Believe it or not, this week marks one month since the shooting death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, an event which sparked protests across the country and ignited some important conversations about race in America. To help us reflect on what has happened since that day—and what still needs to happen in response—I’ve invited my friend Lisa Sharon Harper to share about her experience in Missouri and to pose some tough questions about the past and future.
Lisa is Senior Director of Mobilizing for Sojourners and co-author of Forgive Us: Confessions of a Compromised Faith–which releases this month. She has written extensively on tax reform, comprehensive immigration reform, health care reform, poverty, racial and gender justice, and transformational civic engagement. Those familiar with Lisa's work know that she’s an all-around woman of valor—smart, compassionate, bold, and kind. May those with ears, hear....
He stood. Nervous; he shifted his weight from left to right, then leaned left again, as if asking the wall to hold him up. He looked at me, unsure.
I nodded as if to say: “It’s okay to say it.”
The tall, dirty-blonde, clean-cut, forty-something ministry leader stood before about 20 Evangelical pastors and ministry leaders from across St. Louis, MO. They were squeezed around two long tables in a slightly raised and sectioned-off area of the dining room. The general public sat on ground level within ear-shot of our “private” conversation.
This dialogue at Three Kings Public House, a Washington University area bar and grill, was convened to help St. Louis’ evangelical clergy begin to process their responses to the explosive conflict taking place only 20 minutes away in Ferguson, MO.
Moments before the 40-something stood, I had shared about the biblical concept of shalom. White, black, and Asian-American leaders of evangelical churches, networks, and ministries considered the implications of three spiritual truths:
1) Every human being on the face of the earth—every person in this restaurant, every person on the street, and every single person in Ferguson—is made in the image of God.
2) That means, all things being equal, every single person on earth was created with the command and the capacity to exercise Genesis 1:26-27 dominion, which means to steward or in modern terms, to exercise agency or lead.
3) To diminish the ability of humans to exercise dominion, is to diminish the image of God in them—and to diminish God’s image on earth. And the fastest and surest way to diminish the ability of humans to exercise agency, to —to lead is through poverty or oppression.
The pastors reflected on how it made them feel (in their gut) to imagine being led by the residents of Ferguson. For Isaiah 61 says, our society’s healing will come from their leadership.
The 40-something leaned against the wall, then stood straight, looked at the group and spoke the words:
“As a white man,” he said, “I have been taught that I was created to lead everyone else.”
Another St. Louis faith leader stood and confessed: “It never even occurred to me that I would be led by the people of Ferguson. It never entered my mind as a possibility.”
Last week, I wrote a piece for Christianity Today called The Lie. That article shined light on a core spiritual lie at work in Ferguson and across our nation.
“Here it is,” I wrote, “plain and simple: Black people are not fully human. In most crass terms—they are animals.”
Today, one month after the shooting death of Michael Brown, I turn the coin to find another spiritual lie on the flip side.
Here it is—plain and simple: White people alone are fully human. In most crass terms—they were created to exercise dominion over everyone else.
Over the top? No.
Look full in the face at American political history…and current reality:
Twenty-five years before the Declaration of Independence Benjamin Franklin argued that whiteness is superior and dubbed the English to be the only truly white people.
Fourteen years after the Declaration that declared “all men are created equal” our founding fathers passed the Naturalization Act of 1790, which declared only white men could be naturalized into American citizenship. The Act barred both free and enslaved blacks from the rights of citizenship, laid the foundation for the 1857 Dred Scott Decision, and triggered more than a century of Supreme Court cases like Takao Ozawa v. United States (1922), where Ozawa argued that as a Japanese man, he was white.
Flip forward. Blacks secured civil rights, but survey the economic landscape 50 years after the 1964 Civil Rights Act, as Nicholas Kristof did in a recent New York Times column, "When Whites Just Don’t Get It." The economic disparity between blacks and whites is worse now than it was before the Civil Rights Movement, Kristof warned. In fact, it is actually worse in the U.S. right now than it was in Apartheid South Africa. Let that sink in for a minute.
Now consider the five unarmed black men killed by police in the last month: Michael Brown, and Ezell Ford, and Eric Garner, and John Crawford III, and Dante Parker. According to a recent study these men and boys were the tip of the ice berg: 313 black men were killed by cops, security guards or vigilantes in 2012—that’s one death every 28 hours. An Aljazeera America report identified the common denominator between most of these deaths saying: “people who die at the hands of the police don’t obey commands and that the police initiate violence, despite there being no imminent threat to their safety.”
Finally, consider the militarization of our society’s response to recent racialized conflict: From tear-gassed protesters and check points on Ferguson thruways to calls for a militarized response to immigrant children fleeing oppression in neighboring countries.
Recounting our nation’s recurrent history of white militarized backlash after periods of ethnic progress, Dr. Carol Anderson, Associate Professor of African American History at Emory University, surmised in a recent Washington Post commentary that Ferguson was not about black rage against cops, but rather about white rage against progress. I put it in theological terms: Ferguson was about the death of white dominion and the ruling set of our nation fighting to hold onto a lie.
Within 29 years, whites will be an ethnic minority in the U.S. That demographic shift poses a grave threat to white racialized political, social, and economic dominance. Always the steely-mouthed sounding board of her party, Ann Coulter characterized the demographic shift as feeling like rape.
Ann Coulter’s feeling of violation reveals fear rooted in a core spiritual lie: She either fears 1) that something is fundamentally wrong with a world where whites don’t rule, or 2) that non-white people are incapable of leading. As a result, in 29 years our nation will falter. In either case, the root of the fear is a theological lie that whites should rule over everyone else and, by implication, whites alone are fully human.
Now here’s the kicker about core spiritual lies. Lest you think that Ann Coulter stands alone, core spiritual lies are “core” because they infiltrate the basic belief system and structures of a society. Most people live their daily lives in obedience to and guided by the lie.
In the United States, a ruling class has being established; along with it an assumed underclass. We see it clearly when we observe disparities in schools, healthcare, housing, food access, and justice. This is sin. Images of God are being diminished across our land.
In Forgive Us: Confessions of a Compromised Faith, my coauthors and I offer Nehemiah as an example of one who confronted the lies of his time. He entered into lament, understood the impact of the lies, and confessed the ways he and his people contributed to his nation’s devastation.
Now, imagine this: What would it look like for the people of God to cultivate the image of God in every corner of our nation?
And what if we did this through just investing, through disciplined consumption, and by legislating toward a world where governance affirms the truth (not the lie) - that all humanity is created in God’s image and therefore, has capacity to lead?
There is no supreme humanity. There is only humanity.
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