Aug 222014 0 Responses

10 Reflections on Ferguson from a Pastor of White Cops and Black Men

I’m a pastor. While the church I pastor is not as diverse as I want it be, it is diverse enough that I often feel tension.

I pastor:

  • landlords and tenants
  • employees and employers
  • coaches and parents
  • defendants and prosecutors
  • company leaders and union members

On most days, these divisions are not a problem. All people suffer from common problems which simplifies the role of the pastorate.

But on occasion a situation or story highlights the divisions. When a white cop shoots a black man and the circumstances are mostly unknown, the tension rises. Some think it is an isolated circumstance and time should be given so the facts can be known. Others feel it speaks into a longer history and if attention isn’t given a cover-up could occur.

Both assume their pastor’s support.

And I want to support both. I want to hug the grieving parents while consoling the shaken officer. I want to march beside those crying for justice while standing beside those trying to keep the peace. I want to speak against institutionalized racism while looking at each situation in a case by case scenario.

I want to pastor the whole church, and often that is easy, but on occasion it is not.

If you love one, another might feel slighted.

If you raise one point, another might take it out of context.

If you try to support both, neither may end up feeling supported.

In light of the death of another young black man, an accused cop, a city in chaos, and a nation in debate, here are 10 reflections:

1. Most cops are good; a few are not.

Most police officers are tremendous civil servants who risk their lives to protect all people. They sacrifice; their families sacrifice; and their jobs are nearly impossible.

A few officers have the wrong motives. They are arrogant, power hungry, and sometimes evil. They abuse their power and cause others to suffer.

But because a few officers are bad, we cannot assume all officers are bad. Do not let the few define the many.

When a shooting occurs we know one of three options is possible:

  • A bad cop may have made a bad decision
  • A good cop may have made a mistake
  • A good cop may be getting a bad rap.

Know all three are possible and be slow in determining which one is the case until all the facts are known.

2. Most black men are good; a few are not.

Most black men are great men. They love their wives, their kids, and their lives. They serve our country, our communities, and our churches.

A few black men are not good men. They make bad choices, commit crimes, and cause destruction.

But because a few black men are bad, we cannot assume all black men are bad. Do not let the few define the many.

When a shooting occurs, we know one of three options is possible:

  • A good man was mistaken for a bad man
  • A good man made a bad choice
  • A bad man made a bad choice.

When a shooting happens, know all three are possible and be slow in determining which one is the case until all the facts are known.

3. We never know the whole story and we always interpret what we know through our past experiences.

We never have all the facts. Because of this, we always have to interpret the limited information we have. And we always interpret the information we have through our past experiences and understandings. This creates blind spots of which we are not aware. As Donald Rumsfeld famously said, “there are some things we don’t know we don’t know.” (See: What If Trayvon Martin Was My Son?)

At minimum we should realize this reality. But beyond realization, we should seek to learn from others in order to broaden our perspectives. We don’t know it all and others who see something differently than we do are not necessarily wrong. Listen and learn.

4. A history of institutionalized racism does not make current members of an institution racist.

Our country has a long history of racism. Things have not been equal and things are not equal. While we have made great progress in many areas, equal opportunity is not available for all. While racism has declined among individuals, it is still prevalent in our systems. There is no other way to explain high rates of crime, imprisonment, and death among certain races. (See: Avoid This Corner at All Costs)

While many institutions still have racist tendencies, that does not mean current members or leaders of those institutions are racist. Our government has a history of racism, but that does not mean our current governmental officials are racist. Individual communities have had a reputation of racism, but that does not mean current residents in those towns are racist.

5. Sadly, tension gets attention.

In the past, I’ve never understood why people risk their lives protesting after an event especially when outsiders use the protests as an excuse for violence. My first reaction to the Ferguson protests was, “Stop it. We don’t have enough facts to form any opinions yet.” But then I heard church leaders in Ferguson discussing their past experiences of when it has felt as though justice hasn’t always occurred. At times, they believed those in power covered-up the wrong actions of a few people. (See: Don’t Seek Conflict, But Do Embrace It)

They spoke of their need for attention on a situation so that transparency could lead to greater justice. They believe the situation needs attention, but sadly in our culture only tension gets attention. Large crowds of protest draw media coverage. Without the protests, no coverage.

Of course, media coverage also draws outsiders with other agendas. Notice how few local protestors have been arrested in Ferguson. It is primarily outsiders exploiting the situation who are causing the violence. There is a difference between someone protesting and someone looting. The two are not the same.

6. I’m scared to talk about race.

I don’t want to talk about race because I’m scared I’ll mess it up. I know I have biases—some I can see and some I can’t.

In titling this article, I called a friend to ask, “Do I say, African-American, Black, or people of color?” He gave his opinion, but then said, “Of course, that’s what I think. Others will disagree.” That scared me. I’m trying to use the right words, but not everyone agrees on what the right words are. If others can’t agree, what chance do I have of getting it right? (See: What a White Man Knows About Racism)

I’m afraid to talk about race, but race needs to be talked about. Things don’t just go away. We can’t pretend like everything is going to be okay. Jesus called us to be peacemakers. Peace is something that is made, not found or received. To make peace, we must talk about difficult issues. We must be willing to make mistakes and ask for forgiveness.

7. We need to stop defending our position.

We are trained to defend what we believe. From the earliest seasons of life, we can defend our favorite sports teams, hometowns, family’s name, and everything else which we believe is ours. Defending things can be a noble activity. (See: Just Because You Can, Doesn’t Mean I Should)

However, in tense times, our position of defense can keep us from learning from others. When they talk, instead of hearing their stories, we can be making our counter-arguments. This might be good for debate, but it is not useful for understanding. What if we simply listened? Without pretense or judgment, what if we found people who are different than us and ask their opinion?

Don’t feel the need to make your opinion known; do feel the need to seek understanding from those who might see life differently than you.

8. We need to learn from others even if we don’t agree with everything they say.

I write a lot. If you read each new post every morning, I can guarantee that you will disagree with something I say. Maybe I’m wrong, maybe you’re wrong, or maybe we just disagree. But that disagreement should not negate everything else I say. Even if I’m wrong about one thing, it doesn’t mean I’m wrong about everything. (See: A Forgotten Sign of Adulthood)

Too often we categorize people into those we fully agree with and those we fully disagree with. Yet who could ever fit either of those categories? The truth is we all agree and disagree about a lot of different issues. When someone emails me about a disagreement, I often remind them, “I don’t even agree with myself half the time.” Of course I disagree with others and they disagree with me.

However, just because I don’t agree with every word someone says or writes, I should not discount everything they say or write. I can still learn from them even if I don’t fully understand their perspective. We often look for a place of disagreement in order to discount an entire person. It is not fair and we should not do it. (See: Jesus, Leadership, and the Courage to Serve)

9. We need to begin with what we have in common and then discuss how we differ.

This is where the church has a unique opportunity during tough times. Because of our unity in understanding our need for forgiveness and mercy, we can begin difficult discussions with what we have in common. We can remind ourselves and one another that we are not that different. As we build on our unity in faith, we can move to the same desires we have for our children, families, communities, and our own individual lives. Then, and only then, should we discuss those things which might divide us. (See: 10 Communication Posts Your Co-Workers Should Read)

Having established common ground puts our differences in context. It reminds us that even though we disagree, we still understand the core hopes and dreams of one another. When we start with disagreement, we are tempted to wonder if the person we are talking to is an alien because for all we know, we have nothing in common with them. However, when we start conversations with common ground, it reminds us that even when we disagree, those disagreements are minor in comparison to what we have in common.

10. This issue has very little to do with Ferguson, a white cop, or a black man.

It has a lot to do with these issues if you live in Ferguson, are a cop, or know the man killed. I don’t mean to diminish the situation. However, the larger national narrative is much more about our country, its past, our future, and how we can achieve the equality we desire. We might disagree on how to get there, but we generally agree on who and what we want to be. (See: This Issue Shames Me More Than Any Other)

That is the issue at play. Too many of the facts are still unknown for this to be a true discussion about one individual event. If there were a video of the situation and it were released, most of the discussion would quiet down. The specifics of the individual case would be known, but the larger issues would still exist.

I don’t know what happened on a street in Ferguson two weeks ago. I do know I pastor many law enforcement officers and every day they risk their lives for my protection. I also know I pastor many black men and they are just like me—trying to love their wives, raise their kids, and contribute to society. This issue has raised a tension, but it’s a tension which needs to be raised. We have come a long way, but we still have a long way to go. We cannot get to where we want unless we are willing to live in the uncomfortable tension and learn about one another.

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