Michael Brown’s killing this week, and it’s aftermath, is a reminder of the fragile state, the fractured state, of our cities race relations. It is a tragedy with no final explanation, but one that calls for ongoing understanding.
Karl Marx said very little that is uncontested or uncontroversial, but this I find inarguable: “men make their own history, but not under circumstances of their own choosing.” For example, Cecelia and I are doing our best to make decent financial decisions, and yet we occasionally wonder why God did not give us richer parents!
We rightly stress the former, which is to say the free choice and moral responsibility that God has given us, and yet we too often underestimate the sheer shaping power of our historical context. And at times we condemn others based on their choices, and we let ourselves off the hook because of “circumstance beyond our control.” The truth is sometimes circumstances do have great power to determine our destiny by forcing our choices. As the Facebook saying goes, if all it took was hard work to earn a million dollars every woman in Africa would be rich.
Last week I was at a meeting of the black “Progressive National Baptist Convention.” There I heard Tracy Martin, the father of Trayvon Martin speak. Like many parents who have lost a child, he’s trying to make something positive come from the tragedy of his son’s untimely death. He’s created a foundation that is attempting to tackle some of the issues of black youth. It was a moving talk, for it was a perfect illustration of Marx’s point. Trayvon was just a kid in a hoodie, living under negative circumstances dating back centuries. The great civil rights leaders Otis Moss Jr. was there and described the “Stand Your Ground Laws” as contemporary lynching.
The violence in Ferguson this week is easy to condemn. It is unproductive and evil, in that innocent bystanders are always hurt in this kind of protest. It hurts the cause of the protestors more than it helps. However, that being understood, it is essential that we who’ve been born in privileged historical circumstances (even with our “middle class” parents, Cecelia and I know we are very privileged) understand that while the violence is never justified, the anger is. Try for a moment to imagine living in this circumstance:
Black Missourians were 66 percent more likely in 2013 to be stopped by police, and blacks and Hispanics were both more likely to be searched, even though the likelihood of finding contraband was higher among whites.
Imagine living in neighborhoods with few decent jobs where the Payday loan industry is allowed to run rampant charging triple digit interest.
Imagine living in a country where private prisons lobby for stricter laws, to put even more young black males in jail for minor violations created by lawmakers sometimes paid off by the industry. There are now 5 times as many Americans in prison as there were in 1980! And, as we know, a disproportionate number of those are black.
There are 3,278 human beings serving life sentences without parole, for nonviolent crimes, and 65 percent of them are black.
As the Post-Dispatch reported, in Ferguson, the city where Michael Brown died, the police in 2013 pulled over blacks at a 37 percent higher rate than whites compared to their relative populations. Black drivers were twice as likely to be searched and twice as likely to be arrested compared to white drivers.
None of these circumstances, or many others I could elucidate, excuses violence. Nor do they explain away a life of bad decisions. However they do present compassionate people a reality which empowers our understanding. Amy Davidson of the New Yorker said it succinctly: “It is clear that the community’s trust was broken before any windows were.” That is a historical circumstance of many causal factors.
It is essential that we, who seek to follow the Jesus who crossed all racial and cultural boundaries to extend healing and compassion, do the same. Following the command to “do unto others” means seeking understanding of what we’d want in the other’s circumstance. This is part of the reason I’m such a fan of the New Baptist Covenant. It is an attempt to get racially distinct churches working together on projects. We can do more together and we need to know each other.
It is only with relationships and understanding that we will can get past these kind of dichotomies, expressed by Aisha Sultan of the Post-Dispatch: “For those who have been on the receiving end of disrespect, mistrust, suspicion or brutality, the impulse is to believe Brown was brutally gunned down. For those who are fearful anytime they cross into the city limits, most likely only for a sporting event, the young man must have done something to “deserve” his fate. These perspectives largely fall along racial lines.”
A few lines of William Butler Yeats poem “The Second Coming” (written about the first War) seem appropriate. May the gospel empower the best to have conviction and the worst to let go of inappropriate intensity:
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.