Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them; and the peace offerings of your fattened animals, I will not look upon them. Take away from me the noise of your songs; to the melody of your harps I will not listen. But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream. Amos 5:22–24
This past Sunday at Creekside I said that the Kingdom of God is seen in the spaces where what God wants done is done. When God talks about what this looks like, he very often talks about justice. Throughout the pages of scripture God challenges injustice — very often his challenges are strongest against his people, the going to church, worshiping, singing people of God. Sometimes his challenge is because of active injustice, but at least as often, perhaps more so it is to passive injustice. “When did I see you naked and imprisoned, if I knew it was you, I would have helped, honest, but they people I saw were scary — they were not you, were they?”
And that get’s me to Ferguson. That gets me to the great pain I feel, not only as I see the violence on my television, but in the conversations on social media from TV pendants, from radio hosts and even from friends and family. I am struck by how much our conversations are missing each other — one group of people talking and other groups of people talking, but none of them seem to be able to hear what the other is saying, each group, therefore, either incredibly frustrated or overly simplistic.
I was talking to someone earlier today and they said to me “when I heard the report on the evidence that the Grand Jury had before them, it makes sense that they did not indict the officer.” As a former prosecutor, that is my reaction as well. My natural reaction is “It seems so simple, so cut and dried, why can’t people understand that?”
The answer is simple: It’s not that simple.
It’s not that simple, because each of us comes with a life experience that shapes us, lenses that color the way we see the world. I am a 52 year old caucasian male who grew up in Newport Beach, California. I went to a high school that only had one African American, and he graduated when I was a sophomore. I grew up privileged and isolated from people who were not like me. People like me tend to talk about how far black people have come. We know of very successful African Americans, we even have an African American president, elected and then re-elected. if that does not prove discrimination to be mostly a thing of the past, then what does? These are my lenses, the lenses through which we most naturally view things. It is through these lenses that we view Ferguson and become confused – the death of Michael Brown was a tragedy and all, but the system played out, why can’t the people of Ferguson (and all the other outraged people) accept that?
But you see, Ferguson is not just about Ferguson. Ferguson is about an experience that is not mine, or people like me. Every single African American can tell you of their personal experience of being pulled over by the police for no reason. Don’t believe me? Ask and listen. If I go into a store to just browse, nobody follows me. My African American friends get followed, watched. Don’t believe me? Ask, observe. If I have time to kill, I can walk into a hotel and sit down in the lobby simply because I want to. Regardless of whether I am wearing business casual or jeans and a hoody, I can stay as long as I want with nobody questioning me. But if I could change the amount of melanin in my skin, I would quickly be asked if I had a reason to be there, probably by security, and be escorted out of the building. Don’t believe me? Ask someone whose experience is not your own and listen to their stories as they confirm these experiences and dozens of other instances where they regularly are scrutinized, subjected, accused and degraded – not because of their actions, but because of the color of their skin.
On August 9, 2014, 18 year old Michael Brown, an young black man, was walking in the street when Darren Wilson, a white police officer saw him. The people who know officer Wilson will tell you he is a good guy, he is not a racist. The people who knew Michael Brown will tell you he was a good kid, not a thug. Yet minutes after they encountered each other, Michael Brown lay dead in the street, like so many other African American young men.
And now we read the reports, we look at the actions and try to figure out what went wrong. Should Michael Brown have acted differently? Should officer Wilson have acted differently? Could the situation have been avoided? I have opinions, but no way of really knowing.
What I do know, however, is that another young man of color is dead. And, I suspect that if it were my white son who Officer Wilson saw and not the black son of Michael Sr. and Lesley, that I would still have my son, while their son is dead. Not because this officer was a raciest, nor because my son would have behaved differently, but because our society is fundamentally broken in some very significant ways. Because there is injustice in the land. And God grieves for the broken hearted and the hopeless. And God calls the church to be instruments of healing and justice.
Maybe the first step of that process of healing and justice is for people like me to stop talking and start listening. Maybe it is time we stop assuming we understand it all, and instead simply grieve with those who grieve – and live in that place for a bit. And then, from this posture of grief and listening, maybe we can then learn how be agents of God’s Kingdom in the brokenness that divides so many of us.
Peace, hope and love