Over the past few weeks, like many of you, I have read scores of articles purporting to offer analysis of the issues arising from and relating to the situation coming to be known colloquially as simply “Ferguson.” Many have been unusually insightful and helpful. I have learned much from them.
For me personally, however, the least helpful have been those written by church leaders—some prominent black pastors among them—who want to remind us that the pain and suffering experienced by the black community every time another Ferguson breaks upon our corporate consciousness derives, at least in part, from wounds that have been self-inflicted.
Now, I have to admit that what they write is, for the most part, true. At least as far as it goes. The majority of black babies are born to single mothers, and the problem of absentee fathers is rampant. Black-on-black crime is epidemic, and the crime rate in majority black neighborhoods is far higher than in communities that are majority white. And on and on. And there are more than enough “news” outlets that feel obliged to make us aware of those facts.
I know that many black church leaders believe they are only being fair and responsible when they remind us of these problems in the black community which undeniably contribute to volatile situations that sometimes explode as in Ferguson. Or as in early 2012 in Sanford, FL, when Trayvon Martin, another unarmed black man, was shot dead by an armed Neighborhood Watch volunteer. What they are really doing, however, is giving us whites an out.
I know that I am speaking the truth. In fact, this is something of a confession. I remember a time, as recently as ten years ago or so, when my interest in a situation like Ferguson would essentially evaporate as soon as I heard or read a speech or an article by a black Christian pointing out the kind of facts I mentioned above. If even their own leaders acknowledged the black community’s culpability for their travails, I reasoned, who was I to argue with that conclusion?
And again I say, they have a point. But there is a bigger, more important point that we must not lose sight of. No matter what the facts related to the tragic encounter of a young black man and a police officer in Ferguson, MO, last summer turn out to be (and, sadly, we likely will never know for sure), one reality seems indisputable. For most members of the black community, the first impact of the news of what happened in Ferguson was a deep, searing pain brought on by the knowledge that, once again, one of their youth had lost his life in an act of violence that involved an officer of the law.
The first reaction by every white evangelical Christian upon hearing the news from Ferguson last August should have been empathy for the black community and a vicarious sharing of their pain. Without assuming guilt or innocence for any of the parties involved, we (and I write as a white man with strong ties to the evangelical community) should have risen up in solidarity with our black brothers and sisters to embrace them in their pain and grief.
Instead, too many of us took refuge in the talking points fed to us by pundits, reminding us of the glaringly obvious shortcomings of much of the family structure and the frayed social fabric in the black community. Some, perhaps many, of those pundits believed they were just doing their jobs by reminding us of what they consider to be “both sides” of the issue. In reality, they just gave a lot of us evangelicals an easy out, enabling us to salve our consciences and avoid confronting the uncomfortable realities. When those pundits happen to be black, it is even easier for us to take the easy out.
Twenty-first century America faces two insidious and intractable obstacles that impede our national unity and prevent our corporate equanimity: racial tension and a mindset that too easily embraces violence as a means to resolve differences. Together those evils threaten to devour our culture from the inside out. (And yes, my conservative friends, they are far more serious than abortion and homosexuality.) Both are factors that must be acknowledged in any attempt to understand Ferguson and respond to it properly. In the remainder of this post, I will focus mainly on the first.
I am a proud American. I can recite our nation’s accomplishments in so many fields, and I feel a lump in my throat when our athletes take the gold medal in Olympic events. But I also know that our history is checkered, at best, owing to the fact that, for 250 years, it was legal in this country (at least in parts of it) for American citizens to own other human beings. Our nation’s economic standing within the family of nations depended, in its formative period, on the institution of slavery and the subservience of an entire race of people whom our forefathers brought here against the will of the enslaved and kept in servitude by acts of unspeakable violence.
The roots of the mindset that permitted such a craven and inhuman system to exist are deeply entrenched in the American psyche. I grew up, I am sad to admit, in an environment in the 1950s in which the n-word was the most commonly used term with reference to African-Americans. When, as a student in junior high, I finally met some black people, I remember thinking how ironic it was that, although my black teachers had earned master’s degrees and most of the white adults I knew had not even graduated from high school, the black race was still fundamentally inferior to whites.
My natural inclination turns in that direction even to this day. It shames me to admit that, when I hear reports of events like Ferguson, my first and immediate inward response is to assume a scenario in which the black “perpetrator” is at fault. That would not be my first reaction if the “perp” were white. I have to work, intensely and intentionally, every day of my life, to set aside the false assumptions that were ingrained in me as a child and adolescent. I have come to the place where I take the same position toward racism in my own experience as alcoholics are told to take with regard to their addiction. I will, I must admit with deep sadness, always be a recovering racist. And I think that affliction is widespread among white Americans, including white evangelicals.
We white American evangelicals will never know the psychological burden and emotional trauma borne by African Americans, as a race, because of their history with slavery. Their ancestors were owned by whites who treated them, too often, as sub-human, without regard for family relationships. The deeply-rooted effects of that history—on the part of both blacks and whites—will not be fully eradicated in our lifetime, and its consequences are more serious than we want to believe. No act of legislation can neatly and efficiently expunge that record, sanitize that experience, or heal those wounds.
The awful tumor of slavery was excised by the American Civil War, without anesthesia, and the wound sutured by civil rights legislation in the nineteen-sixties. But like a lesion in the skin of a diabetic, the injury to our corporate psyche inflicted by slavery, although the tumor has been removed and the incision sutured, will take far longer to heal than most of us realize.
Whenever white Americans, particularly white American evangelicals, take refuge in the words of the pundits who remind us how much of the pain and suffering in the black community has been self-inflicted, no matter how true those facts may be, we tug unwittingly at the sutures and increase the time required to bring about health and wholeness. That’s why I say that the first response of the American evangelical community to a situation like Ferguson should be solidarity with our black brothers and sisters in their pain.
That’s also why I ask the leadership of the black community, particularly evangelical church leaders, to abstain from pointing out the flaws and failures of their fellow blacks. I know that you believe you are being reasonable and responsible and fair, and, technically speaking, you may be. But you are giving us whites an easy out.
Please don’t do that, because, when you do, we will take it. And that will only prolong the process of healing.