Has the Church Learned Anything From Ferguson?

The ongoing civil disobedience in Ferguson, Missouri has plenty to teach us, but are we willing to listen?

It amazes me that the small town of Ferguson, essentially unknown to most of the country just 10 weeks ago, is now a part of conversations happening all over America and around the world. Its story has so impacted us that we use Ferguson as a noun, not to describe the city, but to more concisely say “the black community whose legal protests and acts of civil disobedience showcased to America that distrust of police is often the result of a history of exaggerated responses of violence toward people of color.”

Ferguson has become synonymous with resistance.

As Ferguson marches on, they have become a great teacher. They taught us about military-grade weapons being used in small, suburban towns. They reminded us of the importance of journalism and its necessity to record police abuses. They taught us the power of social media to bypass traditional modes of broadcasting and still capture the attention of people around the world. They asked us to make the systemic connections between Eric Garner, John Crawford, and Michael Brown, refusing to consider these deaths isolated incidents of coincidence.

Ferguson forced us to revisit the words of Martin Luther King Jr., to dig up pictures of the 1960s protests, to ask ourselves, “how far have we really come?”

More than 10 weeks since the first protests sparked, Ferguson is still teaching us about leading a sustained, creative movement. Ferguson forced us to revisit the words of Martin Luther King Jr., to dig up pictures of the 1960s protests, to ask ourselves, “how far have we really come?”

Ferguson is a great teacher, but are we great students?

The Burden of Silence

I imagine churches across the country are responding differently to Ferguson. Some have already mobilized people and other resources to support Ferguson’s resistance efforts. For them, Ferguson is a weighty reminder of why the congregation works so hard to support justice efforts in the local community.

Others translate support into proselytization. Viewing Ferguson only as a mission field to be evangelized, they head down to St. Louis to save the souls of the lost protestors. Packing up privilege and respectability politics in their suitcases, they hand out both like unwanted tracts to passersby.

I suspect many more churches remain silent on the issue. For some, silence is an act of willful disinterest, believing there is nobility in neutrality. But for others, the silence is evidence of fear. Pastors, leaders or congregation members are shown, often in painful ways, that speaking up is too risky an endeavor. So they turn toward other avenues of advocacy, leaving the church entangled in ignorance and apathy.

In his Letter From Birmingham Jail, Martin Luther King, Jr. warns, “The contemporary church is so often a weak, ineffectual voice with an uncertain sound. It is so often the arch supporter of the status quo. Far from being disturbed by the presence of the church, the power structure of the average community is consoled by the church's often vocal sanction of things as they are.”

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If the Church is to be a good student of Ferguson, we must challenge the status quo.

The Status Quo Is Not Working

If the Church is to be a good student of Ferguson, we must challenge the status quo. We must find intolerable the current ideologies that allow indifference to thrive. As Ferguson chants #blacklivesmatter, it’s time to decide if we believe it’s true. For if we believe black lives matter, surely America must rid itself of the fear of the black body. Surely we would have to challenge the assumption that black people are innately violent. We’d have to rid from our psyche that the only way to confront black men is through immediate violence and swift gunfire. We’d have to declare that blackness is not a crime; that its existence is not deserving of greater police might. We’d have to vote and advocate with conviction that police cannot treat people differently according to race, class, gender or any other form of personhood. If we really believe that black lives matter, we must be moved to action.

Ferguson is asking: How many more videos of lifeless bodies do we need to see? How many more dying words do we need to hear? It’s time for reform, and with this charge, Ferguson leads the way—but will our churches be good learners?

Top Comments

Ellie Nyakĩo Gunderson


Ellie Nyakĩo Gunderson commented…

These comments are clear evidence of why this piece was written. The church needs to wake up and be at the forefront of these issues. People being inconvenienced by protesters simply cannot be deemed more important than the attention they are drawing to the inherent danger of walking down the street as a Black person in America. Step inside the shoes of this community for one moment. See this not as an isolated incident, but as a symptom of systemic racism, as the author mentioned. Let's open our eyes.



RichieDaley commented…

Dear Relevant,

Thank you for posting this article. I see you've already been getting pushback, so I wanted to make sure that I lent my voice in support of what you posted.

Continue to call Christians and the church to a deeper engagement with justice, particularly when that call is uncomfortable, when we would rather stand on the side of the status quo and when it would be easy to believe only those voices that encourage us to disregard injustice, and that those affected are unworthy of our sympathy.

Fight the good fight.



Stephen Matlock


Stephen Matlock commented…

This is a great, great article.

I think for a lot of churches who are not involved it's a matter of two things (which I think you cover): that they do not comprehend just what is going on in Ferguson, with people who are brothers and sisters in Christ, as well as with people who are more broadly the children of God that he loves without measure, and that these churches really don't know how to get involved in any way that would make sense. "Oh Lord, the sea is so wide and my boat is so small."

To get involved by coming down to Ferguson with packaged solutions is easy--it requires no personal commitment to change injustice. To get involved by condemning the protestors is easy because it requires no deep thinking and empathy about living as an invisible tribe in America. We on the periphery can sit back and pick apart tactics and strategy, pick apart actions and speech, never being blamed because we never even try.

It takes work to get involved.

I think one way to get churches involved beyond the expectation that people of good will would want to get involved is to present to churches ways to gain understanding of the plight of people in Ferguson and in any community in America where people of color are marginalized, and to present to churches actual, measurable, and possible ways to become more involved in real ways. I know it sounds like "But I shouldn't have to explain who I am or why I am worth listening to--I shouldn't have to justify my existence." Yeah, it can sound like that--but it doesn't require self-abnegation. It doesn't require victims to take on the role of teachers. Allies of the people of Ferguson can help to wake up their churches and can help present ways to get their churches involved.

I'm just mostly talking here. But I'm seeing that there are people who would get involved, churches that would try to understand, but they need people to help them bridge the chasm of misunderstanding and of first steps needed to take literal action.

I think it's possible. And I think it's possible to find those people to act as bridge-builders between the two worlds.

I don't know how to do it, though.

But I have great faith in the people of God being stirred up to act justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with our God. Great, great faith.

Adam Ridgeway


Adam Ridgeway commented…

This article is a little disappointing. It glorifies the countless illegal activities taking place in Furguson because of one possible injustice.
There have been a lot of comments on not judging these people. Well, I am going to judge violent protestors breaking the law and victimizing businesses. I will even let them judge me right back and judge me when I start looting and breaking the Law. It's very hard be subjective and walk in their shoes when their actions are objectively wrong.
Martin Luther King Jr. dreamed of a day when people of all races would be judged by character rather than color. So lets judge this movement by its character. If that is the test, then it fails.

Jiryis Shaheen


Jiryis Shaheen commented…

Hi gang,
I've lived off south broadway when I was younger, moved up to Saint Charles later on in life, and now Ofallon.
Im not so sure this article is spot on,, maybe it wasn't intended to be, hot topic articles seldom are.
The church finds much of its identity in the concept of authority, and usually have been known to heir on the side of government authority with respect and obedience as reflected in Romans, and other scripture.
As I read this article I kept thinking "wait, what are we chanting? what are marching?"
Im not so sure that churches, or the majority of St.Louis community / police force just don't like black people, or are scared of the black 'body' (which is actually a separatist way to put it Relevant, we are all humans, all part of the 'body')
I'm not so sure this even has to do with race or skin color.
My impression is that when people, in general, have something/ incident to rally behind, something that will give people purpose, meaning, passion- they will usually do it, and do it to their most extreme potential.
Are there truths to what is happening in, and to, Ferguson,, absolutely.
Is there also wickedness and despair lurking through what is happening, for sure.
That is why it needs to be seen from multiple perspectives, and not one that overgeneralizes the church, the black community, and especially each death that results from police.
I have been watching these protests, what I am seeing are not protests, what I am seeing are people wishing death upon others, threatening them, and kicking police cars as they drive through the streets.
Lastly, I am seeing a town dying of thirst, one who's business are suffering, and people are aching for change. I fear it may soon become a ghost town.

Stephen Matlock


Stephen Matlock commented…

It takes time to change what people think about these situations and what they feel, and it takes time to get them to understand people not like them and to have empathy for people who live in worlds we don't understand.

There is a lot of work to be done to help the church wake up to the pains around us. I can't promise that every effort will have identifiable payoff. But eventually it does.

I saw this on another site, and I think it has great relevance (hah!) to this discussion:

"The humanizing of society was the essentially Christian contribution of Methodism to to the social order, and it is impossible to exaggerate its importance...England owes no little debt to the steadiness of the Methodists, who, on account of their splendid national organization, might have been a great public danger, but who were unmoved by the clamour of the contradictory voices of the mob orators of the times. Methodists would have nothing to do with revolution; the anti-Christian grounds on which it was argued made them angry. Their service to the community in their witness to Christianity was undoubtedly conservative of the social order...What moved them was humanity. Their belief was that human beings were redeemed by Christ, and oppression of a child of God was an insult to the Heavenly Father. Under these religious impulses, much more fundamental than any other, they did their great work of social emancipation." J. E. Rattenbury, Wesley's Legacy to the World.

These men and women in Ferguson are our brothers and sisters. We are their brothers and sisters. We are the body of Christ. We are dying for lack of leadership by our spiritual and community leaders who seek to keep us divided and apart. We need men and women to rise up and bring us together.

It will take time.

But it will happen.

I remember a great quote by a great man cut down by bullets before he was 40. "The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice."

We might not succeed, not we ourselves, but we have to keep trying.

We have to, because we are believers in Christ and in his Kingdom.



Brittney commented…

Michael Brown has been made into a hero when the facts do not appear in his favor. When we have a cause we love so much we don’t care so much about the facts that is dangerous. It also makes us appear foolish to the very people we are attempting to persuade. The only hero who will not fail us is a hero whose story cannot disappoint. No facts will be unearthed to tarnish His reputation. His story is certified 100 percent true. The hero and cause and the story are one in Christ. He is unchanging. He is holy. He is the Hero and Martyr whose cause is worth following.Let us rally, united around Christ! I wrote more about that here: http://www.faithreboot.com/unlikely-heroes-arent/

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