The Crisis In Ferguson Is a Gospel Issue

A correct understanding of Jesus' message means seeking justice for all.

The crisis in Ferguson, Missouri started off as a plea for the truth about what happened to a young man—a truth we may never really know for sure.

But in the ensuing weeks of protests, police and politics, it's become about many other things as well. The militarization of the police force, the rights of protestors and journalists and, above all, the state of racial equality in America.

We spoke with Lisa Sharon Harper, Sojourners' Senior Director of Mobilizing and author of Left, Right & Christ: Evangelical Faith in Politics, among many other books. She gave us her take on what's happening in Ferguson, and how a fresh understanding of the Gospel can bring healing.

What’s been the most surprising thing about how this situation has unfolded?

This is not Christianity 401. This is not an addendum to the gospel. This is the gospel.

Honestly I’m not sure that it’s surprising as much as it’s been instructive and revelatory. There is so much work to do to help people grasp that “the other” as ones who are created in the image of God.

The heart of my understanding of what it looks like for us to live and walk in the Jesus way—walk as Jesus walks—is to fully grasp the inherent dignity of every human being on earth. Every single one. As a result of the inherent dignity—as a result of the image of God being in each person—then each person is inherently deserving of full protection of the law, or equal access to the basic needs of life and equal access to justice.

The ironic thing I think about this is that Ferguson is not the only one to happen. It was actually the last of four that happened in the course of a month—with all four being police violence against African-American men, black men, who were unarmed and who at the very, very least deserved a fair trial by a jury, and who deserved equal treatment under the law.

There seems to be institutional discrimination in place in Ferguson, where even though the majority of the community is African-American, the police force was overwhelmingly white as well as local elected officials. How did this community become so under represented?

With everything that’s going on in Ferguson right now, what I hear is that black leadership is beginning to repent for its abdication of leadership. What I’m talking about is repenting from inaction. They’re beginning to pick that baton back up again, and voter registration is a very big thing right now. I think that’s a beautiful and powerful development.

I want to talk about the spiritual steps forward, but on a practical level, do you think voter registration and these awareness and empowerment efforts to get re-involved in politics is going to be an important step for the Church?

That’s interesting that you separate the two, because my understanding is that voting is really about exercising our agency. That’s why the Voting Rights Act is so important.

In Scripture, the closest thing we have to agency is actually the call to exercise dominion in Genesis 1. I think that word dominion has been really misunderstood for a long time, and many theologians are beginning to reclaim what it actually meant.

It actually meant something closer akin to “stewardship,” and the ability to make choices that impact your world and to steward the world, to care for it. If you can’t vote, then you can’t do that. That’s one of the reasons folks are repenting now and beginning to do voter registration.

I think that what the Church does, is the Church calls the people to rise up and to walk fully in the image of God and in the Scripture—the image of God. What it means to carry the image of God is directly connected with the call to exercise dominion.

The call to exercise dominion in Ferguson, in part, means to vote. It means to take part, and to let your voice be heard and to let your vote count. A vote in a town like Ferguson can mean the difference between having a police chief or a prosecutor who understands and sees the image of God in you and seeks to protect that and one who doesn't.

My question I guess was an indication that a lot of times some Christians wrongly separate their spiritual lives and things that they’re doing politically.

They are absolutely tied together. It’s the reason why the civil rights movement rose out of the Church. It’s the reason why the abolitionist movement rose out of the Church. It’s the reason why the suffrage movement rose out of the Church: Because all three of those movements were about the abilities of people who were created in the image of God to exercise dominion.

What’s happening in Ferguson has disturbing similarities to different civil rights events in the 60’s. How can we stop the cycle? How can a younger generation of Christians help prevent the cycle from being continued?

I would say the first thing is to look around at their own friendships and community networks: Their own church, whether it’s a missional church or whether they’re not going to church at all. Where is their community? Who is their community? Who are the people that they are associating with?

It is a very real thing that if we are only associating with people who are like us, particularly in ethnicity in America, then we are most likely insulating ourselves with people that have very similar worldviews.

If you are only surrounding yourself with people who are like you—particularly people who are affluent, have more opportunities than others—then you’re not going to understand when the kids are screaming on the TV, and you see the news that riots broke out again in Ferguson.

Because we have insulated ourselves from that oppression, we not only don’t understand it, we don’t believe it.

I can imagine what is going through people’s heads who have not experienced that, like, ‘What’s wrong with those people?’ The problem is not with the people. It’s with what those people are having to endure every single day.

Because we have insulated ourselves from that oppression, we not only don’t understand it, we don’t believe it.

I would say that the first thing this generation can do, and is doing already a lot better than previous generations, is to break the color and ethnicity barrier within our friendships and our communities.

I think No. 2 is to begin to ask those friends who are not like ourselves, ‘What do you care about? What is it that you are working for? What is your story?’ Ask them, ‘How can I leverage what I have on behalf of and in partnership with the work that you’re already doing, in order to lift the oppression that you’ve been living with for much of your life?’

No. 3: Look at some of the structures and the systems that are in some of our cities and towns. For example, just take a look at the education system. Just look at the justice system or look at the healthcare system and ask the questions: Where is there an inequitable distribution or health in our city? Where is there an inequitable distribution of healthy food? Where is there an inequitable distribution of experiences with the justice system, run-ins with the police? Where is there an inequitable distribution of welcome for immigrants?

That is a place where this generation can actually see these are the effect. This is a clear manifestation of implicit bias at work in the systems in our nation, in our towns, in our cities and in our states. These are places where followers can go, and because of their faith. We can look at our own Scripture and see a roadmap of how to confront the powers and to call them into a right relationship with the people that they’re governing.

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I recently heard someone say that the situation in Ferguson is a gospel issue. Exposing injustice and correcting it is ultimately what we’re called to do as the Church.

To add to that I would say that the reason why this is gospel. This is not Christianity 401. This is not an addendum to the gospel. This is the gospel. The gospel is really about the coming of the kingdom of God.

The kingdom of God exists wherever there are those who choose God’s way. who choose to trust God. You can’t say you live in the kingdom of God and not obey God. One of the things that God cares about the most is the poor, the immigrants, those who are in the margins, those who are most vulnerable.

There are examples all throughout Scripture of ways that God calls people to care for them personally and structurally. They use this, as followers of Jesus, to be people who are called kingdom builders.

I believe at the heart of the kingdom—what the kingdom of God looks like—it looks like shalom. It looks like peace and wellness in all relationships. One of those relationships that we don’t tend to focus on as evangelicals is the relationship between people and the systems that govern them. Bringing that relationship back into right relationship is part of the gospel. It’s part of the work of the cross and the resurrection. It’s a part of the reversal of the fall. It’s that old.

That’s why this is essential to the gospel. It’s really about what the kingdom of God requires. It requires the reconciliation of all relationships broken at the fall including the relationship between humanity and the systems that govern them.

Top Comments

Evette Williams

1

Evette Williams commented…

I am an African-American Christian woman. There is plenty of blame to go around concerning this situation. I have a few comments and I will make them brief and to the point:

1. We will never know the truth about Michael Brown's death because it was not caught on tape like the other deaths of unarmed black men. He robbed a store right before he was shot so we will never know if he fought police as they claim or if his hands were raised in surrender.

2. As African Americans, we have to take personal responsibility for our actions and the criminal way our men are portrayed. In some cases we allow and glorify negative images of our men (thugs and gangsters) through rap music. Our families are in crisis with 70% of our children being born out of wedlock. Until black men come back to our communities and help raise our children, these incidents will continue. Black children need fathers! Our churches must make this the #1 priority period.

3. Some white Christians are as racist as non Christians. Most churches are as segregated now as they were in the 1960s. The church in America is very segregated (white, black and hispanic) and that won't change anytime soon. Until we can put our differences aside and work for the common good, the American church will continue to be impotent and will not be able to defeat Satan. The bottom line is racism is a tool of the devil and he will continue to use it to divide and conquer.

Jonathan Boegl

5

Jonathan Boegl commented…

10 Questions for My Anglo Brothers & Sisters re: Ferguson

1. How many more Treyvon Martin, Michael Brown and Ezell Ford opportunities are we going to squander?

2. Is this not a wise time for us to heed Jesus’ injunction to meekness?

3. Have we no grace to resist the temptation to identify planks (or toxicology reports, or police records, or..?) in our black brothers’ eyes?

4. Do we not see that our ill-timed protestations effectively invalidate the proclamation of any other message we’d hope to share – including the gospel?

5. Do we not understand that accusations in our mouths about Michael Brown look like stones in the hands of the Pharisees?

6. What do we gain by picking up a bull-horn period! – but especially before the young man has been buried, the evidence has been gathered and while our brothers and sisters are still telling us their story?

7. What do we lose by simply extending the black community an incarnational ear of empathy?

8. Why not “just weep” with Mrs. Brown who lost her 18 year old boy?

9. Why not “just mourn” with our brothers and sisters, and give them some evidence that we’ve been listening when they talk about centuries of injustice?

10. When we’re tempted to cry “thief!” or “hoodlum!”, why not “just cry” for our brothers and sisters who continue to experience the real, ravaging effects of generations of social, moral and spiritual sin, instead?

This is the Spirit of Christ. This is the deeper gift that we have to give to the black community at a time like this; the blessing of true “paracletos”.

If we don’t do it now – we can’t pretend to do it later.

________________

(Paracletos = the greek word Jesus often uses for the Holy Spirit; it means “the One Who comes alongside”.)

10 Comments

Margaret Nahmias

46

Margaret Nahmias commented…

I am sorry but rioting is unexcusable under any circumstance.

campwebb12

54

campwebb12 replied to Margaret Nahmias's comment

Shooting an unarmed 18 year old is inexcusable under any circumstance.

Jonathan Boegl

5

Jonathan Boegl commented…

10 Questions for My Anglo Brothers & Sisters re: Ferguson

1. How many more Treyvon Martin, Michael Brown and Ezell Ford opportunities are we going to squander?

2. Is this not a wise time for us to heed Jesus’ injunction to meekness?

3. Have we no grace to resist the temptation to identify planks (or toxicology reports, or police records, or..?) in our black brothers’ eyes?

4. Do we not see that our ill-timed protestations effectively invalidate the proclamation of any other message we’d hope to share – including the gospel?

5. Do we not understand that accusations in our mouths about Michael Brown look like stones in the hands of the Pharisees?

6. What do we gain by picking up a bull-horn period! – but especially before the young man has been buried, the evidence has been gathered and while our brothers and sisters are still telling us their story?

7. What do we lose by simply extending the black community an incarnational ear of empathy?

8. Why not “just weep” with Mrs. Brown who lost her 18 year old boy?

9. Why not “just mourn” with our brothers and sisters, and give them some evidence that we’ve been listening when they talk about centuries of injustice?

10. When we’re tempted to cry “thief!” or “hoodlum!”, why not “just cry” for our brothers and sisters who continue to experience the real, ravaging effects of generations of social, moral and spiritual sin, instead?

This is the Spirit of Christ. This is the deeper gift that we have to give to the black community at a time like this; the blessing of true “paracletos”.

If we don’t do it now – we can’t pretend to do it later.

________________

(Paracletos = the greek word Jesus often uses for the Holy Spirit; it means “the One Who comes alongside”.)

Maria T

1

Maria T commented…

In general, the Christian response to this situation has been disappointing beyond words. As a Christian that is African American, it is so discouraging being a part of a community that is finding it nearly impossible to find compassion for a young man that lost his life and is intent on justifying his killing.

Thank you Jonathan for remembering that African Americans need compassion and love just like everyone else. Your words are encouraging. I hope more people that share your views stand up to quiet those intent on justification and hate.

Joy Lewis

4

Joy Lewis commented…

In response to Alberto, if you are an African-American who is trying to decide who to vote for and for the last five years all of the candidates have been white and once again this year you don't have an African-American candidate to choose, you might get discouraged and decide why should I bother. I'm not saying that a person should vote based on race, but if it's 80% minority and few candidates if any truly represent your community or understand what your community faces it has to be extremely frustrating come election time.

Evette Williams

1

Evette Williams commented…

I am an African-American Christian woman. There is plenty of blame to go around concerning this situation. I have a few comments and I will make them brief and to the point:

1. We will never know the truth about Michael Brown's death because it was not caught on tape like the other deaths of unarmed black men. He robbed a store right before he was shot so we will never know if he fought police as they claim or if his hands were raised in surrender.

2. As African Americans, we have to take personal responsibility for our actions and the criminal way our men are portrayed. In some cases we allow and glorify negative images of our men (thugs and gangsters) through rap music. Our families are in crisis with 70% of our children being born out of wedlock. Until black men come back to our communities and help raise our children, these incidents will continue. Black children need fathers! Our churches must make this the #1 priority period.

3. Some white Christians are as racist as non Christians. Most churches are as segregated now as they were in the 1960s. The church in America is very segregated (white, black and hispanic) and that won't change anytime soon. Until we can put our differences aside and work for the common good, the American church will continue to be impotent and will not be able to defeat Satan. The bottom line is racism is a tool of the devil and he will continue to use it to divide and conquer.

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