Let me be clear: I believe that Ferguson is about race.
I know that many people disagree with that statement, that Officer Darren Wilson’s actions were not ostensibly motivated by race, and so could not have been racist. But racism goes beyond an individual's prejudice against people of a different color. It is a historical reality that goes back to the inception of this country, and exists not only in people’s minds but in the halls of our most powerful institutions. So even if an event is not directly motivated by personal prejudice, it can still be about race. I think Lecrae put it far better than I ever could:
When people say "why are you making this a racial thing?" They've unknowingly answered their own question. —@lecrae, November 25, 2014
Come to think of it, Lecrae says everything far better than I ever could.
But what I find strange about Ferguson is that no one is addressing the overarching theme to this entire tragedy: violence. Surely that is the common thread that ties all of these stories together: a young black man who commits a strong-arm robbery at a convenience store. A young white officer who felt his only recourse was to shoot that unarmed black man. A city that reacted to the killing with Molotov cocktails, and a police force that responded to the Molotov cocktails with equipment that made veterans of the Iraq war raise their eyebrows. The events of Ferguson may be about about race, but they are also about violence, and a society that seems entirely unable to react to difficult situations by any other means.
In this way, both Michael Brown and Darren Wilson are the products of our society—American society. Our country was birthed out of armed and violent rebellion. We used brutality to subjugate slaves and drive Native Americans from the lands that they had lived upon for millennia. Now, over two centuries later, we suffer more violent deaths than any other wealthy nation in the world. We have experienced more school shootings than 36 other countries combined. We have been continuously at war for 14 years. We glorify violence in nearly every form of media that we consume, from video games to movies, from television to music. Violence has so permeated our culture that there is not a single young American who has not been taught to believe that most any problem can and should be solved by throwing a punch, or else pulling a piece.
Yes, Ferguson is about racism and inequality and crime. But these conditions and sins exist in every person and every nation in the world. What sets our nation apart from others is how frequently we resort to violence in response to racism and inequality and crime. We use violence to perpetrate crime and to protest inequality, and violence to police crime and to end protest. So our problem is not just racism. It is that racism and violence continuously reinforce and exacerbate one another, making healing and progress an impossibility.
And this points to the evangelical church’s great failure: that we have failed to speak consistently and incisively not just on one topic or the other, but on both of them. American evangelicals have long balked at discussing race, considering it too political and unspiritual for us to tackle. But we have taken the exact same approach with violence. We hem and haw and tread carefully when it comes to shootings, war, guns, violence in the media, preferring to say little on the subject, which in the context of an issue as mammoth and deeply seated as violence in America, is tantamount to saying nothing at all. And when a situation like Ferguson unfolds, we stand with our mouths gaping, wondering what is going on and who is to blame. The answer quite frankly is that we are. We remained either quiescent or ambivalent on race and violence, and then somehow manage to look at the images in Ferguson with shock and dismay.
What is saddest about this reality is that out of all people, we have the foundation and the language from which to speak prophetically to our country about both race and violence. We are followers of Christ, the one who reached out beyond the Jews and extended grace to Samaritans, Syro-Phonecians, and then to the entire world. He is also the one who commanded us to turn the other cheek and forgive our enemy, and to sheathe our swords lest we die by them. We consider ourselves descendants of the ancient early church, which shocked the ancient world by embracing people of all nations and tongues and legal statuses. The early Believers followed the example of Christ and submitted themselves to violence and persecution, choosing to be crucified upside down rather than dishonor Christ in any way. Their names live on—Peter, Stephen, James—while the names of the men who did violence to them have been long since forgotten.
Yet here we are, two millennia later, sitting on our hands when we should have been leading the way. Never mind that we serve the Great Reconciler and Peacemaker; we have demonstrated time and time again that we have little appetite for either racial reconciliation nor peace. We have remained silent when the words and actions of Christ and the early church could and should have spoken clearly on our behalf. We have been observers when we should have been prophets. This is our great failure. But I truly believe it is not too late.
It's time for evangelicals to take up our weighty and ancient inheritance and preach a gospel of peace and reconciliation. It’s time for us declare to all that our primary allegiance is not to state nor party nor news network, but to the Lord who created one family out of many, and who transformed the world not through the sword, but through forgiveness. It’s time for us to put comfort and convenience behind us, to step out in faith and lead the way in calling for an end to racism and the glorification of violence. It’s time for us to denounce rioting and police brutality with equal passion, to stand between blacks and whites, citizens and police officers, and ask that they lower their Molotov cocktails and sniper rifles and pray.
This is not an easy task. One would have to be a complete fool to say otherwise, and I am not a complete fool, only a partial one. But this is our calling. And we all know that those the Lord calls, he will also equip. So strengthen feeble arms and weak knees, and prepare to roll up your sleeves.
Because it's time.