Note: I wrote this as a guest post for That Reformed Blog on August 25, 2014. It is only becoming more true.
This is my daughter AJ. She was born in Ethiopia, and we adopted her when she was just a baby. Here’s she’s holding the first picture of her we ever received.
Every year we send our adoption agency a post-adoption report which includes photos from the past year. I had to finish ours a couple weeks ago, so I sat down at the computer to gather them, but before I got far, I drifted over to Twitter. I saw what some folks were up to, followed some links, and caught up on the events just beginning to unfold in Ferguson, MO. And I saw: #Iftheygunnedmedown.
I bawled my eyes out.
Suddenly looking through those pictures felt like finding photos for a funeral memory board.
What if something happened to her—because she’s black?
How long until she’s not always with me and someone finds her suspicious or scary?
Is she going to hear about this at school? Is she going to wonder if she can trust the police? I want to tell her she can . . . but when do I need to tell her to be careful?
If you’ve never had to worry that because of race, you or your child will be treated differently in some way—disrespected, suspected, insulted, or injured—that might seem paranoid to you, but I assure you, such thoughts eventually cross the mind of every parent of a brown-skinned child. Though as a middle-class white woman I carry an enormous amount of privilege in our society, in this one small area, I can attest: it sucks to have to worry about these things. It affects how you see things. It can wreck you.
Yet too often we don’t take the time to look around us and see who might be affected by events before taking sides on them. Most of my friends didn’t even realize I was upset, because I was afraid to tell them for fear of being dismissed or hurt, because it seemed the whole internet had erupted into arguments while what some of us really needed was first just to be sad. Could you not grieve with me one hour, before taking sides?
Because one of my primary (unhealthy) ways of processing events is obsessive reading of everything the internet has to say about them, I hit Twitter hard. Some things were difficult to read, but I learned so much by listening to the voices out of Ferguson—so much about me and about us, as a country and particularly as Christians. I’d like to offer a few:
1. We don’t grieve together (or process, celebrate, or learn together) because we don’t “do life” together. It is difficult to stay mindful that others may be feeling different and having a different reaction to things than we are unless we regularly rub shoulders in community, dare to share our perspectives, and listen, listen, listen. I intentionally read a number of black bloggers and culture sites—but that is not enough. It is much harder but much more necessary to live in cross-cultural relationships. I have a long, long way to go in diversifying the voices in my life so that I can better understand their perspectives and my own privilege.
2. We can learn a lot from history, and we can see its effects today. Events do not happen in a vacuum, and our reactions to them are influenced by our histories and experiences. I learned an immense amount this week from others’ work shedding light on Dred Scott and black bodies, housing segregation, voting systems, government funding sources, media portrayals, dog whistles, and so much more. One could read all day.
3. Conflict shows us who we really are. We can choose today which side of history we want to be on when the future looks back. People often romanticize the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s and speak as though of course they would have been fighting discrimination. When my daughter or grandson asks me someday, “Were you paying attention when the events in Ferguson happened? How did you feel? What did you do?” my answer will shaped by what I learn and do today. I want to be able to tell them I was watching and I decided to do what I could to make our cities, country, and churches better—and I want that to be the truth. As Alan Cross said, “What if the conflict that might happen in your city is the moment that God has placed you there for so you can tell a better story and be a witness to the Good, the True, and the Beautiful? What if you hesitate and the moment is gone?”
4. Little voices together can make a big noise. It is estimated that a black person is killed by a police officer, security guard, or vigilante once every 28 hours. Most of us know few of their names. But Mike Brown’s name is known because of social media (which attracted mainstream media) and because of individuals who literally stood in the streets until they were heard. Out of the brokenness of losing him, by the grace of God, good things may yet come: The people of Ferguson are going to get a better police force. Ferguson and other cities will equip their officers with body cameras. Ferguson community organizers are aiming to get 5,000 eligible voters registered and involved to change some of the local policies which are burdening their poor and black residents. The use of military grade equipment by local police is being reviewed. People are talking about free speech, poverty, disproportionate arrests and sentencing, profiling, and education. Each one of these issues and more represents an opportunity for positive change.
What change is your voice going to call for? Yes, you. You might not be a preacher or a writer. But you have conversations about hard things, and your voice can change the tone and content of that conversation. And if it can change a conversation, it can change a workplace, or a church, or a board, and so on across our cities and our nation. We won’t all be passionate about speaking out about the same things—but we all can speak up for something and someone.
5. The world is watching the church. A national broadcaster tweeted that the deep conversation about race he observed between white and black Christians on the street was “Christianity at its best.” I’ve heard the gospel in interviews with pastors about their work and presence in Ferguson before and during the unrest—work they’ll be doing long after. Clergy from various denominations have been hailed for their powerful presence easing tensions between protestors and police. Clergy and police are now working together to help those whose lives have been disrupted by the events.
Unfortunately, a lot of racial misunderstanding and anger is also showing itself now, and too much of it is associated with Christianity. We may agree or disagree about some things, but we must say clearly, loudly, and repeatedly that the voices of hate and separation do not speak for Jesus, and they do not speak for us. We must back that up with actions that speak louder than others’ vitriolic words.
6. We already have leaders to show us the way forward. Although many black Christians felt the Christian response was slow in coming, a few evangelical leaders stepped to the plate early, and numerous bloggers/writers/pastors of color have written gut-wrenchingly honest reflections and pleas for understanding of their perspective and for the church to unite to stand against racial injustice everywhere: read some here, here, here, and here. They have already been asking and answering (many of them for a long time), “What can we do about these issues?”
I initially thought I should attempt to answer that question here, to provide a sense of hope and means of action. But the reality is, others are already illuminating the way forward. I would simply encourage us to follow—to let those who have long been living with these issues point the way, while we first listen, then stand alongside. These may be different voices than some of us usually listen to, and we may not agree with them on everything, or even many things. But to understand an issue, it is always wise to start with those who have lived it—and that means, sorry, white American church, but this one is not about us. But you know what? A new humility and unity may just be the thing that saves our churches from irrelevance in the eyes of many. That’s good news for the spread of the Good News!
As we move out of the turmoil of fast-moving events, may we take a deep breath, filled with grace from God and for each other; may we rest in the peace of Jesus, offered freely to the grieving and the angry, the marginalized and the powerful, the black and the white; and may we step forward together in unity, that all the world may say, “Blessed are those peacemakers. I want to know their Lord.”
I’d love to hear your feedback and links to more voices in the comments. Let’s keep learning together.