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…
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.
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!”
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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)