“If your brother, a Hebrew man or a Hebrew woman, is sold to you, he shall serve you six years, and in the seventh year you shall let him go free from you. And when you let him go free from you, you shall not let him go empty-handed. You shall furnish him liberally out of your flock, out of your threshing floor, and out of your winepress. As the LORD your God has blessed you, you shall give to him. You shall remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the LORD your God redeemed you; therefore I command you this today. (Deuteronomy 15:12-15 ESV)
Last Monday night I anxiously awaited the grand jury decision in the shooting death of Michael Brown Jr. I waited until the prosecutor came to the podium and delivered the decision, and I waited to see what the crowds on the street would do. Then, as some expected, the crowds erupted in a violent riot.
—Have you been listening to the riot?—
That may seem like an odd question to ask, but I don’t think it is. I can’t help but recall Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s comment about riots. While he firmly stands up for non-violent resistance, when he talks about riots he calls them the “language of the unheard.” Riots are the attempt of the masses to make their voice heard in the midst of a culture that constantly ignores them. While riots are not justified, the healthy response is to listen to them. What are they saying to us?
Now, I know that this is an enormously sensitive issue. I know that it provokes strong feelings on both sides. Some (among people of my color) look at the riots and see a group of violent people looking for a reason to break the law. Or they say “why don’t these people take responsibility for their own actions and realize that a life of crime leads to these problems” (of course, I find it a quite interesting that my white friends only post these opinions if it is a link to a black man who has originally made them). From the outset we should acknowledge that these are all important questions, and ones worth asking, but I think they miss the point. Or, perhaps more accurately, I think they miss the magnitude of what is happening among the black community in America.
I think that we, as Christians, have an obligation to listen to the riot, to ask significant questions about race relations, poverty, and violence in the African American community. Unfortunately, I have found the response to this incident from the Reformed faith to be a bit lacking in substance. So, to satisfy my own convictions, I am going to pursue a four-part post that pulls out the ‘why’ question. I read a response blaming the Mike Brown shooting on fatherlessness in urban, black America. That may be right, but the real question to ask is 'why?' Why is there an epidemic of fatherlessness in urban, black America (if this is the case)? Some might blame the shooting on poverty. Again, 'why?' Why is poverty rampant in urban black America? The riots themselves bring up the issue of police brutality. But why is police brutality a significant issue for African Americans, yet is something many white people do not think exists? Most importantly, if we listen to the riot why does the African American community feel that their voice is not being heard?
Here’s the main problem—many people think that issues of civil rights, race relations, and injustice can be solved with a trite blog post, or a witty facebook comment. Well, I hate to break it to you, but they can’t. They require time, thoughtfulness, and careful thinking. They require us to step out of our comfort zones and ask hard questions, questions like “what are the riots saying?” and “are we guilty for the continuation of problems among black culture in America?”
It’s the second question that makes your skin crawl a bit, isn’t it? The mere idea, that we (21st century, white Americans) could be culpable in provoking the violent riots in Ferguson. I know, and I hear your concern. My skin crawls a bit too. I most certainly wouldn’t classify myself as a ‘racist.’ I love my African American neighbors just as I do my white neighbors . . . the problem is, I don’t have any African American neighbors. Why not? Is this by coincidence? I don’t think so. I think we need to begin to reconstruct our approach to race relations in America, and I think that reconstruction begins by addressing our stereotypes—addressing what they are, where they have come from, and what they do. For that, I think the Apostle Paul can help us.
Here’s the outline of this series from the Pastor’s Desk:
- Thinking about Stereotypes with Paul
- Slavery and its Ongoing Impact
- Segregation: Where it came from and what it does
- A (modest) plea for a Christian response
I want to begin by challenging my denomination to listen to this voice. We don’t bat an eye when we brandish our “abolitionist credentials” and roll our the carpet for Alexander McLeod, an RPCNA pastor in 1803 who refused to pastor a church until the members of that church released all of their slaves. In fact, a while back our denominational Seminary sent out a sermon on abolition from the 19th century as part of an advertisement campaign. I wonder if we can justifiably promote this heritage if we are not interested in getting our hands dirty in the current injustices that continue to plague race relations in our country.
I want to encourage you, as a Christian, to put in the time and effort to give consideration to the four posts that follow. You may agree with everything I say, or you may disagree with everything. Chances are, you’ll find yourself somewhere in the middle. That’s OK. What’s important is that we all listen to the voice of the riot and begin to stand up for what is right.