Where My Heart Is, Part One…

Hope Shines Through…by M. Lewis

Okay, I have to honest. I am wearied by the recent barrage of conversation about race that the Michael Brown case has brought about. I’ve thought many times about blogging about Ferguson, but have not really had to stomach to do so. It seems no matter what you say or how you say it, you will somehow be misunderstood. Many times that misunderstanding explodes into accusations and brutal judgments. And I’m not just talking about on secular blogs either. 

Yesterday’s journal entry was a pages-long diatribe of emotional release. When I read it back to myself I was appalled at my self-righteous attitude, but also was struck by the anguish and pain that wove its way throughout the prose. Never for public consumption, the cathartic release laid bare my heart in a way only my heavenly Father can truly address and heal. Anything I would write on a blog would indeed be more measured. But how best to do that? I’ve questioned if what I am writing right now will ever leave the safe confines of my journal. Race is all too personal, and the discussion of it is all too volatile. 
Everyone has an opinion. Do I really need to share mine? 
Today I was prompted to read afresh Martin Luther King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail“. In it, King is writing to fellow members of clergy who were chastising him for his social justice involvement. They question his timing and his methods because they always lead to violence. They feel that it was not the place of the church to involve themselves in such affairs; that it is best to just let the system work itself out. We need to just wait. Besides, we’re all about the Gospel, after all…
His words still sting today. They remind us of the truth that there is indeed nothing new under the sun. But they also remind us that in many ways, we never seem to learn from our past. We keep repeating it, hoping for a different outcome.
I have to say at the outset that Black folk are not a monolithic group. There are different views and opinions on the current state of affairs and the remedy for what ails us. And I am certainly no expert here. I am one lone Black woman living in the Midwest, watching things unfold every night that tear at the fabric of my heart and leave me feeling tattered, bruised and emotionally exhausted. I see, think and feel things I strain to understand myself, much less explain. But, this is my best attempt.
So, since this is going to be published after all, it will have to be in multiple parts. This thought stream is just too long…
Let me also say this. The circumstance in King’s time was very different. We can all look back and agree (I hope?) that the social maladies King was fighting against at the time were horribly immoral and unjust. Segregation and Jim Crow were an affront to the humanity to all involved, both the oppressed, and the oppressor. In King’s words: [Segregation statutes] gives the segregator a false sense of superiority and the segregated a false sense of inferiority.” The danger was very real and very present for Black folks at the time. And not just in the Jim Crow South. Black men and women, as well as children, could be killed, beaten, hanged, terrorized without any legal repercussions. And – and this is key to our conversation about Ferguson – much of this assault was carried out by the legal system. Police officers, mayors, city councilmen, senators, local prosecutors, all worked in collusion to deny justice to Black folks.
King’s commitment to nonviolent social action was meant to “create a crisis and foster such a tension that a community which has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue.” He was of the firm belief that “there is a type of constructive, nonviolent tension which is necessary for growth.” Those who worked with King were committed to this type of social nonviolent protest, and were willing to pay the legal penalty for breaking laws they deemed unjust. However, they were often met not with handcuffs, but Billy clubs, fire hoses and attack dogs; civil rights leaders were killed, or their houses – and in one case their church – bombed. All sanctioned by local government and law enforcement. Black folks had no recourse, nowhere to turn for justice. King led a movement that highlighted the inherent dignity of all humans, while simultaneously revealing the inhumane underbelly of so-called “separate but equal” segregation laws and the attitudes that formed them.
The circumstances today are in many ways very different. In the case of Michael Brown, it is true that he and his friends engaged in criminal activity prior to his death. He aggressively engaged with Officer Wilson when asked to move to the sidewalk. Many would then argue that his altercation with the officer justly ended with his being gunned down in the middle of a neighborhood street. Many don’t quite understand how this could possibly result in the rage and anger that resulted, and the mass protests in the wake of the Grand Jury not returning an indictment of Wilson.
We could also argue that the struggles that King and the Civil Right Movement fought brought about the desired change. Laws were repealed and new ones enacted in their place. Constitutional protections were put in place to ensure that states could no longer openly discriminate against a group of citizens based on race. Why do we feel the need to rehash this history over and over again?
But…there’s always a but…(smile)….
I believe that we should all be students of history. If you study history, you find patterns, threads that connect one era to another. If you can ascertain where those threads lead, you can learn how to change the pattern. So I don’t think it’s a bad thing to retell history, especially if the lessons of that history have yet to be learned. I am of the belief that we at such a time in our present day, and this tragic event has reopened a wound that has never actually been allowed to heal…
Here are a few questions, and I’ll stop. I just want to hang them in the air for a bit.
Can we erase 340 years (at the time of King’s writing) of systemic oppression and denial of opportunity in one, or even two generations?
Is there a way to mourn and even denounce (rightly so) the violence that sprang up from the initial incident and the announcement of the Grand Jury decision, but still seek to understand where such anger comes from without dismissing the entire group as “thugs”? Or, put another way, can we appreciate the voices of those who are truly protesting (versus using the chaos as an excuse for criminal behavior) and seek to understand them, without punishing them for the actions of those whose only answer is violence?
Can we simply state, without qualification, that the loss of any life is a tragedy? Ask a mother of an incarcerated child, and she will more often than not tell you she still loves her child in spite of what they they have done. Even in the most hideous of crimes. This mother lost her child. Her pain is real. His father’s pain is real. How do we speak to that pain?
I write these things out of a firm conviction that Christians in America must speak to these things. Perhaps it is because of the type of church I was raised in, but I fail to see how we can separate these things from our desire to reach people with the Gospel. Is this the “Gospel”? No, and I will state that as emphatically as I know how. The Gospel is Christ coming in flesh, fulfilling all righteousness, and dying for those who cannot. He was raised so that we can raised to newness of life. And that newness has implications for how we live. I suppose our disagreements come from what it means to live out those implications. Can we really deliver the Gospel to hurting people without addressing the tangible issues that are causing that hurt?
We live in a culture that is markedly different from Paul’s world. Ours is a democracy, which affords us certain freedoms that Paul did not enjoy. He did however, avail himself of the privileges he did have as a Roman citizen to assist him in his work to spread the Gospel. How can we best do that in our time and space? How can we avail ourselves of that with which the Lord has blessed us? What does that look like for us?
Could it be that getting our hands dirty in the muck and mire that our racial history has left us is a way of cooperating with God as we pray that His Kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven?
This is my warm up (oh boy). As I hit the publish button, I will second guess every single word I just wrote. But this is where my heart is right now; this is where I must start…

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