One of the confusing things about the fallout from the shooting of Michael Brown by Officer Darren Wilson in Ferguson, Missouri, is the differing perspectives of many blacks and whites, even those who are united in the gospel and share the same theology.
There seems to me to be four basic positions one could take—and have been taken—at this point:
- We know that the shooting of Michael Brown was morally unjustified (i.e., murder).
- We know that the shooting of Michael Brown was morally justified (i.e., self-defense).
- We do not know whether the shooting of Michael Brown was morally justified or unjustified because we do not yet have enough clear and official information to form any settled conclusions with confidence.
- Whether positions 1, 2, or 3 are the correct positions to take at this time, Christians should be concerned with the larger systemic pattern of injustice in America that occurs when a predominately white law enforcement interacts with African Americans in particular, as borne out by similar cases and by social science studies.
There are African American brothers like Thabiti Anyabwile who want to focus upon #4, while he is being understood to say (incorrectly, it turns out) that he holds to #1.
Many white evangelicals, on the other hand, want to focus upon #3 before it can be determined if this is actually an illustration that substantiates #4.
I do not know all of the answers. At times I don’t even know how to ask questions or attempt answers for fear of misunderstanding or being misunderstood. There is an enormously complex constellation of presuppositions, history, psychology, inclinations, suspicions at play here.
What I do know is that we all can learn from one another on this, and that interacting without understanding is counterproductive.
It would be the height of folly to pretend these can be sorted out in a blog post. But let me point to one factor as illustrative of others, well expressed by Pastor Bob Bixby:
Whites are confused by the outcry of blacks from all over the country when a black boy is killed. This is because whites do not value their white collective in the same way that blacks value their black collective. The black culture values the black community. They value the black collective. It was through community that the blacks prevailed through the Civil Rights Era. In fact, it is through community that African Americans survive still. They feel much more dependent on community than we whites do.
Whites, on the other hand, simply do not see themselves as a collective. We are the proverbial fish in the water that sincerely asks, “What is water?” We see ourselves as Missourians, Bears fans, cowboys, motorcyclists, Democrats, evangelicals, and countless other possibilities, but we do not feel ourselves to be part of a white collective. Thus, when our black friends feel the impact of Ferguson even though they are three states away we scratch our heads and wonder how in the world this whole affair became a white/black thing when it just happened to be a white office that killed a black youth while in the line of duty. How, we wonder, can this be so visceral to them? As one black pastor friend said, he was vicariously traumatized. Honestly, I was not similarly traumatized. I went to bed that night without the feeling that one of us had killed one of them because as a white I don’t even get the feeling of a white us. In the same week a white teenage girl was shot and killed by the police three blocks away from my home. Naturally there were questions about the police procedures and an investigation is taking place, but no white person felt like one of us had been eliminated by a large impersonal other. It wasn’t until I consciously chose to respect the understanding and interpretation of black Christians that I sorrowfully recognized my slowness to sympathize with them.
White Christians trust too much their initial feelings, not realizing that feelings are shaped by understanding. I do not say that black Christians do not have the same temptation. I am speaking, however, as a white Christian preacher, trying to model ambassadorial effort. We have to understand that our instincts and knee-jerk analyses are products of our culture.
The reason for this is in the question of value. The fact that trumps all other facts emotionally in the culture that values the black collective as a minority community is that there is one less black boy of an already too-few number, dead at the hands of a white system that seemingly does not share that value. This assumption that a white system does not value black life seems proven when the force seems more trigger happy when the black youth is the target or when the force leaves his body on the street for hours before picking it up. As the value of a child would call up from deep within me a visceral, passionate, death-defying lurch toward the street in the flash of an eye, in the same way the devaluing of a chicken fails to to call up the visceral reaction in my soul and body to do something about it. In the same way, the black community senses from whites who calmly munch on their sandwich and say, “We don’t have all the facts yet” a devaluation of a black life. They do not see what whites think they are conveying, a calm deliberation that waits for due process and accepts the rule of justice. Instead, they hear from our inability to sympathize, “It’s just another black thug with sagging pants that wasn’t respecting authority.”
White evangelicals need to learn that it is not enough to have a black friend or to love a black person. One must love the black community. We who are white have grown up in a world where blacks must learn to live with us but where we have never had to learn to live with them. We love to go to a black church as tourists, but we do not want to go there as members. One must love the community that an individual comes from to truly love that individual, especially if the culture of that community places such a high value on its community.
That this is just one presupposition at play here illustrates the messiness and complexity of understanding one another.
Let me add one more encouragement (to myself as much as to anyone). In his book Bloodlines John Piper addresses a common the temptation in these difficult discussions:
Of all the moral issues that challenge the church from decade to decade, this one we are tempted to abandon more often, because in this battle we get more quickly and deeply wounded along the way. If you have thin skin, or if you have a bigger sense of rights you are owed than mercies you need, or if you have small faith in God’s preserving grace, you will set out on the road of racial harmony and then quit. Because you are going to be criticized. You will try to say something or do something that you thought was helpful, and the first thing you hear is: you said it wrong, or you should have said it a long time ago, or you should have also said such and such, or it was not the time to say anything. . . .
Will we “stay on the table”? Stay on the road? That is what the doctrine of perseverance is for—to keep us faithful in the kind of obedience that is sustained by the foretastes of heaven and leads to the glory of heaven. Christ has purchased our perseverance. The Holy Spirit applies the purchase. None of us will persevere perfectly. But getting up when you are knocked down is a mark of Christ’s followers. We know life is short and eternity is long. This eternal perspective does not take us out of the world. It gives us freedom from self-pity. We are about to inherit the earth (Matt. 5:5). We don’t need to have it now, or the ease and comfort that go with it. We can work at this till we drop. For our labor is not in vain in the Lord.