Why We Fail to Progress Past Ferguson

With all the developments of Ferguson and now the tragic Eric Garner case, I’ve been trying to process what it means to be a follower of Christ in a moment like this. I am grateful for those who have explained the nuances of both “sides;” particularly for African American friends and fellow pastors who patiently have helped me understand the bigger picture from their perspective. It does seem that despite millions of blogs and endless hours of discussion on cable news networks, we aren’t making that much progress—though I suppose having the discussion itself is significant progress.

I want to suggest that this lack of progress comes from both “sides” failing to heed two of the Bible’s most cherished principles about conflict resolution. They are to listen before, and more than, we speak (James 1:19); and to consider the interests of others (including other communities) to be more important than our own (James 2:1–4).

As I am a white man, raised in a white community and pastoring a church—while increasingly multicultural church—arising from Anglo origins, let me explain what I hear the black community saying to us. I am sure there is more, but this is what I have heard:

The black community wants the white community to recognize that the “justice system” has not worked for them to the degree it has for whites. Whether you want to call that “white privilege” or “systemic injustice,” blacks have not always received the same equal protections under the law, nor been afforded all the same opportunities and privileges as have whites. That is easily demonstrable from history, when actual codified laws—like Jim Crow laws—overtly discriminated against blacks. But even today, post Civil Rights era—when most, if not all, codified prejudice has been removed—in practice, police, judges, and sometimes even juries often adjudicate unfairly against blacks. This can manifest itself in how an officer assesses the threat posed by a loitering man, how quick he is to pull his gun, or the sentence imposed by a judge after a conviction. While some may balk at the term “systemic injustice” (since the injustice is not codified in the system itself, but from individuals acting prejudicially within the system), the reality is that if you are a white man stopped by the cops on the street you have, in many cases, a greater chance for fair and deferential treatment than you do if you are black.

The black community wants the white community to acknowledge that privilege exists–if not in all cases, at least in some–and to protest its injustice. Thus, Ferguson, they point out, is not just about Ferguson, but about a culmination of injustices that have led up to Ferguson. They also want the white community to acknowledge that full-fledged racism still exists in significant parts of the country, and to be as angered about the tolerance of that injustice as the black community is.

Finally, they want to see the white community express the same kind of anguish over the unnecessary death of a black man that they would over one of their own—that is, to regard each slain black man as every bit in the image of God as one of their children, and to understand that the sting and pain of death is no less acute in their community as it would be in a white one.

The “white” community has concerns of course, many of which are legitimate, and I hope that black leaders, particularly Christian ones, will champion those concerns, too. They want to see justice administered blindly, and do not believe it is right to punish an innocent man because of the color of his skin, or to deprive him of the due processes of the law because of the sins of his ancestors.

My concern in this post is not to adjudicate the particulars of the various cases. Each represents a tragedy that has left families grieving. My concern is how to move toward that gracious peace we crave, particularly in the church. I believe we have impeded this peace, unintentionally, by failing to follow the most important principles of “conflict resolution” laid out in Scripture:

Let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger (James 1:19)

In humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. (Philippians 2:3-4)

Both “sides” must be swifter to hear than to speak, and both sides must think of the “interests of another community as more important than their own.” Practically, that means gospel-centered white leaders will talk as much about the injustice and problems of white privilege, and the hurt and frustration it has caused in the black community as they do the problems with how the protestors have behaved. That also means that gospel-centered black leaders will talk as much about the need to protect the innocent and to extend to all the full benefits of the justice system to all as they do their anger (though justified) about past injustices.

We need white leaders who will stand with black brothers and sisters, feeling their pain and taking their burdens upon themselves as if they had been heaped upon their own children. And we need black leaders who will insist on the strictest standards of justice for the innocent—including police officers—and publicly upholding the idea that it is unjust to punish an innocent man for the actions of others, regardless of the pain incurred by others “like him” in the past. We need leaders who will refrain from leveling charges of racial bias except where it is clearly demonstrable, and who, in addition to calling attention to social structures that discourage black advancement, will point the black community inward, to their God-given abilities and potential, as the best place from which to draw the resources for empowerment and social advancement.

I am not saying that every issue put forward on either side is legitimate. Nor am I saying that either side should cease talking about issues plaguing their communities, or point out out problems and inconsistencies with the other side. They can and should. Democracy only works when people speak up. Just that they talk as loudly—if not moreso—about the issues that concern the other as they do their own. Isn’t that what gospel-centered leaders do? And wouldn’t that lead to peace? Wouldn’t the black community be more likely to listen to a white man who, while concerned to see the due process of the law preserved, demonstrates sensitivity toward the prejudices many in the black community experience, and who feels the pain in their communities as if it occurred in his? And won’t whites be more likely to listen to a black man who champions fairness and justice for all, indiscriminately?

Instead, what we have now are a plethora of leaders rising up with fingers pointed at the other group:

“But what you are demanding is unjust!”

“But you don’t understand that we are acting this way because of all the past injustices that have led up to this!”

Again, both “sides” have points that need to be heard. My hope is that both black and white Christians will be known for picking up the cause of the other as much as their own. In other words, white leaders should be talking more about the problems with white privilege, and black leaders should be talking loudly about the evil of punishing an innocent man for the sins of others. Then, and only then, will be behaving like gospel-centered leaders, and then and only then will we achieve that gracious peace we so deeply long for.

To my African-American brothers and sisters, this series of events has helped me understand some things you have said but I have been unable to see as of yet. My prayer is to see every privilege of justice and freedom extended to you that my family enjoys; that you receive every prerogative deriving from the dignity of being made in the image of God; and that we together see prejudice, both explicit and implied, finally banished from our society. We, your brothers and sisters in Christ, will pray and labor with you until that day comes. Forgive us where we have not, and do not, live up to that.