Back in the mid 1990’s I worked for a well known conservative Christian organization. All employees of that organization were periodically required to spend a day ministering to those in need, in various ways. My role in one of those efforts was to be part of a crew that distributed food to those in need.
One of the people that I encountered that day, a very slightly built black woman, lived several blocks away from the place where we were handing out our boxes of food. The box I gave her was very heavy, so I offered to help her carry it back to her home. She gratefully accepted. She said it was only a block or two, so I didn’t worry about telling anyone what I was doing, since I figured I’d be back in just a few minutes.
We chatted as we walked along, she was quite an interesting person – but as we went on, I steadily became more and more nervous, Here I was, getting further and further away from my team, several blocks, in fact, in the middle of a one of the worst neighborhoods in the Tidewater region of Virginia. I was the only white anywhere in sight, and a red head at that! I knew that no one would be looking out for me when it was time to pack up and head back. So, I was likely to be stranded if I didn’t get back soon. I felt conspicuous, I felt alone, and I was afraid.
Just before we parted ways, this woman said that the people in her neighborhood were all good people, and friendly. They looked out for each other, and I didn’t need to worry. I responded by saying “Well, I guess I could just flag down a cop if I had to.” She snorted and said “The police are not our friends.”
Now, let’s wind forward about 20 years to the recent events in Ferguson and St. Louis County, Missouri…
“The reason I have a clean conscience is that I know I did my job right.” is what Darren Wilson said in an ABC interview shortly after the announcement by St. Louis County Prosecuting Attorney Robert McCulloch that the Grand Jury had determined there were no grounds for any indictments of Officer Wilson. It is also clear from his Grand Jury testimony that he was afraid for his safety, even before he encountered Michael, when cruising that neighborhood alone, in his squad car.
Many have argued over whether Michael Brown was guilty, whether he was heading into a lifetime of crime and drugs, or whether he was a good boy preparing to head to college. In other words, they argue whether he was a worthy human being – or not. Such discussions are a distraction, because at the heart of all of this, Michael was a human being – just like you – or me – or Officer Darren Wilson. What happened is that a human being, barely an adult, carrying no weapon, was gunned down in a flurry of bullets by a cop who has admitted that he was afraid for his own safety in Michael’s neighborhood.
No man, woman or child in this country should ever have to fear for their lives when encountering an Officer of the Law. And yet, the message people of color have been getting – constantly, and for centuries – is that their lives do not matter and that their lives are at stake if they in any way – even unknowingly – offend or intimidate a white person.
That Officer Wilson “did [his] job right” and conformed to the legal constraints of his position is adequate justification – perhaps – for not being indicted for murdering another human being; but the fact that a Grand Jury exonerated Officer Wilson does not mean that justice was done.
Conforming to the letter of the law has never been adequate justification for being judged innocent of certain crimes, it didn’t work for those charged with War Crimes in the aftermath of World War II – nor since. In fact, that we believe there is a law higher than human law by which such acts are judged is an outgrowth of the teachings of many faiths – as we see in the teachings and example of Jesus, was a major factor in the US Civil War, in the Women’s Rights and Civil Rights Movements, and is reflected in the leadership and teachings of the modern world’s icons of nonviolent protest, such as Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., and Nelson Mandela: Yes, what Officer Wilson did has now been justified with the label of “legal,” but that does not mean it is right; and therefore, it cannot go unchallenged.
But who do we condemn? Who do we resist? In the Gospel of Matthew, chapter 23, Jesus instructs the people to obey their leaders, but then goes right ahead and condemns those same leaders for their hypocrisy, self-centeredness, and self-justification. For Jesus, outward obedience should not equate to silent acceptance of injustice. One of the most central messages of the Christian Faith is that injustice is to be constantly and unwaveringly challenged, and resisted.
From the events triggered by Michael Brown’s death, not to mention Travyon Martin’s death, and many others, it is impossible to deny that in this country we have a system that is deeply and pervasively racist. And yet, we also see that Officers of the law have a tough job to do, and often have to work on hostile environments; many of which, such as those neighborhoods in Ferguson and Portsmouth, are hostile to the law because the law does not work for those who live in such places. So, in a way, our police officers can be just as much a victim of the system as those, like Michael Brown, who are forced to give up everything they have, and everything they are, because of that injustice. The difference is that Police Officers have the system on their side, and so the fear, even though it afflicts them, also protects them. They almost never die for the injustices they commit, and – as we have seen in all too many cases in the news recently – are rarely disciplined at all for their actions.
I do not condemn Officer Darren Wilson. He was a cop who feared going into that neighborhood, and he acted out of fear when he killed Michael Brown. Fear is a terrible thing. Fear leads us to react more strongly to things than we would otherwise. Fear and hate are the two great tools of injustice, afflicting both the oppressed and the oppressor. Fear lay behind every action and every decision Officer Wilson made during that encounter; and fear lived in the hearts of every single person in that neighborhood – fear of the Law. A system of law, position and power that is not at all concerned with providing justice for the majority of residents of Ferguson; just like the system which was not interested in justice for that woman I once met in Portsmouth, Virginia – or her neighbors.
How then do we face that fear? How then do we battle the hate that drives that fear? How then do we find justice?
The Bible says Jesus died for our sins – not for their sins. “The System” is one we built, and one we acquiesce-to. As long as we allow it to function unchallenged, then we are all guilty, we are all sinning, through our acceptance of what is. Our faith teaches us that we escape such condemnation through working to bring about change, through making The System into something that supports justice for all, not just for some. We defeat The System by setting aside our fear and hate; because, after all – The System is a tool, just like any other. It can be used for good or evil, which of the two it will best serve depends on whether it is driven by hate and fear, or by love and compassion.
Injustice exists because we allow it. And, ultimately, Michael Brown is dead, and Darren Wilson is exonerated, because we have allowed The System to become a tool that enables if not encourages such things to happen, legally.
Jesus commands us to Love One Another, and to embrace “the other” – our neighbors – because, ultimately, they are us. We are all victims because we have allowed ourselves to be victims of The System. And those with the most power and position and privilege, those who gain the most benefit from The System as it presently functions – meaning well off whites such as myself – bear the most responsibility and deserve the most direct criticism for allowing such things to continue.
Copyright (c) 2014, Allen Vander Meulen III, all rights reserved. I’m happy to share my writings with you, as long as proper credit for my authorship is given. (e.g., via a credit that gives my full name and/or provides a link back to this site – or just email me and ask!)