Tuesday, November 25, 2014

What’s the Big Deal? An FAQ on Ferguson

Disclaimer: I am just a guy.  I am no expert.  I come from the white suburbs, and live now in a diverse urban community...but I am still white.  My perspectives on race come only from my listening to others in my community and my attempt to represent their concerns here.  But this is no substitute for actually talking to people who are different from you about what they experience.  Further, this post isn’t intended to pose what the proper response from the Grand Jury should have been, but rather just discuss why people might be feeling the way they do.  This is a post aimed at helping those with empathy who truly desire it.

 These questions I have seen across social media in the last couple days and weeks: 

 What does race have to do with it? 
“Officer Wilson was wrong in firing or he wasn’t, but race has nothing to do with it.” 

  • Short response: For the African-American community that is accustomed to being followed around in stores while shopping, pulled over at far higher rates than the rest of society, and experiencing the general vocalized and non-vocalized racism of society, it would be hard to believe that race has nothing to do with this.  Even if there happened to be a case where it does not...you can understand how it would be hard to see it that way.
  • Officer Wilson’s motivations:  It is possible that Officer Wilson is a racially hateful person, as certainly some in Ferguson are (through the testimonies of racial strife in that particular region for decades).  But even if he is not (I’ll assume the best), race could have played a factor.
    • Is it legally recommended for an officer to ask people walking in the road to get off the center of the road?  Yes.  But does Officer Wilson angrily confront the two teens walking in the center of the road in the aggressive manner he does if they are white?  Maybe, but maybe he asks nicely first.  But either way, perhaps you can understand why there might be mistrust.
    • Race can make things scarier for people with racial anxiety.  I have heard many tell a scary story that says something like, “And then this big black guy came out from around the corner and I was freaking out.”  Now the interesting thing is that if it was a white guy that came around the corner, the story likely would just have said, “and then this big guy came around”...with no other description.  We wouldn’t say “big red-haired guy” or “big guy in a polo shirt”, but many would say “big tattooed guy” or “big guy with piercings all over his body”...because it makes their story sound scarier.  Or if we’re telling a story about a person who does something stupid we may say, “and the blonde lady in front of me couldn’t count to ten”, but if it was a brown haired lady, we would probably just say “and the lady in front of me couldn’t...”  My point is, even in simple storytelling, we include the details that use stereotypes to accent how we felt in a given situation, and “blackness” is a description I often hear from white people in describing qualities of a person that makes their story scarier.
    • Take for example John Crawford.  A black father wandering around a WalMart in Beavercreek, Ohio.  He found a BB gun for sale in the store, that was already out of it’s box on the shelf.  He picked it up and was carrying it around like a walking stick while he chatted on his cell phone in the store.  There is video of the whole event.  Another customer called 911 and reported that a dangerous man had an assault rifle in the store and was pointing it at people. Security video shows this was a lie.  It is likely the caller felt threatened because of Crawford’s race.  The police arrived with Crawford on his phone, swarmed him in the aisle with guns pointed, yelled for him to drop the gun, and while a confused Crawford tried to process what was happening (again, he was on the phone), he was shot in less than 2 seconds after the command to drop the gun...the gun he had never even pointed at anyone...in a state (Ohio) where people are allowed to carry fully exposed guns legally anyway.  He was never asked to show his license (which he didn’t have because the gun wasn’t even real).  You could say that racial fear has no part in this, but there are pictures easily found in the internet of groups of white men walking through WalMart in Ohio with full automatic rifles strapped to their backs, and no one bats an eye (http://goo.gl/0ZWIEj).  I’m not saying the police or even the caller hate black people, but his “blackness” certainly seemed to raise the fear level to the point that he died in a situation where a white man likely would not have.
    • Part of the reasons given for no indictment is that Officer Wilson is justified in shooting if he feels his life is threatened.  In the Grand Jury reports, Officer Wilson reports that he felt one more punch from Michael Brown could have killed him.  While the struggle in the car is certainly scary and inappropriate on many levels, would he have felt scared to that level if it was a white teen?  Would he still have reported that Mike “looked like a demon”.  Maybe, but maybe not.   After the struggle in the car, which did not result in the death of either Officer Wilson or Mike Brown, nor the arming of Mike Brown, nor the disarming of Officer Wilson, Mike Brown fled.  According to the report, he reached more than 153 ft. away from Officer Wilson before turning around.  153 ft. is 50 yards on a football field.  If Mike Brown was an Olympic Sprinter, it would have taken him 5 seconds before reaching Officer Wilson again (given his current physical shape in pictures, I’m guessing more like 7 seconds).  The question asked was whether Mike Brown charged Officer Wilson or was simply stumbling forward.  Either way, he didn’t make it far as he was dropped 153 ft. away.  So the issue is, even at 153 ft., Officer Wilson felt his life was still in danger (which must have been terrifying).  Would he have if Mike Brown was white?  Maybe, but maybe not.  But either way, perhaps you can understand why there might be mistrust.
  • Race may not have played an issue here, but it makes sense why it is certainly a possibility that it did and why people might find it difficult to believe it was absolutely not a factor.

 Why can’t people just accept a decision that was legally decided?
“There was a grand jury who knew all the facts and decided not to indict.  People who don’t know all the facts have no right nor reason to argue.”

There is considerable reason for people to feel like injustice was carried out, even if the process happened legally.  Consider:

  • Prosecutor Bob McCulloch who is in charge of bringing charges to the Grand Jury for consideration, declined to even suggest what charges they should be examining (which is highly unusual).  Further, McCulloch is the Vice President of an organization (http://www.backstoppers.org/board.html) that has been selling “Support Officer Wilson” T-shirts from the beginning (http://teespring.com/supportdwilson2014).  Would you feel your child’s justice was receiving unbiased consideration in this situation?  Mr. McCulloch may be able to set aside his personal views and still act without bias, but you may be able to see why  it could be difficult to trust that is the case.
  • The Grand Jury did not need to be unanimous.  Only 9 out of 12 needed to agree for a decision.  There were 9 white jurors and 3 black jurors, and no voting results announced.  This is not to say that the vote was necessarily split, even along racial lines, but that it would be hard to feel good about things for people already lacking trust in the system.
  • There is more to justice than just the law.  Something can be legal and still be perceived as unjust.  Slavery was once legal.
  • Perhaps this case was entirely just, but maybe you can understand why there might be mistrust.

 Why are people so stupid as to loot and riot?
“All the protesters prove is that they need the police to keep them in line because they clearly can’t control themselves.”

  • First, we cannot lump everyone into one category.  There were many protesters, including the bulk of protest leaders that had been participating in non-violence training courses in preparation for the non-indictment announcement.  One of the protest leaders, Bassem Masri, who had been organizing and Live Streaming the protests had his phone he was filming with stolen right out of his hand with 90,000 people watching live on his stream.  There are simply people out there in the world that are opportunistic in their pursuit of evil.  If there are criminals who want to steal stuff or destroy stuff, this provides a perfect opportunity.  We cannot assume this was all the work of protesters.
  • Secondly, what if some of it was?  Is it just stupidity?  Or complete lawlessness?  When you feel as though your fight is against the systems of injustice, what do you do?  It must have seemed extremely stupid and unlawful for the Patriots to take over an entire shipment of private trade tea and dump it all into the Boston Harbor!  That was the destruction of private property!  But we see that as a heroic act, and we do so because we believe in the cause and the change it initiated.  Rioting and the destruction of property is certainly problematic, but sometimes it represents something more profound than just the acts of the “stupid” who “don’t know any better” or “haven’t learned to respect people’s stuff”.

 What about black on black crime?
“Why are people so worried about one white cop shooting a black teen, when “blacks” are killing “blacks” so much already?  

  • The reality is that most crime occurs within cultural groups.  People hurt the people they are know and are closest to, more than random people at a distance.
  • In fact, white-on-white crime represents 83% of crime perpetrated by white people (http://goo.gl/n4Rkvo).  

 Isn’t this whole thing just created by the sensationalist media?
“Why do we never hear when a black man kills a white kid, but when a white guy kills a black kid, all hell breaks loose?!”

  • Crime happens everywhere, constantly.  It would be impossible for all of these tragic shootings to garner national attention.  The issue that causes situations (Michael Brown, Trayvon Martin, John Crawford) to rise to national awareness is not so much the death occurring, but the expectation in these situations that it won’t lead to an arrest.
  • The reason that stories where black men (or cops) kill white people do not gather the attention, is that there usually is an arrest, as there should be.  
  • In short, the level of outrage and attention is not just about the crime itself, but about the perceptions of whether justice will be carried out and whether that process can be trusted.  

Altogether, Ferguson is a great tragedy.  It’s a tragic loss of life.  It’s tragic in the ripping apart of a community where racial tensions have simmered for a long time.  It’s a tragic story of fear and its consequences.  And it has brought racial tensions and assumptions to the surface all across our country and world.  But the one thing we need to realize is our need to listen to the other side.  It’s good to ask tough questions like these if we are truly interested in listening for responses.  If we cannot have empathy, we have lost much.

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Let There Be Messy!

People and relationships are messy.
Churches are groups of people in relationship.
Churches should be messy.

And yet churches often try to be these perfectly well-oiled machines.  We put on a smiling face and try to minimize issues and eliminate the potential for any sort of conflict.

Is that healthy?!

When people get together, it seems there are only a few ways to keep things from getting messy:

1)  Make sure everyone is the same.
I like me.  I like people who like the same things as me.  I never have conflict with people who always see things the same as me.  The more a group of people is the same, the less messy conflict there will be.

And so we form churches where everyone is as similar as possible: race, political positions, theological beliefs, parenting strategies, economic class...

Can you imagine trying to worship with people who voted for the other guy (especially if he's the antichrist)?!  Can you imagine trying to run a smooth nursery for families with radically different parenting expectations?!  Can you imagine trying to plan worship music for those who listen exclusively to bluegrass and those who listen exclusively to rap?!

We often can't.  And so we don't.

We pick one culture and go with it.  Whoever fits that culture sticks around, and the others find another place.  Either way, messiness averted.

2) Let people avoid each other.
Alright, so we may have differences among us, but we don't have to let them cause conflict, right?

If we just separate people into like-minded groups, that helps.

Let the Baptists hang with the Baptists and the Methodists with the Methodists.
     ...the donkeys worship with the donkeys and the elephants with the elephants.
Let's have a service for the bluegrass crowd and a different (alternative?) service for the rap crowd.
Let the women have their women's group and the men their men's group.
     ...and for goodness sake, let's keep the kids away from everyone!

Or maybe that's overkill.

If we're honest, we realize that people have learned to avoid each other well enough on our own.  We don't need any help.  People do a great job showing up for church on Sundays and not talking about the controversial stuff.

We have learned not to discuss politics, money, race, parenting, sex, or anything else that might make relationships icky between us.  And if we can all just keep our opinions and personal experiences to ourselves, we may just all not realize how much we disagree with or dislike those we worship with.

3) Sweep it under the rug.
Even the best avoiders, given enough time, find their way into conflict.  If we stick around a group of people long enough, we are bound to have a problem with someone.  What then?

Well, in the interest of avoiding messy, you can do the "good Christian thing" and stuff it.  Ignore it.  Try not to be angry or frustrated.  It's not Jesus-like (or so the story goes).

...and if that doesn't work, you can always just go find another church and start the cycle over.

EXCEPT...none of these things are what we see from the Kingdom of Heaven that Jesus revealed!

Jesus was all about messy!

Jesus left the comfort of heaven and came to this messy earth (John 1; Philippians 2).

He reached out to the outsiders--the messy people everyone else tried to avoid (Mark 2:16).

He commanded his disciples to work things out with people they had conflict with (Matthew 18).

And we see a picture of heaven where people from every nation, tribe, people and language worship God together (Revelation 7:9).

Can you imagine that?!
Heaven sounds like a mess!

Maybe our churches could learn something.

Sunday, January 26, 2014

Church with your Kids: Philippians 2

Philippians 2:1-11 (paraphrased)
Does being connected to Jesus mean anything to you? Do you feel better because Jesus loves you? Do you enjoy knowing he is always with you? Do you like how much he cares for you when you are sad?

If you do, then think and act that way towards other people as well.  Love people and think about them the way that Jesus thinks about you.

Don’t do anything just because it’s what YOU want.  Don’t think YOU are more important than anyone else.  Instead, be humble.  Act like other people are MORE IMPORTANT than you.  Don’t just think about what YOU want.  Think about what other people may want.

Think of other people like Jesus does.

Listen to the story of Jesus:
Jesus is God - the most important and powerful in the world.  But he didn’t brag about it.  He didn’t tell people they had to do what he wanted because he was God.

Instead, Jesus made himself not look important.  He decided to become a servant.  He became a normal person.  

And he did even more than that!  He even let himself be hurt and killed on a cross!  And it was all because he was trying to love others.

Even though that did not look very good, God saw what Jesus did.  And God told everyone how great Jesus was!  He gave Jesus a special reward.  God made Jesus king of everywhere!  Even heaven!

And someday, everyone that lives will know and say how important Jesus is.  And when they do, they God will be happy.


  • What would you do if you were a King or Queen or God?
  • Jesus was a King and God.  How did he treat other people?
  • What does it mean to treat others like they are more important?
  • How can you think more about what someone else wants?
  • What do you think happens serve others like Jesus?
    • What happens to us?
    • What happens to others?
    • What happens to God?

Pray:  Ask God to help you think more about others and less about yourself.  Thank Jesus for thinking about you.

Thursday, January 16, 2014

The Myth of Privilege - Part II

My problem with using the terms privilege and underprivileged, fortunate and less fortunate, is that it sets up a one-sided marketplace.

Just from the words alone, we have declared that there is one party in need and one that has something to offer.

And certainly the poor have needs.
They are indeed under-resourced, in more ways than just money.  The poor may lack money, education, role models, coping strategies, emotional and spiritual resources, access to justice, and much more.

And those with those resources should certainly do all they can to provide access for those who are under-resourced.  There should be a flow of resources from the well-resourced to the under-resourced.

The New Testament speaks frequently to this: Matthew 25:34-40; Luke 14:12-14; Romans 12:13; Romans 15:1-2; James 1:27; James 2:15-17; 1 John 3:17-18; et al.

But that is not the end of the story.  The market does not work just in one direction.  For there is poverty in the "privileged"as well.  As I pointed out last week, the New Testament reveals there is something about being well-resourced that makes accessing the Kingdom of God difficult.

What is that difficulty?  Distraction? Self-sufficiency? Independence? Greed?  Who knows?! Whatever the nature of the hindrance, there is something about the condition of the poor that they are not similarly afflicted.  In contrast, we saw last week that the poor tend to have great strength in their ability to grasp the Kingdom of God.  When it comes to the Kingdom, those with less resources are actually in a position of great strength.

So in the exchange between the resourced and the under-resourced, there is life change that needs to go both ways.  Both the "privileged" and the "under-privileged" have something to offer the other that the other greatly needs.

The under-resourced need resources.
The well-resourced need...perspective?  A clearer vision for the Kingdom of Heaven.

So who is "charity" for?  Both (the under-resourced AND the well-resourced.)
Who really needs "missions trips"? Both 
Who are those in need of a hand? Both

The myth of privilege rests in the belief that the privileged are better off.
What we need to acknowledge is that we ALL have needs, in one way or another.
AND we ALL have something to contribute, which others greatly need.

The market isn't one sided.
It's a bit of an equal exchange, where everyone participates in the giving...and the receiving.

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

The Myth of Privilege - Part I

I don't like the term "underprivileged" or "less fortunate" when referring to those who have few resources.

Perhaps my bigger issue is with the terms "privileged" or "fortunate".

They assume something--that there is a connection between the amount of money or stuff that someone has and the quality of life experienced.

How are the "privileged" and "underprivileged" typically defined?  With a pocketbook and a calculator.

And clearly, by using the word "privilege" or "fortunate", there is an assumption that the desired position is the one with the higher account balance.

But that's not really true.

Consider these words from Jesus...
Matthew 19:24 I'll say it again.  It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of heaven.
Jesus himself tells us there is something about "privilege" that makes the important things of life much more difficult.  You could say that regarding the really important things in life, like the Kingdom of Heaven, living in "privilege" makes one "less fortunate."

Consider another quote from Jesus...
Luke 6:20 Blessed are you who are poor, for the Kingdom of God is yours.
Again, when it comes to the really important things in life, like the Kingdom of God, those "less fortunate" are actually in a "privileged" position.

And really,
if the "privileged" are actually "underprivileged"...
and the "less fortunate" are actually "more fortunate"
...then maybe it's time we stop using those terms.

They're just confusing everyone.