Saturday, December 13, 2014

Ferguson Is Not Selma

Michael Brown 

Is Not 
Martin Luther King

Selma March

There are places in our in our country that are landmarks of the Civil Rights Movement. Montgomery, AL, where Rosa Parks refused to sit at the back of the bus; Selma, AL, the starting point for three attempted marches to Montgomery (the last successful); Oxford, MS, where James Meredith integrated the University of Mississippi. There are
Medgar Evers
Civil Rights martyrs. Medgar Evers shot dead in his Jackson, MS, driveway by Byron de la Beckwith; Schwerner, Goodman, and Chaney, three civil rights workers killed by Neshoba County, MS, Klansmen. Martin Luther King assassinated in Memphis, by James Earl Ray. Many names could be added to these lists of places and people.

Now it seems that some would add to the list of places, Ferguson, MO, and to the list of martyrs, Michael Brown. The facts are disputed but not much in doubt. Michael Brown, whom just this past week was described by Thabiti Anaybwile as an "unarmed teen," was also six feet-two inches in height, two-hundred and ninety pounds in weight, and eighteen years of age. He was a man and a big one. He was not demonstrating for Civil Rights but had just strong armed a store owner. He was not gunned down in cold or hot blood by white police Officer Darren Williams but was the aggressor. The report of the officer, the weight of the testimony of witnesses, and the physical evidence, weighed by the prosecutor and the grand jury, combine to make it clear this was no case of murder or manslaughter. It is those who wanted Officer Wilson indicted and tried, despite the lack of evidence to support criminal charges, who in this case are on the side of injustice.

It's not surprising that Al Sharpton or Jesse Jackson or that MSNBC commentators want to turn Ferguson into a symbol of the civil rights movement and to turn Michael Brown into a civil rights martyr. What is quite surprising is that evangelicals who to a greater or lesser degree identify with Calvinistic theology (at the level of soteriology mainly) seem to want to do so and in addition to make it a Gospel issue. I have in mind Thabiti Anyabwile's The Final Civil Rights Battle: Ending Police Brutality, Jemar's Tisby's The Image of God and the African American Experience: Part 2 and Quick to Listen: Reflections on Ferguson, four PCA ministers' Am I My Brother's Keeper and Carl Ellis' Racism Alone?

Dr Ellis, after seeming to separate the less morally clear case of Michael Brown from what he believes is the morally clear case of Eric Garner, ends up putting the two in the same category of "senseless killings" of African American men:

When I heard the decision not to indict the killers of Eric Garner, my outraged response was, “here we go again!” If the Michael Brown case lacked moral clarity, the senseless tragedy of the Eric Garner case was much more clear. No matter what the circumstances were, here were two more African American men added to the list of senseless killings, arousing strong reactions nationally and internationally.
Mr. Anyabwile describes the death of Michael Brown:
...  Officer Darren Wilson shot and killed unarmed teen Michael Brown... 
Mr. Tisby also puts Michael Brown and Ferguson in the category of civil rights:
In spite of everyone’s divinely endowed worth, U.S. history and culture call the image of God into question, particularly for African Americans. Grand jury decisions not to indict the white police officers who caused the fatalities of unarmed African Americans Mike Brown and Eric Garner have set the country aflame in racial tensions once again...
In decades past, people of African descent asserted their existential value through the phrase, “Black is beautiful.” In these days of Trayvon Martin, Mike Brown, and Eric Garner the cry is “Black Lives Matter.” These phrases are more than political chants. They snatch back the image-bearing dignity that has been stolen from Blacks in America.
The PCA pastors write:
When people seek to rule over other people, either personally or through a broken system, it further wounds the already broken image of God in them. The words, ‘Black Lives Matter,’ has become a slogan for what is happening in Ferguson, MO. But these words are much bigger than Ferguson.
But the similarities to the liberal political outlook do not end at turning Michael Brown and Ferguson into civil rights symbols.

Mr. Tisby tells us that racism today takes the more subtle form of micro-aggression:
Racism continues today, but it is more subtle. Microagressions are death by a thousand cuts. While few people commit overtly racist acts—in public, if they can help it—the lesser status of African Americans in this country is constantly reinforced. Examples of racial microagressions include: being followed in stores for no apparent reason, being told “You speak so well!” or “I don’t even really think of you as Black.” A microaggression occurs when Black hair becomes the subject of intrusive fascination (“Can I touch it?”). It’s a microagression when you are expected to be good at basketball, dancing, or some other activity based on assumptions due to skin color.
In support of this he quotes Dr. Derald Wing Sue, Professor of Psychology and Education at the Teachers College of Columbia University whose academic interests include "Multicultural counseling and psychotherapy, Psychology of racism and antiracism, Cultural diversity, Cultural competence, Multicultural organizational development, Mental Health Law":
Microaggressions are the everyday verbal, nonverbal, and environmental slights, snubs, or insults, whether intentional or unintentional, which communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative messages to target persons based solely upon their marginalized group membership.—Dr. Derald Wing Sue
Moreover, Mr. Tisby tells us that, not only whites but some blacks, who have spoken out about Brown and Ferguson, are not qualified to speak on the matter:
As a multi-ethnic, African-American, Evangelical Christian, I’m deeply concerned about an appropriate pastoral response to the violence in Ferguson and greatly puzzled by the responses and discussions of some white and black Evangelicals. What continues to be striking is the way many from the dominant racial group and those who benefit from them think they are in a position to offer definitive solutions to the plight of many African-Americans in Ferguson and beyond, even though they may not identify or understand the plight of African-Americans.

In order to avoid being misrepresented, let me clarify. Many races are qualified to speak about race, racism, and the challenges facing African-Americans. However, I strongly doubt whether those with limited or no experience with the racial tensions between blacks and whites know what it’s like to be black or white in a chaotic racial context like Ferguson. Therefore, I doubt whether the analyses from these people within the Evangelical movement can rightly assess the racial issues facing blacks and whites in this country. Whites are not African-American, and many blacks within the Evangelical movement are unable to identify directly with certain kinds of racism some blacks face in the US.
Note that whites are not part of the majority racial group but of the "dominant" racial group. More important, there are black Evangelicals who "benefit from them" and who, therefore, "may not identify or understand the plight of African-Americans." He knows that "many blacks within the Evangelical movement are unable to identify directly with certain kinds of racism some blacks face in the US." This sounds to me like a variation on the theme of some blacks being "not black enough" or being "too white" meant as a way of discrediting blacks who do not say what they are supposed to say about race in America.

Despite attempts by these brothers to relate these matters to the Gospel, it seems that the differences of view are not between those who believe the Gospel and those who don't, or those who live by the Gospel and those who don't. Gospel issues have to do with whether men and women should have equal status as redeemed persons in the church and whether all men possessing the qualifications may hold office in the church.  

It's not primarily racial as a matter of ethnicity or skin color. Evidence of this is that Mr. Tisby finds not only whites who don't understand but blacks who don't.  

What separates perceptions, analyses, and proposed solutions are matters of culture, natural law and justice, sociology, prudence, and politics. These are matters where differences are primarily between conservatism and progressivism. Conservatism and progressivism are not, no matter how much proponents of both argue otherwise, issues of the Bible and the Gospel. They are the kinds of differences that separate Americans regarding matters such as the health care law, budget priorities, court nominees, law enforcement, deficits, and the military. 

Perhaps this is yet another case where world-and-life view thinking (making a Biblical, or Lordship, or eschatological, or Gospel issue out of everything) makes things worse rather than better. If my brothers take a liberal/progressive view, for whatever reasons, of Ferguson and Michael Brown, that's their right. At the same time, if I, for whatever reasons, say that Ferguson is not Selma and Mike is not Martin, that, too, is my right. I think making symbols of Selma and Brown is inaccruate and inept, but use them if you must. Our disagreement about these things is not because we disagree about the Bible or the Gospel. Our discussion about this is mostly from the perspectives of liberalism and conservatism. 



Curt Day said...

I think the key difference between the opposing perspectives on the Grand Jury decisions has to do with how much we are willing to listen to the stories of those who are marginalized. Saying that Ferguson is no Selma and Michael Brown is no Martin Luther King Jr. is an indicator that one limits how much one will listen to the stories and histories of those from other groups.

There is good reason for limiting how much one will listen. Change takes the most energy. Thus, we are constantly looking for reasons not to expend that much energy. So when marginalized people demand change, we require that they be eligible for sainthood before considering listening to them. And in place of listening and investigating, many prefer to deduce what is happening to other groups.

This blog is usually one of the best Christian blogs on the internet. So this particular post is very disappointing. Do you honestly think that the ruckus over the Grand Jury decisions is merely about the shooting of 2 individuals? And if you want to divide the issue between liberals and conservatives, do you honestly think that neither group could from the other?

Curt Day said...

I left out a word in the last sentence. I intended to write:

"do you honestly think that neither group could learn from the other?"