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Seeing Jesus through the Tear Gas Smoke

We haven’t been able to think about anything else recently. The images of unarmed protesters in Ferguson facing down cops in riot gear through a haze of tear gas are on loop in our brains. If you’ve been watching the news at all, you know some version of the story: an unarmed 18-year-old African American named Michael Brown was shot by a police officer while he was walking home. The circumstances of the shooting are disputed. Riots and looting ensued and heavily militarized cops rolled in.

In this interview from the Reformed African American Network, the interviewer asks a Reformed pastor in Ferguson: “Why are African Americans so upset?” Her answer? African-American lives are consistently devalued. African Americans in Ferguson feel betrayed by the police, the very people who are supposed to protect them. They’re tired of seeing the same story play itself out over and over again:

Michael Brown

Renisha McBride

Trayvon Martin

Ezell Ford

John Crawford

Eric Garner

And so many more.

As we watch racialized lives be devalued in Ferguson, we're also hearing in Canada about another Indigenous woman who's been murdered. Her name is Tina Fontaine and she was fifteen years old. That makes 1,182 unsolved cases of missing and murdered Indigenous women in Canada since 1980. Imagine how long that list would be if we wrote it out. There have been nationwide calls for an inquiry, but nothing has materialized. If the Church has nothing real to say about these situations, if my friend and colleague Shannon Perez has to worry every time her mom comes home late that she won't come home at all and the Church stays silent or mouths platitudes, what kind of Church are we?

This reminds me of something that my friend Mike is always saying: "Reconciliation with indigenous peoples is about the integrity of the church." If Christians aren't applying the Gospel to situations that create marginalization and oppression in our backyards, then the Gospel isn't being lived. Period.

As Pastor Thabiti Anyabwile writes, “You want diversity in your membership roles? How about forgetting your membership statistics and further diversifying the picket lines and protests thronged by the disenfranchised in their just fights? We don’t want to be your statistics—whether wrongful death statistics or church membership statistics. We want a living, breathing, risk-taking brotherhood in the Gospel lived out where it matters. Until evangelicalism can muster that kind of courage and abandon its privileged, “objective,” distant calls for calm and “gospel”-this or “gospel”-that, it proves itself entirely inadequate for a people who need to see Jesus through the tear gas smoke of injustice.”

What’s interesting about all this is that we’re only talking about two ethnic groups in Ferguson. If we start digging just little more - no need to go much deeper - think about all the 57,000 children who are crossing the USA's southern border. They left their homes, their families, the environment that’s familiar to them, all to perhaps gain the possibility of a better future. Would you want to leave your country, the place you were born, the place you’ve known since you were a kid, the place where your entire family lives, where you went to school, where your friends live, the place where nobody looks at you like you have speech problems when you speak your language, the place that it’s so familiar to you? People don’t give all that up lightly. At the beginning of “white” history on this land, when this land called North America was called The Turtle Island, immigrants came here to obtain something better not just for themselves, but for their children. But our devaluing of their lives keeps us from seeing these children at the border in the same light as we see whoever in our family first landed on these shores.

The church should have a voice against these systemic forms of racism, not a passive one, but one that is active and loud enough that everybody can hear. The church is called to go against the current, to speak and be justice where there’s injustice. Why the church is so afraid to do that? Have we forgotten its purpose and reason? Jesus was rejected, criticized, and even murdered because he pointed the finger where it hurts.

Words have their place. Here we are, writing words. Words can change attitudes, bring awareness, start conversations, change conversations. We believe words have power. But how are we standing with our racialized sisters and brothers in the places of their pain? How are we putting ourselves on the line? If we aren't putting ourselves on the line, perhaps it's the integrity of the Church that's on the line. 

There are vigils happening across the USA for the situation in Ferguson. North of the border, the Native Women’s Association of Canada holds vigils across Canada every October 4 to draw attention to missing and murdered Indigenous women. Maybe that’s a start.

We are comfortable, Lord. Afflict us.

[Image: Flickr user Thomas Hawk]


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