Ferguson, Saint Louis, Missouri

editorial note: after reading this post, please read this clarification about it.

* * * * * * *

If you are a regular reader of this illustrious theology and culture blog, you know my affinity to and burden for civil justice, particularly as it regards racism and racial discrimination.  If not, here are some previous offerings for your convenient perusal from my time at the collective:

Barak Obama Is Black
I’m Not Trayvon Martin
What’s Going On: A Rev[elation]iew

This week, the ongoing tragedy of civil rights in America struck very close to home for me.  For five years, my family made our home in North County, St Louis.  We love North County, are proud to have all three of our kids born there, and still have spiritually strong relationships with friends and spiritual family there.  Our home was in St John; the church where I was youth pastor was in Berkeley.  Both neighborhoods border Ferguson, the current American epicenter in the struggle for civil rights.  On Saturday, eighteen-year old African-American Mike Brown was walking in Ferguson, had some sort of altercation with a white police officer who shot and killed him.  Brown was unarmed; the officer’s identity has yet to be released.  Another young black man killed by another white police officer.

For a good timeline of events, check out this link.

St Louis is the most racist city I’ve ever experienced.  For my friends in St Louis who read this, you may or may not know what I’m talking about (may know in that you’ve encountered racism in yourself; may not know in that it’s your culture, so self-perspective is difficult).  In some strange, demented way, if this had to happen in St Louis, at least it happened in Ferguson.  If this shooting had happened in St Charles or Chesterfield, it would be noted and mournfully cast aside. If this shooting had happened in East St Louis, the violent response would be irreversibly destructive.  In Ferguson, the death of Mike Brown has the potential to be honored and the motives and heart behind the virulent and potent dynamics of race and discrimination in this strong American city to be exposed and healed.

Racism is deep in the fabric of this beautiful midwestern city.  The curse of the Dred Scott case broods like a dark cloud, and the Riverfront Times — for all its liberal craziness — offers some interestingly accurate observations in this December 5, 2013 article: Ten Disturbingly Racist Things About St Louis.  Even the British are fascinated by the Delmar Divide, and the story of Pruitt-Igoe is enough to make anyone sit up and take notice of the obvious racial ramifications from recent St Louis history.  [If you can find or purchase the documentary The Pruitt-Igoe Myth online, it’s worth every penny to learn from this extraordinary documentary.]

One of the students in my youth group from Ferguson — a white girl — had recently been in a relationship with a black guy.  On three separate occasions, three different adults approached me with spiritual concern for her because of this previous relationship with said black kid.  Because he was black.

In late 1999, a man who had recently held the office of elder at the church said to me [regarding shifts in the cultural make-up of the church’s neighborhood], “When the darkies started moving in, we started moving out.”

I was most amazed at the brazen nature with which St Louisans spoke of people of other races and colors.  They just laid it out there.  My homeland of the East Coast is also racist at the core — we’re certainly no better than anyone — but there is a level of political correctness that guards our speech about people of other races and colors.  Not in St Louis.  The kindest, most helpful people in the world live in St Louis until you get them talking about the changing racial demographics of their neighborhoods and schools.  Then the gloves come off.

This cultural reality has been a deep concern for me regarding this city that I have grown to love, but it reached a new zenith with the events of the last week in Ferguson.  The hatred is so deep, the response in this type of situation is so strong, what to make of the transpired and ongoing situation?  And how are we as Christians to think and live in the midst of these things?

Our response is generally to polarize as quickly as possible.  We tend to intellectually analyze or emotionally react — whichever our personal story tells us — and then choose sides.  Either the officer was justified or Mike Brown was justified.  Finding our “position” and then defending it makes us feel safe and protected, and yes, ambivalence is still a position.  There are bigger things at work here than what happened last weekend and who is right and wrong.  Such is the case with Mike Brown, and such was the case with Trayvon Martin, Rodney King, Medgar Evers, stop-and-frisk, segregated water fountains, lynching mobs, and myriad other situations.

In the May issue of The Atlantic, Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote one of the best pieces of periodical literature I’ve ever read: The Case For Reparations.

Listen.  I understand I’m a person given to hyperbole in order to make a point.  I’m not friggin’ joking though.  Coates’ piece is Pulitzer stuff.  You need to stop and take the time to read it.  Go back to that link and read his article.   Here’s the link again.  If you’re crunched on time, ignore the rest of this post and go read his piece.  Every St Louisan needs to read this article.  Every person interested in what is happening in St Louis needs to read this article.  Every American needs to read this work.  Coates’ piece will explain to you the events and motivations of what is happening in Ferguson.

The current unrest in Ferguson has very little to do with the events of the last week there.  It has everything to do with has happened in America in the last 350 years.  And we white people need to stop being arrogant imbeciles who act like our history belongs to our ancestors.   Their history is every bit as much ours as it is theirs.

Go ahead, try to argue with that concept biblically.  In fact, I defy you to read Coates’ article and find an un- or anti-biblical principle in it.

Here’s my favorite thing about the article: the author doesn’t even offer an idea of what reparations could be, because frankly Scarlet, he doesn’t give a damn.  What he wants is an honest collective accounting about what actually happened, and compassion toward those negatively affected by those events.  A light, shining on real events in real history.  In my opinion, the article hangs on this concept:

Won’t reparations divide us? Not any more than we are already divided. The wealth gap merely puts a number on something we feel but cannot say—that American prosperity was ill-gotten and selective in its distribution. What is needed is an airing of family secrets, a settling with old ghosts. What is needed is a healing of the American psyche and the banishment of white guilt.

What I’m talking about is more than recompense for past injustices—more than a handout, a payoff, hush money, or a reluctant bribe. What I’m talking about is a national reckoning that would lead to spiritual renewal. Reparations would mean the end of scarfing hot dogs on the Fourth of July while denying the facts of our heritage. Reparations would mean the end of yelling “patriotism” while waving a Confederate flag. Reparations would mean a revolution of the American consciousness, a reconciling of our self-image as the great democratizer with the facts of our history.

I Can't Bear ItCoates’ article is prophetic in nature, not by foretelling, but in truth-telling.  Way more than predicting the future, biblical prophetic literature is about bringing things into the light, taking account of history, owning what is real, exacting personal and corporate responsibility, allowing light to shine on darkness, making amends for the sins of our fathers.

Owning and taking responsibility for what actually happened is righteousness.
Reparations are absolutely biblical.
Generosity and care toward those hurt is love.
The offender first offering apology and a journey to reconciliation is the heart of God.
Generational sin carries generational consequence.
These things cannot be ignored.

Unwillingness to honestly see and courageously own truth is the root of self-deception.  It’s what makes us say, “I’m not racist, I’ve got lots of black friends!” or use words like “them”, ‘”they” or “us”.    We are generationally formed by the fallen-ness of that from which we have come.  And that from which we have come is that which we have become.  Be not self-deceived (James 1).

My prayer for St Louis, and for all of us as Americans, is for the grace of the light of God to shine upon us.  For the safety of His love to open the door for self-protections to fall, and for truth to reign where deceit would enslave.

I leave you with these words from the prophet:

“Cry aloud; do not hold back;
lift up your voice like a trumpet;
declare to my people their transgression,
to the house of Jacob their sins.

Yet they seek me daily
 and delight to know my ways,
as if they were a nation that did righteousness
and did not forsake the judgment of their God;
they ask of me righteous judgments;
they delight to draw near to God.

‘Why have we fasted, and you see it not?
Why have we humbled ourselves, and you take no knowledge of it?’
Behold, in the day of your fast you seek your own pleasure,
and oppress all your workers.

Behold, you fast only to quarrel and to fight and to hit with a wicked fist.
Fasting like yours this day will not make your voice to be heard on high.

Is such the fast that I choose,
 a day for a person to humble himself?
Is it to bow down his head like a reed,
 and to spread sackcloth and ashes under him?
Will you call this a fast,
 and a day acceptable to the Lord?

“Is not this the fast that I choose:
to loose the bonds of wickedness,
to undo the straps of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free,
and to break every yoke? 

Is it not to share your bread with the hungry
and bring the homeless poor into your house;
when you see the naked, to cover him,
and not to hide yourself from your own flesh?

Then shall your light break forth like the dawn,
and your healing shall spring up speedily;
your righteousness shall go before you;
the glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard.

Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer;
you shall cry, and he will say, ‘Here I am.’
If you take away the yoke from your midst,
the pointing of the finger, and speaking wickedness,
if you pour yourself out for the hungry
and satisfy the desire of the afflicted,
then shall your light rise in the darkness
and your gloom be as the noonday.

And the Lord will guide you continually
 and satisfy your desire in scorched places
and make your bones strong;
and you shall be like a watered garden,
like a spring of water,
 whose waters do not fail.

And your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt;
you shall raise up the foundations of many generations;
you shall be called the repairer of the breach,
the restorer of streets to dwell in. 

“If you turn back your foot from the Sabbath,
from doing your pleasure on my holy day, 
and call the Sabbath a delight
and the holy day of the Lord honorable;
if you honor it, not going your own ways,
or seeking your own pleasure, or talking idly;

then you shall take delight in the Lord,
and I will make you ride on the heights of the earth;
I will feed you with the heritage of Jacob your father,
for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.”
–Isaiah 58

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9 thoughts on “Ferguson, Saint Louis, Missouri

  1. I really resonate with the guts of this article. The conversation of-ferguson riots having little to do with the white man who shot a black boy- have been going on in my house all week. We have been trying to feel out ‘what to do’ about all of it. What does justice actually look like? Are we watching justice unfold on tv? (Not small scale justice , but historical just. ). I don’t know those answers, but thanks for finding the hope in ferguson. I too love north county.

  2. I don’t know if you’re friends with Nathan Johnson on Facebook, but he has posted some very thoughtful responses and reflections on the Mike Brown killing, the vigil riots, etc. (I keep trying to get him to write for Theocult, but he hasn’t taken me up on it yet.)

    My initial response, honestly, is shock — not a how-could-that-happen? kind of shock (because it’s really no surprise at all), but almost like a shock of impropriety. Like, “Wow, that’s what this looks like when you just say it straight out and in public.” It’s eye-opening and embarrassing at the same time (and it is with honest shame that I use the word ’embarrassing’). What I see in it is that the culture and people of St. Louis are ruled by fear.

    Steff’s reading this social work book that says the 2 primary human emotions are Fear and Love, and that everything else stems from them. In white St. Louisans, fear results in discrimination, oppression, and denial. In black St. Louisans it produces anger, hatred, and vengefulness. Nowhere is there Love; and nowhere is there justice.

  3. Jay, I recognize the prophetic art. That particular piece jumped out at me, and caught me. Go, and speak, and weep. Thank you. Isaiah 58, Isaiah 61, Luke 4: 18-19, the heart of Jesus.

  4. I am not quite connecting the latest events in Ferguson with the United States’ historical past with slavery. I realize the point of the article extends past recent events, but Ferguson does appear to be what sparked you to pen this. Everything you wrote is true, heart felt, and reflective of a city and our country’s past, present, and future (awesome stuff); I am just not sure it (yet) has a connection to the events in Ferguson.

    We immediately want to tag racism to the shooting because of skin color, yet we only know superficial facts with more details coming out daily. Maybe the officer is racist, maybe not (or maybe he doesn’t know it). Maybe he supports reparations, has donated to the cause, and even wrote letters to the federal government in support of it. I don’t know. There were many events including a robbery that led up to shooting and many things that could have been done differently to prevent it. Did Mike Brown deserve to die for stealing a box of cigars or physically aggressing a police officer, no. I am not a cop, haven’t gone through the training, and my life is not on the line every day.

    I gather that our flawed and tragic history has placed some in enviable and unenviable places in life.
    Nevertheless, it didn’t have to dictate the choices of a white officer or a black male on in Ferguson to a deadly outcome.

    • Marcus — Thanks for reading this post and for your comment.

      I tried not to infer that the shooting itself was racially motivated, perhaps not clearly enough. I believe in due process and have no idea whether or not it was a racially motivated shooting. You are right: our collective history certainly did not determine the happenings of those moments when an officer and a young man both had significant choices facing them, and only they and the witnesses know what actually happened.

      I do think we need to acknowledge that this is once again a white man in a position of power taking the life of a black man. That narrative is a major story line in our history and it needs to be considered. That doesn’t mean this was a racist crime; it is just to say the situation demands recognition and consideration. There is more going on here than meets the eye.

      The subsequent outpourings though — the looting, hate speech, cultural discrimination, riots, social media insanity, police militarizing instead of policing, journalistic arrests, nationwide solidarity marches — these things don’t just happen. This level of emotion — grief, anger, fear, strife, mistrust — these feelings to these depths are not spontaneous, they have been created and nurtured. They come from somewhere, and my post was to point out that somewhere, and to point readers to a source that explains that somewhere better than I can (Coates’ article).

      The post was also to hopefully expose what I consider the initial step in healing: truth, humility, ownership and responsibility.

  5. Daniel 9, a paraphrase…

    So I turned to the Lord God and pleaded with him in prayer and fasting. I also wore rough burlap and sprinkled myself with ashes. I prayed to the Lord my God and confessed: “O Lord, you are a great and awesome God! You always fulfill your covenant and keep your promises of unfailing love to those who love you and obey your commands. 5 But we have sinned and done wrong. We have rebelled against you and scorned your commands and regulations. 6 We have refused to listen to your servants the prophets, who spoke on your authority to our kings and princes and ancestors and to all the people of the land. “Lord, you are in the right; but as you see, our faces are covered with shame. This is true of all of us, … scattered near and far, wherever you have driven us because of our disloyalty to you. 8 O Lord, we and our kings, princes, and ancestors are covered with shame because we have sinned against you. 9 But the Lord our God is merciful and forgiving, even though we have rebelled against him. 10 We have not obeyed the Lord our God, for we have not followed the instructions he gave us through his servants the prophets. 11 We all have disobeyed your instruction and turned away, refusing to listen to your voice. “So now the solemn curses and judgments written in the Law of Moses, the servant of God, have been poured down on us because of our sin. 12 You have kept your word and done to us and our rulers exactly as you warned. … 13 Every curse written against us has come true. Yet we have refused to seek mercy from the Lord our God by turning from our sins and recognizing his truth. 14 Therefore, the Lord has brought upon us the disaster he prepared. The Lord our God was right to do all of these things, for we did not obey him. “O Lord our God, you brought lasting honor to your name by rescuing your people …in a great display of power. But we have sinned and are full of wickedness. 16 In view of all your faithful mercies, Lord, please turn your furious anger away from …, your holy people. All the neighboring nations mock your people because of our sins and the sins of our ancestors. “O our God, hear your servant’s prayer! Listen as I plead. For your own sake, Lord, smile again on your desolate sanctuary. “O my God, lean down and listen to me. Open your eyes and see our despair. See how your people, your holy people, lie in ruins. We make this plea, not because we deserve help, but because of your mercy. “O Lord, hear. O Lord, forgive. O Lord, listen and act! For your own sake, do not delay, O my God, for your people … bear your name.”

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