In August of this year, Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager was shot and killed by Darren Wilson, a white police officer in Ferguson, Missouri. For those of us who are honest enough to admit it, many details of the incident are unclear. Earlier this week (more than three months after the incident) a grand jury decided not to indict Wilson with any charges of wrongdoing. (I have not had any legal training nor have I reviewed the mountain of information presented to the grand jury that led to their decision; that’s not the focus of this post.) On the one hand, some have praised their decision and have declared that the evidence has been weighed and the truth has won and justice has been done. Others, however, feel as though this is yet another example of the justice system failing and perpetuating the pattern of police brutality against minorities. When the decision not to indict Wilson was handed down, people in this latter group began to protest. It didn’t take much time before some of the protests turned to rioting and looting and acts of destruction. Before long it seemed as if the entire country (at least the ones who are Twitter and Facebook) had something to say about the situation. Very few of the comments and posts I encountered were even slightly ambiguous; most people had taken a firm stand on one side or the other. I’ve spent the past 24 hours thinking and discussing and reading about various aspects of the situation. The question I’ve been trying to answer is, “what is the appropriate Christian response to this situation in Ferguson?” Following are some of my thoughts, recognizing full-well that I am a white, middle-class Christian male living hundreds of miles away from Ferguson.
SEEKING TO UNDERSTAND
To be perfectly honest, I was tempted to pass judgment on the rioters and looters and move on. It would have been easy. Lots of people were doing it. After all, no matter how bad things are, there is never any excuse for destroying innocent people’s property, right? Peacefully protesting is one thing. Looting and burning down businesses is quite another.
I decided, however, to take a few moments and try to put myself in someone else’s shoes. I reminded myself of one of the cardinal rules of communication: Seek first to understand, and then to be understood. I reminded myself that perception is reality. Even if what I perceive to be true is actually completely false, it is real to me. In light of that, I tried to imagine what it must feel like to have lost a friend or a brother or a child to what I believed was police brutality and excessive force, only to see the killer walk away without so much as a trial. And then I tried to imagine how I would feel if it seemed like this kind of thing was happening over and over and over again across the country towards people of my race. If I’m honest, I would be furious. I have lost my temper for far lesser things and I have done things in my anger that I ought not to have done. When I took a few moments to try and see the situation from the perspective of the rioters I realized that I could understand why they were doing what they were doing. I don’t agree with it. I think its wrong. But I get it.
LOOKING DEEPER: SYMPTOMS VS CAUSES
So much confusion occurs when we mistake symptoms of a problem with the problem itself. Symptoms point to a problem but are usually not the problem themselves. For example, say that I had some imbalance in my system that led to chronic headaches. The headache in this example is a symptom; the imbalance is the cause. I could, of course, take a pain reliever to ease the pain temporarily, but until I address the systemic imbalance the symptom will persist. Once the underlying cause is addressed, the symptoms will disappear. The rioting and other events in Ferguson are not the problem, they are symptoms of other deep-seated systemic problems. Until the systemic issues are addressed, symptoms will persist.
When it comes to dealing with people, love sees the need behind the symptom. That means that we have to love people enough to really listen to them. This is a time for everyone to honestly and truly listen and extend love, even if we may disagree. People are hurt and afraid; people feel betrayed. I don’t know about you, but when I am hurt, when I am scared, and when I feel betrayed, I am likely to act out.
A BIBLICAL RESPONSE
There are lots of Christians on both sides of this whole Ferguson issue who sharply disagree about the proper Christian response. I believe the following arguments are faithful to the Biblical text interpreted through the life and ministry of Jesus and I believe they are applicable regardless of which side of the issue you may find yourself.
The way of Jesus is the way of radical love, mercy, compassion, and forgiveness. Jesus set the example for us by giving his own life for our sins while we were yet enemies of God (Romans 5:6-10). The epistle of 1 Peter reminds us that “When [Jesus] was abused, he did not return abuse; when he suffered, he did not threaten; but he entrusted himself to the one who judges justly (2:23).” How about Jesus’ own words in his Sermon on the Mount:
You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if anyone would sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. And if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. Give to the one who begs from you, and do not refuse the one who would borrow from you. You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven (Matthew 5:38-45).
Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.
Well said, Thomas.