On Monday night, St. Louis county prosecuting attorney Robert McCulloch held a press conference to announce the grand jury’s decision not to indict police officer Darren Wilson for the killing of unarmed teenager Michael Brown on August 9th of this year. McCulloch began his prepared remarks by first choosing denigrate and shame (mostly black) social media users, inflammatory journalism, and unreliable eyewitness testimony, then proceeded to proffer a lengthy defense of officer Wilson’s actions. To many on both sides of the decision, McCulloch’s words came off as a condescending, careful way of crescendoing to a conclusion that had become apparent by his second or third sentence.
I know I am not the only one who sat there that night with tears running down my face, scolding myself for holding a sliver of hope, as I watched the attorney’s rhetorical shifts begin to spiral towards a sentence that seemed predestined from the moment those six lead bullets entered Mike Brown’s black body.
I quickly turned to social media, which was feverishly lit up with demands for justice juxtaposed alongside the familiar boasts of the powerful. Predictably, “I’m glad he got off!” and “see, trust in the system” comments were couched neatly alongside tweets and statuses condemning those scary “angry rioters and looters” who are “destroying their own communities like animals.” Accompanying and underlying many of these comments were solemn cries from many Christian friends urging people to (stop protest and dissent and) just pray for peace in Ferguson.
I saw Christians of all colors propose prayers for peace, rest, healing, removed and spiritualized calm. Many publicly urged the dispersal of crowds of protesters, telling people to stay at home, to go to sleep, to quell their obviously overblown rage. Many quoted Martin Luther King Jr to drive their commitments home, tossing out some of his classic lines (remember: hate cannot drive out hate!) to suggest that those who take to the streets in protest are only causing more problems for themselves.
Lost in the midst of this wilted discourse is the sacred biblical commitment to communal lament, towards protest and prophesy and social action. Forgotten are the Christian tradition’s clear commands to stand in solidarity with the suffering, to resist destruction, to shout a resounding NO to the powers of death, as Christ did through his resurrection.
Instead, we have a people of faith praying as gnostics for the return to a status quo that continues to dehumanize and oppress millions of American citizens. We have Christians asking God to stick Band-Aids on gargantuan, multigenerational fissures, as pastors and parishioners are making it abundantly clear that they have no other desire than to re-mask the powers, to smooth over the surface ripples and obscure those who are flailing and drowning beneath the water.
The prophet Jeremiah (who is often whittled into safe, digestible chunks as the “I know the plans I have for you” guy) has a strong word for those who practice this kind of myopic behavior:
To whom can I speak and give warning?
Who will listen to me?
Their ears are closed
so they cannot hear…
They dress the wound of my people
as though it were not serious.
‘Peace, peace,’ they say,
when there is no peace.
Peace, peace, they pray for you: go home and calm down and stay quiet and submit to authority (and dress nice!) and keep letting the system strip you of your dignity; don’t march in the streets, don’t fight, don’t release your anger, don’t act like animals, don’t stay woke, don’t remember, don’t cry out for justice in the wilderness.
And yet anyone who has taken a nominal glance around the state of our country’s criminal justice system has seen that there is no peace. Anyone who has heard the voices of the thousands upon thousands of protesters who are marching across our country each night–anyone who has witnessed the masses in Ferguson who have been demonstrating for over 100 consecutive nights–they have surely seen that there is no peace.
Meanwhile, culturally complacent Christians quote Martin Luther King in order to try and placate and shame into silence those who are hurting and rightfully outraged. These believers quickly condemn rioting and looting while paying little attention to the naming of powers and principalities: here, white supremacy and systematic racism.
I want these Christians to know that Martin Luther King also acknowledged that riots are the language of the unheard – I want them to know that rioting happens when a desperate and battered community believes it has exhausted every other viable form of resistance. Broken bottles are stand-ins for broken bodies. Shattered storefronts and cracked windows become reminders of the forgotten communities that have been systematically deprived, incarcerated, and otherwise preyed upon by those who were supposed to protect them.
Don’t hear me attempting to justify the actions of those brazen, disturbed few who take advantage of these protests in order to fuel their own personal fetishes towards thrill, arson, unfettered chaos. But hear this: there are few things more despicable and unhelpful for Christians to be doing right now than condemning the “violence” of protestors while simultaneously ignoring the violence of the system.
That is, if you are more worried about preventing property damage than you are about unequivocally affirming the fact that black lives matter, your priorities are hopelessly skewed. If you decry those who march angry with God in the streets, if you share photos and lament the horrid destruction “they’ve” caused while glossing over the fact that these people have reason to be angry, you have chosen to reject the gospel by supporting a racist system that applies the death penalty to human beings made in God’s own image.
By all means, pray for God’s shalom and lasting peace to fully reveal itself in our nation, and in Ferguson. But if your praying for peace means silencing righteous outrage, then it means praying for the continuation of a status quo that has repeatedly proven itself to be destructive to black lives. If that’s what you mean by peace, then you are literally praying for more violence.
Because praying for peace without protest means praying for more white supremacy. Praying for silent grief means advocating for an established anti-Christ agenda – asking God for more death, more dehumanization, more destruction of your fellow image-bearers.
This is what your God asks of you: fill your ears not with imposed silence, but with the cries of the oppressed. Do not condemn black Americans for daring to reassert their humanity in the face of a system that leaves them uniquely disenfranchised; rather, realize that the brutalists have been shaking, poking and prodding at this soda can of a situation for centuries. Admit that maybe shouting is sometimes the only way to be heard.
Those crying peace, peace and appealing to higher things easily forget that their Martin Luther King also taught that “any religion that professes to be concerned with the souls of men and is not concerned with the slums that damn them, the economic conditions that strangle them, and the social conditions that cripple them is a dry-as-dust religion. Such a religion is the kind the Marxists like to see—an opiate of the people.”
How do we faithfully reject this weak-willed, dry-as-dust, opiate-of-the-masses kind of Christianity?
We might start by forcibly divorcing Christ from Caesar, by admitting that as disciples of Jesus, our primary loyalties lie not with the empire of the United States, but with our citizenship in the kingdom. We might remind one another that while Caesar breaks our bodies and spills our blood and calls our neighbors gangsters and thugs, Christ breaks nothing but his own body, spills naught but his own blood, and calls us only to the margins.
How might we know if we’re getting closer to the answer, if our triune God is actually stripping away our prejudices and privileges and keeping present with us in these thorny spaces? What sort of journey might we begin to expect? The answer has something to do with action, corporeality, incarnation, and protest.
God present with the crucified, the dispossessed. This is what theology looks like: a grieving father lost in pain; a child swinging from Auschwitz gallows; a black body left burnt and hanging from a poplar tree; a ragged figure nailed to a Roman cross; a young man shot six times and lying broken and bleeding in the street.