Sometimes national events make plain the yawning distance between disparate worlds. The slaying of Michael Brown by Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson, on Saturday, August 9 was just such a moment.
That moment triggered a series of responses and counter responses by authorities and residents, as well as local and national clergy that shaped two weeks of protest and clarified camps that were largely defined by social and religious location. Residents of Ferguson, local and national leaders of historic black churches, and some multi-ethnic mainline Protestant and Catholic church clergy engaged. White evangelical leaders largely fell silent.
That silence was deafening.
Flashback eight years to November 25, 2006, when the shooting death of Sean Bell proved a clarifying event in New York City.
Three weeks after an unarmed Bell was shot 50 times by police officers in the early morning hours of his wedding day, African-American New Yorkers flooded 5th Avenue shutting down traffic in the middle of the Christmas shopping season. Led by the Rev. Jesse Jackson and Rev. Al Sharpton the protesters were mostly black.
I lived in New York City at the time and attended a Vineyard church downtown. I knew my friends were as rocked by the tragedy as everyone else, so I was dumbfounded when I saw no movement on their parts to join efforts to bring justice for Sean Bell. This was a manifestation of the power of race in America at work within the church: Segregated and separate societies live and worship in segregated and separate churches. Many evangelicals needed to be intentionally invited to cross the lines of spiritual and societal segregation. Without that invitation, evangelicals were stymied by racial fears and a pronounced lack of leadership within their own ranks.
After two weeks of interviews with St. Louis faith leaders and advocates, and several days on the ground moving between mobilizing efforts in Ferguson and dialogues with evangelical faith leaders, I see the same dynamic at work here. But there is another dynamic that is equally, if not more deeply rooted at play here. It is a core spiritual lie at work in the region—and I dare say the nation.
This spiritual lie is profound and ugly. It has shaped beliefs about the black residents of Ferguson, laid the foundations for missteps by authorities, and affected the black Ferguson community’s capacity to prevent the death of Michael Brown.
This lie was caught on video when a Ferguson police officer said, during an early protest march, “Bring it! All you f***ing animals! Bring it!”
There it is—the belief that usually resides deep beneath the surface of conscious thought, safe from examination and extrication, but was born in biblical times, solidified in the days of the Enlightenment, and codified into colonial law in 1660 through the racialization of Virginia slave codes. Then 14 years after the Declaration of Independence, which proclaimed “all men are created equal and endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights,” the lie was embedded in the U.S. legal structure through the Naturalization Act of 1790, which barred the rights of citizenship from both free and enslaved black people.
These are the roots of the lie. Here it is—plain and simple: Black people are not fully human. In most crass terms—they are animals.
This lie lived out in the open, in our early history. Now, after 360 years of presence in various forms and its extrication from our legal structures through the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Voting Rights Act of 1965, it’s gone underground—hidden and unchallenged as a subconscious bias in the hearts of most Americans including some black people. In fact, a recent study found that 75 percent of respondents have an unconscious bias toward white people over blacks.
This spiritual lie has shaped our public life since the founding of our nation. We have yet to face it down, name it, and repent.
So, we shouldn’t be surprised that Officer Wilson shot to kill Michael Brown and left him lying in the street for four hours, uncovered for much of the time. We shouldn’t be surprised that Ferguson police didn’t give Michael Brown the respect due any human by calling an ambulance to pick up the body. Instead, they loaded his body in the back of an SUV. We shouldn’t be surprised that masses of incensed residents of black Ferguson marching peacefully through their own streets in protest of sub-human treatment would trigger abject fear in the hearts of Ferguson’s nearly all white police department. They are “animals,” after all. They are dangerous and need to be controlled with a heavy hand.
A cursory glance at social media reveals evangelicals, whose segregated churches give them little opportunity to encounter the humanity of blackness, are demonstrating high levels of speculation about whether Officer Wilson was justified in shooting the unarmed 18-year-old boy for jaywalking and alleged shoplifting. Never mind that the death penalty is never levied on human beings for such menial infractions. Only dogs are put down for such offenses.
So, I am not surprised by what I found in Ferguson and St. Louis: two churches—churches that empathize and stand with Michael Brown, his family, and his community, screaming into the darkness: “We are human! We are made in the image of God!” And churches that will wait for a final judgment from the courts.