Rioting and looting broke out in the town of Ferguson, Missouri, last week, and calm has only just been restored in the last day or two.
The issue that incited the unrest was the death of Michael Brown, an unarmed eighteen-year-old who’d been caught on a surveillance camera walking out of a story carrying some merchandise. As he left, he thrust an arm against the throat of an older man who seemed to be confronting him.
At some point he and a police officer came into conflict. Witnesses reported that the unarmed young man had his hands up and was in compliance with the officer, who nevertheless opened fire and killed him.
The officer, Darren Wilson, who received a broken eye socket and other facial injuries, reportedly shot because he feared for his life. One report says he was beaten almost unconscious, another that Mr. Brown tried to take his gun from him.
Soon after the shooting, sides were being drawn. Any number of people jumped in to make a political statement of some kind—about racist America (since only a small percentage of the Ferguson police force is African-American), police brutality (since the man who died didn’t have a weapon), gun violence, the undermining of American society.
The media carefully framed the story by introducing it, nearly without exception, as about an unarmed teen shot and killed by police. The exception I heard was “an unarmed black man shot and killed by police.”
The problem, of course, is that those sparse details, while sounding factual, are actually painting a one-sided picture. Buried in the story was why the officer confronted the young man or where he was coming from and what he’d just done.
On the other hand, the small number of African-American officers on the Ferguson police force made its way into the story about one officer and one alleged robber (though he was confronted for walking in the street, not for robbing the store)—somewhere near the lead.
Evidence has surfaced that indicates Mr. Brown may have been moving toward Officer Wilson, as he reported and in contradiction to the witnesses who claimed he was backing away with his hands up.
The media reports generated a burst of anger from around the country. Soon Ferguson was the poster town for racial violence as rioting and looting, military-style police presence with tear gas and curfews brought an escalation of the tension.
In that mix, outsiders arrived—those who simply wanted an excuse to steal and those who wanted to exploit the situation for their own political or social agenda. Still others wanted to perpetrate hatred. According to one source, outside agitators who joined the protest began calling for the death of the officer:
Just prior to Saturday’s governor-ordered curfew in Ferguson, Missouri, New Black Panthers leader Malik Zulu Shabazz led a crowd in a chant, calling for the death of Darren Wilson, the officer identified in the shooting death of Michael Brown:
“What do we want?” “Darren Wilson.”
“How do we want him?” “Dead.” (“New Black Panthers Lead Death Chant Against Officer Involved in Ferguson Shooting“)
My first thought is that this kind of behavior reminds me of the old stories about the Wild West when mobs formed their own opinion and went after the person they determined to be guilty with the intent to lynch him.
The French Revolution also comes to mind, with their nominal trials of those who had once held a place of influence in society, which always led to the guillotine.
Of course there are also the recent beheadings that have taken place in Iraq.
If nothing else, the latter should cause Americans to pause and think. Is this the kind of “justice” we want?
But more importantly, what should we as Christians think? It’s hard not to form an opinion, certainly. I mean, when an eighteen-year-old dies, no matter what the circumstances, it’s a sad story. Someone who drives drunk and dies isn’t “deserving” of death any more than a looter would be or someone committing adultery and caught by an enraged husband.
Understandably parents, friends, and loved ones will be grieved. How media people think it’s OK to shove a microphone in the face of someone who’s just lost a person they care about and say, “How do you feel?” is beyond me.
So the first thing I think that should frame a Christian response is compassion. Someone died—and people are rightly devastated.
The second thing I think that should guide a Christian response is a desire for truth. Consequently we should avoid forming a definitive opinion until the facts are known.
Often times, the side which gets to tell their story first is the one many people believe, but “first” doesn’t count in a court of law. According to our judicial system, a person is innocent until proven guilty, and that applies to police officers as much as to a home owner who shoots someone because he says he thought his life was in danger.
Christians should refrain from repeating as fact a statement, even if it comes from the press, about the guilt or innocence of individuals until such time as both sides have had their say and the experts have weighed in with their evidence. Anything else is gossip. It serves no constructive purpose.
Third, Christians should be advocates for changing the culture that creates antagonism between police and citizens and that tolerates looting and violence as a way to protest. What can we do differently to bring communities together?
Ferguson has come up with some creative ideas in the last few days. But what if Christians around the country or the world, did what we could to bring our own communities together without waiting for a crisis such as Ferguson has experienced? What if we did random acts of kindness? What if we showed the love of Jesus to our neighbors? What if we made a lifestyle of serving others?
One more thing. We Christians can turn the heat down on the debate. For one, we can point out how media slants articles (watch for loaded words, either particularly negative or positive, and watch for what details get into the beginning of the story), and we can determine not to be bandwagon jumpers—on either side. We can be more concerned about speaking kindly to others and discussing rather than debating.
Christians should not be silent about events like the shooting death of Michael Brown or its aftermath, but we should have kingdom purposes for what and how we enter into the conversation. Let’s put away political agendas and think long term—about people and their need for a Savior—and may that guide what we say.