Friday, December 5, 2014

Thoughts and Reflections on Ferguson and New York

   Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.
    In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus...
-Philippians 2:3-5 (NIV)

Ferguson, Missouri. New York City. Stolen cigarillos. Illegal, untaxed cigarettes. A gun. A chokehold. Grand juries choosing not to indict. Anger, bitterness, frustration, fear.
     Black and white.
    Just when you think that we’ve made some progress in our country on matters of race, you see news stories like these and wonder. But then you forget that’s what the stories are about — the history in this country on matters of race. So much anger, fear, suspicion, so much history affects relationships even now. I think that’s what happened in Ferguson and New York. Oh, other stuff happened too, I know, though I’m not sure we’ll know exactly what.
    I have thoughts about it; not conclusions, not pronouncements, not sermons, not morals. Thoughts, reflections. I hesitate, though, because it’s so easy to be misunderstood. And so easy to be wrong. Not to mention that as a white male I could easily be a part of the problem instead of contributing to a solution.
    But I do have thoughts and reflections.
    I have friends and brothers and sisters in Christ who have been mistreated by police, seemingly for no reason other than the color of their skin or the accent with which they spoke. I also have brothers in Christ and friends who are cops, and for whom I would wish nothing that makes a difficult job more difficult, or puts them in harm’s way. And I don’t think my desire that my friends of different races and ethnicities be treated fairly and my prayer for the safety of my friends who wear blue need to be mutually exclusive.
    I know that I don’t, and can’t, understand entirely the experiences of black people. I was brought up to believe that if I found myself in trouble, I should go to the police. I have friends who were brought up to avoid the police at all costs. My parents never felt the need to tell me what to do if a police officer stopped me; I have friends whose parents taught them, in painstaking detail, to raise their hands, say “yes sir” and “no sir”, and do just what the officer says. I won’t ever, I suppose, completely understand the distrust of police that many of my friends have. But I know their experiences of being harassed, threatened, and even injured, largely because of the color of their skin, their style of dress, or their manner of speech are real.
    I also know that their experiences aren’t the only side of the story. I know many police officers who are dedicated to their jobs and take the notion of serving and protecting very seriously. I don’t think most police officers abuse their authority. Very few ever have a confrontation like the ones in Ferguson and New York, and yet they’re out every day keeping people like me safe. Seems to me we as a society have an obligation to acknowledge that, even as we hold accountable those who take advantage of the power they have.
    As children of God and followers of Jesus, we have a commitment to justice and righteousness. One of God’s fundamental concerns in Scripture is that people are treated fairly — and, specifically, that the strong not take advantage of the weak. Those in power are expected to show special care to those who are not in control of their own destinies. Sometimes unhealthy systems develop that work against righteousness and justice. Sometimes individuals become a part of those systems with good intentions, and yet find themselves tangled in its injustices. Seems to me that part of our responsibility as God’s people is to stand up for those who can’t stand up for themselves, to speak up for those who have no voice.
    Paul says submit to the authorities, that God has placed them in power and that if we do what’s right we won’t have to be afraid of them. And yet that’s not the experience of some people in our society. Sometimes — maybe not in either of these cases, or maybe in one but not the other — sometimes people do right, and still find themselves on the wrong end of a stun gun or baton or 9mm.
    Some say Eric Garner and Michael Brown were looking for trouble. Witnesses and video make that, at best, debatable. Some say the confrontations and the failure to indict were racially motivated. It’s hard to know about motivations, isn’t it? And yet…these things happened, and two people are dead, and we have all this history, and it’s no wonder that people are angry and frightened. It’s no wonder that people are protesting all across the country.
    Those protests give me hope. There’s a long history of protest in this country that often has run in opposition to our long history of racial tension. The protests have been largely peaceful, but that’s not what gives me hope. The police presence at those protests has, in most places, been exemplary. But that’s not what gives me hope either. What gives me hope is the people at those protests, different races, different ethnicities, ages, backgrounds, joining together to make their concerns heard. There’s reason to hope there.
    My son goes to a very diverse high school in downtown Chicago. Some of his classmates, black, white, and other, have been part of those demonstrations. At church, our kids and teenagers enjoy each others’ company without thinking much about their differing races and backgrounds. I have hope that some of the growing pains of today make for a better society for our children. I have hope that God is in that, and that his church will be sensitive to his movement and brave enough to be in the vanguard of it.     
    One other thing, hard for white people to hear sometimes: justice doesn’t always mean equality. In God’s vocabulary, justice is those in power showing special concern for the weak. That means that those who are privileged in our world, whether in terms of race or economics or opportunity or power, have a responsibility to those who aren’t. There’s no other way to create a just society. Otherwise, the weak will always be playing catch-up.
    That shouldn’t really surprise us, though. After all, that is the mind of Christ. Isn’t that how he treated us?

    Told you: I have no answers. Just thoughts and reflections, maybe to go along with yours. May God bless our thoughts and reflections, and make them action, and may he use them to build a better world.

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