Five days after the start of this series, on August 9, St. Louis police shot and killed an unarmed 18-year-old black man named Michael Brown. Police said Brown had struggled with an officer, while eyewitnesses told CNN he had his hands up and did not to provoke the use of force.
Residents of Ferguson, a suburb of St. Louis, began mostly peaceful protests Sunday that led to vandalism that night. The police response escalated quickly, provoking outrage and continued, largely peaceful protests. Journalists from The Washington Post, Al Jazeera, HuffingtonPost, and National Journal were arrested or intimidated, a minister was injured by rubber bullets, and St. Louis alderman Antonio French was arrested.
Yesterday, the Governor of Missouri gave control of the police operations in the city to State Highway Patrol Captain Ronald S. Johnson, an African American who grew up in Ferguson. He immediately stopped the police use of gas masks, heavy riot armor, and SWAT trucks with sniper posts, according to The Washington Post.
Even as the situation in Ferguson seems to be improving, the events this week prompted me and many of the writers contributing to this blog series about racial reconciliation in the church to reflect upon the role Christians could play in these types of events in the future. I reached out to John Perkins, an 84-year-old Christian civil rights leader, author, and founder of the Christian Community Development Association (CCDA). I spoke with Dr. Perkins by phone yesterday to hear his perspective on the state of racial reconciliation in America:
In light of the recent events in Ferguson, Missouri, how should Christians respond?
For years we have been tiptoeing around trying to work out a human response to biblical reconciliation. I don’t know enough about this incident to speak to it directly, but I know that how we act shows that we haven’t developed an understanding of reconciliation that is tough enough to deal with these incidents. We need a biblical response, not a human response.
What is a biblical response?
There is a biblical command and a national command that we hold all people equal. The whole idea of the redemption we have from the Bible is the redemption of the Israelites out of their enslavement in Egypt. Judgment fell upon Pharaoh because of this enslavement. Americans take the history of enslavement too lightly because we have benefited from it. And now, we still don’t meet the biblical requirement where God says, “If my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and I will forgive their sin and will heal their land” (2 Chron. 7:14). We have not repented deeply enough of the sin of racism.
As Christians we know that our problem always is sin. In the case of the shooting in Ferguson, I don’t know who is right because I don’t know who initiated this. But I know that the sin of racism, which goes back to the sin of enslavement, is what makes it escalate so quickly.
Do you think the efforts some Christians have made toward racial reconciliation have been effective?
Well, what we’ve been toying with is getting together to like each other. It’s bigger than that. Racism is a sin in the face of the Holy God and of humanity bearing that face of God. We have not gotten deep enough to affirming each other as human beings. As a result we minimize the gospel. We are supposed to be new creations in Christ Jesus, a peacemaking force. We have to come back to brotherhood and sisterhood. We are beating around the bush and not coming to the biblical foundation. I’m calling for a deeper sense of repentance as a nation.
These are going to get worse. In our urban communities, situations are pathological. We will have more of what happened in Ferguson happening in other communities.
What would repentance look like in practice? Are you calling for church services with people on their knees or a call to action or something else?
It would look like a strike force of people ready to move in as soon as a racialized incident happens within a city. Just as there are trauma teams that can come in on the heels of terrorist activity or disasters, we need racial response teams to move in before we start killing and shooting and hating each other. Imagine every city having two leading white pastors, two leading black pastors, Hispanic pastors, making up a reconciliation force. That would be a way to show we take this seriously. We want to be reconciled. When this kind of thing happens we ask the questions together.
State representatives should have racial reconciliation task forces as a part of their agenda. We can’t stop these actions but we can respond differently. We know enough about sin to know that blacks will kill a white and white will kill a black, but there would be some type of response that would be set up. That’s what repenting would begin to look like. We want to be as strong as we can be without violence.
In Ferguson, I know it was a tragedy that happened and a tragedy in the reaction. And we as Christians have to take some responsibility for that hostility and affirm the love God has for all people. We don’t want to be hostile but exemplary, not angry but affirming.
Anna Broadway contributed to the opening paragraphs of the introduction to this post.
This post is one part of a three week series exploring race and reconciliation within the church. To read the entire series, click here.