Michael Brown and Ferguson: Perception and the Police
When I was a child I was taught to respect the police. I often went on field trips in school to visit law enforcement stations. I always had positive interactions with the police in those settings, in my communities at large, and in general. My perception of the police as a young white man was that they were there to do their stated mission: to protect and to serve.
However, I’m becoming aware that this is not the prevailing perception of the police with everyone, especially among people of color. For various reasons that are difficult to encapsulate in any quick way, people of color, especially black Americans, often view the police as a threat and with suspicion. Some view the police as out to get them by actively profiling them. And both anecdotal stories from my black friends as well as research about the rates of arrest validate some of these concerns.
It’s in this context, the context of the perception of the police, that the story in Ferguson, Missouri of the fatal shooting of an unarmed young man named Michael Brown takes place. In other words, this story is not happening in a vacuum. This story is not happening outside the context of race and ethnicity. This story is not happening outside the realities of American history. And this story is not happening outside the decades and decades of racial tension in American cities like Ferguson.
The Church’s Response
The question that I want to wrestle with a little bit is this: what is the church’s response to situations like the one in Ferguson? What should we do?
First, we should not be silent. Churches all over America will probably not mention this story this weekend at all. Many of these silent churches will be primarily white (though it should be noted that historically black churches are sometimes silent on social issues also).
There is another piece of evidence, albeit anecdotal: my social media feeds. Despite the fact that I have numerous Christian friends online, almost none of them who are white have mentioned the story in Ferguson at all. This may be due to fear, or confusion, or whatever else. On the flip side many of my black friends, my Asian friends, and my Latino friends have been mentioning this story often. I’m sure it’s not just my social media feed that looks this way.
And, in my humble opinion, this is a disgrace. White Christians should also be involved in issues of race and ethnicity. We should stand on the side of justice. This should not be something that we ignore because it’s difficult or complicated. We should not shy away from these sorts of topics because we are scared that our white brothers and sisters may not understand where we’re coming from. And we can’t let our fears of being called “liberal” or something of that sort prevent is from standing up for what’s right.
And if the media reports are correct that Michael Brown was unarmed and that he had his hands raised whenever he was gunned down, then what happened was not right. This is true regardless of his past, his affiliations, or any other things about him. He was unarmed and his hands were raised according to reports. If those things are true then the way he died is unjust. And we Christians, all of us Christians, need to stand on the side of what’s right and just.
And second, we need to be reminded that the Jesus of the Gospels stood on the side of those who were marginalized. Specifically Jesus often went out of his way to include people who were different than him, especially the Samaritans. And we see this continuing in the book of Acts as the good news expanded outside of the bonds of Jewish ethnicity and extended into Gentile world. We read this in Paul’s letters, in the other epistles, and all throughout the Old Testament. This notion of including all people is a common theme in all of the Bible. And yet at some point we have limited the Bible to be only about me and people like me. Now that “me and people like me” in my previous sentence could be people literally like me, middle-class white people, or maybe people like you, whatever your social location.
The truth is that the gospel is not just for people like me or people like you. It is for all people. And as such those of us who claim to follow Jesus should begin to live like Jesus lived. And one of the chief ways that Jesus lived was for the other, especially the marginalized other.
Friends, in America there are marginalized people. One of the ways that people are marginalized most often is through race and ethnicity. And it is high time that we in the church took a hard stand for those who are marginalized. For whatever reason. Especially if we are white.
I would love to hear your thoughts on what I’ve written here in the comments below. But the comments need to remain civil and respectful. Any comments that I deem otherwise will be removed. Thank you for your understanding.