A Conversation About Ferguson
BY: Luke Bobo and Greg Pitchford
Meet Greg Pitchford and Luke Bobo. Luke is a 55 year-old African-American male and Greg is a 51 year-old White-American male. Luke lives in Shawnee, KS; and Greg makes his home in Chillicothe, MO. Both men are husbands and fathers. Greg grew up in south St. Louis County and Luke lived in St. Louis for 25 years before relocating to Shawnee, KS in June 2014.
Greg: People always ask me how I became involved with the Francis Schaeffer Institute at Covenant Seminary and how you and I became friends. Do you remember the day we met? (This sounds awkwardly like a date!)
Luke: I do. You were experiencing a real existential crisis. Trying to figure out what you believed, why you believed it, and whether it made any difference in the world. I was the Executive Director at the Francis Schaeffer institute. If I remember correctly, you googled “Francis Schaeffer,” found our website, and visited the Institute one day.
Greg: I really can't explain all the good things that have happened since that day. I can only say that meeting you and Jerram Barrs (FSI Resident Scholar) was providential. When people ask how we met, I like to tell them that I stalked you guys on the Internet. It's fun to watch their reactions. I had no idea that we would be friends over 12 years later, and having conversations about one of the most sensitive issues in our country. Let me lay it out on the table. When we first met, I knew you and I were different and that color was going to be an important issue we would eventually need to address. It was going to require us to cross boundaries and deal with cultural differences and years of hurt and mistrust. God made this University of Missouri (MU) fan that bleeds black and gold painfully aware that He also loved Kansas University (KU) fans like you who wear red and blue. There...I said it.
Luke: I am so proud of you! So, how is MU's basketball team doing this year?
Greg: Let's move on. I fully believe in the restoration of all things, including the MU/KU divide. Let's start with baby steps and tackle the issue of race in our country.
Luke: That sounds easier.
Greg: We have talked about racial issues quite a bit over the last several years. I can't help but think that those conversations have been providential as well. We are getting past the polite formality part of our friendship. Recently, the Michael Brown shooting in Ferguson, Missouri has reignited the national conversation on race. Unfortunately, everyone seems to be having their conversations with people who see the Ferguson incident like they do. Our various tribes (black, white, various Christian tribes, secular, liberal, conservative, etc.) seem to be looking for confirmation of their opinions rather than understanding. Can you help this white guy think more clearly about what happened in Ferguson? What was your initial reaction to the fatal shooting of Michael Brown?
Luke: Honestly, my initial raw reaction was hollering, helplessly and angrily, “Not again!”1 My white brothers and sisters must understand that most African-Americans do not see this as an isolated incident. Brown and countless others are part of a larger narrative that is played out repeatedly in our “racialized culture.” This oft repeated narrative involves two characters: an armed white policeman and a black male. In most cases, the outcome is the same: the black male is criminalized and fatally shot to death and the police officer is exonerated. The reoccurrence of this narrative has driven many African-Americans to conclude that there are actually not one America but two Americas. There is an America where whites enjoy certain privileges and are treated differently and respectfully; and then there is an America where blacks are often presumed criminals just because of their skin color. Or as one criminal justice colleague has put it: black males are regarded as the “symbolic assailant.”
Several questions began to flood my mind including: 1) was this Wilson’s assigned area to patrol? 2) Who initiated this chain of events? In other words, there had to be a prime mover or instigator. 3) How could an altercation escalate so quickly? 3) Why didn’t Officer Wilson wait for back up? And 4) Why not just disable the young man? Why shoot to kill?
What was your reaction?
Greg: I would love to tell you that I had my finger on the pulse of race relations in this country. That is simply not the case. I'm one of those guys who likes to watch The Daily Show on the Comedy Channel. Last summer, the cast did a great job of highlighting the tension between the police and minority communities. They validated some of the conversations we have had in the past. I was especially troubled by Eric Garner's death in New York City three weeks earlier. When I heard of Michael Brown's death, I thought, here we go again. I was surprised at the violence that erupted, but not that surprised. Given the context, I guess I was surprised it took this long. Even then, my initial reactions were more as a detached observer. If I didn't have a daughter going to school in the area, I probably would not have been that emotionally invested.
The raw emotion for me came a couple days later when I viewed the security video of Michael Brown robbing a convenience store. I don't know anything about Michael Brown. Some described him as a “gentle giant.” I will assume that was true. However, observing him in that video reminded me that 18 year-old males of all races make very stupid decisions. I know—I was one. If he carried that attitude out onto the street, it set the stage for multiple tragedies. Criminal behavior gets young men killed--either by scared or angry business owners, other criminals, or the police. What can I say?—I hate bullies. As I watched Michael Brown use his size as a weapon against a store owner, I got angry and my sympathy diminished. As I learned more about the actions of Officer Wilson, I got confused.
Luke: I so appreciate your honesty, Greg. However, I must say that any time a black male is killed by a white police officer I instantly think about my only son, Caleb Bobo, an academically astute and gregarious junior at the University of Kansas and I pray, “Lord, protect him, please.”
Greg: You have told me before about having The Talk with your son. In the white community, that means talking about sex. For you and Caleb, that meant advice about what to do if you are pulled over. I was reminded of those conversations the other day when I listened to an interview with the Chairman of the Black Police Officers Association. This is the advice he gave for those of us who are approached by the police:
“I say that any situation can be quelled by the person who's being approached if you would do just eight things. And that is keep your hands where the police can see them and don't run and God forbid, don't touch any police officer, him or his weapon. Do not resist, do not complain too strongly. Ask for a lawyer, record the officer's name and badge number or his card number and try to find any witnesses. If you follow those things, your interaction with the police, your time to battle any wrongdoing that you think may have occurred will come after that interaction.”
I have never felt the need to have that conversation with my daughters. I can't imagine trying to remember a list of eight things during a stressful encounter. If I did have that conversation with my daughters, I would simply say, "keep your hands where the officer can see them and treat him or her with respect” Did you feel the obligation to have The Talk with Briana?
Luke: Sure, I have conversed with Briana about the police and to be careful; however, she does not seem to be a target.
Greg: I am sympathetic to the frustrations in the black community. But I feel the police in these situations are also the victims. In 2014, the year Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, and Andy Lopez were killed, 49 officers were killed by gunfire (odmp.org). Two of those shootings were accidental. I don't know the racial make-up of the shooters or the details behind the accidental shootings. If I am going to assume that Michael Brown was a “gentle giant” that acted foolishly, I am also going to assume that the majority of these officers were good men and women, dedicated to protecting their communities. Regardless of the circumstances, when violence occurs in the community, the police are on the front lines, protecting citizens, cleaning up the mess, collecting the evidence, contacting the families, and educating youth of all backgrounds about how to survive to adulthood. I am sympathetic to those officers and the difficult position they are in.
Initial reactions to the Grand Jury’s decision
Greg: I guess I was surprised that people were surprised at the Grand Jury verdict. I didn't think that Officer Wilson would be charged. The expectations we have for the police should be very high. But so should the bar for prosecuting them. After viewing the security video of Michael Brown and his friend robbing the store, my sympathies went in the direction of Officer Wilson. I guess I was willing to trust 12 people who were picked before this event ever occurred to examine the evidence and make a decision. I feel the system worked. I am glad all the evidence was made public. I don't know what else a free society can do. I know that we give lip service to the ideal innocent until proven guilty. It appeared to me that prior to the verdict, there were a lot of people who wanted to deny that right to Officer Wilson.
Luke: Did you review any of the evidence after the verdict?
Greg: I didn't and don't intend to. Nothing is more worthless than scientific data at changing hearts and minds. Without careful thinking, it will simply reinforce our preconceptions. You didn't want to talk to me for a few days after that. What was up with that?
Luke: What was up with that? I was still processing. You see my initial reaction to the Grand Jury’s decision was an incredulous and cynical “I am not surprised.” Because of these oft played narratives involving a white police man killing a black male and the white officer not being brought to trial, I have a deep seated distrust in our criminal justice system. However, this distrust is rooted in the history of the United States from the Civil Rights Movement and Jim Crow days to the present day.
Response to violence post Brown shooting and GJ decision
Greg: How did you respond to the violence that occurred after the Michael Brown shooting and Grand Jury decision? Not the protests, but the looting and burning of businesses that occurred. I have been all over the map on this one. I don't condone the violence at all. I do realize that when people believe they are living in a context that is unfair, it doesn't take much to spark violence. White colonists were so fed with being taxed without representation that a tea tax ended up causing a riot and the destruction of property and businesses. For the most part, I was analytical. I simply watched and listened. I was sympathetic as elected officials and police worked to stop the violence. In several of the conversations I was a part of, I didn't see much differentiation between the protesters and the looters. I appreciate the police working hard to distinguish between the two groups. I am concerned that Michael Brown's actions prior to the shooting and the actions of the looters steered the conversation away from root causes to the symptoms.
Not gonna lie friend, black people rioting in the streets scared the heck out of my community. While your community headed to the streets, several white people headed to gun stores. Did the black community feel the same pressure to buy guns that the white community did?
Luke: I honestly don’t know; I suspect many did.
Pressures from within our respective communities
Greg: One of the assumptions that I had about publishing this conversation was that it would be a risky exercise for you, but it would be relatively risk free for me. I quickly found out that this was not the case. When people from my community (mostly white and many evangelical) found out that we were having this conversation, quite a bit of air was sucked out of the room. Several people wanted to remind me of Michael Brown's sins, tell me jokes about how the looters didn't steal any work boots, and asked me to define social justice. You could see the wheels spinning as they were trying to decide if I was a liberal, or worse... a Democrat! The lines were pretty quickly drawn. I was either on the side of the police or the looters. The idea that there might be a larger context in which these actions were playing out seemed irrelevant. The pressure to side with the white officer was pretty strong.
Luke: As a card carrying member of the African-American community, on one hand, I am expected to side automatically with the majority of African Americans across this country who decry this fatal shooting. And I do. However, on the other hand, another part of me asks, what was Brown’s home life like? Crap, why do these events keep on playing out? Was he taught an individual will never win in an altercation between them and a white police officer (history is stacked against you)? Was he taught right from wrong? Please don’t hear what I am not saying: I am not saying Brown deserved this; I simply ask, why is this ugly song repeatedly played?
Greg: So, we have a white guy who is skeptical of Michael Brown's innocence and sympathetic to the police and a black guy who is offended by an injustice. What biblical principles should guide our thinking?
Sorting it out: thinking Christianly
1. Imago Dei: respect and dignity a must
Luke: God has made every person including Eric Garner, Darren Wilson, Michael Brown, Jeffry Dahmer, Bonnie and Clyde, in His image (Genesis 1:26-27). Theologians call it the imago dei. Being made in the image of God is what separates us from the rest of God’s creation. Only human beings are said to be crowned with glory and honor (Psalm 8:5). We all must pray that God helps us to see every human person adorned with a crown! Because of our common imago dei DNA , we are truly brothers and sisters of one human race. Because of our common imago dei DNA, all Christians are thus called to treat every person with dignity and respect. Failing to do this makes one guilty of the sin of partiality (James 2:1-13). Is a white life more valuable than a black life? In his book, Ultimate Punishment: A Lawyer's Reflections on Dealing with the Death Penalty, Scott Turow suggests that in the criminal justice system this certainly is the reality. However, as Christians, we know that because of our common imago dei DNA, all persons from ‘womb to tomb’ have intrinsic worth and value regardless of creed, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, or nationality. As Christians, then, we must seek to guard that imago dei; as Christians, we must be courageous enough to demand that our authorities treat all suspects, criminals, US citizens, etc. with the utmost dignity and respect as well.
Greg: I agree with you. Unfortunately, in many of the conversations I listened to, that principle flew out the window pretty fast. Tribalism and demonization of "the other" seemed to be the order of the day. If anything, social networks have made this easier. Today, it is really easy to get our news from sources that reinforce rather than challenge our thinking. It seems to provide certainty during uncertain times, and make us feel a little better than the other groups.
2. We are all fallen
Greg: While we are all made in the image of God, sin has infected us. We are all sons of Adam and daughters of Eve and have inherited their sinfulness (Romans 5:12-21). Even our best efforts at standing up against evil will be corrupted by sin. I guess we can't be surprised when our governing authorities and our protests go wrong. Richard Rothstein does a good job examining the public policies that helped segregate St. Louis and other cities. We can see a history of sin throughout the public policies and attitudes outlined in his narrative.
3. God loves justice
Luke: God, our heavenly father is good, right and just. This is precisely why God loves justice and righteousness (Psalm 33:5). Simply, justice is seeking to right wrongs. So, if God loves justice, the opposite must be true: He hates injustice or the miscarriage of justice. We image God when we love the things that He loves and hate the things He hates. Our police are called to ‘serve and protect’—so we must applaud those who carry out this task honorably and likewise expose the ‘bad apples’ that do not. This is our moral duty to defend the cause of the marginalized, the oppressed, the widow, the orphan or better, the “other.” Justice means boldly, promptly and unapologetically correcting a brother or sister in Christ who uses pejorative terms (e.g., thug or N-word) directed to an African-American human person. Justice means standing up for the dignity of all human beings.
Greg: Some of my friends really bristled when I mentioned there was a social justice component to the aftermath of the Michael Brown shooting. Twice I was asked to define social justice. For me it is more than righting wrongs. It is about creating a society where everyone can flourish. I heard Bill O'Reilly recently interviewed on the Daily Show. (I know—I'm such an academic!) He admitted that White Privilege had occurred in the past, but was no longer an issue. I have to respectfully disagree. Societal decisions from the past can stack the deck in the favor of one person over another. I own land because of government homesteading practices in the 1800's. I grew up in neighborhoods surrounded by families who benefitted from Veteran's Administration and GI Loans given to mostly white soldiers after WWII. No neighborhoods wrote restrictive covenants to keep my family out. I don't feel any responsibility as an individual for the sins of the past, but I have benefitted greatly when affirmative action policies have targeted the white community. For me, justice means not only correcting wrongs but also ensuring that my black brothers have the same opportunities to flourish. Or, as N.T. Wright states it, “justice is the intention of God from Genesis to Revelation to set the whole world right.”
Luke: I love that quote from Wright.
4. The authority of the state
Greg: Romans 13:1-2 states that government has a legitimate, God ordained role. When Paul wrote these words, he was living under the Roman Empire. The Romans were not the most benevolent government to have arisen. Despite this, Paul recognizes the God given role that government has to enforce the law, even using lethal force if necessary (Romans 13:4). Many in the white community have rallied around the police in light of the rioting and looting that took place after the Michael Brown shooting and Grand Jury verdict. This is legitimate. The government must protect its citizens and their property. The police have a right to use lethal force if necessary to stop crime.
It is tempting for those of us in the white community to reduce this issue to a mathematical equation. The thinking runs something like this: most violence in the black community is black on black. Therefore, if over 95% of the police are conscientious and are doing all they can to protect our communities, then the black community should accept an occasional accidental death as collateral damage, especially in light of the violence that occurs daily in minority neighborhoods. As I try to view this issue from your perspective, two issues come to mind. The first is the unique role that government has. Like the family and the church, the government is one of the three institutions ordained by God. When people are hurt by family members, or the church, we recoil. As a God ordained institution, hurt caused by government institutions is especially troubling.
The second temptation when viewing this issue is to examine it separately from the larger context of historical racism in our society. Again, I suggest any skeptic either read Rothstein's history of St. Louis public policy or an American history book. While Romans 13 talks about the enforcement side of the State, this passage and others also talk about its role in providing for social justice (Deuteronomy 15:12-15, Jeremiah 22:1-5). I guess in light of the history of race relations in our country, and the role government has played, I'm not surprised that people have been rioting in the street. I'm surprised that there hasn't been more and I'm humbled by the patience shown by the black community. God is truly restraining the chaos!
5. Individual vs corporate responsibility
Greg: In the United States, we are so focused on the individual that we forget about the community surrounding them. There is the American myth that intelligence combined with hard work equals success. I don't want to take anything away from successful people, those qualities are critical. Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers does a good job of highlighting the influence of family, culture, and even birth date on the a person's chance of being successful. For example, if Bill Gates had not lived in a community where mothers got together and raised funds to buy a mainframe computer terminal, this brilliant, hardworking young man may not have been able to take advantage of the computer revolution that was about to take place. As Christians, none of that should be a surprise. Throughout Scripture, there are examples of the influence of the community on the individual and vice versa. Those influences can be positive, as in the case of the community caring for the poor (Leviticus 19:9-10; Deuteronomy 24:19-22) or negative when a community becomes so corrupt that God punishes the entire society (Joshua 10:40-42; Amos 3:1-2).
Scripture also holds out examples of the power of one, and the impact for good or bad they can have on an entire people group. The most graphic example is Adam. His sin resulted in misery for all of humanity and the rest of creation (Romans 5:12-14). Then there is Jesus, (Romans 5:18-21; 1 Corinthians 15:21), who came to rescue the world from that sin. On a less cosmic level, individuals like Job prayed for his family (Job 1:1-5) and Nehemiah prayed for his nation (Nehemiah 1:4-11). I guess this is the long way around to my point. It shouldn't be a surprise to the white community that the efforts of the overwhelming majority of hardworking police officers and officials can quickly be sabotaged by a few bad apples. On the other hand, a community that has historically been set up to favor one people group over another, is set up to crush the hopes and dreams of those who aren't in power. When your hopes and dreams are crushed, I think that sets people up for all kinds of social problems. Members of both the black and white community recognize that we have come a long way in providing equal rights to everyone. That is true. Hopefully we are overcoming the years of institutional preferences that stifled all but the strongest personalities. Who knows, everything else is changing rapidly, hopefully this part of society is as well. God holds individuals responsible for their actions. Scripture also is clear that He punishes societies that are overtly or subtly unjust.
6. Making all things new
Luke: Jesus’ resurrection was the ‘first fruit,’ which means that his bodily resurrection serves as a prototype and guarantee that the future resurrections of those who die in Christ would indeed occur (1 Corinthians 15:20-23). However, Jesus’ resurrection is significant for another reason: his bodily resurrection also promises the restoration of all things. Both Cone and Wright argue that the redemption and renewal of the entire cosmos is grounded in the resurrection of Jesus. And that redemption and renewal is underway! This means, of course, that we have the privilege of participating in making all things new. So, we need to ask, what needs restoring? And then we need to ask, how can I use my privileges—race, reputation, connections, money, access, etc.—to advance this great renewal project? It does not take a rocket scientist to see that there are two institutions desperately in need of restoration: the human family and our criminal justice system.
Greg: I'm not very hopeful that much change is going to come from the Michael Brown shooting. It seems weird to be writing this article this late in the game. I guess for me, the hope of the gospel is where I hang my hat. We have both mentioned N.T. Wright. I love this quote from him. It makes me feel like our conversations are not in vain.
“You are—strange though it may seem, almost as hard to believe as the resurrection itself—accomplishing something that will become in due course part of God’s new world. Every act of love, gratitude, and kindness; every work of art or music inspired by the love of God and delight in the beauty of his creation; every minute spent teaching a severely handicapped child to read or to walk; every act of care and nurture, of comfort and support, for one’s fellow human beings and for that matter one’s fellow nonhuman creatures; and of course every prayer, all Spirit-led teaching, every deed that spreads the gospel, builds up the church, embraces and embodies holiness rather than corruption, and makes the name of Jesus honored in the world—all of this will find its way, through the resurrecting power of God, into the new creation that God will one day make. That is the logic of the mission of God. God’s recreation of his wonderful world, which began with the resurrection of Jesus and continues mysteriously as God’s people live in the risen Christ and in the power of his Spirit, means that what we do in Christ and by the Spirit in the present is not wasted. It will last all the way into God’s new world. In fact, it will be enhanced there.”
I don't know how to proceed and make change happen. I just know that the past hasn't been just. It does feel like our conversations over meals together are small acts of rebellion, pointing toward a new kingdom that is being constructed. Prior to Ferguson, I described myself as more of a detached observer to the issues around race. As our conversations have progressed since Thanksgiving, the issue has become more visceral. I will never get what it's like to be black in our country. But our conversations and friendship have definitely sensitized me to the frustrations that you feel. Maybe that's one more step in the right direction. Speaking of one more step, can I just hear you say once...MIZZOU-RAH!!!
Luke: Nope, not from these lips!
A final note
Our most recent conversations have taken place over meals at a deli in downtown Kanas City and a Mexican restaurant in Chillicothe. And we plan to continue our dialogue. Can we encourage you to reach across the aisle and have meaningful conversations too?
1 See the Washington Institute for Faith, Vocation & Culture website: www.washingtoninst.org/8635/makes-me-wanna-holler/.
2This is a phrase borrowed from Michael Emerson’s book, Divided By Faith.
3See http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/08/16/melissa-harris-perry-black-men-killed-by-police_n_5684588.html for a retelling of this narrative.
5Borrowed from Allan Dayhoff’s soon to be released book, Listening to Hear: Church in a Blues Bar.
7Wright, p. 422 in iBooks.
8James Cone, The Spirituals and the Blues Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 2005.
9N.T. Wright (2008). Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection and the Mission of the Church. NY, NY: HarperCollins.
10Wright, p. 414 in iBooks.
1. What was your initial reaction to the events of Ferguson? The Grand Jury decision? The looting, destroying of property in Ferguson? The ongoing protests around the world?
2. Did you have an ‘a ha’ moment while reading this conversation between Luke and Greg? If yes, what was it?
3. What bothered you about reading this conversation between Luke and Greg?
4. Did you discuss the Ferguson events and the subsequent events (e.g., looting, protesting, etc.) with a white person? An African-American person? Why or why not?
5. How has your church addressed this situation, this topic?
6. Should Christians live any differently now because of Ferguson? Why or why not?
7. Are you concerned that secular sources such as the Comedy Channel were important sources of information for this conversation?
Biss, E. Notes from No Man’s Land, Minneapolis, MN: Graywolf Press, 2009.
Black, E. War Against the Weak: Eugenics and America's Campaign to Create a Master Race, New York, NY: Four Walls Eight Windows, 2003.
Bonilla-Silva, E., Racism Without Racists: Color-blind Racism and the Persistence of Racial Inequality in the United States. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2003.
Bordewich, Fergus, Bound for Canaan: The Epic Story of the Underground Railroad, America's First Civil Rights Movement, New York, NY: HarperCollins, 2000.
Emerson, M., & Smith, C., Divided by Faith: Evangelical Religion and the Problem of Race in America, New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2000.
Emerson, M. et al., United by Faith: The Multiracial Congregation As an Answer to the Problem of Race, New York, NY: Oxford Press, 2003.
McIntosh, P., White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack, Independent School, 49, 31, 1990.
McWhorter, John, Losing the Race: Self-Sabotage in Black America, New York, NY: HarperCollins, 2000.
Pollock, M. (Ed.), Everyday antiracism: Getting real about race in school. New York: New Press: Distributed by W.W. Norton & Co., 2008.
Roley, Scott. (2004), God's Neighborhood: A Hopeful Journey in Racial Reconciliation and Community Renewal, Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.
Tatum, B. D. (2003), “Why are all the Black kids sitting together in the cafeteria?” And other conversations about race. New York, NY: Basic Books.
Turow, Scott (2003), Ultimate Punishment: A Lawyer's Reflections on Dealing with the Death, New York, NY: Picador.
Williams, Juan (1986), Eyes on the Prize: America's Civil Rights Years, 1954-1965. New York, NY: Viking Penguin.
Coates, Ta-Nehisi. The Case for Reparations.
Rothstein, Richard. The Making of Ferguson: How Decades of Hostile Policy Created a Power Keg. (See http://prospect.org/article/making-ferguson-how-decades-hostile-policy-created-powder-keg).
Films (view these films in a racially diverse context)
Guess Who Is Coming to Dinner (1967), Crash (2005), Ray (2004), The Help (2011), The Grace Card (2010), The Butler (2013), 42 (2013), A Family Thing (1996), Watermelon Man (1970), Mississippi Burning (1988), Red Tails (2012), Selma (2014), Birth of a Nation (1915)
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