“So… what exactly is the problem in Ferguson?”
This was a sincere and genuine question someone asked me earlier this week, and a question I myself have been pondering all week. It is a truly difficult question to answer because the truth is there is no specific singular problem in this situation but rather a myriad of different problems all intertwined and interlaced into a complex web spun into greater entanglement by the various voices (both boisterous and silent) in both media and social media outlets. I will not pretend to be an expert on anything, nor will I pretend that I understand or know enough of the details surrounding the incident or the events since the death of a young man named Michael Brown. But here are my humble attempts of sharing my reflections on what some of the pieces of the “problem” might be for those who might have this question but be afraid to ask it.
The problem is… someone is dead.
Let us not run too hastily to political arguments either in defense of the deceased or in defense of the police department so quickly that we forget to acknowledge this. A Human being…. Someone’s child, someone’s brother, someone’s best friend, someone’s sworn enemy, someone’s cousin, someone’s classmate…. Has lost his life. That is already a problem. And we need to pause and mourn the loss of his life.
The problem is… he was unarmed.
At the expense of sounding naive and trite, there is an age-old adage that says, “go pick on someone your own size”. And while that is a dated (and honestly a pretty weak) come back line, it reveals our basic human agreement that it is unfair and unjust to not fight with the same weapons. It is an unspoken understanding we have that when one person’s weapon is their fist and another person’s weapon is a fully loaded firearm, there is an imbalance and injustice at the foundation of any altercation that might ensue.
The problem is… the man holding the firearm that released a bullet that ended a young man’s life was a police officer.
The problem is an incredible imbalance of position power. Incredible power comes with incredible responsibility. But positional power? Positional power comes with a profound obligation for incredible restraint. Not being ready for any moment that justifies using the upper hand you have (in this case, a firearm) but being disciplined enough to, in every moment, refrain from using that upper hand and looking for another alternative.
The problem is… the media.
The most powerful character in every good novel is neither the protagonist nor the antagonist. The most powerful character is the narrator. The narrator tells the story, controlling which details are emphasized and which details are forgotten. The media is our modern day narrators, controlling which details are given and how they are given to give the general public a sense of who the victim is and who the villain is. Michael Brown was a high school graduate on his way to college. But the problem is, the picture painted for the general public was not of a college bound man, but of a troubled teen who appeared perhaps to have brought this on to himself. The media has choices. They have choices which photographs they release. And which photographs they release literally create a picture or a caricature of who that person in the photograph is. The problem is the media created an immediate caricature of a “trouble-maker-up-to-no-good” rather than a “teenage-about-to-enter-college”. This was a choice. And the fact that they made that choice, is a problem.
The problem is… social media.
Social media, for the stereotypical, facebook frenzied audience, depends almost entirely on one’s own social networks. Meaning your view of the world will be as narrow as the diversity of friends you have. And lets be honest… we do not tend towards diverse crowds of friends. A conservative republican will likely fill their facebook newsfeeds with the opinions, news article shares, and buzzfeed quizzes of other conservative republicans. And vice versa. And this is also true of ethnicity. Someone’s immediate network of friends consists of people who are much like them. This means that there is a shadow looming over a vast majority of the social media world where thousands upon thousands of American people have no idea what “Ferguson” is nor any reaction to the name “Michael Brown” or “Trayvon Martin”.
The problem is… information gaps.
Within 7 minutes of the tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary School, I could go on facebook, google, twitter, cnn.com, and have all kinds of information available at my finger tips. Police statements and interviews releasing the name of the person responsible, what he was wearing, what weapon he fired, how many bullets were released. That was within 7 minutes. Within 7 days (10,080 minutes) of the death of Michael Brown, the only information available is the name of the police officer who fired the shot (and mind you, this was not released until 5 or 6 days later) and irrelevant video footage from an entirely separate incident involving stolen cigars and a frightened store clerk. This is a problem because information is power. And while the American public might not be entitled to full or even partial disclosure, I have to believe that the mother who lost her son deserves to have access to the information that will give her a picture of the final 20 minutes of her son’s life.
The problem is … police response.
It is so very puzzling that the police response was to arrive at a candlelight vigil dressed in full riot gear, adorned with gas masks. (please forgive me if I have this information inaccurate and refer to the previous point as to why I might be unclear on the details …) The Police Department seemed to believe they were walking into a war zone, long before it became one. And why is it that the assumption that a gathering of impassioned, emotional people would most likely turn into a riot? I have not seen police roll into gatherings hosted by Westboro Baptist Church with the same concern. Could it be possible that the difference between a gathering of Westboro Baptist Church Members and a Gathering of Michael Brown’s Community and Supporters is the ethnic demographic? Absolutely. The problem is the assumption that a gathering of Black demonstrators requires a riot intervention plan because that reveals the underlying belief that “black people are violent” and a large gathering of “black people” then must require a strong military response. This is institutionalized racism.
The problem is… Eric Garner. John Crawford. Ezell Ford. Dante Parker.
In the past 2 weeks alone, 4 other young black unarmed men, have lost their lives … the shooters responsible? All police officers. And the problem is for every one of these stories that catch media attention, there are hundreds of others that do not. The problem is how inhumanely normal the lens of suspicion is on individuals because of the color of their skin. Please do not misunderstand me on this point. I am in no way trying to “make this a race issue”, however I am trying to point out that it is ALWAYS a race issue because race and ethnicity are irreversibly a part of who we are. It is in our biological and sociological DNA and the more we ignore it, the more we subconsciously apply our biases to the policies we create in the positions of power we are granted.
The problem is… the silence of the church.
I am not saying that Jesus is not hanging out right now with those hurting from painful church splits and pastoral controversy. (It is clear to me that the majority culture evangelical church is there.) But one place Jesus definitely is right now is Ferguson. That’s the biblical Jesus I know. He marched into a synagogue one day and proclaimed that He came to set the oppressed free and comfort those who mourn. To break the chains of injustice. And then He walked out of the synagogue doors and lived those words into a catalytic reality for the rest of His life on earth. Will the majority culture main line evangelical churches go there this week? We were silent during the long painful battle our black brothers and sisters endured in remembrance of Treyvon. Perhaps the Lord is giving us a chance to try again with Michael?
The problem is … me.
I have the luxury of sitting in my comfortable home at a computer screen typing up this commentary from afar. The problem is that I can turn off my buzzfeed and facebook apps, open Netflix and watch as an angsty 30 year old tries to find the love of his life while telling his children the story of how he met their mother, while others can never turn off this reality in their lives.
I will not forget Trayvon. I will not forget Michael. I am committed to let the lives they lived and the deaths they suffered alter my perspective and challenge the ways I use my platforms of influence and my own privilege to create access for others. Will you join me?
“Asian-American Christians are voicing concerns over how they’re depicted by white evangelicals, most recently at a conference hosted by Rick Warren’s Saddleback Church in California.” – Religionnews.com
I have a lot of complicated feelings. Admittedly I am someone who carries complicated feelings about most things, but I carry intensified complexity in my feelings when it comes to multi-ethnicity and the church. One of the places where God has met me deepest is in the area of multi-ethnicity. Being someone who was born and raised in an immigrant Chinese church set in a predominately Spanish speaking Latino neighborhood, attending predominately Caucasian or White Majority Schools in my childhood, the Lord has captivated my heart with the beauty of a cross cultural world.
What I have found to be true is that our American (Southern Californian) society is one where diversity is actually held in extremely high esteem… but unfortunately, because of the complexity of race and ethnicity conversations, diversity often leads to mere co-existence and a simplistic desire to find the “lowest cultural common denominator” and stand upon that. What is tragic about that is how short sighted that makes us and how that narrows our scope for understanding the complexity of a God who is bigger than any one of our experiences alone.
What makes me sad about the video parody shown at the church leadership conference is this: it assumed a “low common denominator” of a pop-culture reference (The movie “The Karate Kid”) without considering the deeper cultural implications of “Chinese accents” and “bowing to each other”.
Having a chinese accent means English is your second language. Bowing to each other is a cultural sign of honor and respect. You see, when I hear someone speak in a “fake chinese accent” without understanding the plight of immigrant people who automatically get assumed as less intelligent because of language, it literally hurts me. Why? Because it makes me think of my Father. One of the most brilliant Bible Scholars, Medical Professionals: Surgeon, profound thinkers I know. And it makes me think of every time I go to a grocery store with him, the way the checker inevitably speaks to him like he is incompetent when asking a question about Splenda simply because of his accent. When bowing to each other, what comes to mind for me is not a “funny memory of a scene from the movie”, but Thanksgiving and Christmas and New Years with my extended family. Being the youngest daughter in a large family, walking around the room greeting and bowing to others as a sign of my recognition of my position in the family and a sign of acknowledging the honor due the elders in the group.
I understand that as an over generalization, Asian Americans do not like to speak up often and it is especially counter cultural to speak up about ourselves, so it 100% makes sense to me that there are certain things about Asian cultural norms non-asians are unaware of. That makes sense to me, and I certainly don’t want to hold unawareness against anyone, as I do think it is incumbent upon me as an Asian American to learn how to use my voice to share my cultural experiences with others. If I gave the whole situation deep benefit of the doubt, I would say, perhaps the authors of the sketch were actually trying to affirm Asian Americans (maybe?) or at the very least, use a movie reference that made Asian Americans seem awesome (or at least made Karate seem awesome).
But the greater heartache for me was this… as an Asian American, I think I have a lot to bring to the table. I think Asian Americans have ALOT to bring to the table. There are some wonderful LEADERSHIP skills and inherent LEADERSHIP instincts we bring to the table because of our high value for community (we are AMAZING at change processes for example because of our communal nature and harmony oriented value system). And I am sad. Sad that when Asian Americans get a platform at a conference like this… it is not about affirming our unique leadership gifts and asking us to share, train, equip, and empower others with the things that are intuitive to us culturally.
My greatest wish is that one day, some day, on Evangelical Leadership Conference Stages… we will find a humble invitation that says “Dear Asian Americans… we need you to teach us how to lead. There is something about the way your culture leads that we desperately need to learn from you.” And “Dear Latinos, we need you to teach us how to lead. There is something about the way your culture leads that we desperately need to learn from you.” and “Dear Black leaders. Please teach us how to lead. There is something about the way your culture leads that we desperately need to learn.” and so on. So here’s my plea…
“Dear White Evangelical America, I need you to teach me how to lead. There is something about the way your culture leads that I need to learn from you…. and thank you… because 99% of leadership material available to me in Christian bookstores, on amazon, at church conferences, at church camps, in corporate America, at colleges and Universities, in non-profit organizations, in HOA meetings, in sports teams, at company picnics, etc. are about the way you lead. And I do LOVE it. I have learned alot and will continue to learn alot from you, because you have alot to offer and it has blessed my leadership immensely. I sincerely thank you. Now let me return the favor for you, please hit me up sometime, I would love to teach you how my culture leads, maybe you’ll find it helpful for you in your leadership too. “
I would sum it up this way… I think this year, the Lord has brought me to a place where i have come to the end of myself and hit a place where I felt like i had nothing left to prove. It was an empty feeling… because once I got there, it felt like i truly had nothing. I had to start asking myself, what is compelling me forward, if it is not to be the need to prove something to someone? In the emptiness I found there, the Lord began to rebuild my character. Teaching me what it means to truly surrender giftings, abilities, and strengths to Him and stand firmly not on those things but on anointing and calling. It is in that place I find myself currently. And i feel like God is saying I’m finally ready to operate with conviction and not simply instincts.
Was reflecting on this today, and it pretty much summarizes where i’m at…
“This is a pivotal moment in the life of a leader. It is the moment when whatever the promised land is for us — a church of a certain size, a new ministry, a new building, writing a book, being sought out as an expert — pales in significance when compared with our desire for God. At this point we might realize that we are missing the presence of God for ourselves personally. We might look around at what we’ve done or built and wonder whether we have somehow gotten out ahead of the very Presence that called us to this journey in the first place. Or maybe we see that our own relationship with God has been over taken with ministry concerns, and we grieve the loss of a sense of God’s presence deep within.
Leadership has taken a toll. A great emptiness has opened up, and we realize, as Moses did, that there is no promised land we could ever envision that matters nearly as much as the presence of God in our life right here and right now. Future possibilities are not enough, because we’re not even sure we will be around to see them. It is no longer enough to know that others are experience the goodness of God through us; there has to be some goodness in it for us, something to sustain our own fragile soul.”
(Ruth Haley Barton)
“ I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean; I will cleanse you from all your impurities and from all your idols. I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit in you and move you to follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws.” (Ezekiel 36:25-27)
I used to think a heart of stone came from apathy or indifference. I now wonder if hard hearts also come from deeply wounded hearts that never submitted to the Urgent Care of the Lord? Perhaps hard heartedness doesn’t happen overnight, but is a slow and steady process of tightening up ones defenses each time anxiety strikes? I have found myself there lately. And the temptation to “rule with an iron fist” has crept up, as the heaviness of people’s disappointment in me, and my disappointment in them builds. In the midst of feeling deep places of anxiety, I recognize the still small whispers of a mighty God beckoning me to come to Him, give Him the deepest places of pain… and let Him break me further that I may heal upright and true. I think the painfulness of giving up the heart of stone isn’t hurt pride, but rather exposed brokenness.
“Lord, here am I.”
3 Elijah was afraid and ran for his life. When he came to Beersheba in Judah, he left his servant there, 4 while he himself went a day’s journey into the wilderness. He came to a broom bush, sat down under it and prayed that he might die. “I have had enough, LORD,” he said. “Take my life; I am no better than my ancestors.” 5 Then he lay down under the bush and fell asleep. [1 kings 19:3-5]
I had my broom tree moment yesterday. Someone told me that I did not know and was not preaching the correct gospel. I felt so tired of the struggle. I felt like I simply didn’t didn’t have enough fight left in me. I just wanted to curl up into a little ball, and just quit. It made me start resenting the call God had placed on my life. It made me start feeling angry that the Lord would call me into something and then leave me there to fend for myself. I felt like i simply had nothing left, and i felt like collapsing into a little Dora pile and like Elijah saying to God “I have had enough, Lord.”
In that moment, God whispered to me “what are you doing here? have you gotten so used to seeing the display of my power work around you that you have missed the display of my power at work within you?” He is on my side, and i hope and pray that i never forget it.
“…here I bring my stains and crowns,
gentle river wash me now.
your love is deeper than i know,
your ways are higher than i could go…”
I love those lines. What a beauty thing! that we can bring our stains and our crowns to Him. Sometimes I wonder if i can be too proud of my crowns to part with them, and too ashamed of my stains to bring them? It fascinates me that either way… stains or crowns, it is hard for me to give it up to the Lord. How patient the Lord is with me! I think sometimes I hear the verses from Isaiah about waiting upon the Lord and I think that the Lord keeps me waiting to grow my patience, but actually I’m beginning to thing the Lord keeps me waiting not so much to grow my patience but to grow my insight and understanding that even in my perceived waiting, it is actually the Lord who is waiting upon me.