Wednesday, August 13, 2014

The Slaying of Michael Brown

True peace is not merely the absence of tension; it is the presence of justice.
     --Martin Luther King

The slaying of Michael Brown by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri calls forth disparate but by now well-worn responses. There are two that I want to highlight that might come from White people like myself.

The first response is the evenhanded call for calm and justice in this particular incident. What happened to that boy is a damn shame, this person says, but it was a distinct event unconnected to anything else. A full and impartial investigation of this incident is needed, but now a media circus is going to make that more difficult. Furthermore, she might say, the rioting that has followed the shooting is more troubling than the conduct of the police force. She can't understand why a lonely shooting in a nation of 318 million souls provokes such an outcry, especially when people who look like Michael Brown are killing each other every day.

This person says everyone deserves justice. He says everyone is innocent until proven guilty. He says the color of a person's skin ought not matter, either in the application of justice or in the awakening of our sympathies. Indeed, this person is usually right, but it is the superficial and airy rightness born of complacency temporarily disturbed. "What's that? A racial disturbance in the national news, you say? Hold on, let me find my racial disturbance opinion flowchart."

This person accepts, but has not seen fit to understand, that peace is hard work. This person has learned about something called out-group prejudice but has happily found himself to be the exception proving humanity's rule. He makes his logical and insufferably correct pronouncements with no embarrassment, because he cannot imagine that others bring full and weighty lives, with full and weighty words to match, refined as they have been by fire. He cannot see what is so obvious to the grieving: his flowchart is showing.

The second response stands in opposition to the first. This person contemplates the experience of people who look like Michael Brown. She gets to know people who look like Michael Brown. She understands how governmental authorities operate in Michael Brown's neighborhood, because she has seen it with her own eyes. She sees the last few days not as a sudden and unwelcome disruption or media event, but as a cresting wave in a continuous roiling current. Most of this evil current is beneath the surface, invisible to the flighty holders of flowcharts.

This person has seen the men who look like Michael Brown on the side of the bustling boulevard pathetically selling bottles of almost-cold water to passing motorists on a too-hot day because no one will hire them. He understands that their strength of character and work ethic is stronger than his as he commutes to his rewarding middle class job. He has seen the boys who look like Michael Brown meekly submit as police assault them for what they might have done rather than what they did. He has seen the elderly woman who could be Michael Brown's grandmother faithfully sweep the sidewalk in front of her house every morning as her block falls apart.

This person has seen all this, and she is not surprised by the death of Michael Brown. Her surprise comes from elsewhere: how do millions of people who look like Michael Brown press on with patience in their step and bitterness absent from their heart? She contemplates this mystery. As she does she is tired and she is heavy with grief, because she cannot see the isolated incident that the flighty holders of flowcharts see. She sees another page in a very long story with an uncertain ending.

This second response is the Christian one. Racism as such is not addressed in scripture, since it's a category that didn't exist. But race, inextricably mingled with class, is our modern means of performing that ancient human rite that certainly did exist in biblical times: othering. Many of us, good Christians in our self-image, our loath to contemplate our practice of this insidious vice. But if the Gospel is working on us, we cannot avoid it. In its natural condition the human heart declares that its virtues are intrinsic and its faults extrinsic. In other words, if I am good, it is because I am good. If I am bad, it is because someone bothered me. The Gospel enters in and demands a complete reversal. There is nothing good in us; everything is a gift; I am bad because that's the sort of creature I am. We begin to find the playing field leveled. We look out on humanity and we can't find anyone worse than us. In a sense, with empathy infused by the Gospel, we can't even find anyone different from us.

Now, Michael Brown has been slain. There are "sides" to take. There are arguments to be won! Many of us are so afraid to confront the deepest sins of the human heart (pride toward God; indifference toward fellow human beings) that we fail to make the most basic application of Christian principles to American society. We know the God of our scriptures is on the side of the oppressed. Well, we'd better consider what that means right here in the United States. We'd better do so with no regard for the heretical worship of nation that dares to tell God our system of markets and liberties has rendered moot his categories of oppressed and oppressor. This heresy is rampant in our churches. In short, we must consider the basic fact that Black Americans are an oppressed class of human beings in our country. This calls for a response that transcends the evenhanded reasonableness I discussed above.

Some of us -- judgmental souls like myself -- are likely to ride our logical and evenhanded pronouncements all the way to hell. God, through scripture and in the the human form of Jesus, reveals himself to us without ambiguity as a God on the side of the weak, the poor, and the oppressed. Jesus died for us all, but beyond that there is very little even-handedness with God. He decided to give more faith to those at the bottom of society (the book of James). He decided to eternally judge us based on how we treat them (the book of Matthew). It is a fearful thing, then, to find that in controversy after controversy -- and much more than that, in the structures of our daily lives -- we take the side of our group against another. Christians need only consider where we would be if Christ's loyalties were constrained in the narrow manner of our own. Amid the perfect justice, peace, and fellowship of the Trinity, he might have asked, "Why let the humans in? Are any of them deserving? Why sacrifice for them?" It's laughable to consider, because of course Jesus apparently doesn't think like that. But it's more than laughable because it is precisely how we, his followers, do think.

Michael Brown is dead. It is not an isolated incident. It speaks of a centuries-old story. It speaks of the pain of millions. It speaks of oppressions yet to come. If that has not yet settled into your heart, please look to Jesus. Try to add your tears to his. Only then can you come back to consider how you might fight for the presence of justice rather than the absence of tension.

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