In the small part of the world I inhabit it’s rare that a week goes by during which I don’t talk with someone about self-care. The church I serve has more than its fair share of teachers, social-workers, therapists, and grad students. These are people who are moved by their neighbors’ pain and have given much of their lives to work of mercy and justice. The work they’ve chosen is demanding and the obstacles they face are entrenched and seemingly endless. I ask them, Are you taking care of yourself? Are you getting rest? We talk, in other words, about self-care and whether or not they are prioritizing it in the midst of difficult vocations.
But it’s not enough.
Which isn’t to say that self-care isn’t important. It is. The concept reminds the individual that her life matters- all of it, not just the bits that are affirmed for their efficiency or productivity. Self-care is also empowering as the individual claims the responsibility and right of ensuring that she is not marginalized, taken advantage of, or made invisible. There continue to be many places where self-care is a radical act, where a person’s value and agency are not foregone conclusions.
The way we talk about self-care is a relatively recent development, a fact that hints at why I don’t think the concept can bear the weight we’ve placed upon it. As best I can tell, prior to the late 1980’s, when the literature uses “self-care” it is describing populations of people who weren’t considered capable of caring for themselves. From a cursory search, it seems that people talked about self-care as something to be taught to less-capable others- children, the poor, and the mentally handicapped to give a few examples I found. The care in these examples related to the basic functions of life and was a obviously different from the way we think about self-care today.
Beginning in the 1990’s – again, as best I can tell – the meaning began to shift to include medical concepts and was then applied to those working in the social services. This is the beginning of how we think about self-care today, where an individual takes responsibility and control of his own mental and emotional health.
One of my favorite people to follow on Twitter is author Anne Lamott and a regular theme for her is self-care. Because she’s Anne Lamott it’s radical self-care. Here’s one from this past September: “Maybe I have 20 years left. I plan to love God, help His or Her children, radical self-care; try to save the earth: march, & register voters.”
Lamott, I think, captures how we feel about self-care, that it is necessary for sustaining our call to good work and that it is a responsibility we alone can bear. But is self-care as important as we’ve made it to be? And are we capable enough to take responsibility for our own mental and emotional health?
Sabbath, in contrast to self-care, has a much longer history, though it’s one even Christians forget. (I won’t pretend to speak for Jewish people here, whose relation to the Sabbath is much longer and more intentional than it is for Christians.) Within an individual-centered society it’s probably not surprising that caring for one’s self eclipses the practice of a corporate pace of rest and care. Yet it’s actually for the ways that Sabbath challenges our individualism that I think it offers a more life-giving, humanizing path for us, especially those called to the helping professions.
To begin with, Sabbath is grounded in the physicality of specific practices. There is nothing theoretical about sabbath-keeping; it happens when we stop our work and, as Eugene Peterson has written, start our play. For most of us, Sabbath will be marked weekly by ceasing our productivity and joining with others in our congregation as we worship and serve one another. It will be normal for us to rest and feast with the knowledge that others are doing – or not doing – the same thing. In the Sabbath we have a day, a full twenty-four hours, that is God’s gift to us. We are not meant to grasp for moments to care for ourselves. No, each week is meant to begin with a day during which, through specific practices and routines, we experience God’s care for us. In his essential book about the Sabbath, Abraham Joshua Heschel repeatedly points out the way this day functions as God’s gift to us: “The seventh day is like a palace in time with a kingdom for all. It is not a date but an atmosphere.” Our abstaining and feasting practices, experienced weekly, are the doorway to this palace in time where are free from time’s tyranny.
I hinted at it in the preceding paragraph, but another attribute favoring the Sabbath deserves to be called out: Sabbath is for the community and with the community. Of course, as is hopefully already clear, the day benefits the individual but, unlike self-care whose very name limits it to the individual, Sabbath is meant for the good of a people. This is more important than might be immediately obvious. After all, one of the attractions of self-care is that I get to decide what will be refreshing for me. Nothing wrong with that; I do it all the time when the kids are in bed and Maggie is at work when I sit contentedly in a quiet home with a book or a movie. But if I’m relying solely on myself for the care of myself I’m guaranteed to let myself down. I will too regularly choose to overwork or I will choose entertainment that sounds appealing but leaves me emotionally fatigued rather than rejuvenated.
But because Sabbath is practiced with a community, my rest will be characterized by acts and habits that I wouldn’t choose for myself but which, over the centuries, have proven rejuvenating for our humanity. Self-care involves choosing something that, though I may overlook or neglect it, will feel good to me. Sabbath, in contrast, involves submitting to a day with others that many times I don’t think will feel good to me. I couldn’t tell you how many times I, a pastor, have been told by someone after a worship service, I didn’t want to come today but I’m sure glad I did. That’s Sabbath. We choose to trust that this very old way of being together is the best thing possible for us, and for me.
Sabbath is harder than self-care, mostly, in my experience, because its practice requires my submission to God’s idea of what is best for me. But it’s harder in the way we need it to be. After all, there are good reasons and hard experiences that make it necessary that we are cared for. We need something with a bit more backbone, a bit more history, and much more fruitfulness over the generations if we mean to continue our work with joy. I’m not strong enough to care for me. Thankfully, there is One who is, and the Sabbath is where I’m reminded of this simple and necessary truth every single week.
On Facebook & Twitter I recently made the following statement: “To my white brothers & sisters: our participation in the #BlackLivesMatter movement begins with our repentance & confession.” A friend read this and asked if I could suggest any resources for repentance. I’ll suggest one such resources at the end of this post, but I want to start by filling in my original statement just a bit.
During the past few weeks I’ve wondered about how white people can participate in protests, marches, and movements for justice on behalf of black and brown people. This is worth thinking carefully about since the white protestors, like myself, are complicit in and beneficiaries of the very systems responsible for the injustices targeted by the protests. A white person presents at least two challenges in these settings: his presence is a reminder of the privilege and prejudice that makes the protest necessary and his formation within a white supremacist system makes his participation in a movement to dismantle such a system… complicated.
Despite these very significant challenges, there are good reasons for white people to join the struggle for justice for black and brown people. James Baldwin saw this in the early 1960’s:
White people cannot, in generality, be taken as models of how t live. Rather, the white man is himself in sore need of new standards, which will release him from his confusion and place him once again in fruitful communion with the depths of his own being. And I repeat: The price of the liberation of the white people is the liberation of the blacks- the total liberation , in the cities, in the towns, before the law, and in the mind.
Here’s what I take from Baldwin about white protestors participating in BlackLivesMatter: We must begin by acknowledging our own profound need, by the way our privilege and unacknowledged power has corrupted our hearts. We come to this justice movement not as innocent bystanders or righteous saviors. We come as desperately needy persons, not to assuage our guilt but to confess our sin and need. For many of us, the act of protesting is a quite literal repentance- we are turning away from our sins of commission and especially our sins of omission and we are turning back to our Savior and the priorities of his Kingdom.
In my original statement I wrote that a white person’s participation in the movement begins with repentance. And while it does, repentance must also be ongoing. In our discipleship to Jesus we are regularly being shown new (to us) habits and assumptions that require our turning away. This will be especially true for those of us whose society has affirmed our assumptions, desires, and fears. As we continue to follow Jesus it becomes clear that the affirmation we received as members of a dominant culture is no longer so quick in coming. The ethic and assumptions of the Kingdom of Heaven are often greatly at odds with those of our country and its privileged citizens.
Though it is ongoing, this repentance will also be specific. White Christians who are becoming aware of the destructiveness of whiteness as a social construct can feel ashamed of being a white person. This person wants to apologize in general terms for being white. But such general shame and vague repentance isn’t helpful. After all, no one chooses their race or ethnicity. Neither do we choose the history and social realities associated with them. And while the social construct of whiteness continues to wreak havoc in America, there is nothing inherently wrong with a person’s white skin.
So our ongoing repentance must avoid vague generalities. We must instead repent like Zacchaeus who, when made aware of his sin by his proximity to Jesus, repented of particular sins: “Look, Lord! Here and now I give half of my possessions to the poor, and if I have cheated anybody out of anything, I will pay back four times the amount.” The history of race in America – a history so many white people are ignorant of – provides many specific reasons to repent: economies and institutions built on slavery; discriminatory housing policies; stolen wealth and land; education inequities; mass incarceration; cultural stereotypes promoted by the media. These are barely the tip of the iceberg and the connections to these large themes and one’s own complicit privilege are not immediately obvious to many white people. But follow Jesus long enough with an eye to reality and the connections will come and along with them the need for particular repentance.
To be fair, many white people have been Christians for a long time and are as blind to the need to repent as are many of their non-Christian peers. Without going too deeply into it here I attribute this blindness to church structures that are more determined by our country’s racialized assumptions than by any Biblical ecclesiology. In too many cases our churches exacerbate our privilege and prejudice rather than calling them out and calling us to repentance. Segregated white churches eliminate the possibility of reconciliation across cultural divides, one of the bitter fruits being white people who never submit relationally to people of color whose experiences and perspectives would provide new rationale for specific moments of repentance.
Intrinsic to Christian faith is dependance on God’s grace and mercy. Confession, repentance, and forgiveness are not exceptional or occasional practices for Christians; these are the very basic practices of our faith. I point this out to say that, in theological theory at least, white people ought to welcome the opportunity for ongoing repentances as a normal and natural characteristic of their faith development. I don’t mean that it’s easy, but no one who reads the Gospels closely expects discipleship to be easy. Good, but never easy.
As for resources for repentance, I think the Psalms are always the starting point. In recent weeks our church has turned to those psalms that were written during times of exile. These often speak to both the need for deliverance and the need for forgiveness.
Do not hold against us the sins of past generations; may your mercy come quickly to meet us, deliver us and forgive our sins for your name’s sake. [Psalm 79]
Have mercy on us, Lord, have mercy on us, for we have endured no end of contempt. We have endured no end of ridicule from the arrogant, of contempt from the proud. [Psalm 123]
The beginning of Nehemiah also is a great example of a man with cultural privilege repenting of a previous generation’s sins. This is tough for people who know too little of our history and value too much our individuality, but Nehemiah shows us why such wide repentance is necessary and good.
I’ve had a few requests asking about how our church worshipped yesterday, taking into account the non-indictment from Ferguson. Below is a lightly-edited version of my sermon. However, the most impactful part of the service were the testimonies given by eight members who told us about their responses to the news. After each person shared the church responded by praying a portion of a psalm.
Update: The podcast is now available and it includes the testimonies shared by eight members of our church.
Advent: Lament and Longing
Today is the first Sunday in Advent, the season that reminds us of the time when God’s people were awaiting the coming of the Messiah. Our passage, Ezekiel 34, was written during that waiting time: Babylon had conquered Judah; Ezekiel and others had been carried into exile; The Temple had been destroyed. Advent reminds us of the longing and laments these people felt as they prayed for God’s rescue to come.
Advent also reminds us that we await our Messiah’s return. We share with those ancient exiles the bitter awareness that life is far from what it should be; we share with them the hope for the Messiah to come and make all things right. Because things are not right.
When Michael Brown, an unarmed, 18 year old, college-bound, African American man with no criminal record was gunned down by a white police officer in Ferguson, we are reminded that things aren’t right.
When the young man’s body was left in the middle of the street for four hours in the August afternoon sun, we are reminded that things aren’t right.
When law enforcement responded to protests with tear gas and military grade weaponry, we are reminded that things aren’t right.
When a town like Ferguson can be 67% African American and yet 93% of arrests made by the mostly white police force are of the town’s black citizens, we are reminded that things aren’t right.
When Michael Brown’s personal life and motives are picked apart by a media looking for some reason to justify his killing, we are reminded that things aren’t right.
When the same state that ruled against the enslaved Dred Scott’s legal suit challenging his enslavement in 1847 releases video showing Michael Brown stealing a few cigarettes as justification for his death, we are reminded that things aren’t right.
When a grand jury meets for three months under the direction of a county prosecutor with close ties to the police department and a history of racial bias and decides not to indict the police officer who killed Michael Brown, we are reminded that things aren’t right.
When a black man is 21 times more likely to be killed by a police officer than a white man, we are reminded that things aren’t right.
When so many American citizens question the innocence of these slain men while conveniently overlooking our nation’s pathological robberies: we took the first nation’s land before taking their lives; we stole black bodies from Africa and placed them within a white supremacist system of cotton fields, Jim Crow laws, systematically designed ghettos, and money-making prisons; our towns and tax systems benefits from undocumented brown bodies who do the work we’re unwilling to do for wages we’d be offended by… we are reminded that things aren’t right.
Oppressive Shepherds and Opportunistic Sheep
In response to their new situation in Babylon, the exiles wanted to know what they were to do. Their king was dethroned, they’d been sent into exile, and now the temple was destroyed. In response to so much trauma and suffering, what were they to do? I was texting with a friend this week about the news from Ferguson and, at one point, he replied, “I’m not doing enough.” Like the exiles, we want to know what to do. But the Ezekiel passage doesn’t tell us what to do. Instead Ezekiel makes clear that nature of the injustice suffered by God’s people and it tells us what God will do about it.
Verses 34:1-16 are directed to the shepherds, those in positions of power and leadership. Woe to you writes Ezekiel. God is angry with them for what they’ve not done as well as the ways they’ve abused their power.
You have not strengthened the weak or healed the sick or bound up the injured. You have not brought back the strays or searched for the lost. You have ruled them harshly and brutally.
As a result of their unjust rule, the people are scattered, wandering, and being devoured.
Verses 34:17-31 are directed toward the sheep, the people. Some of them, according to Ezekiel have taken advantage of the unjust system created and maintained by the shepherds. Ezekiel charges them: You’ve eaten your fill then trampled the pasture so others can’t eat; You’ve muddied the water so others can’t drink; You’ve abused the weak sheep and driven them away.
And what will God do about the wicked shepherds and opportunist sheep?
23 I will place over them one shepherd, my servant David, and he will tend them; he will tend them and be their shepherd. 24 I the Lord will be their God, and my servant David will be prince among them. I the Lord have spoken.
This is pointing toward Jesus, the Messiah anticipated by the exiles and their descendants right up until that surprising night in Bethlehem. But look closely and see that the metaphor of shepherd is closer to a righteous judge.This shepherd will remove corrupt leaders. He will judge those who have benefitted themselves through an evil system.
What Will You Do When The Shepherd Returns?
The exiles awaited this “one shepherd” to come. We await his return. So how will you respond when this good shepherd and righteous judge returns? There will be many who great his return with celebration and relief. There will be some, like the shepherds in Ezekiel 34, who will be terrified because their opposition to this return king has been unmistakable.
And then there will be others of us who are like the fat sheep in this passage and like the goats in Jesus’ parable in Matthew 25:31-46. In response to the righteous judge this group will respond, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?’ Those within this group know there is something wrong with our world. We know, on some level, that game is rigged. We know that our nation resembles a democracy to some and a kleptocracy to so many others. But because we generally don’t feel the wickedness of our society we are quickly distracted. We choose to invest in the small circle of our insulated existence rather than the lives of the overlooked and oppressed.
And here is the truth according to God’s word: the judge will pronounce sentence on those powerful people who oversaw the unjust system AS WELL as on those who quietly benefitted from the unjust system.
Which group do you fall within? If you’re unsure, imagine for a moment that Jesus returned today. Imagine the realization that the good shepherd and righteous judge had come to make all things right and new. What would you feel? Would you run to greet this shepherd and judge, knowing that your salvation and vindication had arrived? Would you run the other way, knowing that your day of hollow and wicked rule had come to an end? Or would stand frozen in uncertainty? Unsure of what the Messiah’s return means for someone as middle of the road, as under the radar, as inconspicuous as you? As me?
Jesus In Ferguson
As much as we want to know what to do in the aftermath of Ferguson, as much as the exiles wanted to know what to do in the aftermath of their desolation, Ezekiel is more interested in what God will do. And what God does in the face of such evil is to send us a shepherd, a servant, a prince, his only Son.
And the trajectory of Jesus’ life makes it very clear to us where he would stand in the streets of Ferguson:
His motives are questioned and his reputation slandered.
His body is dehumanized so that his execution could be justified.
He dies in the afternoon sun, a spectacle meant to remind the onlookers who holds the power.
In life he is marginalized and in death he is brutalized.
Are we talking about Michael Brown or Jesus? Yes.
Are we talking about 12 year old Tamir Rice or Jesus? Yes.
Are we talking about John Crawford shot in a Wal-Mart or Jesus? Yes.
Are we talking about Marissa Alexander, imprisoned for firing a warning shot at an abusive husband yet unprotected by the same stand your ground laws used by others, or are we talking about Jesus? Yes.
This is what God’s salvation looks like. We start with what God does, and because of what God does through Jesus and because of HOW God does it through a broken and bruised body, we in turn must look at the black and brown lives that are continually being broken and bruised, not in spite of how our society works but precisely because of how our society works.To paraphrase Ta-nehis Coates, a society structured around the dehumanization of black and brown people is having its intended effect.
And Jesus, the Bible makes clear, stands with those on the receiving end of our society’s violence.
I won’t wrap this sermon up cleanly or neatly. All we have done this morning is acknowledge the reality experienced by so many in our world, a reality we walk back into now. There very well may be things for you to do. But start instead with what God will do and ask yourself how you will respond on that day. How will you receive the returning shepherd and judge? Will you run to him in relief and joy? Then do so now, carrying with you every emotion and thought that you’ve known this week. On that day will you run the other way, knowing that your days of vapid and abusive power have come to end? Or might you be like the fat sheep or the surprised goats, frozen in uncertainty?
The possibility for a joyful reunion exists for all of us, but it requires that we embrace the cross of Jesus and all of its implications.
This morning I received the following reflection from one of the founding members of our church. Ramelia Williams is a seminary student and one of our finest preachers. She’s a friend whose wisdom I highly value. Please read her words carefully.
News reports proclaim that Michael Brown’s parents have stated, “While we understand that many others share our pain, we ask that you channel your frustration in ways that will make a positive change. We respectfully ask that you please keep your protests peaceful. Answering violence with violence is not the appropriate reaction.” The President of the United States quoted those words in a plea for non-violent demonstrations. These weak statements reek of puppeteering and throw grease on the fire. These voices are akin to the false prophets in Jerusalem. “They have treated the wound of my people carelessly, saying, ‘Peace, peace,’ when there is no peace. They acted shamefully, they committed abomination; yet they were not ashamed, they did not know how to blush (Jere6:14-15, NRSV).” The parents of Michael Brown (or the attorneys who wrote the statement) do not seem to understand the historical continuity of this murder. This perpetuation of disrespect for black bodies and black lives makes blood boil and anger roar. It is a righteous anger that will not rest in peace until we can answer the question, “Cain, where is your brother Abel? …Your brother’s blood cries out to me from the ground.”
A Crime Against All People Of Color In This Nation
When people of color were enslaved in this country that was full of Eurocentric descended peoples, it was the first time that a slavery system could identify its chattel merely by physical appearance. Jews had to wear stars on their clothing to be identified as the targets of genocide. But African slaves could lay naked in the road or hang dead from a tree, with no question about their slave status. Thus, from our landing in this country until 2014, we have been unified by skin color, whether we like it or not. A crime against Michael Brown is a crime against every person of color in this nation. Furthermore, by nature, African descended peoples are not individual entities but families, tribes and villages. The moment Michael Brown was gunned down it was a crime against the community of black folks across this nation and not a crime only against the Brown family. In fact, it was a crime against the larger Brown and Black families, all people of color in this nation.
The appeal for the avenging of Michael Brown’s blood is an appeal that every mother and father of a son of color in this country is making for their own child. This is not an appeal that can be self-contained by the Brown family. Rev. Martin Luther King prophesied, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” This grand-jury approved murder of Michael Brown is a sanction for white power, white rule and white privilege. It makes a statement about the true power brokers in this country. I dare say, it is a message to the very president of the United States of America; hear ye, hear ye…this, Mr. President, is what we think of your people and your kind. It is from a very public, international stage that white folks have reminded people of color where they stand in this country. Our population may increase, but today, we are reminded that political powers give dominant culture the ability to continue to rule over the livelihood, lives, bodies and welfare of minorities.
Until Lynching Became Personal
Many social media commenters are hailing their disgust with “rioting” in Ferguson. Some have alluded to the fact that Michael Brown was a thief. To these commenters, I share the words of Ida B Wells, a Northerner, commenting on lynching in the South. “Like many other persons who had read of lynching in the South, I had accepted the idea meant to be conveyed—that although lynching was irregular and contrary to law and order, unreasoning anger over the terrible crime of rape led to the lynching; that perhaps the brute deserved justice and the mob was justified in taking his life…” These were her thoughts until lynching became personal when three of her dear friends were lynched. She then described Memphis as, “a town, which will neither protect our lives and property, nor give us a fair trial in the courts, but takes us out and murders us in cold blood when accused by white persons…” It is rioting when it is happening in someone else’s town, over someone else’s anger, in regard to someone else’s child. But I wonder how the tables might turn when this senseless killing of black bodies becomes personal to you? The story of Michael Brown allegedly shoplifting cigars is “meant to convey” to the subconscious that he deserved what he got in the end. This rendition of cops and robbers, cowboys and indians must end with a sunset and the victory of the good guys. To the person with even a miniscule quantity of humanity, 6-8 bullet wounds in the body with fatal consequence in exchange for $8-$10 worth of shoplifted merchandise means the scales of justice are grossly imbalanced. Even the Levitical Law only required “an eye for an eye!”
Why Ferguson? Because we are tired of the cheaply priced toe tag that hangs from the life of black bodies…
A couple of thoughts after the election yesterday.
The Kingdom of God is far more creative than our two-party, big-money political process. The best commentary yesterday evening pointed out the cycles common to electoral politics. Yet we’re meant to act surprised at how these things turn out. We’re also supposed to pretend that the system isn’t rigged, that every citizen has access to the same representation, that money’s role is neutral. In the end, for all the ways I’m grateful for our democracy, I have to admit to its fundamental lack of creativity and kindness. Held up to such predictability, the Kingdom of God as described and modeled by Jesus is almost unbelievable for its imaginative ethic. Here the last are first, the poor are rich, and those with the most power and influence are barely a footnote.
Also, communities of Christians will continue pursuing Jesus’ cause together the day after any and every election. Most of us will choose to vote thoughtfully, but our solidarity comes not primarily from the satisfaction of voting but from our common identity and cause with God’s people. For us the action is after election day, regardless of who was or wasn’t elected. We are concerned with the big picture, but most of us will give our best attention to the smaller places where mercy and justice can be pursued with and for those who share our zip code.
May God grant wisdom to our elected public servants. May God grant his church courage and faithfulness; may our skepticism and hope be rightly placed.
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.