God of the Oppressed

In light of the impending Ferguson grand jury decision (today?), I am almost positive there will be riots and some destruction of property, buildings, etc in Ferguson. I am also very confident that the violence and rioting will be criticized by white people who do not understand the anger, vulnerability and helplessness that many black people feel. It reminds me of a passage in the introduction of God of the Oppressed by James Cone when recounting his experience as a professor outside of Detroit during the riots of 1967.

He writes, “I intuitively knew that the responses of white preachers and theologians were not correct. The most sensitive whites merely said: We deplore the riots but sympathize with the reason for the riots. This was tantamount to saying, “Of course we raped your women, lynched your men, and ghettoized the minds of your children and you have a right to be upset; but that is no reason for you to burn our buildings. If you people keep acting like that, we will never give you your freedom.” I knew that the response was not only humiliating and insulting but wrong. It revealed not only an insensitivity to black pain and suffering but also, and more importantly for my vocation as a theologian, a theological bankruptcy.”

Likewise, I believe the response of many white men and women will reveal a continued insensitivity to the black experience in America after the grand jury decision is made. Many will talk about how we live in a post-racial time, how race isn’t a factor in the well-being or success or lack thereof of black men and women and in doing so will continue to “humiliate” their black brothers and sisters. People who continue to deny that young black men are not punished harsher for the same crimes than their white counterparts, or that they are jailed more frequently despite the clear facts to the contrary or even shot by police more often.

There still exists such ignorance to the black experience amongst whites, and in some cases a prideful unwillingness to make the effort to explore or seek to understand it from their perspective.

Over the last 10 years I’ve seen too many instances of racial prejudice living in New York City, Tampa, and Portland to not have some semblance of understanding of the frustration and anger that black individuals rightfully feel. I remember one time in Tampa when Kelli and I were entering a restaurant that was close to an apartment complex. As we were waiting outside for a table, I saw a black male jump into a car that a white female was driving. A police office happened to be in the parking lot and immediately pulled the car over. For what? As I sat and witnessed this whole thing, it was obvious that the officer assumed that if a white female was picking up a black male, the ONLY explanation was that he was her drug dealer. The black male was outraged and even sought out our opinion on the matter. He appealed to us and I sympathized with his outrage and sense of unfairness as I watched this play out. The officer was having a very difficult time communicating to them why he pulled them over and finally came up with the lamest of all excuses; he thought their window tinting may be darker than what was legally allowed. He pulled out a device to assess the tinting, all the while trying to see if he could find any drugs in the car that the black man must have possessed. After about 20 minutes he gave up and let them go. It turns out that the man’s skin was too dark for the officer, not the windows.

It’s stuff like this that young black males (particularly, not exclusively) deal with everyday in America. Does that sound like post-racial America? Does it sound like race isn’t a factor today? If you have eyes to see, you can see this kind of thing happen regularly.

I’m not into destroying things or rioting and would never encourage that behavior. I’m more inspired by the non-violent way of MLK. But at the same time I also haven’t grown up being discriminated against, being pulled over wrongfully on a regular basis, having my unarmed friends or family shot by police, or given harsher sentences than whites. I don’t know what it feels like to be at my boiling point with rage.

As a white Christian in America, my role in this is to listen, to empathize and stand with my black brothers and sisters as they grieve, protest, and fight for a change in the structures of society that allow things like this to continue to happen.

Do you remember Luke 9 when the disciples are arguing about which of them was the greatest? To teach them a lesson, Jesus brought a little child to his side and said, “Anyone who welcomes a little child like this on my behalf welcomes me, and anyone who welcomes me also welcomes my father who sent me. Whoever is the least among you is the greatest.”

Receiving little children is granting them hospitality, performing actions for them you would normally reserve for those of equal or higher status. Jesus is asking his followers to embrace this upside down system of values and extend service to that social group most often overlooked. Children aren’t undervalued in our society anymore, but who are the vulnerable, who are the marginalized? People without homes? Immigrants? Young african american men?  We could make a whole list. 

And it’s in this idea of receiving the vulnerable that Jesus takes things up a notch. Not only do you have no reason to feel superior to the marginalized, the outcasts of society, whoever you consider those to be (like in the story of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector right before this passage), but followers of Jesus actually extend hospitality, receive, show compassion towards those very people that society undervalues. 

One of the greatest litmus tests to our faith, our trust in and experience of the gospel is, “how are we receiving, identifying with, extending hospitality to societies most vulnerable?”

We can be the most pious people in the world. We can pray, sing, tithe, fast, read our Bibles, but if we refuse to identify with and serve those that society overlooks, or God forbid, feel superior to them, then we know that we’ve missed God’s heart and we’re working against Him.

I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that a big test of our faith today includes how we respond to the black experience in American, including Ferguson.

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