I am so tired of waiting,
For the world to become good
And beautiful and kind?
It was in my college Liberation Theology class back in 1990 that I first discovered different ‘Gospel’ perspectives – perspectives from those steeped in death and persecution, suffering and scarcity. We spent evenings at my professors house reading and discussing Gustavo Gutiérrez, Juan Luis Segundo, Leonardo Boff, Jon Sobrino, and a host of African and Asian liberation theologians. It may have been the first ‘aha’ moment for me, the first realization that the Gospel wasn’t just about getting saved and voting pro-life.
A next significant time came during the year I lived with Tom in the hood in Chicago. Though I grew up on Long Island with great diversity, I was a suburban kid, mostly protected from the issues Tom grew up with. Tom was black, and he showed me and told me how different it was for him to leave the apartment and walk down the street. Here again, I was challenged to wrestle with whether or not the ‘Gospel’ had something to say about Tom’s everyday fear.
In the past 20 or so years, it was been those who I pastor as well as clients I’ve cared for who’ve helped me understand that my life, as a white man with a blonde-haired, blue-eyed wife and daughters, is and will always be different…and privileged. Even in our mostly Asian neighborhood in San Francisco, we were beloved, celebrities in a way. I haven’t experienced the kinds of things I’ve heard described by Tom, and by many folks I’ve counseled and cared for. I haven’t been ignored by waitresses in restaurants, targeted by suspicious law enforcement officers, followed, stared down. I haven’t been overlooked for a job or a loan. I’ve rarely felt altogether different. I haven’t been labeled as “angry” or walked down the street anxiously or wondered what I should wear or how quickly I could walk or what might make me look like a criminal to another. These have not been my worries. But they have been Tom’s, and many, many others.
What I’ve seen is that in my privileged white world, the ‘Gospel’ is domesticated. Ferguson is not on our radar. I’d dare say for many white evangelicals, today is just another day. The real scandal would be if some prominent evangelical wrote a pro-LGBTQ book, for instance. The Gospel is tamed, reduced, narrowed. It becomes a balm for guilt-ridden souls who crave 140-character tweets reminding us that we’re accepted, but it hardly seems applicable to what is happening in Ferguson. And, after all, isn’t what is happening there really just about some angry black folks who’ve, once again, made a much bigger deal out of something that clearly was the result of a young black man’s aggression against a police officer?
We don’t get it, friends. And we can’t, and won’t, until we walk a hundred miles in the shoes of someone very different than us or until our friendships reflect the diversity of society. Statistics show, in fact, that we have the least diverse social network – 91% white, and only one-percent black. We naively think that changes in voting rights some forty years ago solved the problem of race. And as Christians, we become incensed at a Facebook dialogue about abortion or homosexuality, but hardly understand the fury of young black men and women in the streets last night who feel so powerless that throwing stones and burning things provide some outlet, albeit a tragic one, for a voice. As MLK Jr said, “A riot is the language of the unheard.” But we’ll say, “You see…they are so angry. Why do they always have to make it about race?” I’ve heard this so much that my stomach turns and I’ve finally begun calling people out.
This leads me to the important point that Ferguson is a Gospel issue. Yes, it’s a justice issue and a race issue. But it’s a Gospel issue. Now, if you have a tamed and domesticated Gospel tuned into your particular moral litmus test issues, you won’t see this. But St. Paul did. For St. Paul, the core of the Gospel was about reconciliation – God and sinner, Jew and Greek, male and female, slave and free (Gal. 3:28). This was the necessary implication of justification by faith alone. Justification was never simply a get out of jail free card, an individualistic guilt-appeasement balm. Justification opens the gates to freedom, to reconciliation, to wholeness inside and out. It puts into contact with the outsider, the person who’ll make us feel uncomfortable, the different – a sexual, racial, and geographic outsider (Acts 8), for example. It puts us into contact these cut-off parts of ourselves. It levels the playing field; the powerful are brought down and the powerless are brought up. And the Gospel invitation, particularly for those of us with privilege, is to go down willingly, to be crucified with Christ, to be the ptochos – impoverished, broken, brought to the end of ourselves, dying like that grain of wheat that must fall to the ground to bear fruit. All for the sake of the other. We must go, as hard as it is, first to listen. We must just begin with listening, though our souls have become so attuned to the endless political chatter and certitude of the Hannity’s and Maddow’s.
Jesus would have been in Ferguson last night. He wouldn’t have paid a whole lot of attention to a decision on the indictment. He knows better than any of us how “facts” can be aligned with whatever narrative is preferred. He wouldn’t have been wearing a hat or t-shirt for a particular side. No, I think Jesus would have been there standing alongside the family of Michael Brown, holding them, crying with them. I think Jesus would sit with Officer Wilson, naming the fear and anxiety and anger he was feeling, and reminding him that his yoke is easy and his burden is light. I think he’d be with young men and women who went to bed confused and ashamed that they had participated in violence, looted stores, and started fires. He’d say, “I get it. I see the anger. I’m not going anywhere. Let’s talk.”
Jesus crosses the barriers. His Gospel is not domesticated, it is invasive, courageous, pursuing. God became man, crossing the ultimate barrier, crossing into death, going down, going further than I’d ever want to go. But we need to, now, with courage.
Far more hinges on how we meet one another from here on out than on an indictment in Ferguson, MO. Until my white (mostly evangelical) brothers and sisters are as impassioned by this as they are the next Rob Bell book, I don’t see much changing. And when I say that, I’m not saying that you need to get behind an indictment but get behind your black brothers and sisters, to get into their worlds, their realities, their sufferings. I’m saying we need to ask questions, to listen, to exercise holy curiosity. I’m saying that we might have blindspots, might not see so clearly. I’m saying that we really just don’t get it, at a fundamental level, and must make ourselves available for metanoia. I’m saying that we need to knock on a black neighbor’s door and say, “I’m sorry I’ve never come by. I’m confused by everything that is going on, and I wonder if I’m missing something. I need your help” We are addicts of privilege and power, and it’s time we acknowledge that we need help.
If we can be fueled by the same passion that led Jesus to cross the ultimate barrier and St. Paul to leave the nest of Jerusalem and cross barriers that left him imprisoned and reviled and ultimately murdered himself, perhaps then we will see the Good News through Isaiah’s eyes:
Then justice will dwell in the wilderness,
and righteousness abide in the fruitful field.
17 The effect of righteousness will be peace,
and the result of righteousness, quietness and trust forever.
18 My people will abide in a peaceful habitation,
in secure dwellings, and in quiet resting places. (Isa. 32)
I pray for peaceful habitation, for quiet and secure dwellings in Ferguson today.