicago neighborhood to another. Neither of them drive so they asked if Maggie or I would be willing to drive their rental van. We wanted to say yes, but the tumult of adoption had us tired and hunkered down. After so much exposure to uncertainty our vulnerable selves were needing some quiet time at home, getting the feel of this family of four.
We really wanted to say yes, but instead I sent an email to a handful of friends from our church and explained the situation. Honestly, I wasn’t sure anyone would respond. After all, these were friends of ours not theirs, and we wouldn’t even be there. Did I mention the move was going to happen on a Friday evening? Despite my skepticism, within twelve hours three friends had volunteered to help. They were nonchalant about it. Of course we’ll help. Why wouldn’t we?
Providentially, on Friday evening we drove to a going-away party and discovered on the way that it was less than a mile from where our friends were moving. The moving van was arriving about the same time we got to the party, so we swung by our friend’s new apartment. Something about seeing those three friends from church so cheerfully helping this couple they’d never met really moved Maggie and me.
It was their kindness that got to us. I’m so used to people prioritizing their own stuff – I know the tendency in myself very well. But here were three friends who gladly set aside their Friday evening to drive a truck, carry some boxes, and fight rush hour traffic for people they may never see again. (Though I hope they will see each other again!)
I won’t attempt any big conclusions or parallels here. It was simply a refreshing experience and a reminder about how very important one’s decision to be kind can be to others, even to those who are not the immediate recipients of the kindness.
Being a pastor isn’t the hardest job – not by a long shot. I can think of many, many jobs that seem far more demanding. Even so, it is a strange vocation without much cultural equivalency. It’s only after ten years in the ministry (as we pastors call it) that I don’t dread the What do you do? question. I’ve come to expect the awkward silences and unpredictable follow-up questions. (But what do you actually do? So, that’s a real job?) I kind of like the questions now; telling people what I do seems to give people who don’t often get to talk about such things permission to share their opinions and questions about spiritual things.
So being a pastor isn’t the hardest job but there is a strangeness to it that is hard for people outside vocational ministry to relate to. And that’s OK, but it does mean many pastors feel lonely and isolated. A quick internet search of “lonely pastor” makes it plain how widespread this is. There are a few reasons I don’t typically feel this: a supportive family, friends who don’t care all that much what I do and remain interested in me for other reasons, and a kind and gracious church.
There is another reason I don’t experience the isolating effects so common to this work: other pastors. This might seem obvious but I’ve come to appreciate the camaraderie of other women and men in the pastoral guild only recently. In my earlier years in ministry I found it difficult to relate to most other pastors. And to some extent I still do: rooms full of pastors can be strange places filled with high-sounding jargon and not-so-subtle comparisons; many pastors seem unable to talk about anything other than their churches. But in more recent years I’ve noticed that people I highly respect share this pastoral work: my dad, my aunt, and my great friend and neighbor, Michael, for a start. These are all good, admirable, and normal people- normal in the sort of way close friends must be.
In his memoirs Eugene Peterson devotes a chapter to his friendship with a group of clergy in the Baltimore area. The Company of Pastors, as they called themselves, were diverse in many ways: age, theology, and the locations of their many different churches.
This diversity did not divide us. This is a rare thing among pastors, maybe a rare thing in general. But it came from our common assumptions of our common vocation – not temperaments, not politics, not theology, not reputation. We were pastors, a Company of Pastors. And we were pastors in a culture that “did not know Joseph.” Our identity out of which we lived was unrecognized by virtually everybody, in and out of church.
This group of pastors proved indispensable as Peterson worked to be a pastor in culture with little memory of what such a vocation looks like or why it might be important. Such a cultural location “meant that we were lonely, and sometimes angry that we were lonely.” If that collection of pastors felt that way so many decades ago, how much deeper are those emotional shadows today?
But Peterson found his companions and thus not only lessened the loneliness – some of it is probably unavoidable and also good – but also found a living compass that pointed him toward a vocation that had become fuzzy and open to endless interpretations. Peterson was beginning to pastor at the time when churches were adopting the language of business and markets in order to grow congregations. The pressure was strong to set aside older assumptions about pastoring and to pick up new, more legitimate-seeming personas: entrepreneur, CEO, specialist. The Company worked as an anchor that kept them against the constantly changing tides of new methods, strategies, and programs. (Any of Peterson’s readers will know this didn’t mean isolation from the world of ideas or cultural engagement.)
The three men in the picture above are pastors and we have become a version of Peterson’s Company. Last year we gathered from around the country – Minnesota, Washington, Chicago – for a retreat. I knew one of the men well and the others not at all. We spent our days describing our churches and our neighborhoods and, to the best of our abilities, our sense of the Spirit’s work among the people to whom we’ve been called. We talked about what was good and what was hard. We asked one another many, many questions. Some about tactical concerns. Others about the shape of our spiritual life. We went on some walks, told stories, and ate well. I took notes of the many new and fresh thoughts that came to me during those days. When the retreat ended we committed to stay in touch and we have- quarterly conference calls lessen the distances and allow the good questions to continue.
Like Peterson’s group we come with our diversities: three have planted churches; three are pastoring larger churches; two of us lean to the city, two toward the country; personalities and perspectives are as different as could be expected. We belong to the same denomination which provides a nice starting point and the familiarity of history.
A few months ago we agreed that it was time for another retreat. Frequent flyer miles and a borrowed vacation home made it possible to spend another four days together. As before our conversation topics ranged widely – ministry dilemmas, questions about the future, preaching challenges, family – but circled back to our shared vocation. For those few days we got to be pastors with other normal pastors. My temptation to justify the vocation faded; the loneliness around the fringes dissipated. I have pastor friends – good friends – in my neighborhood, but schedules are hard to coordinate and time unhinged from tasks is almost impossible to find. So these times away take on added meaning, special in part because of their rarity.
It’s a strange thing, being a pastor. I thank God for the friends who have been called to this strange vocation and who so willing share themselves with me.
I spent portions of last week with new church planters who had come to Chicago for training with our denomination. On Sunday evening Maggie joined two other church planter spouses to talk about their experiences and what the pastors and their families should consider as they go into this unpredictable work. She was, of course, her typical thoughtful and keeping-it-real self.
A couple of weekends ago New Community had the chance to host, along with some other neighborhood churches, my friend Ed Gilbreath. I reviewed Ed’s new book, Birmingham Revolution, a few months back. For the Chicago Revolution conference Ed spoke about Rev. Martin Luther King’s time in Birmingham, paying special attention to his time in jail and the resulting letter that is now so well known. He then traced Rev. King’s time to Chicago and pointed to the challenges he faced here. The entire conference was thought-provoking, challenging, and encouraging and I’m including Ed’s talk here because I think it’s very worth your time.