Wednesday, August 20, 2014
Michael Brown, Ferguson, and the Faith Community [On Faith August 21, 2014]
Much has been written and said about the disturbances in Ferguson, MO, following the shooting of Michael Brown, a young African American man, by a police officer on Saturday, August 9. Some of those statements concern Mr. Brown's activity prior to the shooting. Others reveal the number of shots (six, two to the head) he received while himself unarmed.
In the days of protest and response, a lot of the discourse has seemed to serve ideology and create a narrative. We are told that the Michael Brown shooting and the subsequent unrest are about unfinished American racial business, the militarization of policing, the changing demographics of our neighborhoods.
Some of these pronouncements are well-intentioned. Others (particularly those that seek to justify the shooting) are obviously self-serving. For those of us who are trying to understand "what Ferguson means" from a faith perspective, almost all of them are useless at best. Every time a young black man is shot in America, a number of voices rise to claim the narrative--witness the long and ongoing argument over Trayvon Martin's shooting. It's always about something other than what it's really about.
So how do we understand Michael Brown and Ferguson from the point of view of faith? Speaking as a Christian, I would begin with the premise that any attempt to understand the Michael Brown story must start from respect for him, his body, and his story. In the baptismal service of the prayer book of my church (the Episcopal Church) we promise to "strive for peace and justice among all people" and to "respect the dignity of every human being." As a Christian, I am bound to start with respect for Michael Brown and the hope that he be given justice. The story is about nothing else than that.
When I first heard the news of Michael Brown's death, I could not help remembering a song written by Oscar Brown, Jr. in 1961 and later made famous by Nina Simone and Diana Ross. Brown's song was written in the middle of the most hopeful and violent moments of the Civil Rights movement, and you can feel the mixture of hope, anger, and fear as the black parent addresses the newborn child:
Brown Baby Brown Baby
As you grow up I want you to drink from the plenty cup
I want you to stand up tall and proud
And I want you to speak up clear and loud
Brown Baby Brown Baby Brown Baby
As years go by I want you to go with your head up high
I want you to live by the justice code
And I want you to walk down freedom's road
You little Brown Baby
Because all faith traditions hold human life (both individually and collectively) sacred, the religious questions raised by Michael Brown's death begin as they must in grief for the cutting off of a young human life by violence, whatever its cause. When we look at video images of Mr. Brown lying dead in a Ferguson street, it is hard not to think back to Oscar Brown Jr.'s hope that his child would "stand up tall and proud" and "drink from the plenty cup". Before it is anything else, Michael Brown's death is a human tragedy.
But for people of faith, human tragedies are also social and cosmic tragedies. We believe that human beings matter not only to each other but to God. So the injustice and oppression inherent in any American inter-racial killing becomes a theological concern. For Jews, Muslims, and Christians, God is invested in the health and rightness of human social relations. The killing of anyone is a human tragedy. The killing of anyone because of racial, economic, political, or social injustice is a matter of urgent theological concern. As "Brown Baby"'s hopeful parent sang, "I want you to live by the justice code/And I want you to walk down freedom's road." The betrayal of that hope is an affront to the vision of human freedom and justice to which all our religious traditions aspire.
I serve as Dean of Washington National Cathedral, and because we are both a faith community and a place where religion and public life naturally come together, I addressed our response to Michael Brown's death and the subsequent unrest during last Sunday morning's services. I said, in part,
“This morning I do want to say, speaking for myself and I believe for the cathedral, that given this nation’s history of racial injustice, the issues and concerns in Ferguson really ought to be at the top of our prayer list and action agenda as a faith community. We here at the cathedral are quick to point people to the Canterbury pulpit and remind them that Martin Luther King, Jr., gave his final Sunday sermon here. We’re quick to appeal to Dr. King’s legacy and to claim a piece of it for ourselves. If we’re really serious about claiming that legacy, it seems to me, we will not only pray for peace in Ferguson, but we’ll also pray for justice. And so, as we go forward as a nation, I add my voice to the many faith leaders who are saying, ‘Yes, we appeal for peace, we appeal for calm, we appeal for healing in Ferguson, but we also appeal for answers’—so that the killing of Michael Brown and its aftermath will not be just forgotten in the next sweep of events, but will call us all into facing continually into God’s invitation to us to break down human boundaries and to ensure that all people find life safe, meaningful and abundant.
“So on behalf of the cathedral and on behalf of all who serve and worship here, I call everyone to prayer and action for not only the people of Ferguson, but for our nation as we continue to live into trying to understand what these events mean, and we pray that justice will be done and that peace will prevail."
For the faith community, Michael Brown's life and death matter. For the faith community, addressing the social, political, and racial dynamics of his death matter, too. The "post-racial America" which so many announced still has yet to arrive. If we are going to live in the America that really exists, we need to face into the racial history that is ours and in which our churches have had such a complicated role. Michael Brown's killing reminds us, if of nothing else, that the hopes of "Brown Baby" have yet to be realized:
When out of men's heart all hate is hurled
Sweetie you gonna live in a better world
Brown Baby Brown Baby Brown Baby
Our churches, synagogues, mosques, and temples need to be about the work of helping God bring that better world into being.
The Very Reverend Gary Hall is Dean of Washington National Cathedral.