Disgrace and grace: Our response to the Ferguson grand jury decision

November 24th, 2014

“We worship God through our questions.” -Abraham Joshua Heschel

In the wake of a St. Louis County grand jury’s decision related to the fatal shooting of Michael Brown by police officer Darren Wilson, we seek strength, direction and resolve through our faith. The decision, in and of itself, brings no resolution for those of us who live in Ferguson, for any particular demographic segment of our nation, or for humanity as a whole. Two families remain forever changed. A community is left struggling to coexist. The people of Ferguson will continue the hard work of reconciling differences as we strive to understand, trust and listen to each other. And we will continue searching for ways to sustain our hope in systems, leaders and practices.

Yet, whether we acknowledge it (or understand it) or not, every single one of us—inside the city limits of Ferguson and out—remains subject to a series of longstanding historical and cultural problems. Look at the faces of the children in your family, your neighborhood, your congregation. This generation, like yours and mine, is forced to wrestle with the unresolved issues and questions of the generations preceding us. There are more questions than answers.

This is the inherent nature of faith.

One biblical account in particular keeps coming to my mind in these days. It is one that raises suspense and suspicion, and leaves its readers with more questions than answers. It is a story of two brothers, Cain and Abel. As brothers they are linked together in a variety of ways, and are meant to be a community of two. But, for some unexplained and unclear reason, Abel is regarded differently than the other. Animosity exists between them.

These brothers’ relationship is representative of humanity. As humans, we too are linked together in a variety of ways. And yet as a community we are irresponsible, inattentive and insensitive toward our very selves—the brothers and sisters in our human community. We continue to mimic Cain’s morally reprehensible interrogative, “Am I my brother’s keeper?”

The rhetorical but relevant question posited by God, “Where is your brother Abel?” remains unanswered. Abel’s blood still cries out, along with the blood of too many young men, women, boys and girls of diverse races in near and faraway places. They are cries of retribution, cries of retaliation and cries of reprisal demanding a response. That is why…

When faced with disgrace, God dispenses grace. God’s response to Cain’s disgraceful act and remonstration of Abel’s blood from the ground is a powerful witness. It reveals how Christians can exercise grace while grappling with the complexities of unresolved and unjust issues.

God acknowledges a wrong has been committed, yet responds righteously.
Under no pretense does anyone deserve to lose life. Each of us holds inalienable and civil rights, but they do not privilege us to infringe upon the rights of others. We cannot legislate love or adjudicate right relationship. Justice often is interpreted as what benefits a small group of ‘just us’, but our interpretations are only interpretations. Neither the world nor systems have final say. What is politically correct, socially conscious, even legally warranted may be right, but not be righteous—not aligned with God’s will. Ultimately, God alone executes judgment. God is the final authorityand may grant judgment or allowancein all matters of human existence.

God affirms the sacredness and pain of persons.
God asserts Cain’s significance with an identifying mark. The mark was not a scarlet letter. It was a sign of God’s divine affection and Cain’s vulnerability. Truth be told, God loves us in spite of ourselves. Confirmation of that love is the willingness to meet each of us in our condition with unconditional love. Affirmation should not be viewed as complacency on God’s part. In fact, God’s affirmation is an act of assertive compassion, particularly for the disinherited. There is no one manner in which to think or behave. People who are hurting need to be affirmed in their hurt; people who are angry need to be affirmed in their anger. This way of listening and hearing one another is called empathy, a core value of human relationship and community.

God advances the cause.
Cain, representative of the worst in each of us, is given another chance. We are extended opportunities by God to advance the cause. Our words and actions should not turn us against one another. Instead they should draw us closer together. Our words and actions should demonstrate true community, as we search for and expect to find the good in one another, as we lift each other up. This is not only a shared reality, but also a collective responsibility. It is a human imperative that we not act selfishly, but strive towards furthering our collective interest. As Martin Luther King Jr. posited, “We are inextricably connected to each other… caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied together into a single garment of resting.”

We must recognize that all lives matter. Our faith assures that peace while it is beyond our understanding is not beyond our grasp. As disciples of Christ we are called to express our hope by means of grace.

Do you have questions about how to address these issues in your church, with your friends and peers, in your spheres of influence? What tools and resources would be most helpful to you as a Christian leader in the midst of this ongoing conflict and conversation? Please respond in the ‘Comments’ section below.

F. Willis Johnson is the senior minister of Wellspring Church in Ferguson, Missouri.

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