On August 9, 2014, Michael Brown, an 18-year-old black male, was fatally shot by Darren Wilson, a 28-year-old white police officer, in Ferguson, Missouri, United States, a suburb of St. Louis. The circumstances under which he was shot are disputed. One side says the teenager was surrendering, his hands in the air to show he was unarmed, when the officer opened fire. Authorities counter that Brown attacked the officer in his car and tried to take his gun. The Attorney General of the United States is undertaking an independent investigation to find out what exactly took place. We also know that in Clayton, Missouri—a suburb in the west of Saint Louis—a local grand jury was convened with the very same aim, to try to determine exactly what happened.
In response to this event there has been a backlash in terms of controversy, cries of racism, and then moral protest that led to over 10 days of riots. Although the facts of the incident are not settled one thing remains: an 18 year old unarmed African American teenager was shot 6 times, twice in the head and four times in the forearm.
In reaction to this event I have seen two extremes that I think must be avoided. Some people are speaking too much. Some people point to a video of Brown stealing some cigars before the shooting as to imply that he deserves being killed for being a thief and the officer was justified in shooting him. There are others who quickly conclude that this was a hate crime because of the skin color of Darren Wilson and Michael Brown. Therefore, we need to be careful not to rush to any judgment before declaring the officer “guilty” or “not guilty” and let our justice system do its job. As President Obama said recently, “I have to be very careful about not prejudging these events before investigations are completed. I’ve got to make sure I don’t look like I’m putting my thumb on the scales one way or the other.”
The other extreme is that some people are not speaking enough. What I mean is that there seems to be a deafening silence to this event, especially from the Church. This is a golden opportunity for Christians, from all ethnicities, to come together and minister to those who are hurting in Ferguson. And the reason for this silence may be that people want to know all the “facts” before they show any empathy. As if people are only deserving of your empathy once you agree with the facts. As Christians, we are called to be empathetic with those who are hurting. Loving our neighbor as ourselves includes empathy, and in this case, that means we need to speak up and empathize with those in the African American community who are outraged at what they see as racial injustice.
Before you respond by saying too much or too little, I want you to feel the weight of this event from an African-American perspective. I am not an African-American so I can’t feel the full weight of what it must be like to hear about Michael Brown’s shooting. However, I think I can feel the some weight. The reason why is because my nephew (cousin’s son) is half-Korean and half-African American. My cousin took care of me growing up and she is a mother figure in my life. Therefore, I am very sensitive about how my nephew may be wrongly perceived because of the color of his skin.
If I replace Michael Brown with my nephew, then I could begin to feel the outrage the African-American community is feeling. Imagine that your ancestors had to suffer as slaves. Imagine that your parents had to go through a time where they couldn’t drink from the same fountain as others, could not go to school with others, and could not even sit in any place in the bus. Imagine that your friends are constantly labeled as “thugs” and “gangsters” because they live in a lower socio-economic area. Imagine seeing people you know being wrongfully beaten or killed without cause. Imagine having to watch the news and hearing people blame people like you for the crime in society. And once you have processed all of that, once you have fully swallowed this pill, then imagine if your nephew was shot 6 times because he was perceived as being “violent,” even though he was unarmed. How would you react? Now can you understand why the citizens of Ferguson are protesting so fervently? Let us first stop and feel before we jump to the facts. Yes, facts are very important but sometimes it is more important to feel what people are going through before we tell them how they should respond. Let us stop and feel with our African-American friends before we tell them to “get over it” or to stop “pulling out the race card.” Stop and feel what it would be like to go through what they have gone through and then speak to them in love.
This highlights the importance of diversity in the body of Christ. Until Christians rub shoulders with people from other ethnic groups and until we stop being so segregated in our churches, we will never be able to feel the pain of others. In order for the Church to respond to the injustices that the different ethnic groups in the world are experiencing, we need to start viewing them as our family. We need to start viewing them the way we would view our brothers, sisters, mothers, fathers, and even nephews. Because that is exactly what the Church is called to do. The blood of Christ is too important to categorize and separate people by the color of their skin. It is too important to view an ethnic group without any compassion or empathy. It is too important to stay silent while others are hurting around you. Jesus died so that the Church can be united and that begins by feeling the pain that our brothers and sisters in Christ are feeling, regardless of their skin color.