More than three minutes

Resistance and grace in Ferguson

Aug 28, 2014 by

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Put on the whole armor of God, that ye may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil. For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places. — Eph. 6.11-12

I wrote a post encouraging White America, especially White Christian America, to carry the cross of sympathy for Black rage as it was being expressed on the streets of Ferguson. But as police officer Darren Wilson faces a grand jury inquiry the question arises: What should be the Christian response to officer Wilson?

I want to be clear, it is not my place to forgive Darren Wilson or to demand forgiveness from others in the name of Jesus Christ. What I want to do is to show again how I think that analysis can help us think through the thorny issues regarding the relationship between grace and resistance.

Our tendency is to narrowly and tightly focus on the moral narrative regarding the altercation between Michael Brown and Darren Wilson. What happened? Who was at fault? Who is to blame?

I suggested that this is a mistake. It’s a mistake for a couple of different reasons. For example, it’s unrealistic to demand victims to be wholly innocent before we’ll treat their victimhood as worthy of respect and attention. As believers in universal if not original sin, Christians should get that. You don’t make innocence a prerequisite for compassion. Otherwise compassion would cease to exist.

But the main reason it is a mistake to focus narrowly on sorting out the blame in the altercation between Darren and Michael is that it creates a causally closed narrative, a tightly bounded moral drama that played out between two people, and only two people, on the streets of Ferguson.

But this story cannot be reduced to what happened between 12:01 p.m. and 12:04 p.m. on Aug. 9.

This is about more than those three minutes.

To be sure, what transpired during those fateful three minutes is extraordinarily important to the U.S. government, Darren Wilson and Michael Brown’s family. Sorting out what happened during those three minutes will be the preoccupation of the grand jury and the court trial should one follow. And Christians should be interested in the justice of how all that plays out.

But a Christian focus should be broader than how the U.S. legal system adjudicates those three minutes. As I stated in the comments to my prior post, in regards to racial reconciliation and justice the innocence or culpability of Michael Brown in what happened between 12:01 p.m. and 12:04 p.m. on August 9 is largely irrelevant. If, for example, it is determined by a jury that Michael attacked Darren in his police car, tried to take his gun, and later tried to rush him, does any of that undermine the validity of the rage among the Black citizens of Ferguson? I contend it does not.

The rage on the streets of Ferguson is historical and systemic in both nature and origin. The rage in Ferguson is not rooted in the innocence or culpability of Michael Brown. And yet, that focus on Michael Brown will be the temptation of White America. Because if we 1) reduce the story to those three minutes and 2) find enough evidence of moral culpability then the narrative causally closes, the moral loose ends are neatly tied up and the status quo can remain intact.

In short, Christians must resist the temptation to reduce the racial issues in Ferguson and the U.S. to the moral drama of those three minutes. We must, rather, consider how those three minutes are historically and systemically embedded in structures of oppression and injustice. Our view must be wider.

In theological language, the moral story of Ferguson isn’t about “flesh and blood.” The moral story is about more than those three minutes. The moral story isn’t about the relative guilt or innocence of Michael Brown and Darren Wilson. The moral story is about historical and systemic oppression and injustice, about the “principalities and powers” and “spiritual wickedness in high places.”

And if the moral frame of Christian resistance regarding the principalities and powers shifts attention away from the culpability of Michael Brown it does the same for Darren Wilson.

To be sure, for Michael Brown and his family focusing on and determining the culpability of Darren Wilson during those three minutes is extraordinarily important. As it is for the U.S. government.

But again, for Christians the frame is wider, which shifts the focus away from the guilt or innocence of Darren Wilson. And it’s from within this wider frame where we can find resources for both grace and resistance.

As for resistance, if the guiltiness or innocence of Michael Brown does not allow us to sidestep the burden of resistance neither does the guiltiness or innocence of Darren Wilson.

Because that will be a temptation. Again, if Darren Wilson is “innocent” many will feel safe to move on. And if Darren Wilson is is found “guilty” many will feel safe to blame him and judge him as a sinner. The shooting of Michael Brown would have been caused by one individual’s moral failure, a lapse in virtue and piety. A mistake. Or the product of a “bad person.”

Which means the guilt of Darren Wilson gets the system and our history off the hook. Guilt can be reduced to an individual, reduced to those three minutes.

Darren Wilson can become the scapegoat for the system.

And that’s the point we need to focus on.

The system wants us to scapegoat Michael Brown or Darren Wilson.

The system wants us to keep our focus on those three minutes and only those three minutes. Either Michael or Darren are to blame. So let’s blame them. One or both of them. Let’s let them carry, for three minutes, the sin and guilt of us all.

But resistance isn’t scapegoating. Resistance isn’t fetishizing over the guilt or innocence of Michael and Darren. Resistance isn’t a battle against the flesh and blood of Michael Brown or Darren Wilson.

Resistance is about the principalities and powers, the on-going fight against systemic and historical forces of oppression and injustice.

And perhaps surprisingly, by focusing our resistance upon the principalities and powers, we can find resources for grace. In resisting the principalities and powers we can find grace for flesh and blood, grace for both Michael and Darren.

Maybe Michael did punch Darren and try to attack him. Wouldn’t I, if I carried the legacy of young black men in America, have done the same?

And maybe Darren shot a youth in the head as he raised his hands and said “I don’t have a gun. Stop shooting!” But am I not, as a white American, complicit in the systemic and historical sins that led up to that moment and which fueled the subsequent resentment and rage?

And if I can come to see myself in both Michael and Darren, then perhaps I can come to see how grace for flesh and blood can emerge alongside and from within rage and resistance.

Again, it is not my place to forgive Darren Wilson if he is found guilty. But I will not blame him. Nor will I blame Michael Brown should Darren Wilson’s actions be deemed justified.

I will not scapegoat either of them. I will not blame either of them.

But I will blame us. I will blame us for historical and systemic injustice and oppression.

This is about more than three minutes.

Our battle is not against flesh and blood. It is against the principalities and powers, against spiritual forces of wickedness in high places.

And in that battle, I pray, we can embrace both resistance and grace.

Richard Beck is professor and department chair of psychology at Abilene Christian University. He is the author of Unclean: Meditations on Purity, Hospitality and MortalityRichard’s area of interest — be it research, writing or blogging — is on the interface of Christian theology and psychology, with a particular focus on how existential issues affect Christian belief and practice. Richard’s published research covers topics as diverse as the psychology of profanity to why Christian bookstore art is so bad. He blogs at Experimental Theology, where this post originally appeared.

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