In Solidarity with Grief: A Reply to Ferguson
Behind the smoke and ash, behind the shattered glass, a groan in Ferguson remains. Whether justice was served or injustice actually occurred, the perception of injustice surfaced a real and present pain. On August 9, 2014 protesters erupted after Darren Wilson, a white police officer, shot and killed Michael Brown, a black teenager. Three months later on November 24, a St. Louis County grand jury ruled not to indict Officer Wilson based upon evidence and testimony that Brown forcibly threatened him, causing Wilson to “fear for his life and use lethal force in self-defense.” The verdict set off a wave of angry demonstrations and riots.
Behind those raging fires of night and peaceful protests of day, an invisible grief sustains. Ferguson felt like a Band-Aid yanked. Whatever the true events of that fateful day, the verdict ripped a new bandage off an old wound. Despite forensics, toxicology reports, and countless sworn witnesses, when the 12 member jury determined that Officer Darren Wilson would not face trial, Michael Brown’s family was devastated. They felt that their son’s voice would go unheard and undefended, like he was not even worth a trial. Many within the African American community resonated with the Brown family by proxy. If another black voice was silenced, then many people of color felt invalidated all over again.
Maybe Ferguson is less about an 18-year old that most protesters never knew and more about the deep-seeded, long-standing grief of a community that resonates with his story.
It hurts to feel unheard and under-valued. And real pain demands a voice. Ferguson has spoken out from Manhattan to L.A. through St. Louis, Minneapolis, Atlanta, Las Vegas, Denver, Dallas, Cleveland, Portland, and even London. Grieving hearts have communicated in both constructive and destructive ways. While M.L.K. wouldn’t be too proud of the torched buildings and Molotov cocktails, his words offer a meaningful explanation:
“Riots are the voice of the unheard.”
While “riots are the voice of the unheard,” it has been argued that this isolated case is “not the time” to cry racism. If forensic evidence corroborates the officer’s testimony, then many in the media are arguing that protesters are picking the wrong battleground. While jurors believed this isolated case did not warrant a trial, statistics overall suggest an additional interpretive lens: less than 1% of white officers are charged in the murder of black civilians.
Certainly, officers should receive higher levels of protection considering the dangerous nature of their job description. Male and female law enforcement alike deserve respect and high honor for putting themselves in harm’s way in the process of protecting American communities. Even so … no one is immune to error. There are some who carry a badge, white privilege and a presumptive history that warns them to suspect, fear, even target African Americans. It is within this context that Ferguson replied to the verdict with gunfire and demonstrative grief:
We are hurting.
We are tired of still hurting.
No, the discussion is not over.
We will not pretend everything is good enough.
#BlackLivesMatter, and we will stay the course toward dignity.
We feel unheard, unprotected, at times targeted in our own country.
This outcry has given way to fresh debate: Why doesn’t law enforcement wear body cameras? What about tactical training that requires options before lethal force? Is this verdict really about race? Don’t we have a two-term black president? Couldn’t some communities of color be conjuring up a heightened sense of paranoia about a phantom prejudice that doesn’t exist anymore? Possibly, but certainly not always.
Is it possible to support our law enforcement, value their sacrificial service, and simultaneously acknowledge that many African Americans still feel unheard, under-valued, and at times unsafe? If one person does not fully relate to another’s pain, does that negate that problem really exists? Can someone listen to another’s grief, even if it’s far away? And does one person have the right to ignore another’s hurt if it’s communicated in angry, even destructive, ways?
Ten years ago, I was so angry with my husband that I threw the “D” word at him. It was the only time in our marriage I’ve ever contemplated divorce. We were headed to a mission trip in Morocco through Spain. My husband, Ryan, with his giving heart often carried the luggage for the other women on our trip and engaged them in conversations.
It was our first year of marriage, and Ryan wasn’t fully acquainted with how deeply I had been hurt by men in the past or that my unique love language was questions. So it was lost on him that all of his helpfulness to other women inadvertently hurt me. With each innocuous question he posed to another woman, I felt him give his attentive love away. I didn’t just feel jealous or threatened by his generous kindness; I felt terrified, like I was reliving all my painful memories at one time. I grew defensive, distant, cold…even violently disgusted with him.
His service and conversations seemed to me an accumulation of new romance forming before my eyes. I felt less and less protected with each bag he carried, like my hero freely giving his heart away. I thought my frustrated, withdrawn body language would translate to him, but he didn’t respond to any of my passive aggressive hints. He just kept right on serving and chatting up everyone, and my guards went way up. If he wouldn’t protect me, then I’d protect myself.
But the Band-Aid covering my half-healed heart was yanked one night in Spain: I walked down the aisle of our train car and found Ryan asleep and seated right next to one of the women he kept helping and engaging. He was slumped over with his head bobbing in her direction. He may have been out cold, but to me it felt like they were sleeping together. And I had just walked in on them. The view felt like infidelity, and I was crushed. Considering the game-playin’ heart-breakers from my past, all I could feel was the accumulation of my history mounted with Ryan’s seeming similarities, and I snapped.
I stormed out and when Ryan caught up to me, I went bat-crazy. I informed him that I would be purchasing my own ticket back to the USA without him. I couldn’t roll with an unfaithful %$#. He just stared at me, still waking up and completely baffled. I finally expressed my feelings, but I was so angry, his only response was anger in kind. He felt wrongly accused and zero empathy for my dramatics. He defended himself and refused to be manipulated. He wouldn’t stop serving or interacting with anyone and basically dared me to find a flight back. Any hopes I had that he would swoop in and protect me with his shield of faithful love were dashed.
We experienced the exact same trip, but our interpretations were painfully different. My feelings of hurt and fear were more real to me than any love I could presently feel from Ryan. And he felt so insulted and manipulated that he had no room left for compassion. Since neither one of us could validate the other’s pain, the first chance I had, I got off that train. I wandered alone through a port city off the coast of Spain and found a hidden stairwell to hide. I sat on the stairs and wept, “God, he doesn’t care. I feel unsafe and terrified. It is unfair to put up with this, and I’m so angry; I just want away. But more than that, I want him to want to protect me and understand me. If You don’t intervene, I’m out of Morocco and out of this marriage.”
Just then a young woman walked by the foot of my stairwell. We were half way across the world, and she was wearing a Texas A&M University t-shirt. I knew her. A few years before, I had shared the gospel with her on the campus of A&M. And here she was now reaching out to me, sobbing. I spared no energy on pleasantries and begged her to pray for me. Her presence, concern and prayers were just enough for me to stay and work through things with Ryan. The conversations weren’t pretty. I threw a few “Molotov cocktails” in anger, and he threw “tear gas” in defense, but we kept talking. We didn’t incinerate the marriage. Through prayer, we were finally able to listen to each other’s perspectives. We began to fathom how completely differently we each interpreted the same situation.
I still struggle in certain social settings, but if I actively depend on God as my personal defense and the Shield of our marriage, my own vantage point changes. And when I lay down my own defense mechanisms and express vulnerability to my husband, it helps him remember that my emotions are not an indictment on his integrity but more about my history interacting the pain of today. When he feels my need, he is drawn to help protect. He becomes more motivated to display his internal protective boundaries so that I can see and feel his guarded love out loud. (He stands closer beside me and pulls me into the conversations when I seem withdrawn.) And over time I’ve learned that Ryan really does serve and engage beautiful women, refugee children, and homeless men with equal attentiveness. He calls them by name, asks them questions, and has proven that he loves me exclusively while he shows all people dignity.
My pain does not begin to compare to the gravity or duration of generations of racial segregation. No way. No comparison. But perhaps there is a similar dynamic in Ferguson? Sometimes people feel pain because there is a real and present injustice going on in that moment. Other times people hurt because the present situation reminds them of a past and often greater injury or injustice. While we may never be able to fully relate each other’s present or history, if we are going to maintain and grow in unity, we need to at least be sensitive enough to consider there may be a deeper pain below the present situation. A new verdict can trigger old memories of feeling unprotected, threatened, and even hated. A movie, a word, or a flag can also resurface historic trauma with visceral emotions in the present.
For example, it may be within someone’s legal right to don a Confederate flag from the back of a pick-up truck, but when those rebel stars and stripes fly by me and my black sons, I grieve. My pain quickly spikes into anger. That flag may be just an image, but so is a swastika. To some, the Confederate flag represents the protection of states’ rights, but there’s a second message latent within that symbol. To deny this same flag doesn’t still drip with blood-drenched memories of war fought to retain slavery is to forget our full American history. And to parade this symbol about without a care to other’s interpretative feelings, I find rather myopic and rude.
My African American study buddy told me that just seeing that flag “takes her backward.” Still, she and I are both trying to fathom that someone throwing on a Kappa Alpha fraternity t-shirt with that flag draped across the front might have no idea of the broader messaging they’re wearing nor any intention of ever hurting anyone’s feelings. They may simply love their frat or want to boast in a generic southern pride.
Individuals and communities interpret the same symbols and situations so uniquely. Ultimately, only God can see the heart and intentions of man. That is why we need to be slow to anger and slow to give up on each other in the process of progress and debate.
Some heated conversations have hit the American airwaves: When can America move on already? Why don’t we start enforcing body cameras for every police officer to gather accurate accounts? Has America taken the race-bait again on Ferguson? Why are some African Americans still crying when there are kindergartners in American who have never known a day of life without a black president? The collective questions beg answers to a deeper problem still at hand. Based on reactions in Ferguson and across our country, our nation is still healing.
Of course, there has been great progress in our country, but there are still infected pockets. We have residual problem areas with discriminating hiring practices and a residue of prejudice on both sides of church aisle. Not all churches, but many prove Sundays are still the most segregated hour of the American week. So, while we have taken long strides, we cannot yet throw out sensitivity, mercy, and listening.
So should people advocate for a civil trial for Michael Brown in federal court? Do we take sides and defend the unwavering honor of America’s law enforcement instead? What if it’s not about picking sides, but about holding another’s heart, vantage point, and emotions just a little tighter than our own? Often it’s less about a flag or the luggage or one isolated verdict and more about how someone interprets a messages of indifference, invalidation, fear and antagonism behind them. Feelings are real, and we don’t stop listening because America has made great progress.
It still hurts to feel your voice isn’t heard. It hurts to feel like it takes a riot or a rally to gain attention. It hurts to feel few are even listening.
The verdict is in on Michael Brown. I do not debate the results or doubt Officer Darren Wilson’s intentions. Only God knows the heart of both men, but I also cannot ignore the indisputable sadness of a community. So while looting stores and burning cars is criminal, plays into evil and exacerbates negative stereotypes, the destructive rioters were a small minority magnified by the media. The vast majority of voices demonstrated peacefully. And it is hardly a crime to grieve deeply, march resolutely, and keep, keep, keep crying out until someone listens. And it’s equally valid to consider, even mourn with a police officer who must leave his job and move his home in fear of his life in the aftermath.
So, can we “mourn with those who mourn” all around (Romans 12:15)? Can we get over our own personal interpretations of the verdict and just agree that grief is an irrefutable piece of the evidence? What if we asked God to help us hear another’s pain over our own perspectives or interpretations? Could we ask God for His vantage point and thoughts on Ferguson? We may need to turn down the media hype and stereotypes for a moment and dial into God’s heart. Perhaps we could hear an even greater groan from heaven, grieving for unity.
(Or I suppose we could just watch Keeping up with the Kardashians and tweeting kitten photos instead.)
Just don’t be surprised the next time pain rears again. The Ferguson cries will fade until the next Band-Aid is yanked. It may mean another city night lights up with protest fire, or it may mean the Church needs to start taking a proactive look around and up toward to the One with “fire in His eyes.” Jesus harbors the insight and power to cauterize old and new wounds in individuals and communities. His eyes see the truth, and He stands in the gap for the broken, the marginalized and the hurting (Genesis 16:6,13).
Ultimately, we will each have our day in His court. Jesus will judge perfectly,and He will right every wrong or every wrongly accused in His courtroom. Until then, God Almighty offers comfort now and a promise: for those who give over our sin and dysfunction to Jesus, we receive in exchange His perfection and a new identity of higher dignity. We are considered “slave or free man” (Galatians 3:28-29). We become one with Him and raised up to the position of heirs to His kingdom. And as heirs, we have every familial right and privilege to ask God to be our Healer, Shield, Recompense, and Redeemer (Psalm 84:11).
As heirs, we also have the authority to draw from the power of the cross and extend a fresh measure of hope and restoration to this generation (Revelation 19:12). So while the government calls out the National Guard, the Kingdom of God needs to call out in prayer for an increase in humble, honest conversations about existing disparities and residual grief in our own hearts, churches, and communities. Even gentle conversations will likely prove tough, confusing, messy but worth the effort because reconciliation is reflective of the unity of heaven where “every tongue and tribe worshiping before the Lamb” (Revelation 7:9).
Shabby Chic Ministries facilitates teaching, prayer and open conversations about Jesus’ role in reconciliation.
There is both a human and heavenly groan reverberating from Ferguson. One meaningful way to honor another person’s pain is to consider their vantage point. So, could we just stop and ask God for His heart and the humility to “value others above ourselves” (Philippians 2:3)? Let’s take a collective moment right now and listen, really listen, to the unrequited grief of Ferguson and the Spirit’s groan for unity behind it.
By Adrianne Schwanke with Shabby Chic Ministries