James McFarlane, Jr lives in Lancaster, PA with his lovely wife and two beautiful children. He is still trying to figure out what he wants to be when he grows up.
More years ago than I like to consider, I was traveling to Belize for my second year teaching middle schoolers in the jungles of Central America. I was traveling with a large group of friends who were also coming for various mission related reasons. We all had many, many bags (I conservatively estimate 6 very large bags for myself) that were filled to bursting with everything I could possibly imagine needing over the course of the coming year. And I do mean everything. The previous year I had been totally blindsided by my almost total lack of access to anything more advanced than erasers and lined paper. I am not exaggerating at the remoteness of the place. The start of my previous school year, my first day of school in fact, had been 9/11 and a full week went by before we knew exactly what had happened. We knew something had happened, but the stories ranged from war with Russia/China to total nuclear holocaust. All communications and travel was shut down between America and the outside world, so when we finally did hear the news, it was, at least partially, something of a relief. They hadn’t nuked New York City.
All that to say, I had a lot of stuff with me. I had taken full advantage of every nook and cranny available to me. Part of the entry process into most countries is a requirement to declare your belongings and pay whatever duty is required based on the items you have.
You can imagine my concern as I dragged, pushed and rolled my luggage through the line and inched closer to the customs official and the judgment that awaited me. I had cartons of photo film (this being pre-digital camera days), reams of printed materials, all kinds of finished goods that generally receive very high duties in Belize.
Finally, I’m at the counter. I produce my documents and answer the questions. Where I’m from. Where I’m going. How long do I expect to be in country. Do I have means of support while in the country. Et cetera.
When it came time to declare my belongings, the official simply said “Have a good day. Next!” He didn’t charge me anything for my items I had brought.
I was in shock. Customs officials love people like me. We bring them money, and lots of it. It was only after he told me for the third time that I could go, that I realized I was really free to go, this wasn’t some cruel game, and that I had just been the beneficiary of Privilege on a personal level. None of my other fellow travelers had been afforded the same courtesy and the only thing I shared with the customs official was skin color. I had been passed through customs without any duty being assessed primarily, perhaps solely, because I was black. Of this I am certain.
Ever since the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, I’ve found myself occupying two parallel universes of response to the tragic incident. The one universe basically says, on one level or another, that Michael Brown got what he deserved and the rioters and protesters deserve no empathy because Mike was breaking the law, and the rioters are breaking the law, and, law breakers must be punished.
The second universe is outraged at the injustice of an unarmed teenager being shot while trying to surrender, and view this incident as another link in a long chain of injustice that stems across 400 years of slavery and cultural oppression through the Jim Crow Era right down to the 2014 shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri.
These are parallel universes and not different viewpoints in the same world because outside of a transcendent figure who is able to bridge both worlds and bring them together, there is no hope of reconciling these two worldviews. Michael Browns and Trayvon Martins will continue to pile up, building an impenetrable wall of cultural misunderstanding that is functionally ignored by those on one side and a life-defining reality for those on the other side.
I am appalled at the White population’s callous disregard for the emotion we see on display in Ferguson and other cities around America. At least in my somewhat varied circle of friends and acquaintances there is real ignorance about the roots of the pain that is being expressed. This ignorance is buttressed by a willing blindness to any historical narrative of race relations except the one that says America fought a long and bloody civil war to free the slaves, and has since that time expended vast amounts of time and treasure lifting minorities out of the dust to little positive effect. That history is easily proven wrong on the first count, and something of a cultural horror story on the second.
The Black view of history, in contrast is like an alternate universe that you can only get to by passing through Alice’s rabbit hole. It makes perfect sense to those inside, but is totally divorced from the White point of view as to constitute an alien life form. Every time the government or larger community takes action, real or perceived, that is against Black people or interests, it is interpreted as another injustice born of fear and designed to continue the ongoing, brutal subjugation of Black culture and identity. These injustices are seen as another link in the chains the White majority has been weaving around Blacks since the earliest days of this country.
So an event like Michael Brown is interpreted by Whites in general as “We’re trying to help you by dealing with the people who are preying on you and your community. If you were more responsible and less immoral, we wouldn’t have to come and do it for you. Why can’t you see this!?!?” Blacks on the other hand see a young black man summarily judged and lynched for a small time crime like so many black men before him. I see no human way to bring those worldviews together.
As a Christian, I believe in the ability of God through the blood of Jesus and the power of the Holy Spirit to make all things new again, to bind up the wounds, to heal the broken things. Yet on this seminal issue, the reconciliation of whites and blacks in America, I find the American church powerless and largely uninterested in pursuing real healing and reconciliation.
Which brings me back to Belize. For nearly 15 years, I’ve been bothered by the favor I received at that border crossing, yet until Ferguson I could never identify what, exactly, troubled me. All these years, I assumed I was troubled by the privilege I received, and the accompanying unfairness of my friends paying while I got off scotch free. After Ferguson, I realized what really bothered me is not that I didn’t pay and my friends did, but that I received this favor solely because of the color of my skin and my friends didn’t solely because of the color of their skin.
Much of the Christian literature I have read that is in any way empathetic to the situation in Ferguson blame White Privilege, to varying degrees, for the chain of events leading to Michael Brown’s shooting.
White Privilege is not the problem. Sin is the problem, specifically narcissism and pride in the accomplishments of White society. If my neighbor is broken and in pain, the answer is to come alongside, and see the man, and feel for him. To go over to him, and sooth his wounds with olive oil and wine and bandage them. Then, put the man in our own vehicle and take him to a place of rest, and take care of him. See Luke 10:25-37 Looking into a mirror and conjuring up a solution based on what we see reflected back (White Privilege) is not the solution to what troubles us. Christ is the solution. Christ, and only Christ, is the transcendent figure who can bridge two worlds and bring real reconciliation, healing and peace to race relations in America today.
Privilege is not the problem. Stop feeling guilty for the blessing of living in a world where affluence and wealth are the baseline and real, abject need is almost a memory. These are blessings to be cherished, not demons to be exorcised.
We are not the answer to the pain on display in Ferguson, but we can be the medium through which the answer is applied to the pain. We are not the oil and the balm, but we can, through the power of the Holy Spirit, be the ones who apply the healing ointments to the wounds that were made and never healed.
Christ is the answer, yesterday, today and forever. In our hubris and pride, we think the answer to all our problems lie within us, and forget that outside the power of Christ in our lives and our communities, our stories would all be a reflection of Ferguson. We think that our responsibility, our common sense, our own moral righteousness is what separates “us” from “them”. Wrong. The power of Christ, and the renewing work of the Holy Spirit is what keeps our lives from mirroring Ferguson, Missouri and ending as tragically as Michael Brown’s, and it is only the power of Christ and the work of the Spirit that can bridge these two worlds and bring us all to true reconciliation, healing, and peace.
So, be thankful for the privileges you enjoy, and allow the Holy Spirit to give you a new heart and new eyes for Ferguson, Missouri and a deep understanding of what this unfortunate incident truly represents.