More Than Three Minutes: Resistance and Grace in Ferguson

Put on the whole armour of God, that ye may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil. For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places.
Ephesians 6.11-12


I wrote a post encouraging White America, especially White Christian America, to carry the cross of sympathy for Black rage as it was being expressed on the streets of Ferguson. But as police officer Darren Wilson faces a grand jury inquiry the question arises: What should be the Christian response to officer Wilson?

I want to be clear, it is not my place to forgive Darren Wilson or to demand forgiveness from others in the name of Jesus Christ. What I want to do is return to my earlier post to show how I think that analysis can help us think through the thorny issues regarding the relationship between grace and resistance.

The main point I tried to make in my previous post is that our tendency is to narrowly and tightly focus on the moral narrative regarding the altercation between Michael Brown and Darren Wilson. What happened? Who was at fault? Who is to blame?

I suggested that this is a mistake. It's a mistake for a couple of different reasons. For example, it's unrealistic to demand victims to be wholly innocent before we'll treat their victimhood as worthy of respect and attention. As believers in universal if not original sin Christians should get that. You don't make innocence a prerequisite for compassion. Otherwise compassion would cease to exist.

But the main reason it is a mistake to focus narrowly on sorting out the blame in the altercation between Darren and Michael is that it creates a causally closed narrative, a tightly bounded moral drama that played out between two people, and only two people, on the streets of Ferguson.

But this story cannot be reduced to what happened between 12:01 p.m. and 12:04 p.m. on August 9, 2014.

This is about more than those three minutes.

To be sure, what transpired during those fateful three minutes is extraordinarily important to the U.S. government, Darren Wilson and Michael Brown's family. Sorting out what happened during those three minutes will be the preoccupation of the grand jury and the court trial should one follow. And Christians should be interested in the justice of how all that plays out.

But a Christian focus should be broader than how the U.S. legal system adjudicates those three minutes. As I stated in the comments to my prior post, in regards to racial reconciliation and justice the innocence or culpability of Michael Brown in what happened between 12:01 p.m. and 12:04 p.m. on August 9 is largely irrelevant. If, for example, it is determined by a jury that Michael attacked Darren in his police car, tried to take his gun, and later tried to rush him, does any of that undermine the validity of the rage among the Black citizens of Ferguson? I contend it does not.

The rage on the streets of Ferguson is historical and systemic in both nature and origin. The rage in Ferguson is not rooted in the innocence or culpability of Michael Brown. And yet, that focus on Michael Brown will be the temptation of White America. Because if we 1) reduce the story to those three minutes and 2) find enough evidence of moral culpability then the narrative causally closes, the moral loose ends are neatly tied up and the status quo can remain intact.

In short, Christians must resist the temptation to reduce the racial issues in Ferguson and the US to the moral drama of those three minutes. We must, rather, consider how those three minutes are historically and systemically embedded in structures of oppression and injustice. Our view must be wider.

In theological language, the moral story of Ferguson isn't about "flesh and blood." The moral story is about more than those three minutes. The moral story isn't about the relative guilt or innocence of Michael Brown and Darren Wilson. The moral story is about historical and systemic oppression and injustice, about the "principalities and powers" and "spiritual wickedness in high places."

And if the moral frame of Christan resistance regarding the principalities and powers shifts attention away from the culpability of Michael Brown it does the same for Darren Wilson.

To be sure, for Michael Brown and his family focusing on and determining the culpability of Darren Wilson during those three minutes is extraordinarily important. As it is for the U.S. government.

But again, for Christians the frame is wider, which shifts the focus away from the guilt or innocence of Darren Wilson. And it's from within this wider frame where we can find resources for both grace and resistance.

As for resistance, if the guiltiness or innocence of Michael Brown does not allow us to sidestep the burden of resistance neither does the guiltiness or innocence of Darren Wilson.

Because that will be a temptation. Again, if Darren Wilson is "innocent" many will feel safe to move on. And if Darren Wilson is is found "guilty" many will feel safe to blame him and judge him as a sinner. The shooting of Michael Brown would have been caused by one individual's moral failure, a lapse in virtue and piety. A mistake. Or the product of a "bad person."

Which means the guilt of Darren Wilson gets the system and our history off the hook. Guilt can be reduced to an individual, reduced to those three minutes.

Darren Wilson can become the scapegoat for the system.

And that's the point we need to focus on.

The system wants us to scapegoat Michael Brown or Darren Wilson.

The system wants us to keep our focus on those three minutes and only those three minutes. Either Michael or Darren are to blame. So let's blame them. One or both of them. Let's let them carry, for three minutes, the sin and guilt of us all.

But resistance isn't scapegoating. Resistance isn't fetishizing over the guilt or innocence of Michael and Darren. Resistance isn't a battle against the flesh and blood of Michael Brown or Darren Wilson.

Resistance is about the principalities and powers, the on-gong fight against systemic and historical forces of oppression and injustice.

And perhaps surprisingly, by focusing our resistance upon the principalities and powers, we can find here resources for grace. In resisting the principalities and powers we can find grace for flesh and blood, grace for both Michael and Darren.

Maybe Michael did punch Darren and try to attack him. Wouldn't I, if I carried the legacy of young black men in America, have done the same?

And maybe Darren shot a youth in the head as he raised his hands and said "I don't have a gun. Stop shooting!" But am I not, as a White American, complicit in the systemic and historical sins that led up to that moment and which fueled the subsequent resentment and rage?

And if I can come to see myself in both Michael and Darren then perhaps I can come to see how grace for flesh and blood can emerge alongside and from within rage and resistance.

Again, it is not my place to forgive Darren Wilson if he is found guilty. But I will not blame him. Nor will I blame Michael Brown should Darren Wilson's actions be deemed justified.

I will not scapegoat either of them. I will not blame either of them.

But I will blame us. I will blame us for historical and systemic injustice and oppression.

This is about more than three minutes.

Our battle is not against flesh and blood. It is against the principalities and powers, against spiritual forces of wickedness in high places.

And in that battle, I pray, we can embrace both resistance and grace.

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24 thoughts on “More Than Three Minutes: Resistance and Grace in Ferguson”

  1. I have listened to interviews of friends of both Michael Brown and Darren Wilson, who repeatedly said what good people they were, how kind they were. As I listened I could not help but think of "Good People" in the context of the history of oppression and injustice.

    In growing up in "White Southern culture", I can tell you that the people who were my relatives and neighbors were good people. Yet, because of the history and culture of discrimination, I can truthfully say that when good people look at a person of color, they often see someone who "does not matter". And when someone does not matter, it becomes too easy to "move them out of the way", or to ignore someone else "moving them out of the way".

    I believe this is what the African American community is saying; "When you look at us, we don't matter". I cannot ignore that.

    In the last two Presidential elections I stood in line with a number of African Americans. I can recall two or three eyeing me with, what seemed to be, a bit of mistrust. Now I can react to that in one of two ways. I can whine that they are practicing reverse racism, like I have heard angry whites do; or, I can embrace the history that these individuals have experienced with as much honesty and grace as I possibly can. Not "grace" in the prideful sense of "Well, I forgive them for not trusting me". But in the sense of dropping my guard and accepting it. And I have found, as I had to learn as a younger man, that it takes absolutely nothing of value away.

  2. Amen. I needed to hear that - and having heard (read) it, it seems obvious. Thank you.

  3. Good job, Richard. Your two statements -- But am I not, as a White American, complicit in the systemic and
    historical sins that led up to that moment and which fueled the
    subsequent resentment and rage?
    and But I will blame us -- reminded me of an article William Stringfellow wrote in 1962, "Race, Religion, and Revenge". In it he recounts a disturbing dream in which he is standing on a Harlem street corner, minding his own business, when he is is approached, stabbed, and killed by two African Americans. He reflects why he, a man who is not only "innocent" but who has also lived and worked in Harlem as an advocate for black people, many of whom are his friends, was attacked and murdered. Then -- eureka! -- he realises he is not "innocent", that he "was murdered by the black man because he was a white man. The murder was retribution. The motive was revenge. No white man is innocent. I am not innocent." Then, he says, "I cried." (Indeed, in another article, "Care Enough to Weep", written in 1963, Stringfellow suggests that "If you want to do something [in the US race crisis], the most practical thing I can tell you is: weep. First of all, care enough to weep.")

    And here we are, 50 years later, and America haemorrhages again, and the wretched and their advocates lament again and look for ways of resistance that go beyond the allocation of individual innocence or guilt, because whatever the outcome in the courts, the judiciary, like the police, will remain institutionally racist, and because deeper than the issue personal moral conduct and culpability is the question of allegiance: Christ or the Powers? Prayer will be foundational to resistance, and truth-telling will be at its forefront -- for Christians a truth-telling that not only exposes the lies of both our star-spangled historical memory and our contemporary culture of violence and death and the imposition of Jim Crow by other means, but also -- above all -- the fundamental truth of our reconciliation to God and to each other through the lynching and raising of Jesus.

    And civil disobedience? To end as I began, with Stringfellow: for Stringfellow, civil disobedience is a Christian duty, the vocation of the Church, an act of faith and "free obedience". But let us be chastened: the Church as well as the State may be a Power -- certainly any systemically racist Church. I Peter 4:17: "It's judgment time for God's own family, We're first in line" (The Message).

  4. Richard,

    In your fifth paragraph, did you mean to write "it creates a
    causally closed narrative..."? When I type I have a
    tendency to swap letters, so I know it happens to me all the time.
    The rabbis taught us long ago that the placement of every letter can
    carry meaning, especially if its in the wrong place!

    I am a retired history teacher who always tried—though not with
    as much success as I would have liked, I know—to get students to
    understand the point that you are making here. Whatever individuals
    did or didn't do in the past, they were acting within systems
    that placed various constraints on some of their actions or that
    encouraged them in other actions. Why did minorities “put up with”
    the kinds of discrimination they did in the past, up to and including
    lynching, year after year and decade after decade? And how could
    “Bible-believing, God-fearing” Christians not only lynch, but
    pose willingly and sometimes smilingly with the victim still hanging
    amidst them from the limbs of the lynching tree? A few months ago,
    based on your writings here, I read Girard's book The Scapegoat.
    I wish I would have read it long ago, I think I could have used it
    prophetably—I couldn't resist—in more than one place in some of
    my classes.

    Given Modernity's emphasis on the autonomous individual, it is not
    easy to get people to see how systems of powers and principalities
    influenced those who came before us, as Walter Rauschenbusch,
    Washington Gladden, Ida Tarbell, Jacob Riis and so many others of
    that generation showed us. It is even harder now, a century after
    Rauschenbush et. al., given the influence of power- and
    principality-driven media that supports the emporer's-new-clothes
    status quo. There is no racism in the United States. Money equals
    speech. We had to bomb the village to save it. Why shouldn't the
    United States of America lead the world in incarceration, both in
    percentage of population under legal sanction, and even in total

    Yes, it is important for everyone to know what actually happened
    during those three minutes. But if we then don't go beyond that to
    ask “why?,” and then change something to lessen the chances that
    it will happen again, we will keep destroying lives as we wander from
    crisis to crisis and never learn a thing. “What, me worry?”

    One more point about “destroying lives.” Yes, Michael Brown's
    family has suffered terribly, and they will feel the pain of this for
    several generations, I'm sure. But irrespective of his motives for
    what he did that day, Officer Darren Wilson suffers, and his family
    will suffer too. They will suffer differently, but they will suffer
    as well. We should forget neither family in our thoughts and prayers.

    Keep up the good work, Richard, because its so important. I'm
    going to pass this column along to some people I know who work in the
    criminal justice system. It would be great if a lot more people read
    this column. More importantly, I pray that what you are calling for
    here gets done.

  5. Richard, you wrote rhetorically, "Maybe Michael did punch Darren and try to attack him. Wouldn't I, if I carried the legacy of young black men in America, have done the same?" if it were a foregone conclusion that yes, you would have done the same.

    But many productive, non-violent black men have done precisely the opposite by rejecting the victimization narrative and taking their places in our society as contributors in spite of the legacy of oppression.

    Why do you assume you would have done the same, if in fact Michael did attack Darren? Why is that a foregone conclusion? What do you have to say to all of those black men who, having grown up in the Philadelphia or North Carolina ghettos, refused to yield to the victimization narrative and, to this day, contribute mightily to our society in a variety of forms from the blue collar to the ivory tower?

    Your attempt to affirm solidarity with the violent sector of the oppressed is simplistic and naive and remarkably dualistic.

  6. I'm trying to express solidarity with the violence of both men. As well as trying to embed that violence in social, cultural and historical context. If that's a "simplistic" and "naive" approach then, well, so be it.

  7. @ Brent,

    Your use of the term "victimization narrative" lacks nuance.

    "Victimization narrative" insofar as it refers to the history and contemporary reality of white skin-privilege and systemic racial oppression is indisputable. ("Victim" here is understood in a Girardian sense). To reject it is to be in denial and therefore to live a lie.

    "Victimization narrative" insofar as it refers to the lives of individual African Americans -- well, its refusal is to be found not only in those who (as you so blithely put it) "contribute mightily to our society in a variety of forms from the blue collar to the ivory tower" -- and who, willy-nilly, are meat and drink to the peddlers of the white victimization narrative at Fox News -- but also in those who will no longer tolerate the quotidian indignities they experience and who, stridently or subversively, in collars blue and white, work to name the evil in "our society" and undermine it in order to rehumanise it.

    Certainly black violence is not to be condoned (though it is to be understood) -- it is ontologically empty and strategically inept -- but it's a bit rich of you to speak of the "violent sector of the oppressed" without mentioning the violent sector [sic] of the oppressor and, more, the huge asymmetry of power between the two.

    In short, your accusation that Richard's post is "simplistic" and "naive" -- I think the psychological term is "projection". And as for Richard's analysis being "dualistic" -- well, certainly not in any Manichean sense. Perhaps in a relative sense -- in the sense that Jesus blesses the poor but says "Woe to the rich!", i.e., the oppressor, yet without any suggestion that the oppressed are sinless, just (!) more sinned against than sinning. (As Rowan Williams observes, "racism is not evil because its victims are good, it is evil because its victims are human.") But, above all, in the deeper theological sense that the freedom of oppressed and oppressor is a seamless liberty, one bound to the other. Hence Richard's ultimate insistence on solidarity.

  8. Would we give the same "victimization narrative" to ISIS? We are all victims of something. I am a victim of a white southern culture, child of the sixties and seventies.

  9. @ Mike

    Would we give the same "victimization narrative" to ISIS?

    Way to go: I suspected it wouldn't be long before ISIS deputized for Hitler in Godwin's Law.

    Still to answer your question: Well, no, not the same. But it wouldn't hurt for Americans to learn a little about European and, latterly, American colonialism and its baleful legacy in the Middle East -- I presume that after the debacles of Iraq and Afghanistan, Americans should at least now be able to locate the Middle East on a map -- and the sinister effects of the distortions of Orientalism and the Orientalist gaze (Edward Said). A little recognition of our shambolic foreign policy in the Middle East administration after administration, which has helped to set the stage for the shit storm now sweeping across the region -- that too would be a good idea. On the other hand, there is nothing like the Manichean discourse of "evil" and the "they-hate-us-for-our-freedoms" narrative for shutting down serious critical and constructive thought.

  10. Well, I think I see what Brent is saying about a "dualistic" approach by Richard and if not, I'll post my own thoughts about this. My complaint is that Richard is ignoring the changes in society and the is applying 1960's solutions to 21st century problems in African-American culture. This is what the majority of African-Americans and white liberals are doing as well and it's not working.

    There are other voices pointing out problems far more significant than "white privilege" and "systemic racism." I point to the work of the late John Ogbu regarding "involuntary minorities" and his study of the academic achievement difference between white and African-Americans in Shaker Heights, Ohio. John McWhorter is another voice (and by no means a conservative one) who sees the focus on "white privilege" and "systemic racism" as not only unhelpful for African-Americans but harmful. Oh, and both these men are black so though they may be called "uncle Toms" by some, they may have more insight than you or I. McWhorter has plenty of articles on the internet including a nice rebuttal to the article regarding reparations that Richard linked to by Ta-Nehisi Coates that Richard linked to.

    Oh, and Brent, I think McWhorter would agree with you..

  11. Thanks for daring to lay out your insights on the altar for public scrutiny. Do you realize that your analysis has probably never been so publicly articulated among those with a background in C of C? In my own experience, I've never been able to convince many (well, maybe two or three) of the "historical and systemic injustice and oppression" that must be considered in explaining behavior.

  12. Thanks, Richard, for an incredible post. Your thought informed a sermon I preached recently, and reading this felt like an exclamation point to what I was attempting to convey.

    I'm a 49 year-old African American gay man who grew up in Watts, California. I was an infant when the 1965 riots took place. I was what I'd like to call a "Child of the Dream," a Black kid who aspired to live out MLK's vision. I was the first in my family to go to college, and even wound up going to Harvard, where I received a graduate degree in Divinity.

    I have struggled mightily to understand what I've experienced and seen in my life--violence, deaths of relatives a very young ages, heartbreak, injustice and so on. There were times that I accepted uncritically the very American narrative about the role of the individual in determining one's lot in life. But now, and in no small part due to a much deeper understanding of Christianity, I know differently, and hopefully better.

    In reading some of the responses to your essay, I can't help but wonder to what degree are these individuals in any intimate contact with Black folks. This is important, for the very simple reason that it's easier to espouse certain opinions when they don't cost you anything, when you don't have to wrestle to understand another's lived realities. It also speaks to just how segregated this country still is.

    In my experience, we Black folks are incredibly resilient--we have (and continue) to face the worst and survive. This is what pundits like McWhorter seem to miss, that we press on, even as we know what we're up against--it's not either/or, that's for sure. I can be both a victim and an agent, and I know this because it's been my experience. I've been pulled over by the cops, followed in stores, falsely accused of stealing, and the like. My desperate attempts at respectability don't shield me, and even some sobering research suggests that Ivy-league-educated Black men have WORSE health outcomes, that we still die earlier that our middle-class White counterparts.

    Yet I still get up in the mornings, go to work, mentor young folks, contribute to society, and try my best to make the world a better place. And I take comfort in knowing that there are forces Greater than I at work, and that I just need to do my part, to extend grace, to resist when appropriate, and to have faith that God is a God of the living--and that the moral arc of the universe does, indeed, bend toward true justice.

  13. You might be interested to know that on last night's Daily Show, Jon Stewart had a somewhat similar message. He emphatically pointed out that the response to Brown's death is about more than what happened on Canfield Drive in Ferguson. The segment can be found here, during about the first 10 minutes:

  14. I truly appreciate the way you express embracing grace in your example of the election line. As well-intentioned as I have been through years of living in multiracial communities, it's difficult to dispel the perpetuated cultural narrative surrounding issues of racism and consequently those get subconsciously embedded in our lives, habits, split-second micro- reactions. Your choice to embrace and deal with the entire narrative (rather than just one sub-culture's perspective) with understanding, compassion and grace reminds me it's possible to create the space for dialogue and relationship to take precedence over perpetuated societal traps. Navigating the minefield of history between whites and African-Americans can feel daunting and almost like a catch-22, but thank you for inspiring and reminding us that engaging in this transformative dialogue and relationship is more than possible, it happens.

  15. I think most everyone who reads your article and its subsequent comments could agree that we are all well-intentioned in this dialogic conversation. And I don't think it fair for the following to be shut down with a simple "I disagree," if we are all honestly attempting a deeper understanding at grace and resolving this loooong-standing societal gash across our nation. Thank you for opening up the space for people everywhere (isn't the internet marvelous?) to work together and process through the confusing dilemmas at hand. It's so necessary.

    That said, I have to agree with the above commenters on a few of their points regarding systemic racism and some of the rhetoric you used, especially Brent's referral to the following:

    "Richard, you wrote rhetorically, "Maybe Michael did punch Darren and try to attack him. Wouldn't I, if I carried the legacy of young black men in America, have done the same?" if it were a foregone conclusion that yes, you would have done the same."

    Call me a dissenter, but I fear this sentence very quickly disarmed the very point you were trying to make (a point I agree with whole-heartedly: that we as Christians are called to love in a more holistic and understanding way, especially when it comes to dealing with victimization and the accused, not only in this now historic case, but in all ways at all times). By assuming the only legacy created by young black men in the US is one of unsolicited violence and consequently "hoodrat-ism" (because sometimes made up words are more expressive than the big dictionary ones), you are unwittingly buying into the same cultural narrative we are all trying and hoping to dispel! Ay, no! Call me crazy, but I feel a cringe deep in my heart when this takes place.

    Now, I could honestly say the same thing for assumptions that are made of white people. Generalizations, wherever they come from and wherever they are aimed at, never get us very far. Clearly Jesus was all about breaking down to the heart of the individual, and of matters like this. But I don't think it would serve in our conversation to expand on another example; I simply want to make the disclaimer that the oppressed - oppressor narrative is not something I'm trying to take a side on in this comment.

    Now, maybe that was not at all your intention with the above quoted phrase, and we are all reading it wrong. But even while reading your original article before making it down to the comments, that phrase jumped out at me like a red flag. It just seems heavily weighted with a (possibly subconscious) cultural bias that isn't present in your complementary point regarding white Americans.

    So in the midst of your richly complex and generally holistic and well-stated analysis above, I would just ask, on behalf of all readers, for you to remain consistent in the line of reasoning you are making for your appeal. It will help your critically important message have more continuity, and help people receive it more easily.

    Thank you again for putting your thoughts out on this line, and for asking some vitally necessary questions as we all seek to reconcile not only the events of this past month and decide how to move forward, but also how to reconcile the last several hundred years in this societal narrative. God bless you!

    "Only A Pawn In Their Game"
    The deputy sheriffs, the soldiers, the governors get paid
    And the marshals and cops get the same
    But the poor white man's used in the hands of them all like a tool
    He's taught in his school
    From the start by the rule
    That the laws are with him
    To protect his white skin
    To keep up his hate
    So he never thinks straight
    'Bout the shape that he's in
    But it ain't him to blame
    He's only a pawn in their game.
    Today, Medgar Evers was buried from the bullet he caught
    They lowered him down as a king
    But when the shadowy sun sets on the one
    That fired the gun
    He'll see by his grave
    On the stone that remains
    Carved next to his name
    His epitaph plain:
    Only a pawn in their game.

  17. i feel and think this needs resaying;
    ' I take comfort in knowing that there are forces Greater than I at work, and that I just need to do my part, to extend grace, to resist when appropriate, and to have faith that God is a God of the living--and that the moral arc of the universe does, indeed, bend toward true justice.'
    i wish there were more ways white and black ppl could meet and greet in person so that the richness of our cultures could be mutually affirmed, validated and blessed.

  18. thx 4 this!;
    ' in the deeper theological sense that the freedom of oppressed and oppressor is a seamless liberty, one bound to the other.'

  19. thx for this!;
    ' By assuming the only legacy created by young black men in the US is one of unsolicited violence and consequently "hoodrat-ism" (because sometimes made up words are more expressive than the big dictionary ones), you are unwittingly buying into the same cultural narrative we are all trying and hoping to dispel! '

  20. Great thought process and Scriptual consideration. This is not easy, but GOD has not left us without tools accompanied by His Spirit if there first be a willing mind. Let's stay with it. It is very old. Thanks

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