Saturday, December 6, 2014

Come Down - Initial Reflections on the Death of Michael Brown and the Events in Ferguson, MO

Michael Brown is dead. He was 18 years old. He was black. He was shot by Officer Darren Wilson. He was shot with his hands up… and he is dead.

Was his shooting a crime? Some witnesses suggest that he had his hands up and said, “Don’t shoot.” A possible interpretation of the forensic evidence has his hands raised in an offensive attempt to grab Officer Wilson’s gun.

This week, a grand jury convened to consider possible prosecution of Officer Wilson declined to press charges, and protesters filled the streets of Ferguson, MO, setting fires and clashing with police and the National Guard. Protesters also marched in Philadelphia around City Hall and in many cities across the country.

Reading various articles about this case, two distinct narratives emerged; two narratives that I hope I have fairly represented thus far. One narrative portrays Michael Brown as an aggressive thug who attempted to assault a police officer; Officer Wilson responded with necessary force to defend himself and the sad outcome is that Michael Brown is dead. The other narrative points to the long legacy of black youths being shot to death by white police officers. Yes, Michael was no angel, but he did attempt to surrender and instead was shot 6 times.

My point this morning is not to advocate for one narrative over the other, but rather to invite us to reflect upon this powerful experience that we have shared and to connect us with some of the deep language of our faith. My aim is to go beneath the surface of this particular event to the deeper longing it stirs in us; a longing that is so essential to us, so profoundly human, that we prefer to bury it, to distract ourselves from it, to find any and all ways to hide from it, but it’s always there. It troubles us. It disturbs us; and we don’t know what to do about it.

We long for this world to be just. We long for life to be fair. We long for that something that we know is missing to be found and put back into place so that “all will be well and all will be well and every kind of thing shall be well.” (Julian of Norwich).

We struggle with these feelings, but the Bible does not struggle; it does not hold them in; it cries out to God in full voice with the language of lament; language we find in Isaiah 64:1–2 (NRSV) O that you would tear open the heavens and come down, so that the mountains would quake at your presence— as when fire kindles brushwood and the fire causes water to boil— to make your name known to your adversaries, so that the nations might tremble at your presence!

The language of lament owns the reality that this world is not the way we want it to be; it’s not the way it ought to be; it is deeply, profoundly, fundamentally flawed. And when we are honest with ourselves, and the language of lament is brutally honest, we confess that we have a part to play in this sad state of affairs; we are not the way we ought to be; we are not just and fair and right. As Isaiah puts it, Isaiah 64:6 (NRSV) We have all become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a filthy cloth. We all fade like a leaf, and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away.

As gifted and capable and good as we are, we cannot save ourselves. The path of progress and human development will not set what is wrong to right.

For some, this is a cause to despair; to turn away from this tragic state of affairs, distract ourselves with momentary pleasures and find some way to live with the reality that “it is what it is.”

For Christians, it is time for Advent; it is time for us to lift to God in prayer ourselves and this sad mess of a world that is both so achingly beautiful and so callously cruel. It is an invitation to confront the terrible wrongness in this world and in ourselves with the one power that can, that will, that is setting all things right; the power of faith; faith in a God who isn’t absent without leave; faith in a God who hasn’t left us to figure it out for ourselves; faith in a God who is the Potter, we are the clay, and God-only-knows what God can make of us, for God will not be exceedingly angry; God will not remember our iniquity forever; God will consider that we are all God’s people.

At Advent, we cry out to God, “Come down!” And we remember the babe born to a virgin in Bethlehem of all places. We remember that day by the Jordan River when God tore open the heavens and descended like a dove on that babe now grown to a man from Nazareth of all places. We remember how the sky turned black and the ground shook when that man Jesus was crucified on Calvary. And we remember how the earth quaked, the stone rolled away, and that dead man Jesus was raised to new life, eternal life, for the power of God made it so: Life and love conquered sin, evil, and death, because God came down.

At Advent, we remember and we look forward; we look forward to the day when we won’t wonder if justice has been served, for there will be no doubt. We look forward to the day when 18 year old boys won’t lie dead in the streets for reasons we may never know. We look forward to the day when evils likes racism will be no more. We look forward because Christ has died; Christ is risen; Christ will come again.

So we will not despair after a week like this. We will not give in to rage and hate but we will listen to those who do, for as “Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., the nation's apostle of nonviolence, once said: "a riot is the language of the unheard." He also showed us that only disciplined, sacrificial, and nonviolent social movements can change things.”[1]

In the midst of his grief, Michael Brown’s father looked forward to that change, “Hurting others or destroying property is not the answer. No matter what the grand jury decides, I do not want my son's death to be in vain. I want it to lead to incredible change, positive change, change that makes the St. Louis region better for everyone.”[2]

Brothers and sisters in Christ, this is Advent and we are all the people of God. Take an honest look within, and ask God to save you from what is wrong and set you right. Take an honest look around, and ask God to save this world from what is wrong and set all things right. Take an honest look and offer honest prayers with the language of lament; language that names what is, looks forward and cries out, Isaiah 64:1 (NRSV) O that you would tear open the heavens and come down!” Amen.

[2] Op cit.