Why Care About Ferguson?

During a conversation with a very influential Christian leader, he told me—point blank—that race isn’t that big of a deal. “The culture has moved on,” he said. If I said his name, most of you would know it, but his attitude is not uncommon.

We live in a paradoxical world, one where there is racism without racists. What do I mean? Although racial divides exist in our neighborhoods, churches and other institutions, nobody owns it.

There have been many similar statements made about Ferguson. Before that it was said about Trayvon Martin. I heard them when in 2001 I started a church in the middle of a race riot in Cincinnati. Really, those type of statements are not helpful. Here’s why:

By The Numbers

According to the FBI, between 2005 and 2012, a police officer used deadly force against a black person close to twice per week. Twenty percent of blacks who were killed were under 21 years old. Compare that to 8.7 percent of whites killed who were younger than 21 years old.

We’re not talking about deplorable actions in some civil rights documentary on PBS. This study is talking about our present world. To tell me “the culture has moved on” is to deny millions of people’s life experience.

My African American wife could tell you about the time when the cops kicked down her family’s door in the middle of the night and made her entire family stand spread eagle against the wall while searching for someone. After the incident, the family didn’t even get an apology.

My uncle could tell you about being unlawfully stopped numerous times, so many that he was part of a class action lawsuit against his locality’s police department. My oldest daughter can tell you about when she was stopped and falsely accused at the grocery store for stealing when she was innocent. I could go on.

I share these stories not to bash law enforcement. I share them to convince some that we do not live in a “post-racial” world. We should not mute claims of racial prejudice or discrimination just because it may not have happened to you. In the body of Christ we will never arrive at racial truth if we can’t discuss authentic life experience.

A Racialized Society

“Alvin, I don’t see you as a black man. I just see you as a man.”

I hate to hear that. I believe God created us with different skin tones. It was not an accident. Therefore, to say that you don’t see my skin color means you are ignoring an aspect of me that God created.

Nobody has ever said to me, “Alvin, I don’t see a tall man,” (I’m 6’5) or “I don’t see a slightly plump man.” (My weight is none of your business!) The only thing I’ve been told by other Christians, throughout my life, is they don’t see my color. I often wondered where my blackness went for them not to see it.

My statement sits in the middle of historical context. Humans have taken what God meant for good (diverse skin color) and perverted it for evil. For centuries, skin color has been the cause for tremendous amounts of human suffering. Because of this historical legacy, race affects our lives, either overtly or stealthily.

This phenomenon is called racialization. A racialized society is one wherein race profoundly matters for differences in life experiences, life opportunities and social relationships. It is one that allocates different economic, political, social and psychological rewards to groups along racial lines.

Let me be blunt and tell you where the problem lies. Despite the avalanche of historical evidence about the role race has and continues to play in causing disparities in our society, many want to live in a colorblind world. Because of racialization, colorblindness is not an option. Our racial history is ugly and as Christians we need to own it.

My dad dropped out of high school in Anniston, Alabama, because the segregated school system tried to force him into vocations not to his liking. He was more academically oriented, but it was made perfectly clear to him that little black boys should not dream of growing up and going to college.

We don’t live in my dad’s world of the 1950s anymore. He literally could have been killed for looking the wrong way at a white person. We now live in the age of racial tolerance, which is fine with me. I would much rather live in a society that is racially tolerant than one that is not.

However, there is a shadow side. We get racial amnesia and racial arrogance.

“Daddy, when did racism end?” my youngest daughter asked me recently.

She meant to ask when the civil rights movement occurred. In her mind, and in most millennial minds, the civil rights movement pretty much solved everything.

Theological Reasoning

If you ask many Christians why they should racially accept others, you probably won’t receive strong biblical responses. Their answers will typically run along the lines of what their parents taught them, how they feel, résumés of how they’ve demonstrated their love for others of a different race, or what they learned in cultural diversity seminars.

These are all fine reasons, but as Christians we must learn to think about race in biblical categories.

I’m not immune. Years ago, a colleague walked into my office and offered a suggestion concerning my workshop on race.

“Why don’t you add a strong theological component to your presentation,” he asked.

“That would be a waste of time. Everybody knows you are supposed to love your neighbor,” I responded.

“Yeah, but not everybody knows why or how.”

After six years of Bible college and seminary training, and years of multiethnic ministry practice, I found myself teaching from a place of racial tolerance, and I didn’t even realize it. I had left the Bible on the sidelines. Without it, we cannot go from racial tolerance to racial righteousness. When it comes to Ferguson, the first step of the church in a deeply broken situation is not strategy, but prayer. I was invited to be part of the clergy contingent to take part in #FergusonOctober. I couldn’t make it, but I could pray.

I pray for justice to be done. I pray for better policing. I pray for the community to heal. And I pray God might give clarity concerning my role in seeing these things happen. I can’t do everything, but I can do something. So should you.

I’m advocating for Christians to make personal life adjustments—becoming an intentional racial reconciler for the sake of the kingdom. Micah 6:8 challenges us to care enough about this unjust world to do something about it.

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