It might be helpful to begin this musing with a disclaimer of sorts: I am a man of African descent living in the United States of America. I am the great-great-grandson of slaves. I have lived 28 years, 4 months, 2 days as a Black man, but it is only in recent years that I have come to a fuller understanding of what that means. Both in my undergraduate studies (at Johnson C. Smith University) and as a graduate/seminary student (at the Interdenominational Theological Center), I was given the gift of an education that didn’t treat “Black Studies” as a separate, fetishized, or exotic disciple only undertaken by those who wanted to be “down with the struggle” – “Black Studies” or “African American Studies” was a part of the general curriculum. My educational journey helped me to own my place in American dialogue, society, and politics, not as a side-show or a guest, but as one who was owed a seat at the table. And if there was no room for me at the table, well, Jesus gives us a great example of what to do with tables…
My disclaimer is done.
Now onto why I really chose to write this musing about recent events in Ferguson as refracted through some conversations that I have had and some experiences that I undertook.
I won’t go into the details of the slaying of Michael Brown by Ferguson Police Officer Darren Wilson (anyone who doesn’t know what I am referring to should, post-haste, minimize this screen, open a new window and go to http://www.google.com and type in “Ferguson”), but I will share my reaction and my response.
Upon hearing that yet another African American man had been killed by a police officer (this coming on the heels of Eric Garner in New York and John Crawford in Ohio in the weeks immediately prior to this event) I became immediately incensed (to say the least). As the events unfolded in the following hours and days, my anger only seemed to grow. To be clear, there is always a “minimal level of anger” that I have learned to operate with as a conscious, Black man in America. James Baldwin, writer and activist, once said “To be Black and conscious is America is to be in a constant state of rage.” Although it is a caricature and a stereotype, there is some validity to the “Angry Black Wo/Man” that is so often portrayed in the media. Any culture that is repeatedly on the oppressive end of a system of injustice – seeing its children neglected, its men and woman brutalized, its elders disrespected – has two options: apathy or rage. Many in the Black community have chosen (or been pushed) into a state of unconscious apathy either by being placated by the “American Dream,” addicted to drugs and alcohol, or through popular religion (too often a form of Christianity) that serves only to subdue the people instead of lifting them up. These are coping mechanisms for what is “Post Traumatic Stress Disorder” that many African Americans function with every, single day.
The other option is rage – Black Rage.
Conscious African Americans are in a constant state of rage against a system whose very foundation was constructed to keep them oppressed and has only recently been retrofitted to allow for some semblance of “liberation.” There is a constant rage and distrust against policies that incarcerate Black men and woman at a disproportionate amount, continually mis- and under-educate our children, deny our voices the right to be heard, and block access to the table of American community all the while demanding that we “wait” for a fuller expression of liberty and justice. In his iconic “Letter from Birmingham Jail” (the reading of which I would commend to every American citizen who wants to be “down with the struggle”), Dr. Martin Luther King writes that “justice too long delayed is justice denied.” There are many whose societal position give them the ability to “wait,” and then there are some for which the idea of having to “wait” is merely a copout or escape from doing the work the justice requires of each of us.
It must be stated clearly that Black Rage is not anti-American. Black Rage is actually a full expression of American ideology, the freedom and courage to express one’s beliefs and perspectives in order to root out tyranny in favor of liberty. Dr. Martin Luther King, arguably the greatest American, once said “I criticize America because I love her. I want her to stand as a moral example to the world.” Black Rage is a criticism of an America that is too often threatened by and thus victimizes, oppresses, subjugates, and demonizes Black and Brown bodies. Black Rage points out the disconnect between the “Star Spangled Banner” and the blood-stained streets, or empty classrooms and full prisons. Black Rage is the only other option that many Black folk have when scenes like Ferguson, Missouri appear on social media or in the news.
Rage, anger, malcontentment are necessarily “bad” emotions – they shake us from our illusion of safety and move us towards an awareness that we may be in the deepest of dangers. Henri Nouwen suggests that moving beyond the illusion of safety is germane to Christianity. He writes, “[‘leaving the safe place’]… is an act of discipleship in which we follow the hard road of Christ, who entered death with nothing by bare hope.” Black Rage through a Christian lens seeks to use the wounds of a resilient people that have “tread through the blood of the slaughtered” to heal a very broken America.
So last weekend I channeled my Black Rage into a project (with the help of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, St. Anne’s Episcopal Church, St. Michael’s Episcopal Church, and my own parish, St. Andrew’s Andrew’s Episcopal Church) to bring backpacks to school children in Ferguson who were affected by the school closures that accompanied the violence in Ferguson. In all 135 backpacks, food and school supplies were donated by the kind people of West Missouri to St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church in Ferguson where they would be distributed to the children who need them. Having the opportunity to talk to people living in “ground zero” of this conflict helped illuminate the severity of this situation. It became very real to me that the justice that “Black Rage” seeks cannot be brought about by unjust means. Dr. King suggests that the practice of nonviolent direct action attacks evil itself, not merely those who do evil acts. It is founded on the premise that the “moral arc of the universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” Ultimately, nonviolence doesn’t seek punitive justice or “to humiliate or defeat the opponent but to win his friendship and understanding.” Nonviolence is, at its root, about reconciliation.
If Black Rage is to be more than just a momentary, cathartic release of frustration and anger, it too must be about reconciliation rooted in love. Howard Thurman suggests that the love of the enemy is paramount to the ministry and message of Jesus and the religion founded in his name. He says,
Is my enemy God’s child? If he is, I must work upon myself until I am willing to bring him back into the family. Does God love him? It doesn’t help me any to say, I am not God. That would be convenient but irrelevant. If God loves him, that binds me. Can it be that God does not know how terrible he is? No, God knows him as well as he knows himself and much better than I know him. It must be true, then, that there is something in every man that remains intact, inviolate, regardless of what he does… If a man is of infinite worth in the sight of God, whether he is saint or sinner, whether he is a good man or a bad man, evil or not, if that is true, then I am never relieved of my responsibility for trying to make contact with this worthy thing in him. I must love him because God causes the sun to shine upon him as well as upon me.
A lot of the rhetoric that I’ve seen around the Ferguson incident is more divisive then reconciliatory. It seems to be more interested in punishment and retribution than reconciliation and restoration. As much as I am tempted to play the “eye-for-an-eye” game, I am reminded that such talk is not Christian. My conscious Christian nature rages against division, and I must fight for togetherness. Though Michael Brown and Darren Wilson have been taken on as icons of two communities in opposition to one another, both are of equal, infinite value in the eyes of God. Both Michael and Darren represent members of human family and are each worth God’s all. Michael now is beyond the pale death, but for Darren, there is a part of me that must see that “worthiness” in him. I cannot seek “vengeance” for Michael Brown, as vengeance belongs to God; instead, I must do the interior work of destroying the “enemy status” and move my heart towards reconciliation. I, like the Jesus and the Roman Centurion who sought his aid, must undo the boundaries and the limitations that prevent community and move my heart towards the Reign of God which is Creation as it was meant to be – together, healed, and whole.
That’s what the backpacks were for me – an opportunity to inject something positive (albeit small) into a conversation swirling with negativity and divisiveness, an opportunity to raise up worthiness and affirm what I wanted to see instead of merely railing against the negative, an opportunity to love.
Keep the faith, and make it COLORFUL!