About eleven days ago I sat in my office working on the sermon for Sunday and learned that two of my colleagues and friends had traveled to Ferguson, Missouri to be a presence of peace and unity amidst the turmoil and protests that were ongoing in the aftermath of the shooting of Michael Brown on August 9th.
Throughout the day I followed their tweets and would occasional check in and converse with them about their experiences. I was proud of them for what they were doing, and wished I was doing something like they were.
On Sunday last I held the conviction that I should say something—anything—about the unrest that was happening in Ferguson, but I am not one who can deviate with much confidence from his preparations easily or quickly.
This conviction to say something remained though, and was only fueled more so by: the escalation of violence in Ferguson over the next several nights, the discussion about Ferguson in our Monday Morning Study Group, and finally by the sermon my friend and colleague shared with his congregation following his time in Ferguson.
Rev. Alan Dicken, Senior Pastor of Carthage Christian Church in Cincinnati preached a sermon that called for people of faith to feel something about that which was going—something other than apathy—and that perhaps that feeling ought to be anger—to perhaps be mad, he said, that this happened, to be mad that it continues to happen, to be mad that some believe the statement “This isn’t my problem”, to be mad that we “…saw God being hurt and too many people responded to violence with complacent silence.”
I was mad. I was mad at what was happening—violence, political posturing and dodging, destruction and opportunistic mayhem.
I was mad at what was not happening—peace, justice, dialogue and conversations, nor apologies.
But I wasn’t just mad. I was also sad.
Sad that an 18 year old man, named Michael Brown, was dead.
Sad for his parents, family, and friends.
Sad for the policer officer—Darren Wilson—who fired the shots that killed Michael Brown, and for what will now come upon him and his family.
Sad for the community of Ferguson, Missouri and for our country that something like this was happening, again.
I am sad because this is not what God intends. It is not what God wants of God’s children or for God’s children.
I mad and I am sad. And because I am, I am convicted—convicted to say and do something.
Further words from Rev. Dicken implored me to feel and think such, for he said to his congregation, and then to me, and now to us…
I notice my whiteness more now, and sit looking around wondering how there aren’t more people here to show they care, to show that they dare, to make sacrifices and risks, to say that this isn’t a problem for the black community. This is a problem for human unity.
The events and turmoil of Ferguson, Missouri or not just issues of Ferguson, Missouri.
They are not just black community issues.
They are issues that impact us all. They are problems that are systemic—ongoing problems and issues that reach across our country and even around the world, spanning generations.
This is a problem for human unity because there is no human unity. The events and turmoil of Ferguson, Missouri and the resulting overt displays of division it shows, gives evidence that there is no human unity.
And why is there no human unity?
Is it because of differing races, nationalities, genders, sexual orientations?
One might be quick to think so, but as people of faith, the answer has to be “NO” because as people of faith we hold the Bible as our authority and Genesis tells us that human beings were created in the image of God, therefore that which is of God and by God cannot be the cause of not having human unity.
So if the obvious is not the cause of our lack of human unity, then what is—but more importantly what can we do about it?
I want to share with you a response to what has happened in Ferguson, Missouri.
It is fairly lengthy, more than I would usually do in a sermon, but I am compelled to share it because it offers a perspective unlike most that we have heard or seen, and I believe it helps answer this question.
It comes from Terrell Carter, a minister at Third Baptist Church in St. Louis and director of the Foundations in Ministry program for Central Baptist Theological Seminary in St. Louis.
Rev. Carter writes,
Like most people who have seen, heard or read about the series of events that have occurred in Ferguson, Missouri, I have been frustrated and disheartened at the loss of a life, the unnecessary theft and destruction of property, and the weakening of trust between residents and government.
I have also struggled with how I should feel in response to such an emotion-evoking series of events. I struggle because I view the events that have transpired from what I think is a unique lens.
I am African-American. I have lived the majority of my life in St. Louis and am familiar with most of the smaller municipalities outside St. Louis.
I have had regular, first-hand experience as a youth, and now a 40-year-old father of two, of being pulled over by police officers of various departments in the St. Louis region. I regularly experience the fear of driving through certain areas knowing that I will be pulled over by police simply because they think I don’t belong in the area.
These officers don’t care, or take the time to find out, that I am a pastor, a college professor and the executive director of a community-based service agency that has sought to improve the lives of people in North St. Louis City for 21 years. None of this is important to them.
In defense of these officers, I understand why none of this is important.
I was a St. Louis City police officer for five years and my main concern was staying safe and making it home to my family in one piece every day. I patrolled one of the city’s most dangerous neighborhoods. I also worked in a special undercover detail driving an unmarked car in order to execute search warrants for drugs and guns on a weekly basis.
During my tenure on the department, I learned that some citizens didn’t necessarily care about me as an officer or person. People didn’t care that I was the interim pastor of a church in the neighborhood, or a father, an artist, or mentor to urban youth. They only saw the uniform and had a preconceived idea of who I was and what I should do for them.
On multiple occasions, I helped other officers defend themselves against people who attempted to take their lives. I was also helped by multiple officers as I defended myself against people who attempted to take my life.
Because of these experiences, I will never second-guess the officer who is at the center of the firestorm. Having been in what I perceived were life-or-death situations, with only a few seconds to respond, I can sympathize with the officer’s actions to defend himself.
That does not mean that I agree with, or justify, his actions. It only means that, if he believed that his life was immediately threatened, I can understand why he responded with force.
What is important to me right now is how we respond to the fallout from this event.
What personal stance can we all take as we wait to find out what really happened on that fateful day?
I have three simple suggestions that I believe can help us all.
First, allow your perspective to be influenced by the whole of information and not just bits and pieces. We all want to know what happened and why. Unfortunately, we will not receive all of the answers immediately.
Don’t let your opinion be overly influenced by a lack of information and disinformation. As much as we may want to trust news programs, bloggers and people that tweet, we have to remember that they all have their own agendas when writing. Whether intentional or not, key information sometimes gets left out in order to influence our thinking.
Second, we have the opportunity to respond to all of this through a lens of love and compassion.
We don’t have to hate those who don’t think and feel like we do.
We don’t have to vilify one another because we hold differing opinions about all of the different social and economic aspects surrounding these circumstances.
We don’t have to look for new enemies, especially during a time when unity and cooperation are needed more than ever.
And finally, as much as this event is about racial profiling, and about teaching our children the value of earning what they have instead of taking and stealing from someone else, and about respecting authority, this is also about the unseen spiritual fight that has been waging from the earliest times. The fight between the forces of spiritual darkness that seek to control this world and have its inhabitants devour each other and the present yet coming Kingdom of God that seeks to shape all things into God’s loving image.
What Ferguson, Missouri, and other cities and countries are experiencing is about more than just economic inclusion and racial equality. It is about who and what we allow to control this world and our lives for time and eternity.
When we look at it that way, we can see who the real enemy is.
Rev. Carter is helping us realize, and understand, what causes us to not have human unity, and what we can do about it.
The cause, the enemy, is not other human beings.
The cause, the enemy, is not someone else.
The cause, the enemy, is not “them”.
The cause and the enemy that threatens our human unity is: hate, judgment, divisions, ignorance, fear, lack of empathy—all of which are not by God nor of God.
Human beings have been created in the image of God.
Michael Brown—created in the image of God.
Darren Wilson—created in the image of God.
All people—created in the image of God.
That is our belief.
And in line with that belief, our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, instructed us to love God, self, and neighbor with our whole heart, mind, soul, and strength.
Therefore, let us, as the Apostle Paul implores, “Lead a life worthy of the calling to which we have been called.”
Because… we don’t have to hate.
We don’t have to vilify.
We don’t have to look for new enemies.
There is enemy enough already—the enemy of unity that seeks to control this world and its inhabitants for eternity.
But that enemy cannot win… it will not win… when the children of God “make every effort to maintain the unity of the spirit in the bond of peace.” Amen.