What are we remembering?

So this is the deal…I can’t not comment about what happened in Charlottesville this past weekend. I’ve held off on saying much because my reaction to what I witnessed on TV, the commentary from Trump, and the barrage of comments on both sides would have resulted in a screed, and much of that screed would not have been very Christlike. I don’t want to contribute to that. But I do have a lot to say.

The other day my cousin posted an awesome response on his Facebook page. His particular focus was on Trump’s equivocation of George Washington and Robert E. Lee. Here is what he said:

“If we’re talking about a founding father, i.e., George Washington, yes he was a slave owner, as were most of his contemporaries. He probably didn’t believe slaves should be free or equal. However, he fought another nation for the freedom to create this nation. Because of the government he established our society was able to mature to the point that people of good [will] of all races will have come to where we are today… The distinction I make is that Lee fought to break the union Washington helped fight for and found. Lee fought to further domestic oppression based on race. I get that he was a central figure in the civil war. [He fought on] the side that wanted to preserve a way of life that existed, in part, based on subjugation of non-white people based on race.

The thing [Trump] misses is that despite what he may want to believe, we have evolved as a society. What was acceptable in Washington’s time was divisive in Lee’s time. Today, the idea that we could do that to each other or subscribe to those beliefs is un-American.”

I couldn’t have said it better myself…but I will add to it.

I cannot, in good conscience, be anything but supportive of removing monuments that were erected in public spaces to memorialize or venerate leaders of the Confederacy. The Confederacy came into existence because of one issue: slavery. Yes, there were other issues, but they all coalesced around the issue of slavery and states’ rights to continue that practice (to view the original documents related to the formation of the Confederation, visit this link; this link is also a good resource for source documentation on the Civil War).

So what are we really memorializing? How are leaders who fought to break apart the union considered patriots? I do not doubt the sincerity of their beliefs that what they were doing was right; but as my cousin rightly pointed out, we have evolved as a society. We should be able to look back on this era of our history and see the error of these beliefs, not to celebrate them, but to learn from them.

What I find so interesting is that the monuments we speak of were not erected immediately after the Civil War. They were erected in the climate of the post-Reconstruction South, when Jim Crow laws were being formed and rights that had been won during Reconstruction were being taken away from Black people. Their existence was twofold: On the one hand, they were built at a time when Civil War veterans were beginning to age and die. They acted as a memorial to them, many of them erected by family members of fallen soldiers.

But, unfortunately, there was also another purpose. In particular, statues of Confederate leaders acted as a symbol, a message, of the true desire of the Jim Crow South to keep Blacks “in our place”. Their presence, especially in places like county and state courthouses, communicated a message of White supremacy and control. This second purpose is not divorced from their presence, and is the main reason they are a flashpoint of division along racial lines.

A  side note: The Confederate flag returned to prominence during the Civil Rights era, and again was a symbol of racism and oppression against the advance of the Civil Rights cause.

This is my primary point: Removing these monuments is not an erasure of history. In fact, I prefer that these statues not be destroyed so much as relocated. They belong in a museum, as a testament to history. Those monuments that were erected to memorialize to fallen soldiers by their families should also pose no real problem or threat, and perhaps a distinction should be made as we discuss the various monuments and statues in question.

As I think through this issue in my mind I have to ask the question: What history are we remembering here? More importantly, I think the question we must all ask ourselves as we consider this is: Are we remembering history aright? As it pertains specifically to monuments that honor the leaders of the Confederacy: If theses monuments obscure the painful reality of what the Civil War was about, they do not properly represent that history. If they serve to idealize an era that was brutal and painful, and that celebrated a belief that is completely and utterly antithetical to not only what our country is supposed to be about, but most importantly to the truth of Scripture and the message of Christ, then they need to be removed. If they venerate someone who led a fight to dismantle our country for the purpose of maintaining an institution that subjugated and dehumanized a race of people – of whom I am descended – then I cannot support their continued existence in public spaces.

As long as we allow these symbols of our past to remain and be celebrated, without being fully truthful about all facets of that past, we will not heal. The wound of race was inflicted on us upon our founding. We removed a race of people who were already here, and then took yet another from their homes and countries on another continent to build up this land and this country. This is the foundation upon which America was built. We cannot escape that; we must face it and realize that we are simply reaping what we have sown. God has indeed blessed America; but that does not mean He will not call us to account for our wrongdoing.

We cannot point the finger at the indigenous people who were here – and still are here, even if we don’t acknowledge their existence – and blame them. We can’t even blame the African people who helped sell off their own. The slave trade was lucrative for them because we participated in it. Our guilt is as great as theirs. We cannot project it all onto them, for it does not negate the reality of we did.

And I say “we” because I am an American citizen. I may have some general idea of where my family came from in Africa, but I have no tangible connection to it, no names, no understanding of custom. And my ethnic makeup is “mixed” in purely technical terms. I have European blood in my family history too, so where then shall I be placed? What would I “return” to? This is my country. And I care about its future. We must let go of an idealized version of our past in order to see that future.

This is not a theoretical issue for me. The people who marched in Charlottesville have a particular goal in mind: To advance and enact their belief of White superiority over every other nation and race of people. They are not “nice people”; they do not wish anything but harm to people like me. They were chanting “White Power” and “Jews will not replace us” as they marched. Any well-meaning person who sincerely wanted to protest the removal of the Lee statue would have left as soon as they heard these things and saw Nazi salutes flying all around them. There is nothing good or well-meaning about what this movement is about.

You may wish that I “get over” slavery, or “get over race”. But the clinging to and celebration of symbols of an era that was defined by it betrays the fact that we as a country have not yet gotten over it. For all the things the Confederacy may or may not have stood for, one thing it most certainly stood for was the continuation of a brutal, dehumanizing institution. I cannot celebrate it or its leaders. We should remember them, but I firmly believe America should not celebrate them either.

For more information, please check out the following:

Whose Heritage? Public Symbols of the Confederacy

National Geographic: Why the U.S. Capitol Still Hosts Confederate Monuments

How Charlottesville Looks From Germany

Vice News – Charlottesville: Race and Terror – WARNING: This video contains adult language and disturbing imagery. Please mentally and spiritually prepare yourself before watching.

 

LA92: A must-see documentary…

I don’t know if it was the wisest thing to watch given my mood on Friday, but last night I watched National Geographic’s documentary on the LA riots of 1992. It’s hard to believe that it has been 25 years, most painfully because we are in a place where I believe it would not take much for us to return to see this happen yet again.

The most striking part of the documentary was the juxtaposition of the riots of 1992 to the Watts Riots of 1965. Both were sparked by clashes between LAPD and the Black community, issues with police brutality, and the city’s tone-deaf response to these issues. What made the Rodney King incident different was that his March 1991 beating at the hands of four white police officers was recorded. The four officers were actually charged for the incident, but were later acquitted of all charges. Their acquittal on April 29, 1992 was the spark that lit the match of unrest and anger.

Another thing the documentary brought out was the compounding of frustrations that made the verdicts even more painful. In the same month that King was beaten by the officers, a Korean convenience store owner shot and killed a 15-year-old girl named Latasha Harlins as she walked out of the store after a dispute over orange juice. This also was videotaped. Harlins can be seen walking to the counter with orange juice and money in hand. An argument ensued, with the store owner, Soon Ja Du grabbing for Harlins’ backpack. Du believed Harlins was trying to steal the orange juice, despite the presence of money in the girl’s hands. The two argued, and Harlins turned around to leave the store, money in hand and without orange juice. Du threw a stool at her and then grabbed her gun and shot Harlins in the back of the head.

Du was found guilty of manslaughter, but received a sentence of 5 years probation and 400 hours of community service for the crime. In her ruling, judge Joyce Karlin cited her belief that Du was unlikely to be a repeat offender as part of her reasoning for the sentence, saying that it was not at time for “revenge but for healing”. This was not sufficient for the Harlins family or the community and was seen as an appalling act of injustice and devaluing of the life of a Black teenager.

In essence, this verdict reinforced their belief that Black life meant nothing to the criminal justice system, therefore was deemed not worth defending. While revenge was not on the minds of most, justice most certainly was; and probation for the senseless death of a teenager did not feel like justice. As one person who was interviewed stated: “It is not racism that a Korean woman shot Latasha; it is racism that the justice system let her get away with it.” Tensions were high in the community as a result, and this is the atmosphere into which the King verdict was released. Like open flame to natural gas, it exploded on that fateful day.

Watching the documentary was hard. There was no commentary; it consisted completely of original footage from that time. In piecing together the story from the perspective of the police, the courts, city officials, state and federal government, and the news media, the producers excelled in portraying the build up of tension that led to the violent outbreak. The actions of news outlets seeking to bring the reality into the homes of Americans made what some would call crazy decisions as they covered the story, risking their lives to record the drama unfolding. One of the most dramatic scenes for me was a shootout in Koreatown, as Korean business owners armed themselves to protect their businesses from looters. With shots being fired all around them, you can hear the newscaster shout “Someone has been shot in that car? I think we need to get out of here.”  The footage is raw and graphic, the anger and frustration and pain palpable. The senselessness of it all clear and poignant.

Rioting is a phenomenon I will never fully understand. I cannot condone it, but I can see and feel the pain and frustration that brings it to life. The feeling of hopelessness and helplessness. When you have nothing to lose, you can come to a point where you cease to care. When you have turned to the one place where you think you can find relief, and it lets you down, you feel as if you have nothing left to do. The anger and fury demand an outlet, and violence becomes the only option that seems available. It will get the attention of those who have refused to listen, those who have shown indifference to your pain, those who have even derided and demeaned you for those things that are out of your control.

But the rioting only causes those who were innocent to suffer, to lose. It brings attention, but not necessarily the kind that will bring lasting, tangible, real results that will make things better. And in the end, all lose, as the community where people must now live is left in disarray and devastation. Even more devastating than the loss of property and livelihood is the loss of life, and the reality that law enforcement now has tangible justification for heavy-handed tactics to tamp down crime, . And the vicious cycle continues on…

In the aftermath of the riots, over 1,000 structures were damaged or destroyed by looting and/or fire. Whole city blocks were reduced to smoldering rubble. South LA and Koreatown were the hardest hit, but fires were also set in areas like Hollywood. More than 60 people died during the riots, most of them Black and Latino. More than 2,000 people were injured. The cost of the damage has been estimated at over $1 billion.

The LA Riots of 1992 lasted for five days.

In many ways, I don’t believe we have gotten over the LA Riots. As I watched the documentary, I felt a tremble in my soul, as if to say, this can and will happen again. Comparing the Watts Riots of ’65 with the LA Riots of ’92, the same spark started the flame, the same frustrations mounted and were ignited with a single “final straw incident”, and the outcome was the same. People died and property was destroyed. Community leaders came together in the aftermath to clean up and call for peace and unity. City officials made promises to do better and address legitimate issues. But as time wore on and the memory faded, status quo returned, frustrations began to mount anew, as one incident piled on top of another with no resolution in sight until critical mass was reached. And we sit in this place now, walking ever closer to the edge of a large precipice that will plunge us into chaos yet again.

In his address to the nation, then President George H.W. Bush appealed to the rule of law, stating that we must allow the system to do its “slow work of justice”, even when we disagree with it. He denounced the rioting without acknowledging the underlying injustices that lead to such frustration and rage. We have waited for the “slow work of justice” – but in this case, it was the justice system that failed the people. It was the justice system that failed Latasha Harlins’ family. It was the justice system that the people did not trust. And it is the justice system that we still cannot trust. How then, shall we wait for it to “work”?

Tears streamed down my face as I watched last night. As if to add insult to injury, I watched a second time, and wept even louder. I am not a prophet, but I cannot shake the feeling that this will happen again. And who knows how it will turn out this time given who we have in the White House and at the helm of our Justice Department.

So much more to be said, but no time right now. More to come…

Grace and peace…

What am I forgetting…

During my second year in seminary, I participated in a trip called a “Sankofa journey”. The word “Sankofa” is a word from the Kwi language of Ghana and translates to “go back and get it”. There is a proverb that uses this word that says, “It is not wrong to go back for that which you have forgotten” (Wikipedia).

In the spirit of this proverb, a Sankofa journey is a walk through history, a discovery or rediscovery of a forgotten past. For us, that meant traveling to important places in the story of the Civil Rights Movement. We started at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, site of the Civil Rights Museum, and the place where Martin Luther King was murdered. We then traveled to Birmingham and worshiped at the 16th Street Baptist Church, where four little girls were murdered in a bombing; we walked through the park where attack dogs and fire hoses were unleashed on young people marching for the right to cross the street into the all-White business district. We spoke to one of the women who marched that day, and learned why Birmingham’s nickname was “Bombingham”. From there we traveled to Selma and then to Georgia before journeying back home.

For me, the most profound moment of our trip was when we walked across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma. The bridge is a huge arch, and as we made it to the top of the arch and looked down, I could imagine in my mind’s eye the imposing line of police officers mounted on their horses, billy clubs in hand, defying the marchers to continue their trek to Montgomery. They were marching for the right to vote, and the officers were tasked with stopping them. In one breathless moment, they stood, protesters and law enforcement, face to face. No words were spoken in that moment. And then it happened. John Lewis was one of the marchers in the front of the crowd, and as they took their first steps over the county line, the officers charged forward, pursuing the marchers back over the bridge, beating and tear gassing them.

None of these marchers were armed. They were not violent. They did not fight back or resist. They simply wanted the rights of full citizens of this country. And they were beaten for it. I cried that day as I walked. I cry now as I write this post.

Many people would say that we need to forget the past. That the reason we can’t move on is because we refuse to forget. I would disagree; I would say it is because we refuse to remember.

The history of my family is the history of slavery; of Reconstruction; of Jim Crow; of lynching; of Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma; and the Lorraine Motel in Memphis. It is not for pity that I remember, but for strength. It is a reminder that what I am today, who I am today is due in large part to the very real suffering, strength, vision, and courage of those who came before me. It would be a dishonor to their sacrifice to forget.

I do not remember to make people feel guilty.

I remember because it encourages me to go forward. It teaches me lessons to take down the road with me. I cannot compartmentalize my life to edit these things out. I’m a “what you see is what you get” kind of girl. I am not ashamed of my heritage; and I am not fearful of my future. This is the life story I have been given by my Father in Heaven. I want to use it for His glory. And to do that, I must be real about it.

On this day, I choose to remember. I choose to go back for what I have forgotten, so I can press on with greater wisdom toward what is ahead.

Because freedom is never free.

Please see me…

This is my food for thought for today. I’m trying to find the right words to say here, so bear with me…

I have been reading posts on my personal Facebook page from dear friends who wish that all this heavy talk would cease. The negativity is too much. And on one level, I agree wholeheartedly. There are moments when I, too, meet critical mass and have to step away and be silent. Or I post an impassioned treatise about why I will no longer post thus and so…only to post thus and so three days later!

I get it. We want to see pictures of cute babies and funny videos of puppies and kittens doing silly things. I love to share my photos of sunsets, or friends laughing and sharing memories. These things hold deep meaning. But they are not the sum total of life. Of my life.

I lament – loudly – for the state of this country, and more specifically, the state of the American church. The things I post are on my mind, in my heart, coursing through my veins. I cannot help speaking on them because they are part of who I am. Today’s post is about racial reconciliation in the church. It’s not fluffy, warm or fuzzy. But it is a part of my thoughts, my heart, my life. I do not have the luxury of turning it off or tuning it out. I can’t walk away from it; it is my experience in this country, and has been since the day I was born. I can no more “get over it” than I can stop being Black.

To see me is to see that I am a Black woman. I am not ashamed of that. I do not need to apologize for it. This is how God fashioned me. This is who He made me to be. He is not calling me to erase my ethnic heritage. He is calling me to live it out in a way that honors and brings glory to Him. The wholeness that I speak of on this page, the “shalom” that we want in our lives, can only come through openly engaging and fighting those things that work against that peace, and to reconsider our identities here on earth in light of our true identity in Christ.

If the first impulse is to suggest that I blind myself to ethnic reality or to the real concerns that live in my heart, I implore you in love to reconsider. To do so would be to forget myself. To not engage in the real problems that live in the American Church is not something I can do. This is the life I live, the only one I can share. Its good, its bad, its ugly.

And so, with that, I ask that you read and consider what this brother in Christ is sharing in this post. Some of it may be uncomfortable; but none of it is written – or shared – with malice.

The Lonely Path of Reconciliation for Minorities

Grace and peace…

Where My Heart Is, Part Three

By M. Lewis

I don’t know what to say today. I am quite honestly heartbroken. And speechless. There is not much I can say that hasn’t already been said, or that will make sense of what happened yesterday.

Unless you have been living under a rock, you probably know that a NY grand jury did not return an indictment on a cop who used a choke hold on Eric Garner, resulting in his death. This case is less ambiguous than the Michael Brown case in that there is videotape evidence of what occurred in New York; the method of restraint used by the officer in question is expressed banned in the NYPD Procedural Manual; and Garner can be heard crying out eleven times that he couldn’t breathe. I don’t think you need to be a medical expert to hear the distress in his voice, as it becomes more and more faint and forced. 
He was being questioned about selling cigarettes illegally. Cigarettes. And it is unclear if he actually was. From the conversation he had with the officer prior to his death, they seemed to like stopping and questioning him. This could mean many things; that is a matter of interpretation. But can’t be a matter of interpretation is that the medical examiner ruled the death homicide by choke hold, with contributing factors of asthma and obesity. 
A certain lawmaker blamed his poor health for his death. If he only not had asthma and had been thinner…another lawmaker blamed the high taxes NY places on cigarettes for the fact that he was allegedly selling them on the street (which, again, has not been proven). I am again struck by the absolute disregard for a human life that these statement betray.   
In other news: Today, it was revealed that the officer involved in the death of Tamir Rice in Cleveland was dismissed from a previous job and deemed unfit to be an officer. It is unclear if Cleveland police knew this at the time of his hiring, but if they did not even that should raise serious concerns, concerns the Department of Justice are now raising. On the flip side, a group of non-African American officers in that same city are suing the department for discrimination, citing that African-American officers are not treated as harshly as non-African American officers in investigations of officer involved shootings of African American suspects.
What. A. Mess. 
What to say to all of this? One think is evident to me: if we think that we have somehow transcended race, I think the events of these past few months should dispense of that illusion. Race still matters. It is part of our DNA as Americans. 
I wish I could stop thinking about this and go on about life as usual. But I simply cannot. As I move forward, I feel the need to frame my thoughts through the following prism:
  1. All people are created in the image of God. That image is tarnished by sin (we’ll get to that in #2), but it is still there. This means all human beings are endowed with inherent dignity and worth. Life matters. Period.
  2. All people are sinful. All of us have inherited the sin nature of our first parents. None of us can stand before a holy God based on our own merits and survive the experience. In that sense, we all come to the table on the same footing. The sins of a suburban man or woman who has never committed a crime, smoked, drank, or done any other taboo activity are no better than a gang member that has dealt drugs or even murdered someone. That may seem appalling; but all sin is sin against God – both outward actions and inward motives. And all carry the same eternal death sentence. Therefore, there are none who can boast in their righteousness and turn in judgment to those who have committed what we consider “worse” sins in an effort to place a value on that life that is anything less than all that #1 implies.
  3. All people need Christ. This must be applied to this situation. A friend who commented on my previous post worded it like this: “Fallen man can never make himself whole on his own efforts, but if he submits to the Highest Authority living within then, there is hope. The Truth shall set you free. He is The Truth, the Way and the Life. I just pray more would get to know Him – personally”. I wholeheartedly agree. And I would add here that we are talking about all people. Back to #2: We all have the same problem, and it requires the same solution. We pray for the country as a whole to be swept away in the winds of revival.

    That said, I do believe that a thorough message would address the immediate need alongside the eternal one. Often the immediate prevents one from hearing and receiving the eternal. We need both/and, not either/or in our thoughts about this and so many other things we encounter. A friend of mine posted Jeremiah 29:4-9 on his Facebook page the other day. Food for thought indeed…

This gets me to Advent. This is a season of expectancy; we are celebrating the first coming of the Lord in the light of our expectancy of His second. He came to redeem and “purify for Himself a people of His own possession…” (Titus 2:14a). It is cliche to say, I know, but this is the only real and lasting hope there is. I will unashamedly proclaim that. It is not about “reclaiming America for Christ”; it is about preaching Christ and Him crucified, and calling all to turn to Him to be saved. 
I’m a realist, so I know that not all will heed to call of Christ. But those of us who have done so now have new allegiance. Not to America; not to a particular race; not to a particular social class; and not to a political party. But to Christ. And in Him we are one body. As one body, that which affects one part affect the whole. This issue touches the body of Christ; it must therefore be an issue that concerns us all who call on the name of Jesus. 
Once again, my thoughts are running long. I will stop there for today. For someone who didn’t know what to say, I certain said a lot! I pray some of it made sense…
This post will serve as a transition. Not that I won’t revisit this topic – I’m sure I will. But there are other things that need to be said, things pertaining to that blessed hope of which I spoke above. 
To that I shall turn tomorrow. 
Until then, grace and peace…

Where My Heart Is, Part Two…

Believe me; there are things I would prefer to be thinking about right now than race in America. It’s Advent season after all. I had planned to begin blogging again this week with reflections of Christmas. And I will get to that in the next few days. I think reflecting on Advent season will speak hope into the things we are witnessing in our country.

I don’t have as much time today to write out a thoughtful blog post like yesterday’s. And frankly, I’m pretty tapped out right now. The questions I posed yesterday were questions I have asked myself; and I need time to think them through before I can respond further. 
I do want to say this, however. In highlighting the issues that the Black community have with police, I am in no way diminishing problems that may occur within the context of other communities. Neither am I condoning criminal behavior. In the case of Michael Brown, if he did engage in criminal activity, which it appears he did, then he should have been punished in a manner that fits the crime he committed.  
What I push back against is the implication that because he did rob the convenience store he in some way deserved to die. That his life is devoid of any meaning because he was a so-called “thug” (isn’t it interesting how a well-placed label can put a certain spin on something?), or that his life is worth less than that of the police officer because his alleged thuggish behavior means “he had it coming”. All people are created in the image of God. That image is tarnished by sin, but it is still there. This means all human beings are endowed with inherent dignity and worth. Let’s set aside for a moment whether or not deadly force was needed in this case. The fact of the matter is any loss of life is tragic because it points to our fallenness and separation from God. Life matters. Period. 
I go back to an article I posted on my Facebook page (you can find it here). The two situations described by the writer were markedly similar. What made the difference? Why did one result in the safe apprehension of the suspect, and the other in the death of a 12 year old? This is the question that lingers like a bad taste in my mouth.
More later. Until then, grace and peace…

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…