On Ferguson: A Marsh Chapel Reflection
In a pastoral mode, let me offer three overtures in reflection upon the events in Ferguson, MO this week. These brief thoughts follow on sermons delivered this fall at Marsh Chapel, which already have addressed the tragedy in Ferguson (8/24, 9/7, 10/12, 10/26, 11/23, 11/30), and on the Marsh Chapel forum held here on 9/3, and on several other group and individual conversations.
First, it may help us most, and this counter-intuitively, to place ourselves sub specie aeternitatis, under the gaze of God, and approach this particular but revelatory event from a spiritual, and theological perspective. In prayer. In thought. In worship. In gathering. In conversation. To remember that we and all whom we encounter are children of the living God. We are not economic engines, solely, nor political operatives, mainly, nor cultural agents, centrally, nor partisan players, primarily. We are angels in waiting. And those whom we greet and consider are so, too. As children of the living God, grounded in grace, sustained by spirit, we may have food for the work and bread for the journey. General calls for ongoing conversation are well meaning but misdirected without daily rations. Theologically then we will again brood over sin, death, meaninglessness. Theologically then we will confess pride, sloth, falsehood, hypocrisy, sloth and idolatry. Theologically then we will return to admission of evil, both banal and horrific, to admission of the enduring hardness and hardship of injustice, to admission of our complicity, hate to say so as we do, in the gone wrong part of life. Isaiah Berlin would agree. If nothing else, a spiritual, theological perspective will perhaps improve our capacity to listen.
Second, it surely will help us, and this more obviously, to read some history, some good, probing history. Ferguson comes 200 years or so after much of our American economy, politics, culture and struggle were forged in cotton. You can read Edward Baptist’s The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism. But the calculation is closer to home. 30% or 40% of slavery is still with us today—in economy, culture, politics, and struggle. From 1810 to 1860 a quarter-million slaves from the Old South were re-sold into the New South (Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, Arkansas, Texas, and, yes, Missouri). Mothers had their babies torn from their arms on the now beautiful Baltimore harbor. Husbands were whipped away from wives, and marched to Birmingham. Children were held up like pumpkins and sold to the highest bidder, then sailed down to New Orleans. They were herded into what had been Indian land (the Native Americans having been either slaughtered or ‘re-located’ to Oklahoma). With cost free land and cost free labor trees were cut, fields were plowed, cotton was planted and harvested, mills in the north were set to work, all or almost all funded by a tsunami of credit, legitimated by the US government and various banks. You know, you, even you, I, even I, can make money if you pay nothing for land and pay nothing for labor. But the bills do accrue into the future, not just for the enslaved, but also for the enslaver, and for all those, both north and south of the Mason Dixon line, who benefitted from slavery and the torture it took to keep people chained. The sky-line of Boston, dear old Boston, old money Boston, is so beautiful, especially if you don’t look too closely at where all that 200 year old money came from. If nothing else, a historical perspective will perhaps improve our capacity to lament.
Third, we need to act. I do not mean re-act. To act we need a moral compass. To find a moral compass you need a community of faithful women and some men, acquainted with wonder, vulnerability, and self-mockery, with mystery, generosity, and, yes, morality. You need a church. I am glad to host a vigil, as we will do Tuesday night. Please come. Please do. But my interest in your presence will be quickened, made real, if I see you in church, praying, tithing, teaching children, visiting the sick, studying the Gospels, singing hymns, living a life in which you are really alive before you die. I have less interest in, less compassion for, people who descend for a moment from the heavenly clouds of utter self-centeredness to attend a vigil or watch a car burning on TV, only to return later to a lonely, greedy, narrowly immoral life. I don’t care that you come to Marsh, or not. I am glad to greet you here, or not. But. Go somewhere once a week to gather with others, admit your mortality and fragility, and grow up, Sunday by Sunday. The kinds of labor that it will take in this country for us to live down chattel slavery will require a moral compass rooted in ancient faithfulness. Over time, then, you with others, over much time, will gain the footing, find the leverage, provide the strength to make real change in real time.
How shall you respond to Ferguson? Spiritually, historically, and morally.