The August 11, 2014 community response to the killing of Michael Brown, an unarmed teenager in Ferguson, Missouri, shed a clear focus on personal and structural racism that continues to plague our nation’s history, its laws, and its criminal justice system. Our legal processes and political solutions can give some answers and provide some solace for these continued events of violence and racism, but we too need to confront our individual failings.
Faith teaches us how important it is to encounter the suffering of others. In the Bible, some of the early questions that God addresses to humanity are: “Where are you?” and “Where is your brother?” Today God asks the same of us. We must seek out and find our brothers and sisters in Ferguson, New York City, Charleston, and throughout the nation who suffer from the violence of racism. Though those with privilege can never completely grasp it, they must encounter their suffering, listen to their stories, and try to share in their pain. Pope Francis says this “culture of encounter” will give us the ability to weep with those who suffer.
Though some want to move immediately into political, policy, or even moral solutions, this approach is limited. No law, no government program, and no sermon alone will end the violence and bring complete healing to Ferguson and to the nation. So we must resist the temptation to thrust ourselves into these situations and declare ourselves the messiah with the answers. Rather we must be co-companions for the long journey towards healing, examining both racial privilege and racial oppression. We must strive to be allied for and with each other. The era of the “voice for the voiceless” is over. Everyone has a voice to be heard.
During his ministry, Jesus of Nazareth encountered many people begging for healing. While in Jericho, two blind men called out to him asking for mercy and for the gift of sight. Though the crowd tried to silence them, the men did not waver, but rather cried out “Lord, open our eyes!” Scripture tells us that Jesus was then moved with compassion for them and gave them their sight.
What truth do we discover in Ferguson when we encounter the suffering there, and our own blind spots are removed?
We first see that the outward violence that has plagued Ferguson since Brown’s killing didn’t begin on the streets that afternoon. Rather, it is the fruit of the invisible violence that plagues our communities every day. It is the violence of institutions, too often including the police, that fail to serve their people. It is the violence of the disproportionate mass incarceration of people of color and minorities. It is the violence that afflicts the poor and makes us indifferent to others’ suffering. It is the violence of inaction in the face of failing schools, decaying cities, racial discrimination in hiring, and economic disparities. It is the violence that sows distrust between people and communities because of the color of their skin. This violence isn’t always as attended to as the gunshot that killed Michael Brown, but it’s just as deadly.
Nearly eight years after the election of President Barack Obama, we must acknowledge that racism is still very much alive in our nation, and even in our churches. In fact, when we end the carnival of naiveté around this issue and remove the masks, we will see the truth: individual and structural racism is tearing at the very fabric of our nation. It’s cloaked in seemingly different and even benign issues such as tax codes, school districts, the criminal justice system, and the allocation of federal resources. We experience this racism in our own lives and in our own hearts—even in perhaps the smallest of ways. No one is truly beyond it. It’s a broken part of us that is twisted up in our own lives, our own histories, and our own failings. But when we acknowledge its presence in our lives and in our communities, we can join with the Psalmist and cry out: “Forgive us, Lord, for we have sinned!”
This first step of encounter and acknowledgment can begin the journey of reconciliation for our communities and our nation. Archbishop Desmond Tutu said it well: “true reconciliation exposes the awfulness, the abuse, the hurt, the truth. …It is a risky undertaking but in the end it is worthwhile, because in the end only an honest confrontation with reality can bring real healing.”
Today, we must be those people of Jericho. We must cry out and ask God to remove the masks that blind us. The road of encountering human suffering and the invisible and institutional violence that precedes it is uncomfortable, but it isn’t sterile. It will allow us to see the grittiness of the truth and to experience the gift of reconciliation and healing that will bind the wounds that divide us and allow us to move forward as a community and as a nation.