A week has passed since the Grand Jury reached its decision in the city of Ferguson, and things haven’t quieted down much. While Ferguson was ablaze in anger, shock and outrage, other cities have had little riots and protest marches as people everywhere responded to the outcry for justice that many perceive has not occurred. Then another group of people are appalled by the behavior of those who are rioting, flipping cars over and smashing windows of local businesses. Some even feel like the justice system worked, and that regardless, civil chaos isn’t a proper response.
I’ve seen whites and blacks, men and women, on both sides of the debate. I’ve read tweets from a black rapper who said she might start killing “crackers in their sleep” (she tweeted later that it was a joke) and that she “hates straight white men” in response to the judicial system’s lack of justice. I’ve read post from a white guy who said, “I hope every rioter gets their head bashed in with a club...”, and a white woman who said, “...Officer Wilson did his job that August day...” I also saw this from a white man who wrote, “Cops have come a long way since Rodney King...it’s getting worse!” and a black man who wrote, “...the black people of Ferguson are a disgrace to other blacks. They asked for justice and the courts ruled...” I too have felt a lot of emotion about these events.
Black or white, male or female, the issues in Ferguson have hit a nerve.
People are sighting interviews with family members and police officers to “prove” their point. Videos of police violence and honorable police conduct have been filling up my social media feeds (even squeezing out the dog jumping on a trampoline video!) and heartache, anger, revenge and compassion are spilling over from everywhere. Friends are being dropped because of different view points, new friendships are being formed over agreeing opinions and comments are flying back and forth between total strangers.
No matter what side of the ruling you are on, Ferguson has captured our attention. It has certainly captured mine.
As I’ve reflected on what’s happened since the Grand Jury verdict was read, I’ve come up with three thoughts that seem to withstand the barrage of conflicting emotions and counter opinions flying around them. Here they are, and I would love to know what you think.
First, to me, the biggest travesty here isn’t the sense of injustice some feel, or the fear of law enforcement that many are talking about, it’s the tragic loss of life for an 18-year-old boy, and the pain and suffering that tears through a family, a school and a community when a young person’s life is ended. As a youth pastor for almost 17 years, and having worked with students for over 20 years, I can assure you that every time a young person is killed or tragically ends their own life, the heartache is deep.
Parents and family achingly ask “why?” as no parent ever wants to bury their child -- it’s not how it’s supposed to be. Having walked with several families through the loss of a child, I’ve seen the heartache and pain up-close and personal. In fact, I’m not sure there is a greater type of personal suffering than that experienced with the loss of a child. A child whose future is wide open before him. A child who was anticipating the next stage of her life. A child who had dreams and plans, who touched the lives of others, who had a special place in mom’s memory and who was celebrated joyously the day they entered this world.
And as the family suffers, so do the peers of the Michael brown. I’m certain many of his classmates, fellow employees and friends faced their own sense of mortality after hearing of his death. Having a friend in school or work one day, only to have him gone the next, leaves a gaping hole in a peer’s life, one that doesn’t just fill up overnight. Some respond in anger, some with a healthy dose of tears, others with silent, painful, contemplation and still others turn to substances for rescue. No matter the cause, the loss of life is painful.
Whatever you may think, feel, believe or know about the events of Ferguson, don’t forget that an 18-year-old child lost his life. Death hurts us all.
Second, the troubles in the Ferguson shooting didn’t begin on August 9th, 2014. While some of the facts of this case may never be fully revealed (was Michael attacking Officer Wilson? Did Officer Wilson fire in self-defense or did he take aim at a man surrendering to his authority? Was this racially motivated? Was it excessive force or well within the guidelines of an officers parameters while in the line of duty?) one fact is evident: the events that ended with Michael’s death on August 9th, certainly didn’t start on Aug 9th.
Tragically, the shooting of August 9th began with a robbery involving Michael. According to a store’s video recording, Michael and a friend attacked a convenience store clerk and stole a box of cigars. But that wasn’t the start of the story either. It goes back further, because at some point in time Michael believed he had the right to take what wasn’t his. At some point in time he was taught a value that if you want it, take it. If someone else has it, over power them. Maybe it was a friend at school. Maybe it was a parent or family member. But somewhere along the line it became ok to steal.
It may well be that officer Wilson’s actions were out of line with standard conduct of a police officer. Maybe his shots were fired in response to racial profiling or in gross prejudice toward the conduct of people of color. I don’t know officer Wilson, and I can’t wade through enough of the details to determine what’s true or not. However, racism is a sickening reality in our world (all over our world!) and if it was in play in Ferguson, it came into play long before August 9th!
The story begins -- not with theft or racism -- when we face the reality of our sin, the reality of our own personal corruption, and choose to do nothing about it. You see, when we break God’s laws and standards, we come face to face with the fact that our lives are thoroughly influenced by sin’s power. We were born with sin woven into our spiritual DNA, and nothing in us naturally longs to do what’s right. At some point in our lives, we become consciously aware of sin’s influence, and when we reject God’s plan of salvation over and over and over again, we reject the one power that can give us freedom from sin’s control.
Theft and racism and rioting have the same root, it’s called sin, and it’s ugly in all of its forms.
Third, the madness that unfolded in the aftermath of the Grand Jury’s decision should make us all look inward at our own lives. While you may point a finger at Officer Wilson or Michael Brown, or whether you blame a community or a police force, whatever side of the issue you fall on, we have the same personal responsibility: how will we keep ourselves from our own Ferguson?
What sin in your life could lead to an explosive response like the one in Ferguson? Are you angry, ready to lash out at the next person who cuts you off in traffic or hangs up on you at work? Are you hiding secrets of lust from your spouse allowing guilty pleasures to create a wedge in your marriage? Are you taking out your work frustrations on your children, spouse or ex-spouse? Do you hope for bad things to happen to other people, are you plotting revenge on someone who has wronged you or are you harboring a bitter, unforgiving spirit to your parents, husband or boss? Do you have a penchant for lying? Is it easy for you to justify stealing something from someone you believe “doesn’t deserve it?” Do you gossip and speak ill of others, and then flip-flop when you’re with a different set of friends?
If you and I will turn to the One who can help us with our own sin, we can avoid another Ferguson by never walking down that road ourselves! If we will deal with our own junk, then our own junk can’t be at the heart of tragedy like the one in Ferguson. Imagine if Michael Brown had put theft away from his life long before August 9th! He never would have assaulted a clerk and stolen cigars, Officer Wilson never would have been called and this last Thanksgiving in the Brown house would not have included an empty seat at the table. If Officer Wilson is guilty of gross misconduct or racism, imagine how different August 9th would have been had those things been dealt with years before he ever put on the uniform. Imagine how different the long-term outcome might have been for Michael had he been given an opportunity to change his life path. How different would the Thanksgiving table had been at the Wilson’s house if the death of an 18-year-old boy wasn’t the main topic on everyone’s mind?
I ache for the loss Michael’s family is still feeling. Ferguson lost one of her sons and the community heartache is real. Thankfully, thousands of protesters have raised their voices in peaceful ways as law-abiding citizens of every ethnicity. May their voices be heard over the noise of broken glass, angry shouts and burning cars. But I also ache for what officer Wilson’s family is experiencing. Having known several police officers as friends, I can’t imagine what it’s like to take a person’s life in the line of duty. If it was racially motivated, I can’t fathom the hatred that is destroying him. If it was in accordance with proper conduct as ruled by the Grand Jury, I can’t imagine the pain in his conscience, the constant “what ifs” he is playing out and the reality that his actions have stirred a community in so many ways. Neither family “won” in this tragedy.
Most of all, I pray that the Browns and the Wilsons will experience genuine healing. Nothing will ever replace the loss they’ve experienced, but healing can soften pain’s edge. I pray that the the community of Ferguson will find common ground in hope, not anger, in resolutions and not rioting. I pray that a nation will solve this, not strictly at a legal level, but at a personal individual level. And for each of those to happen, I pray that God changes hearts as only God can, beginning with mine.
And I really believe God can bring peace to all of this. God is a God who loves to step into the brokenness, heartache and suffering that we’ve created, and perform life-changing, peace-giving miracles. God loves to reconcile the defendant and plaintiff and to build a bridge of peace between the victim and perpetrator. As much as God’s heart is broken by everything that has happened in Ferguson, His power to bring change and healing is even greater. I believe the love, peace, mercy and grace of God could show up mightily in Ferguson, and that the Browns and Wilsons can both be freed from the losses they’ve each experienced.
In fact, imagine if next November, the Browns and Wilsons shared the Thanksgiving meal together! Imagine if the emptiness at the table this year, was replaced by powerful new relationships forged in the Gospel of reconciliation. Imagine if hate could be replaced by compassion, if loss could be replaced by hope and if inner turmoil could be replaced by peace. Sound impossible? It is...unless the people of Ferguson find the power of the Gospel in all of this. Ultimately, my prayer is for God’s power to show up in life-changing ways that brings people together.
And if I believe God can bring peace to the Wilson’s and Browns, am I accepting His peace in my life? Am I embracing hope for my losses? Am I allowing peace to calm my turmoil? Am I expressing compassion where hatred reigns? We all have a little Ferguson in our hearts, and we all need the Gospel of reconciliation to start it’s work in us, first.
Go ahead and take the plunge, life is always better on the water.