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When we know the end of the story fear, anxiety, compromise and indecision leave us; we know the final outcome of God’s great saga…we are called to live in the light of Christ’s victory.
Police make me nervous. Seriously. I realized most of the people I know don’t share this sentiment. When I’m at the park playing basketball or barbecuing and I see a patrol car come through I just assume they are going to harass me. Now I am a law abiding, middle-class, Anglo, family man…I don’t get harassed by the police nor do I give them cause to harass me. I didn’t give them cause as a child or teenager either. The only difference is that I lived in not so nice areas of the Antelope Valley. So I don’t get the sense of security and goodwill that my friends and coworkers who grew up in affluent communities do. In my history police equaled problems. I have quite a few good friends in law enforcement and realize that this is a jaded perspective. However, it is a perspective that persists.
This is what is at stake in Ferguson. You have outrage at another shooting of an unarmed citizen by the police…something that happens alarmingly often in the Black community. Race as a social construct is most definitely a primary issue at play here, and many Black thinkers and leaders are highlighting this. We all need to listen. From my own experience, I also see the issues of power and privilege that are often underneath and interwoven with matters of race, and they seem to be rearing their ugly head in Ferguson. For this article, I want to focus on this element of power and privilege. There is a problem behind Ferguson, behind fueling race riots, arrest murders, and labor disputes, and it is power and privilege. Affluent folks view law enforcement as an extension of their will (maybe with the exception of speeding tickets). Disadvantaged people view the police as antagonists to their well-being. One of the biggest problems with the Michael Brown shooting is this divide. In many ways the outcome of this incident has little to do with Brown and the officer and much more to do with a historical rift between the poor severed from the resources they need and the rich controlling these resources (and law enforcement) to protect their privilege and security.
In the aftermath of the Civil War the executive office and Congress were faced with the impossible problem of not only reincorporating peoples and institutions that had waged war on the Union, but also embracing and empowering a nation of freed slaves who had little-to-no property, education or self-governing life skills. Radical Republicans called for property redistribution and enfranchisement while the elite, defrocked Planter class attempted to impose a new order of slavery through intimidation and coercion (black codes, sharecropping, etc). This latter group formed militias to promote white supremacy (the Ku Klux Klan being the most infamous of these groups). These paramilitaries would harass the newly freed people and use violence to keep them from utilizing their recently amended civic and Constitutional rights. The Radical Republicans in Congress were able to employ the US Army to break up these militias and ensure the protection of these people. Through a whole convolution of events, the radicals fell out of power, federal troops were withdrawn from the South and the swift disenfranchisement of Black Americans ensued. In the shadow of this unraveling, Congress passed a law called Posse Comitatus – stating the federal government cannot use federal troops to enforce the law. Track with me on this…most Americans would see this as limiting the power of the federal government for the protection of the common people. WRONG! The point of Congress’s action was to keep disadvantaged people in the mercy of the powerful. This was not meant to protect people from the US military or a growing police state…that still takes place. Under Posse Comitatus the National Guard is still allowed to be called in to establish law and order under the Governors direction. On more than one occasion the president has used federal troops to break up strikes and protests. We have established federal armories (we have one of these in Palmdale) to provide weapons for troops during a state of emergency (which is most likely a riot or grassroots movement, not a Red Dawn type Russian paratrooper invasion of the West Coast). This federal legislature was composed to prevent the federal government from ensuring black Americans would live without fear of violence or persecution and forfeit the right to vote.
It is often the case that the events of history offer us two messages – a superficial answer and a deeper underlying meaning. This is the case in Reconstruction; this is also the case of World War I. This summer marks the 100th anniversary of the Great War’s outbreak and historians and commentators have been debating the root causes and effects of the war for the past century. In a truly Marxist interpretation (don’t worry, I’m neither a Communist nor a Marxist)…WWI was neither about class nor nationality nor race (ethnicity, linguistics, religion)…it was about power for the powerful. Marx assumed that the next great international war erupted it would be countered by a revolution of the workers…those who produce v. those who own the means of production (the bourgeoisie v the proletariat). Marx underestimated the power of patriotism…he wrongly presumed that poor factory workers and struggling farmers in England would identify with poor factory workers and struggling farmers in Germany (or Russia or the Austro-Hungarian Empire) over and above the rich industrialists of their own country. The problem: they didn’t! The ideologies of togetherness, solidarity and patriotism trumped those of like-mindedness and self-interest. he events in Ferguson are not so unrelated to the events of Austria a century ago. Is the Brown shooting only about race? The result of believing this may end up turning poor people against poor people; the imperial leaders told European peasants it was all about nationality – turning factory worker against factory worker. Planter elites told Southern people it was all about race – turning poor white farmers against poor Black farmers. The problems of Reconstruction, WWI, and Ferguson have common ground that extends beyond race, nationality, or ideology. They are all about power and privilege.
These are a few divides I choose to look at, but certainly many (if not all) historical conflicts fall into this category (The Cold War is a great example). I want to propose to thoughts that challenge the polemics offered on cable television today:
The pain of slavery and reconstruction is alive and well today…in the South more so than anywhere else. Men of color have far greater reason to suspect the police of undue harassment and profiling than I do. However, race can be misleading if we don’t follow its trail toward other issues. Many civil rights leaders started at race and moved towards the issues of class: Marcus Garvey, Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, Caesar Chavez. The Great War wasn’t really about nationality…this was used to incite the passions and fears of nations. Ferguson isn’t only about race…race as the end all can become the faux amis employed to rouse suspicion of our neighbors. Can I go so far as to claim that race can be utilized as a misnomer during reconstruction…aimed to divide White and Black in a pitch to win White support for the dominant power class? There is a powerful TIME article that elaborates on this much more eloquently than I ever will.
I have a friend and teacher who once told me that Jesus was a pacifist because “violence wasn’t powerful enough.” In a recent post on Ferguson David Fitch penned: “This is the dilemma of violence. It never gets us anywhere in the long term. It’s the devil’s way to keep the sin ongoing.” It has taken me several years to understand what he meant; it has taken Ferguson. The National Guard is called in to establish law and order – and maybe they will…however…Law and Order is much different than PEACE! The National Guard will never establish peace!
I don’t mean a new political order…that is what Woodrow Wilson called for in his New World Order mandate for a great League of Nations. A new political order will always turn into another establishment wielded by the power of the privileged. We need a new social, relational order. We are doomed to repeat Reconstruction, WWI and Ferguson until we stop viewing each other in binaries that alienate. Jesus, the greatest pacifist ever, called the world to live under his new order (the Kingdom of God) were mercy triumphs over judgment, where we treat each other with dignity and respect, where love is the organizing principle and not privilege or power. The League failed and Reconstruction faltered not because they are bad, but because they aren’t enough!
We need an interior revolution that starts within communities and homes…not an imposed mandate from an institution.
I AM OPPRESSED
At least I choose to stand with the oppressed…that is part of what it means to be a Christian. To represent Jesus to everyone demands that we identify with those that are oppressed, isolated or hurting – Jesus did this habitually.
After yesterday’s horrific series of events – a major bombing in Iraq, the terrorism of Boston and the suicide of a local teen – we need some Good News. The world is a dark place and we can choose to participate in the darkness, or refute it.
Here is the deal…one of the ways we overcome darkness is by identifying and advocating for those on the brink of being swallowed by evil. People take bombs into public places because they believe lies about themselves and the world they live in; they feel their options are taken away; spouses cheat on each other because they are isolated; teenagers kill themselves because they feel hopeless and alone. Jesus’s self proclaimed mission was to bring good news to the poor, oppressed, blind, rejected (Luke 4:18). The Good News is that God values and loves them, going to extravagant lengths in order for them to participate in his Kingdom, in the righting of wrongs, in the salvation of the world. We proclaim that Good News by embodying it!
When I say “I am gay” it is not because I am attracted to men, it is because homosexuals and heterosexuals alike are my brothers and sisters; when I write “I am stupid” I do so because those who haven’t had the educational opportunities that I have are just as valuable as me; when I declare “I am fat” I reject the dichotomy that values people on their weight and body image…I am one of them, they are one of me. When we isolate, bully or reject others for their differences we destroy they Good News instead of live it.
I am bullied – that is not hyperbole, I was bullied in grade school. The reason that is present tense is simple…it never leaves you. If you have been bullied, you will always sympathize with those who have been bullied; if you were once over weight, you will always know what it means to feel ostracized because of your image. The isolation and hopelessness that such actions create in us lead to desperation: suicide, terrorism, abandonment, addiction.
The Bible clearly calls us to love those who are on the outside:
Learn to do right; seek justice. Defend the oppressed. Take up the cause of the fatherless; plead the case of the widow. (Isaiah 1:17 NIV)
May he defend the afflicted among the people and save the children of the needy; may he crush the oppressor. For he will deliver the needy who cry out, the afflicted who have no one to help. He will take pity on the weak and the needy and save the needy from death. He will rescue them from oppression and violence, for precious is their blood in his sight. (Psalm 72:4, 12-14 NIV)
It seems clear, the response a Christian is called to give towards oppression begins by:
I worked with teenagers for years as a youth pastor and school teacher and we continue to have a lot of young people in our church congregation…I can’t think of a single better thing to instill in them as a new generation of people figuring out what it means to follow Christ, than to have them eradicate bullying, gossip, clicks and isolation in their schools and communities.
The bottom line is: we are called to humanize everyone (gay or straight, terrorist or solider, waitress or stripper, murderer or saint, poor or rich) because we are all human, all weak, all needing of mercy and forgiveness. Until we view the “other” as us, we will perpetuate the lie that we are better than others and more deserving of God’s goodness (Romans 3:23)
I AM OPPRESSED…
What response can we offer to the tragedy today other than despair and paranoia? I don’t think I have the faculties to offer more than that…yet when I look beyond my self and open the canon of Scripture I see a different posture towards the insanity of terrorism and psychosis. TRIUMPH!
That is right, victory in battle. A friend of mine recently wrote a blog on viewing life as a journey or a battle (saying we arguably need both…I agree). If we view life as nothing more than a journey, than we desperately mourn the journey being cut short for 20 people killed in the coldest of blood this morning.
But if we view it as an epic struggle between good and evil, than we honor those, young and old that fell today to the drive force of evil in this world. The same wickedness that caused several passenger planes to crash on 9/11; the same evil that persists in the global epidemic of starvation and hunger; the same villainy that will be behind every divergence from God’s plan of goodness and healing for our world.
“If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are to be pitied more than all men.” – 1 Corinthians 15:19