It is one of our nation’s most endearing qualities that when disaster strikes, we reach out to help. We pray. We go. We provide shelter, food and care. We rebuild. Then we construct safeguards as best we can to protect against future damage.
Ferguson has become a hurricane of the heart, battering the soul of our nation, calling into question the best that we believe about ourselves. I have asked myself if there is anything more to say. So much has already poured from our national psyche about this cataclysm of our collective spirit.
In these reflections I cannot hope to speak on behalf of our entire university community. Indiana Wesleyan University is made up of almost 18,000 students, staff and faculty. It would be presumptuous of me to try to speak for all of us.
But I do want to publicly acknowledge the tragedy that has befallen us. I want to try to point to some of what I believe are our community’s best sentiments.
Ferguson has reminded us that racism is an evil that continues to tear apart the tapestry of our national life. The sins of racial suspicion and animosity are not behind us. They are beside us. They are within us. We can redeem this moment by submitting ourselves anew to the Lordship of Jesus Christ, to seek the healing of our confused, broken, angry hearts. We reaffirm our hope for redemption and reconciliation even in the moment when this hope seems most elusive.
Grief is an appropriate response to the tragedy played out in the heartland of our nation. We will never fully know exactly what happened. We may differ on what the facts mean. But it seems to me that a Gospel-shaped heart starts with the one incontrovertible fact in this case – in a few fateful moments an 18-year-old man lost his life in a needless, senseless, brutal way, and the life of a public servant was forever changed. How can we not grieve for the family of Michael Brown? How can we not feel compassion for the thousands of public servants who put their lives in danger each day?
I find myself grieving for our African-American neighbors, for whom this violence is deeply personal, throwing into stark relief an abiding sense of vulnerability and injustice.
I find myself grieving for our nation, that we are still caught so firmly in this seemingly endless web of sin and tragedy.
Perhaps this is a moment for us to seek the hard lessons of grief.
Hope may seem far away in these moments of confusion, grief and anger. But hope is our legacy in Christ. Hope is our inheritance, purchased by the blood of Christ for every child of God.
I am reminded of five Gospel-shaped principles that Brenda Salter McNeil and Rick Richardson articulate in their book, The Heart of Racial Justice. I ask their indulgence if I have slightly recast their thoughts in light of today’s challenge. (Quoted and slightly revised from a review by John Ed Robertson.)
(1) Understanding, justice and reconciliation “are above all the work of God and happen best in the presence and power of God.”
(2) Understanding, justice and reconciliation “with others are based on having a healthy sense of our own identity.”
(3) Understanding, justice and reconciliation are “above all rooted in the work of Christ on the cross.”
(4) Understanding, justice, and reconciliation require us to “realize that there have been destructive forces at work in our common life,” and that some of our neighbors bear the brunt of those forces more than others.
(5) Understanding, justice and reconciliation require us to “individually and corporately embrace [the hope of] becoming a new creation.”
First, healing for Ferguson must come from within, and be lived out, in Ferguson. Outsiders can help by praying, encouraging and holding each other accountable. But the people of Ferguson will have to find the wherewithal to begin anew, to admit their faults, to seek forgiveness and then to work together to recreate the fabric of their community. Our prayers for them, comments about them and contributions to them must be aimed to empower and encourage them for this work.
Second, if we believe that almost any one of our communities could become a Ferguson under the right conditions, we must work in our own communities to name and tear down the strongholds of sin among us. We must be with each other, truly listening to each other, caring for one another, challenging one another. We must build the relationships of trust and mutual respect that will not allow either personal sin or systemic injustice to go unchallenged among us. We must imagine what it means for our community to be a new creation, and then work under the Holy Spirit’s guidance to become that new creation.
Third, as hard as it may be, our various communities must open ourselves to the work of “understanding something of the powers that shape [our] wounded history.” (Russ Parker) For white communities this will mean truly hearing stories of how our innocent, upstanding, godly neighbors have been subjected to indignities and injustices simply because of their race. It will mean working together to see that these things stop. Other communities must also ask God to guide them as they honestly address the expressions of sin in their communities. We must do this work together, to give each other Gospel-inspired courage for a better future.
Each of us will find ways to respond in hope of a new creation. Meanwhile we pray for the healing of our land.
Lord, come and heal our land.
Let there be light in our darkened, soulless cities;
Let there be green in our wasted, industrial sites;
Let there be letting go of our wrangled, unhealed memories;
Let there be gardens in the ghettos of our church’s story;
Let there be loving for the soil from which we came;
Let there be a neighbor in me for the nations of the world;
Lord, come and heal our land. (Russ Parker)