During our Ask Me Anything panel a few weeks ago, a young, Philadelphia-born-and-bred black man asked me , “How am I supposed to not demonize police officers after what happened in Ferguson?” I really did not know how to respond. I felt his anger and his confusion. I really loved how he was looking for how he could be like Jesus in the midst of yet another black person getting killed by police. It seems impossible to react in “Sermon on the Mount” fashion, turning the other cheek, not returning violence for violence, when our enemies are doing something so heinous.
As we watch the Islamic State systemically target Christians (and U.S. journalists and innocent Kurds) in Northern Iraq, it is amazing that the U.S. is dealing with its own apartheid-like conditions and more than that, explicit state-sponsored violence against black youth. Of course, when Wilson killed Brown, the police department puts out its typical defense of police brutality: Brown attacked the cop. And while there is no justification for six shots being fired back at him, the news media covers the black response in Ferguson, creating a narrative of disorder and anarchy, and basically leaves us to fill in the blanks. Black rage gets marginalized and literally animalized by our news media. White rage against progress, as one commentator put it, is never even in question.
I am often dumbfounded when these things happen. The whole thing is exhausting. One reason it is so exhausting is because it is so redundant. There is hope because we’re talking about race relations in America again—but it seems to only happen until a more interesting news headline shows up. Have we forgotten about Zimmerman killing Travon Martin? Do we need another reminder of racism? Have we not seen the incarceration system? Public education?
I’m frustrated that I don’t often find practical solution for addressing race and racism in the U.S. It is the Goliath that we cannot seem to destroy. Paul’s vision of the New Humanity seems so far off as many of us are just happy social constructing who we are, and not building inclusive community. The church is often the last place people in need turn.
And it’s amazing because we can do so much good together. The ice bucket challenge shows us how much good people can do together (apparently, it’s more interesting than Ferguson too). It was marvelous to observe how many people poured ice on their heads for that cause. But when it comes to race in the U.S.? It’s all division and hysteria. We stay out of the discussion. We cover up our prejudice. Or we are just blatantly prejudicial. The sides get defined and reconciliation seems impossible, or not even desirable.
I told the questioner at the PM to try and see the humanity in the so-called demonizers. It’s a challenge to see their humanity when they don’t return the favor. I’m a victim of prejudice in my neighborhood. I know in my hot red car, with hip-hop blaring, and more melanin in my skin color, I am a target for police. So I have to change my appearance to not get pulled over and harassed. Just a few days ago, my white friend was pulled over on Lehigh Ave. because the cops assumed the only reason a white dude would be west of Broad on Lehigh was to score drugs for the Made in America fest. One of them got frisked.
How does Jesus respond to this oppression? Four thoughts:
- He would love his enemies. That means oppressive cops too. He would never justify their actions (he might tell them to “go and sin no more”), but he would at least have a relationship with them enough to influence them. That’s a painful process for me since relating to my enemies without getting really angry is hard.
- He would show an unsuspecting amount of compassion even to the guilty. The Good Samaritan story is all about loving straight to the margins. Obviously, we are all guilty of sin. No one is innocent in this world. But Jesus still shows up love, not violent punishment, when we fall. The justice system in the U.S. is fundamentally not no one knows what happened that day in Ferguson, but the facts don’t really change God’s grace. And yes, that grace extends to the cop that killed Brown.
- He would see himself in the least of these. My enemy might be a racist cop, so I must love him if I want to follow Jesus. But the least of these in this nation are the oppressed. They are poor, black, and disenfranchised. Jesus didn’t mince words when he said that those who wouldn’t serve the least of us are unknown to him.
- He would learn and adapt. For me, the story of how Jesus interacted with the Syro-Phoenician women is evidence that he is willing to learn more about cultures that are different than his for the sake of his mission. Our job is to be as conscious as we can about the U.S.’s greatest sin: racism. I don’t think we can call ourselves true followers of Jesus is we are not listening and learning.
Jesus might just call wicked people enslaved to wicked systems wicked. He didn’t come to create peace or tolerance of evil. He would resist such permissive tolerance. I believe he always offers a path to repentance and transformation. That path for the U.S., or our justice system, will be narrow, though, maybe as narrow as an eye of a needle for a camel.
What do you think? How would Jesus respond to the trouble in Ferguson?