A Preamble to a New Ferguson Dialogue

As the events surrounding the August 9th shooting of Michael Brown unfolded in Ferguson and around the country, my heart breaks because a clear ‘winner’ will never arise from this scenario. No matter the grand jury’s conclusion, the Browns still buried a son, Darren Wilson’s life is likely in shambles, and the racial undercurrents of our nation were agitated once again into a tsunami that polarized our country.

For over a week, both traditional and social media outlets have buzzed with experts who emphatically contradict each other with dogged confidence in their claims. The media also chronicled the cocktail of reactions to the grand jury’s decision not to indict Officer Wilson which included impassioned demonstrators convinced of the system’s failure to deliver justice, the disinterested onlooker who has unwavering confidence in the legal system, and the unsettled bystander who desires change but feels helpless in the currents of the day.

The complexity of this drama is paralyzing for those willing to grapple with all the dynamics at play, but many avoid the struggle for understanding by flattening its layers and ending up on an extreme where tensions are easily resolved. I’m convinced that if our nation cannot emerge from our self-affirming huddles of consensus and stop lobbing verbal attacks at each other, then the stories of Mike Brown, Tamir Rice, Trayvon Martin, and others will be too often reenacted in the days ahead.

In light of the polarized state of the dialogue, the rules of engagement must be redefined if we have any hope of having a conversation that results in genuine and sustained progress in our country.

Where do we go from here? I’m convinced that the resources to move forward are in the gospel of Jesus Christ. As a Christian, I’m confident that every person is blinded by their sinfulness and is unable to see everything with omniscient clarity. In fact, our inability to see rightly can only be healed by the one who is without blinders, limitation, and sin – Jesus Christ.

The good news of Christ not only brings salvation and life, but it is also fertile ground for instruction. In the gospel story, Christ, the Redeemer, demonstrated unparalleled humility that the Christian is called to embody. In fact, the journey of the Christian life begins with a humble cry for mercy at the foot of the cross; a posture that must be sustained throughout our lives.

I’m convinced that too many Christians have long forgotten the humility of Christ demonstrated in the gospel and its inherent role in our lives. In addition to the Word of God, God has given us the Word, Christ, and one another to help us overcome our often truncated understanding of his world. It’s only by imitating the humility of Christ that we can “consider others as better than ourselves” (Phil. 2:3) and therefore lessen the division in our country.

In this cultural moment, the barrage of verbal epithets and violence must come to an end and dialogues laced with Christ-like humility must take its place. Environments need to be cultivated where individuals can be heard on their own terms, without their lived experience being invalidated by another’s. Finally, after each of us has given an honest and sustained effort to stand in one another’s shoes, as Christ modeled in the incarnation, we as a society can begin to work together to address the individual and systemic issues that trouble us as a nation.

In subsequent posts, I hope to begin to untangle the web of issues that muddy the Ferguson developments. I’ll start by exploring how the collective memory of people groups alter their perspective which results in a plethora of conclusions in matters like the non-indictment of Officer Wilson. Following that post, I’ll engage other pertinent issues including systemic racism, racial conditioning and profiling, privilege, etc. I look forward to the dialogue.

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5 thoughts on “A Preamble to a New Ferguson Dialogue

  1. Jeremy Gage

    Why is it wrong to invalidate someone’s lived experience? People are wrong all the time about their experiences. They misunderstand causes, motivations, and the actual events they live all the time, especially when it is emotionally charged.

    Lived experience is not infallible. To remove it from the table of debate is to make a position unassailable, so long as it’s based on experience. That’s no way to start a “discussion.”

    • walterstrickland

      Jeremy, thanks for your patience, this has been a busy week. As for your question, as humans, the scripture says that we see through a glass darkly (1 Cor. 13:12) because of our sinfulness. The realities of this world are see by everyone through the lens darkened by their personal and communal experiences, and sinful tendencies. The first step is to understand that there is ‘human experience’ (what we perceive as humans) and there is ‘reality’ (what actually happens) and they need to be handled separately.

      Beginning with reality, only God sees what actually happens with true objectivity because his ‘glass’ is not darkened by sin or even being limited by a human body that is socially, chronologically, racially particular and gendered. The way you asked the question almost assumes you have the divine privilege of having a glass that is not darkened and therefore being able to objectively tell everyone else where they misperceive reality.

      Secondly, concerning experience, the way someone perceives reality (i.e. their lived experience). Our lived experience generates real emotions like happiness, sorrow, joy, remorse, etc., and those are undeniable. When you begin a conversation by trying to invalidate someone’s lived experience you immediately start down the road of trying to win an argument and losing the person in the process. In my marriage I have learned that if I don’t comfort my wife by showing that I care first, then we will never be able to move forward and talk about the issues. If I run right at the issues while ignoring her real human emotions then I dehumanize her and the possibility for us both to learn and grow is forfeited.

      In sum, we all have to demonstrate humility as we peer through our darkened glasses onto the reality, in the process of working toward truth together, we have to understand that there areas where one person can see more clearly than another, but nobody but God sees all clearly. As we work toward understanding reality together, this is the process of iron sharpening iron (Proverbs 27:17). In direct response to your statement, lived experience is the only way to start a discussion because that is where people are, and from there we work toward truth together.

      I hope this is helpful.

  2. Jeremy Gage

    Thanks for responding, Dr. Strickland.

    It seems we just have fundamentally different operating principles. I agree that we need to handle reality and a person’s experience of it separately. But I think determining reality has to come first, or any meaningful empathy or reconciliation is impossible.

    If I’m shouting for joy over something, and a friend interrupts and says “wait, that was a bad thing,” I can’t get mad at him for not rejoicing with those who rejoice. I might be mad at him for being wrong, but I wouldn’t be mad at him for saying something. The entire question is whether he’s right, not whether it’s appropriate to say. If he’s right, then he was right to say it even if it interrupts my celebration. If I’m upset or angry, and the friend says “wait, there is nothing to be upset about,” the same applies. I might be mad at him for being wrong, but I cannot call him out for failing to mourn or rant with me while we disagree about what happened.

    If people disagree over what happened, it is not reasonable to expect someone who thinks it’s good to mourn with someone who thinks it’s bad. And vice-versa. Therefore, the entire conversation they have needs to be about reality, not a false unity where one side denies what he thinks is right to console or rejoice with the other.

    It seems you are referencing a very popular youtube video about relationships called “It’s Not About the Nail” (it’s less than two minutes). Our different frames are probably evident in how we view that (if you haven’t seen it, it’s less than two minutes). Most evangelicals seem to think it’s a video about an inept guy who doesn’t know how to listen and relate. I think it was about a weak guy who feared his wife’s feelings too much to address the problem strongly enough. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-4EDhdAHrOg

    • Jeremy Gage

      So, to put rubber on the road, what I am saying is that the Church needs to have a prayerful and direct argument over what grievances from blacks or whites about each other have merit. Until we have that, nothing can move.

    • walterstrickland

      Jeremy, I don’t think we have fundamentally operating principles, if we did that would make me a relativist with no regard for truth. I seems to be that we both have a high regard for the “nail” in the other person’s head, we are stumbling over a point or two:.

      First, the video is helpful, but like any illustration it breaks down because only one person has a nail in their head. In real life we all have nails in our heads and are working together to rid them from each other, this is the process of sanctification. As those who “see through a glass darkly” (i.e. all humanity) we have to approach telling others of the nail in their head with a variety of postures. If the issue is something that is explicitly stated in scripture like denying the death, burial and resurrection of Christ, then the admonition is simple; believe on Christ!

      In more complex situations like the Ferguson or Eric Garner scenarios, we must enter the dialogue with humility lest we fall prey to Christ’s rebuke in Matthew 7:3. This reference does not eliminate loving confrontation with a brother or sister, but it teaches a posture of humility in areas where we too can have bias. Unfortunately I have not seen much humility in interaction across racial lines in recent days. Some have fallen prey to oversimplification like Glen Beck or Jesse Jackson who either eliminate or totalize a single factor like race in these events (there are endless examples like race that have been treated carelessly).

      Second, nobody is going to listen so someone who doesn’t care for them, even if they are speaking truthfully. The old adage that “they don’t care how much you know, until they know how much you care” has some truth to it after all.

      In sum, I’m convinced that all well meaning people have a great deal to add to the conversation, but we have to fight believing that we see through a glass clearly while everyone else’s is darkened. I hope this helpful.

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