It seems that it is difficult to get away from the tragic events in Ferguson if you are at all on the media. It probably says something about the range of people I call friends that some are posting about the terrible wrong to the young man who died, and some defending the police officer and his actions. This post will not go there, although I do hope that a full, fair, and transparent investigation considering all the eyewitness testimony will take place to determine what happened at this scene and what charges or other action, if any, are warranted.
In our individualistic culture, it seems very easy to take sides in judging the actions of the individuals involved in these events, and to be sure Michael Brown and Darren Wilson each acted in ways for which they are responsible that led to the tragic outcome of a dead young man on the pavement. It seems to me that this is only the tip of a very tragic iceberg of issues. Phrases like “walking (or driving) while black”, books like The New Jim Crow, and the incongruity of a mostly white police force in a mostly Black community all remind us that race is far from a settled issue in our country and help account for the anger of a community that still sees itself as far from the realization of Dr. King’s dream. So when such a community sees a young, unarmed man dead in the streets shot by a white police officer, you have to be living in la-la land not to think a community will be angry.
I also wrestle with what police are being asked to do in many of our communities. Between liberal gun laws and illegally obtained weapons, our cities are lethal killing zones. As of today, for example, there have been 229 murders in Chicago. In Columbus, a much smaller city, we have had 63 murders. Nearly all of these deaths in both communities are shootings. Many of our communities want police presence to prevent some of these crimes and to get the perpetrators of crimes against people and property off the streets. The reality every police officer lives with is that every call and every traffic stop can place him or her at risk, often in a context where he or she is outgunned. While “militarizing” your police force may create an adversarial atmosphere as it seems to have in Ferguson, you have to be living in la-la land not to think the police would want to do all they could to protect themselves.
Meanwhile we have this media frenzy whipping up emotions among blacks and whites, playing upon the sense of grievance in each community. We have lawless elements looting the businesses in their own community because they have the chance to do so. And if a story in today’s Washington Post is to be believed, you also have militants from other cities who think it is time to get justice and are willing to use violence.
All these things move me to pray for the peace of Ferguson. It seems to me that given the volatile mix in this situation, this is a “not by might, not by power, but by my Spirit” time. Might and power have simply beget more violence. We need to pray for the peacemakers, as well as pray about our own roles in not feeding the inflammatory rhetoric around the death of Michael Brown and the larger tragedy of Ferguson.
They are there, whether they are passing out water and food to protesters, cleaning up after each night’s demonstrations, or going through the streets pleading for restraint and the use of nonviolent means to press for the justice and respect needed in this community. Perhaps it would help if the press helped their voices be heard above the clamor.
But real peace, biblical shalom isn’t simply about restoring and maintaining order. It is about promoting flourishing and justice and mutual respect throughout the Ferguson community. It is not about containing the anger but rather turning it to the constructive ends of substantive shalom. It might mean white police officials asking for the help of Ferguson community leaders in increasing the pool of black officers, and in developing policing strategies that address the crime concerns of the community, that show respect for residents while recognizing the safety concerns of officers. It might mean community leaders asking for the help of police, judges, and other community resources to develop strategies to keep youth in their community out of trouble and not be saddled with a criminal record–which is a one strike and you are out kind of thing.
Perhaps such efforts have been made. Perhaps they have failed or had limited success. These are hard conversations that are dealing with hard realities. Being able to hear the concerns of the other over the clamor of one’s own grievances is very hard. Laying aside one’s own concerns to hear the grievance of the other is perhaps harder. And moving from grievance to collaboration for a different future is perhaps hardest of all. Perhaps this is why Jesus said “blessed are the peacemakers” because it is perhaps some of the hardest work human beings can do with each other, whether it is in Ferguson or Israel/Palestine, or your home town or mine. Perhaps the first step beyond prayer is simply refusing to join those who inflame the rhetoric, to choose to understand rather than react and to choose to want for the other, what we want for ourselves.