Ferguson: Fifty Shades of Black and White

A protester joins hands with community leaders to form a barrier between police officers and protesters in attempt to diffuse
A protester joins hands with community leaders to form a barrier between police officers and protesters in attempt to diffuse the escalation between the two, during a peaceful protest in Ferguson, Missouri early on August 20, 2014. Police lowered their profile on August 19, and refrained from using tear gas, to allow a more orderly night of protests in this St Louis suburb 10 days after the police shooting of an unarmed black teenager. AFP PHOTO / Michael B. Thomas (Photo credit should read Michael B. Thomas/AFP/Getty Images)

There are no moral "grey" areas when it comes to the lethal racism that helped to kill Michael Brown, the unarmed African American teenager shot at least six times in Ferguson. Lethal racism is evil, and we should not shade that in any way.

Progressive or liberal theologians and pastors are sometimes reluctant to use the term "evil" in such a stark way, knowing that it can lead to dangerous forms of dualism, an "us versus them" mentality.

But there are times when theology needs to be dangerous, and this is one of them, especially when danger means "threat to the status quo." The concern about "us versus them" is valid, however, and so we need a theological approach that does not set one individual or one group against another.

Liberation theological method helps us avoid this problem, as liberation method describes the systemic character of evil, avoiding the worst of oppositional thinking between good and evil. In our textbook on teaching liberation theology Lift Every Voice: Constructing Christian Theologies from the Underside Mary Potter Engel and I describe how evil is made up of "structures of oppression, patterns larger than individuals and groups, that tempt us toward injustice and impiety." These structures come from lots and lots of individual sinning that interlock and create systems. Sin means "those free, discrete acts of responsible individuals that create or reinforce these structures of oppression."

Racism is such a structure, a system born in the sins of those who created and maintained slavery, as well as the creation of its legal and moral corruptions, the subsequent complicity in Jim and Jane Crow laws, and the more recent construction of the school to prison pipeline that today continues legal racial injustice.

But the current extreme racism has some other causes as well. The rise of "dog whistle politics," as Ian Haney Lopez argues in Dog Whistle Politics: How Coded Racial Appeals Have Reinvented Racism and Wrecked the Middle Class is driven by political expediency. For example, Richard Nixon's "southern strategy" set the racial terms for the two American political parties, capitalizing on the southern white, especially male, resistance to civil rights.

The election of the first African American president has given rise to a renewal of "dog whistle" racism of the very worst kind.

What is happening in Ferguson, then, is the logical outcome of a renewed and very shrill racism. In my view, this kind of racism is used to place the blame for the American economic catastrophe on vulnerable African Americans, instead of on Wall Street where it belongs. Wall Street is a system made up of a lot of interlocking sins, especially the sin of greed, but these economic sins are hidden by racial hatred, and in the most morally callous way, projected onto African Americans, as well as immigrants and other racial minorities.

Now, when we add the militarization of the police to this mix, we get a system that not only misplaces the blame for economic catastrophe on African Americans and racial/ethnic minorities, but also responds to any attempt to push back at that blame with overwhelming force.

In this system, the militarization of the police is not an "accident," i.e. a mere by-product of police forces receiving surplus war equipment, but something far more sinister. This militarization is a deliberate occupation of groups pushed to the breaking point by economic exploitation as I argue in the last chapter of #OccupytheBible: What Jesus Really Said (and Did) About Money and Power. The kind of police militarization we have today in the U.S. resembles the Roman imperial project in the time of Jesus, where Roman forces occupied and militarily suppressed subject peoples, as I especially note in regard to Ferguson in a related blog post.

Denunciation of the "black and white" situation of systemic evil in Ferguson, as well as elsewhere in the U.S., is one part of liberation theological method.

Annunciation of the good news of God's possibilities for repentance and change is the second part.

Post-conflict police reform as demonstrated in the Northern Ireland experience is a concrete example. The police in Northern Ireland underwent extensive, perhaps even fundamental, reform as recommended by the Patten Commission (Independent Commission on Policing in Northern Ireland 1999) following the Good Friday Peace Agreement of 1998.

Racism is not inevitable. Police militarization is not inevitable. Racism as reinforced by police corruption is not inevitable.

What has to happen is for enough Americans of conscience to say "this is evil" and "we reject lethal racism" and "we demand police reform." It can be done. It has been done before.

God does act for justice and peace in human history through the united efforts of people of conscience.

Systemic good is just as much a reality as systemic evil. God in your mercy, hear our prayer.