Many of you I expect have been closely following the stories and images coming out of Ferguson in the wake of Michael Brown's death. I want to draw your attention to this image:
This is a photo, as you can tell, of some young men in Ferguson lighting a Molotov cocktail. I bring your attention to this image as images like this one have been used as moral counterweight to the images of peaceful protesters, hands aloft, facing lines of militarized police officers wielding automatic weapons.
I've been pondering images like this as I believe our reactions to them are extraordinarily important in efforts at racial reconciliation.
Psychologically, many of us consume media narratives associated with tragedies like the death of Michael Brown by sifting the events until we find evidence of wickedness amongst Them in order to absolve Us of any guilt or moral reckoning. In the case of Ferguson a picture like the one above is used as evidence that Black rage is inappropriate, illegal and immoral and that the police actions in recent days were thus justified and warranted.
The problem with this sort of reasoning is that images and stories such as these are not prompting reflection, confession, repentance, change or conversion. They are, rather, being used as moral ballast to prevent any reflection, confession, repentance, change or conversion from taking place. Evidence of wickedness--looting, Molotov cocktails, etc.--on "their side" appears to restore some sort of moral balance, bringing us back to a status quo where nothing changes.
We selectively pick and choose among the wickedness until we find what need to absolve us of guilt allowing us to emotionally and politically disengage.
In the language of the gospels, instead of looking at the speck in our brother's eye--and that speck might look like a Molotov cocktail--we fail to look at the beam in our own eye.
When we see pictures like the one above before anything we must morally reckon with the backdrop of oppression and injustice that produced the violence. Even Rand Paul, who may be the next GOP Presidential nominee, admits this much. Yesterday Senator Paul wrote this:
...Given the racial disparities in our criminal justice system, it is impossible for African-Americans not to feel like their government is particularly targeting them.Given the legacy of oppression and injustice that Senator Paul describes I believe White America is called to the spiritual labor to look upon Black rage with understanding if not compassion.
This is part of the anguish we are seeing in the tragic events outside of St. Louis, Missouri. It is what the citizens of Ferguson feel when there is an unfortunate and heartbreaking shooting like the incident with Michael Brown.
Anyone who thinks that race does not still, even if inadvertently, skew the application of criminal justice in this country is just not paying close enough attention. Our prisons are full of black and brown men and women who are serving inappropriately long and harsh sentences for non-violent mistakes in their youth.
To be candid, it is unreasonable to expect an entire race or class of people to bear injustice, down to a person, stoically, non-violently and peaceably. In the face of oppression and state-sanctioned violence violent responses are inevitable. Sociologically and psychologically, the pressure cooker of oppression is going to blow from time to time. You just can't oppress people for generations and expect docility and good manners each night on local television. There will be ugly and violent episodes. That there aren't more of these episodes is a testament to Black patience, resiliency and civility.
But people can be pushed too far. Breaking points will be inevitably reached. And when that happens our first impulse should not be to mistake the symptoms (Black rage) for the underlying disease (systemic and generational oppression).
To be very clear, I'm not suggesting that violence is justified and should go unpunished. What I am suggesting is that if we are to make deep and lasting progress with racial reconciliation Black rage and violence must be suffered.
If anyone should understand this, Christians should. We, more than anyone, should understand that reconciliation isn't painless. Sin has it wages. Reconciliation will involve taking up our cross.
And this is the passion of the cross, the non-violent bearing of the sins of the world, especially our own, to bring about reconciliation. This is the only poultice that can draw the poison out.
Black rage is the cross White America must suffer for White sins, the passion we must endure, if our peoples are to be fully and deeply reconciled.
Some clarifications to add to the initial post.
I expect, and this is my fault for which I take full responsibility, that some readers will see in this post the suggestion that innocent Whites are Christ-figures bearing the sins of guilty blacks in the same sort of way that an innocent Christ bore the sins of a guilty humanity.
To clarify, that substitutionary innocent-for-guilty logic isn't what I'm trying to invoke. I'm using the metaphor of "taking up your cross" in its common usage, repentance and penance and bearing the consequences of your sins. When we make a mess of our lives the only way forward if reconciliation is the aim is to accept the consequences of our sins, to assume the guilt of our sins--to carry our cross--in putting the pieces of life back together.
My reference to the passion is that sins will have consequences, an associated suffering or reckoning that will be a part of the cross we have to carry. And a part of that burden, among other things, will be the rage of those we have abused. That rage, produced by our sin, will be a burden that we must carry when we take up our crosses in the journey toward reconciliation. As I said above, when Whites face Black rage they must suffer it. Not ignore it or use it as grist to justify the status quo or to turn the channel. Sins have consequences, a burden, a passion, a pain that must be faced and endured.
As Black voices tell us, reconciliation comes with a price, a cost, a burden. A cross if you will. This cross, this burden, is one that Whites habitually refuse to pick up. And my argument in this post is that a part of that cost and burden will be sympathy for Black rage and violence. But that's a price that many Whites simply will not pay. Sympathy for Black rage. And if you cannot suffer that--Black rage over the death of Michael Brown--how are we going to be able to make any progress?
Here's what I know after having spent many years as a part of these conversations. White people are more than happy to talk about racial reconciliation until 1) the rage is directed at them or 2) the burden of reconciliation becomes too costly.
In short, we want atonement and reconciliation without a cross--no passion, no assumption of guilt, no willingness to suffer as we carry the burden of our sin.
And maybe here is where, perhaps, the notion of vicarious suffering does play a part. Christ may have been innocent, but for the purposes of atonement and reconciliation he assumed guilt. Christ "became sin." And in a similar way we may have to assume the burden of sins that we have never personally committed.
Consider the case for racial reparations recently made by Ta-Nehisi Coates. It's a simple moral argument: the sins of slavery must be paid for. That is making atonement. But who is going to pay for the sins of the past?
Well, it's going to have to be White America of this or a future generation. But few in White America are willing to carry or assume these sins, to atone for these sins, to suffer in our time for sins of the past. We are not willing to carry the cross that slavery produced in America. And it's that unwillingness to undergo this passion, the refusal to carry the required cross, that I'm trying to describe.
And it's not just with something like reparations. This unwillingness to suffer and assume guilt typifies much within race relations. For example, the inability of us to endure the hot anger of Blacks of our acquaintance because, hey, I'm one of the good guys, I'm on your side. It's this inability to stand there and listen to the anger, to suffer and carry the anger, that creates the impasse.
No one wants to carry or suffer the anger. Thus Black rage bounces off Whites who are either indifferent or who want to deflect the anger onto others. No one wants to suffer.