More than two months have passed since Officer Darren Wilson shot and killed Michael Brown on the streets of Ferguson, Missouri—setting off confrontations between (mostly African-American) residents and (mostly white) police, and sparking a national conversation about race. But the precise circumstances of what happened on that August afternoon remain murky. The key issue is whether Wilson fired in self-defense, as he told investigators, or whether he fired without sufficient provocation. There are witnesses on both sides. On Wednesday, new evidence emerged, according to a Washington Post investigation and an autopsy report from the county medical examiner. The evidence isn’t conclusive, but it lends more credence to Wilson’s version of events.
The cry for justice in Ferguson will not ultimately be answered to anyone’s satisfaction. Pre-judgement on both sides of the aisle will prevent true justice from taking place. The grand jury is expected to reach a conclusion on whether to indict Officer Wilson next month. But the decision may not settle the question of what actually happened. Quite possibly nothing ever will. Yet, whether we talk about Michael Brown, Trayvon Martin, Amadou Diallo or Rodney King, I realize that for me—a white, middle-class, old guy, race is merely a conversation. If I were black, it would take on a whole new meaning for me and my children and grandchildren.
There will be changes in the way the police do business in Ferguson, just as there were changes in Los Angeles after the King riots and changes in New York City after Amadou Diallo. However, we will never get it right. America will never get past the issue of race. It has been a part of the fabric of our nation since the Founding Fathers. As Alfred Doblin mused, “Maybe we are a nation with too much historical baggage and too many carpetbaggers to get to a place where the influx of black families doesn’t signal an exodus of white ones, or where an angry black man looks identical to an angry white man.”
In no way am I suggesting that we should not work for justice—heaven forbid; our world would totally implode. Working for justice is part of the very fabric of our Christian faith. Certainly we have made strides; we have an African-American president. But we should not be naive enough to think there is a magic bullet in our democratic system of government that will eradicate racism; after all it took five years into Obama’s presidency just to stop asking for his US birth certificate. We can make racism illegal, but we cannot legislate against the racist thoughts and intents of a sinful heart.
When Los Angeles burned in 1992 after the police officers who beat Rodney King were acquitted, the mobs chanted “No justice, no peace.” In Ephesians 2:14, Paul said “For he himself (Christ Jesus) is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing walls of hostility–that he might create one new man in place of two, so making peace.” Jesus Christ has broken down the separation between hopeless humanity and its Creator God through the cross. He has also broken down the walls of hostility between people groups. On paper, the Church should be the one place in which Jew and Gentile, black and white should live in reconciliation and peace. Sadly, this is not usually the case. The Bible has been used to kick the Baptists out of Massachusetts, burn some “witches” at the stake, justify slavery, and defend the Jim Crow laws of segregation in the south.
However, I have more hope that the Church will be transformed than I do that my country will change. I see places where the gospel is reaching across the barriers of race and culture to produce this new humanity of which Paul spoke. For me, it begins by extending the grace of God to others on the basis of our common inclusion into the family of God. It also motivates me to move toward people who are different than I am—not only in race and culture, but also towards the marginalized, giving a voice to those who have none. The same way God moved toward me and my Gentile race while we afar off, still in our sins, to bring us near, even into his very own family in Christ. (Eph. 2:19)
I dream of the day when the Church can say to a place like Ferguson, “look at the gospel; look at what it has done for us.” It is happening in heaven right now and so I will continue to pray, “your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”