Whitewashing Ferguson

Part I
Introduction:

At this point, I’m going to assume that you know who Michael Brown is…or was.

I’m going to assume that Ferguson — a town just outside St. Louis — is, now, deeply engrained in your mental space.

I’m going to assume that you have a basic knowledge of what happened back in early August and of the announcement that was made last night.

I’m going to assume that you are aware of the wide array of responses to said death and announcement.

I’m going to assume that you are someone who frequents Facebook and Twitter and is aware of the type of stories that fellow Christians are likely to share and/or talk about.

I’m assuming a lot. But based on those assumptions I’m going to say a few things about the questions that will, now, not leave me alone.

But before I jump in…

Part II
A Disclaimer:

This post is going to be significantly less polished than many of my others. Nothing that I say is above critique. I acknowledge that I am new to this conversation in a number of ways. Some of it is familiar but some of it does not enter my realm of thinking enough for me to be able to say things with certainty or offer definitive answers. What I am sharing are some of the immediate thoughts from my own spiritual journey that are subject to being pushed back upon, re-evaluated, or even called out when they are offensive, harmful, or simply not productive in the conversation.

Part III
Let’s Begin:

These days, it seems as though my Facebook feed consists primarily of recycled news stories mixed in with the increasingly common engagement photo and the rare, but appreciated, gif of a cat playing the piano just to keep things interesting. Over the last month or so, most of the shared news stories have been stories covering the grotesque, violent, and vile actions that ISIS has taken out on Christians and non-Christians alike. Most of my white, evangelical, Christian friends have spent an great amount on time and energy proclaiming these stories, keeping people informed, and asking for prayer.

That’s good. Prayer is a good thing.

What ISIS is doing is horrific…evil…vile.

But mixed in with these posts were others stories about ISIS that would get caught up in the onslaught of viral-ablity and would later turn out to be proven false…unconfirmed, as if ISIS needs help being more evil than it already is.

Prior to ISIS, my Facebook and Twitter feeds were filled with all kinds of posts and rants about Hobby Lobby, religious liberty, Gordon College, hiring practices, and birth control issues. Everyone had a side and everyone had something to say. Everyone had an opinion that was well sourced from this one news article that someone wrote somewhere this one time and it got published on the internet…so it must be true. There was a lot of conversation around those things.

And then Michael Brown was gunned down.

And then Michael Brown died.

And then a community in Ferguson rose up around his body and cried out for justice.

But my Facebook feed was silent.

The few responses it did elicit from my white, evangelical friends were pretty common.

“Well…we need to wait and see!”

“We don’t know what happened!”

“We must not rush to conclusions!”

That’s curious.

We didn’t share that same line or standard when we were sharing reports about ISIS. We didn’t share that same line when we were sharing articles about birth control that we probably didn’t spend enough time reading because most of us consider ourselves to be more informed on birth control than we actually are. In fact, we probably didn’t share that line with any other news story that we may have thrown up on social media.

But this one…with this one…we need to wait until we have all of the facts.

I think we should pause for a moment…no really…right now…pause…

…and ask yourself why that is?

Why?

In a situation where we have real reports of police brutality, of the media not being allowed to cover certain aspects, of the 1st Amendment being trampled on…where was the great white, evangelical Christian outrage over this?

Here is what I’m wondering:

I’m wondering if we’re afraid to share stories like this one because we’re scared that if we admit that race might have been a factor here, that we must also admit that we haven’t actually solved racism in America. We must admit that we’ve bought the lie that we keep feeding ourselves — that we’re not segregated or that we’re not resisting integration in our churches, our homes or our communities because we do XY&Z. And because we’re doing XY&Z that must mean that we’re not like those nebulous “other people” who we call racist.

The truth is, most of my white, evangelical friends probably didn’t mean anything by it when they chose to ignore the injustice that took place in Ferguson back in August. But just because you don’t mean anything by it doesn’t mean you haven’t done wrong.

Part IV
Double Standards:

pennstateriot

So far this post has been about how the white, evangelical community was largely silent regarding Michael Brown until last night. But after last night, when my white, evangelical friends did speak out, it was not in response to the announcement but in response to the riots. I can’t help but notice a double standard. And frankly, I’m terribly uncomfortable with white, evangelicals telling black communities how to express their rage, or how to respond to police killing them, when, in 2011, a mob and angry white college students in Pennsylvania began rioting — turning over vehicles and setting fire to property — when news broke of their beloved football coach’s firing. Those rioters in State College, PA weren’t thugs and criminals, they were justified protestors because…they were white…and were protesting…football…you know…something sacred.

A few other of my evangelical friends called for silence, cautioning their followers not to say anything that might distract people from Jesus and the Gospel.

With respect, the gospels tell of a child slain and a mother who mourns. The gospels tell of a man who was killed by government brutality for the sake of an angry mob. So forgive me if I don’t share your opinion that showing concern for Michael Brown might distract from the Gospel.  Furthermore, I think the prolonged silence of the white church has been pretty deafening. Instead of blaming a dead black man for these riots, let’s acknowledge that it has taken these riots to get the white church to pay attention and notice.

Part V
The Plank in My Eye:

It is here that I find myself in the position of no longer being able to pass judgment because I have spent so much time ignoring things like this myself. So I cannot point out the speck without acknowledging my own plank. I am late to the party — late to the discussion of race in the church. Because I went to private schools and upper middle class churches that kept me, largely, insulated from the black community I assumed a lot about their experience in the world. I assumed it was just like mine. It never crossed my mind that they might face difficulties that I couldn’t even begin to understand.

I assumed a lot.

I’m therefore complicit.

I am therefore guilty of Martin Luther King Jr.’s indictment that “In the end we will remember not the words of our enemies but the silence of our friends.” 

I am complicit and I need to ask for forgiveness.

Part VI
Same God, Different Struggle:

Because this is a blog that focuses primarily on theology, I want to say just a bit about what all this might mean for the church. I have some serious questions regarding my own involvement within it in light of realizing that not everyone’s experience is the same as my own, and that I have, for too long, walked around assuming that all of us walked around thinking and feeling the same way — that the differences between us were less stark, less intensely external. While we might all share the same Spirit inside of us and we profess the same Jesus as our Lord and Savior we don’t face the same external battles. We don’t all face the demand for personhood, the demand for recognition. I’ve never been told that I was less than a person. Then again, I’m not sure that I’ve always reminded everyone around me that they are a whole person themselves.

This story won’t leave me alone. I can’t sleep. It has me stirring. So I’m going to do the only thing I know how to do.

I’m going to ask questions.

I’m going to ask questions of my local church.

I’m going to ask questions of the denomination I’m a part of.

I’m asking if the way we approach God and faith is inclusive enough for those of other races.

I’m asking if we recognize that as much as we say, “Jesus isn’t a white guy,” we more often than not recast him in that image.

I’m asking because this won’t leave me alone.

I’m asking because if the church is not the first place a person can go to feel safe, belong, and ask questions then we’re not doing it right, we’re not doing Jesus, we’re not doing, “Comfort, ye, my people.”

Part VII
In Conclusion:

I don’t know what to say anymore about this.

All I can tell you is that I grieve and that it won’t leave me alone.

All I can tell you is that when I look around in church on Sunday and I see more white than color, I’m going to have questions.

And I’m going to start asking those questions louder, more directly, and more frequently.

It will be my goal to be kind. But it will also be my goal to discover where our diversity has gone.

If anything has been revealed to me through these events, it’s that I need to stop talking and do more listening. It’s clear that countless people of color who have been killed by police are every bit as significant as those who have been slaughtered by ISIS and demand our recognition. And these are our friends and neighbors who live next door…down the street.

Oh that we would take their experience seriously and listen.

I think I’m just beginning to learn how.

(Patrick Craig is a graduate student at Duke University Divinity School)
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4 thoughts on “Whitewashing Ferguson

  1. Patrick, thanks for sharing your thoughts, especially the risk (I understand as a writer) of sharing “unpolished” thoughts. I’d like to raise counterpoints, not ultimately to disagree with you, but because I feel like you and I are on a similar journey here, and your reflections can help with my own questions.

    First, on the social media silence comparison to ISIS, Hobby Lobby, etc. Isn’t there a key dimension you are leaving out, namely the deep tradition of “innocent until proven guilty” in the jurisprudence of Western civilizations? ISIS accounts are treated as “war news” and the other things you mentioned are political debates, which have traditions of public debate, but Ferguson is in the category (I realize this is debatable) of a criminal case, and thus the debate follows that “genre” of discourse, where there is a strong undercurrent against the 24 hour news cycle to delay public judgment in the defense of the (crumbling?) presumption of innocence. I’m not saying race and racism are not involved, but it doesn’t seem you are giving a fair accounting of the internet “silence” without including that dimension.

    Second, with regard to your example of double standards (the PA student riots), I have a hard time seeing the connection. I certainly never condoned the PA riots, nor did anyone else I know, whether because they were white, or because it was “football,” and if I didn’t comment on it online, it was perhaps because I assumed everyone else thought as I did, “what a bunch of complete morons to riot over a football coach, they should all go to jail.” In other words, no debate, no defense. That’s precisely the opposite case here, where there are key leaders advocating that rioting is not only an “understandable” response, it may actually be the only just response. Since there are now people apologizing for and/or advocating rioting as a legitimate political solution, of course there will be much more debate, because there are now two sides to be taken. I use the term “rioting” here deliberately as the most extreme response, recognizing fully that not all “demonstrations” “rallies” etc. are by any means riots.

    Which brings me to the third question, which I think is the heart of the matter: issue framing. How you ask the question determines the kinds of answers you get. And people with two different frames can talk right past each other and never hear each other. It seems to me that this issue has been framed in these two ways:

    1. The issue is race. American society does not treat young black men as real human beings. This has reached a breaking point because the police power of the State, that is supposed to protect life, is now killing young men with no punishment at all from the justice system. If you don’t see it this way it is because you yourself are a racist.

    2. The issue is law and order. American society no longer respects due process and the rule of law. This has reached a breaking point because legal questions are tried in the media rather than in the courts, and the destruction of life and property is justified by many when the popular opinion differs from that of the courts. If you don’t see it that way, it is because you yourself are a criminal at heart with no respect for the rule of law.

    To me, it is the last part of these two issue frames that is the most dangerous–once you put a label on opponents just for being opponents, dialog becomes impossible. If I’m a racist or a criminal just for seeing the issue differently, there’s no way to talk it out. Racists must be shamed, criminals must be jailed.

    Like you, my own ethnicity and past experience tends to put me in the “law and order” camp with the assumption that, although not perfect, the judicial system as a whole can be trusted and even when it gets things wrong rioting is a cure that is worse than the disease. However, I’m willing to be more open–to try to see things from a different point of view, to give serious consideration to the ways that the whole system could be so broken that it becomes necessary to make a new Declaration of Independence:

    “That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness. Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn, that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.”

    In other words, I do have access to a story, a highly esteemed story fundamental to my identity as an American, of my “ancestors” being treated as less than full citizens and pursuing a course their enemies would have labelled “rioting” in order to gain justice. However, for those who wish to appropriate that story, it seems to me that “decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes” are in order rather than labeling and shaming.

    To put it in a nutshell, I’m in full agreement that white Christians need to take more time to reflect on how radically different this issue may look from an African American point of view, and to be willing to acknowledge a form of racism shaping our blindness to that point of view. But I don’t think you can adequately speak to the white response to Ferguson using Race as the only issue frame. Intellectual honesty requires that you also acknowledge the Law and Order issue frame as an alternative point of view that, although it can be co-opted for racist purposes, is not an intrinsically racist construct.

    1. Ken –

      Thanks for your thorough comment, here. As always, I have a great amount of respect for your wisdom and appreciate your ability to offer counterpoints and critiques with civility and respect — a rare sight these days. I can’t really disagree much with what you had to say about framing the issue, but I wonder if more could be said about point 1 (on genre) and point 2 (on riots).

      I think you’re right that Ferguson, ISIS, and Hobby Lobby, each inhabit a particular “genre.” But my suspicion is that the type of person who is quick to post the first thing about anything controversial that they found on the internet and that just so happens to confirm what they already believed is not apt to take the time to ask themselves what “genre” a particular news story belongs to. But perhaps my suspicion is based upon my particular theological anthropology and not grounded in facts. I’d have to take a poll to be sure. ; )

      I also want to say more and probably should have said more in my post about the riots. I realize that I sarcastically described the Penn St. mob as “justified rioters” and should have chosen my wording more carefully. In retrospect what I really want people to notice is the tone and tenor with which these very different riots are described. Put differently, I think there is a subtle racism in the way such events are talked about/described. Not just in whether or not they are defended.

      And to be clear, The Penn St. riot was not an isolated incident. Party riots are on the rise in America and they typically follow the same script. Cops typically show up to shut down a massive party, but rather than disperse, the students fight back, attacking the police, blockading streets, destroying property and lighting fires, often leading to full-scale confrontations between crowds of drunk college kids and militarized riot-ready police forces. These rioters structure their rage around opposition to the police, attacking them with bottles, bricks and whatever is at hand and chanting anti-police slogans.

      These acts are the product of spontaneous nihilistic crowds, inspired by some combination of booze-and-pop-music-driven refusal to stop partying (as Miley Cyrus puts it, “And we can’t stop/And we won’t stop), the exuberant togetherness of crowds and a sense of impending postgraduation precariousness.

      So perhaps it would have been more effective to use the more recent riot in Keene, NH that took place in October following a pumpkin festival…yes…a pumpkin festival. In NH, white college kids flipped cars and threw bottles at cops. In the media coverage of said event, they were referred to as “rowdy, booze-filled revelers” and other similar euphemisms. At Penn St. they are “morons” and “stupid college kids.”

      In contrast, conservative media has framed the actions of Ferguson protestors in terms of “rioting” calling them “thugs,” “criminals,” and “dangerous.” The difference in language is striking and I think one is hard pressed to deny that in America there is a fundamental difference in the way in which we perceive black and white bodies. In Darren Wilson’s own testimony, Wilson (who is 6’4″ 210lbs) said he felt like a “5 yr old holding onto Hulk Hogan and described Mike Brown as a demon.” I think Wilson’s “demon-ization” of Brown confirms a recent psychological study suggesting that “white people are predisposed to ascribe superhuman and magical qualities to black people.”

      You can read more on that, here: http://religiondispatches.org/do-white-people-think-black-people-are-magic/

      I’ve probably gotten a bit off topic at this point but what I want to say is that (A) While these forms of destruction do make me uncomfortable, they do not make me as uncomfortable as white people commenting on black rage when white people have been known to rage over baseball games and pumpkin festivals and (B) while I agree that a fair assessment must include both frames of “race” and “law and order,” the race frame cannot be ignored because it appears to have been a factor and I think there is a lot of credible questioning as to whether or not the legal system worked here.

      Justice Scalia on the purpose of grand juries: http://thinkprogress.org/justice/2014/11/26/3597322/justice-scalia-explains-what-was-wrong-with-the-ferguson-grand-jury/

      Grace and peace,

  2. I’m not as uncomfortable as you about riots, I guess. I’m just as comfortable saying white looters should be shot dead, as saying any other color person should have the same fate. Mobs that go into a house, store, or other place of business with intent to loot or burn need to be stopped , literally dead in their tracks. If people knew this would have been the consequence of their actions, the white and black-owned businesses would not have been burned to the ground. This is not a naive point of view. I saw a couple of bushes burning in the median of a street there, that didn’t bother me. But when I see somebody’s life’s work go up in flames, it’s infuriating. And preventable…

    “I’m terribly uncomfortable with white, evangelicals telling black communities how to express their rage, or how to respond to police killing them, when, in 2011, a mob and angry white college students in Pennsylvania began rioting — turning over vehicles and setting fire to property — when news broke of their beloved football coach’s firing.

    1. Paul –

      All opinions are welcome here. As I stated, my ideas are, “subject to being pushed back upon, re-evaluated, or even called out when they are offensive, harmful, or simply not productive in the conversation.”

      However, I am choosing not to argue with your response because it appears such an argument would not be productive. That is, it is clear from your response that our inherent philosophies/theologies (I’m not sure of your religious background?) lead us to fundamentally different conclusions about the value of human life and the appropriate use of deadly force and I’m afraid any attempt at reasoning would end in impasse.

      Instead, I’ll simply offer this thought:

      Christ doesn’t just suffer for the innocent, the ones who don’t have the energy to fight back, or the ones who perfectly respond to injustice by turning the other cheek. Christ also suffers for the ones who suffer now and sin in their suffering. While I do think the riots in Ferguson are regrettable insofar as they misappropriate God’s justice by taking it into their own hands — these events at least give me pause and cause me to wonder if the rage they feel is the rage that God feels over the centuries of injustice towards them?

      The fundamental question is this: can you see the image of the suffering Christ in the faces of these angry rioters as they respond to injustice — however misguided you think their response might be?

      My answer is, “yes” and my arrival at that answer is not the work of theological gymnastics or liberal pity. My answer is the result showing up to their protests, hearing their stories, experiencing their rage, and being present with them.

      This, after all, is my conclusion. The white community may not ever understand their rage or justify their response, but the very least we can do is “take their experience seriously and listen.”

      PAX CHRISTI,

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