After Ferguson: Are Christians Even On the Same Page? Progress Requires Working Together

a group of people in front of...
a group of people in front of...

As the country continues to sort through the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, few are surprised that some of the most outspoken commentators are those from the faith community.

But what might be surprising is how people in the same religion can come to such startlingly different views on the same event. As those of us speaking and organizing the Christianity21 conference prepare for a national dialogue on the future of Christianity this January, sifting through the range of social and theological opinions offered on issues like immigration and racism is particularly important to us. It is in that spirit that I offer this overview of Christian response to Ferguson and a corresponding invitation to work together toward progress.

The Many Christian Voices Around Ferguson

Justin Taylor of the Gospel Coalition was among the first to point out the disparities among Christian perspectives, asking "why do so many of us respond to Ferguson so differently?"

Unsurprisingly, he suggests it has to do with race, and outlines four positions a person of faith could take:

1. We know that the shooting of Michael Brown was morally unjustified (i.e., killing).
2. We know that the shooting of Michael Brown was morally justified (i.e., self-defense).
3. We do not know whether the shooting of Michael Brown was morally justified or unjustified because we do not yet have enough clear and official information to form any settled conclusions with confidence.
4. Whether positions 1, 2 or 3 are the correct positions to take at this time, Christians should be concerned with the larger systemic pattern of injustice in America that occurs when a predominately white law enforcement interacts with African Americans in particular, as borne out by similar cases and by social science studies.

Justin goes on to say there are "African American brothers" who want to focus upon number four, while "many white evangelicals, on the other hand, want to focus upon number three" at least as they wait to see if number four is justified. (Ironically, Thabiti Anyabwile, who has drawn criticism for his crude remarks about the LGBTQ community, insists on the same blog that Christians not wait for the facts before they speak.)

Morgan Lee at Christianity Today offers additional insights into how black and white Christians think about race, suggesting -- among other observations -- that, "More evangelicals and Catholics have come to believe that one of the most effective ways to improve race relations is to stop talking about race."

If these two articles don't portray the range of thought within the Christian faith, one might also turn to "How Are Christian Leaders Tweeting Ferguson" to see the spectrum of Christian responses firsthand.

Helpful Attitudes as We Think Through Ferguson and Other Heated Social Issues

It is unlikely that people of the Christian faith will come to common ground about the complex history and culture of racism in the U.S., or other important social issues, without more effort to gather and consider such issues together. That's why we welcome all to a gathering of many different Christian camps who hope to join together in the following acts:

1. Committing to Listen -- We'll be purposefully seeking to hear out a variety of different perspectives on race and other important cultural issues.

Some of this coming year's Christianity21 speakers -- such as Kristen Howerton, Efrem Smith, Richard Beck, and Jacqui Lewis -- have already written on this topic from multiple points of view.

2. Committing to Learning -- In my previous Huffington Post article, "From the Front Lines of Ferguson," PICO Community Organizer Wes Lathrop directed people seeking to deepen their understanding of racism to read this article, entitled Implicit Bias as well as The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander. Troy Jackson, Director of the Amos Project, suggested these "10 Ways White Christians Can Respond to Ferguson" and Huffington Post Religion editor Paul Raushenbush -- who has also spoken at Christianity21 previously -- offered this discussion on "What White People Can Do About the Killing of Black Men In America." We'll be offering each other more ways to continue to learn about such complex issues.

3. Committing to Participating in Even the Hard Conversations -- We'll be refusing to be among the Christians who, as Morgan Lee previously noted, purposefully avoid this subject. Along these same lines, former Christianity21 speaker Bruce Reyes-Chow has made these suggestions for discussing Ferguson with our children. We also encourage people of faith to share their experiences in local conversation or on their blogs, as former Christianity21 speaker Jamie Wright modeled in "A White Cop, Black Kid and Crime." And specifically, Christianity21 welcomes anyone interested to apply to lead a discussion group of diverse Christians around race relations or other important cultural issues at our national gathering.

4. Committing to Raising Your Political Voice -- We'll be encouraging people of faith to stay current on unfolding events in the media and to look for ways to call government officials toward fair practices. For example, in the case of Ferguson, previously mentioned Organizer Wes Lathrop suggested

ask the Attorney General Eric Holder to assign a special prosecutor that would conduct proceedings related to the death of Michael Brown AND to investigate mass ongoing civil rights violations by Ferguson Police and the St. Louis Country Police. People can reach the Department Comment Line at 202-353-1555.

Perhaps, some will also be able to use their position--regardless of field--to help observers reflect on the appropriate response in race-related conflict, as Presidential Chaplain and former Christianity21 speaker Josh Dubois did here.

In addition, we will look for ways to band together, with those who value community care and justice, like CCDA CEO and former Christianity21 speaker Noel Castellanos and others did in this Clergy Letter to the Mayor, Police, and Community of Ferguson. [Read additional commentary from Noel here.] And we'll seek out ways to visibly stand for our convictions in the public spere and to affirm others who do, as Christianity21 speaker Brian McLaren recently applauded faith leaders who he noted "prayed with their feet" as the religious faithful took to the streets of Ferguson.