Recent events in a suburb of St Louis have monopolized the news. A young black man was shot by a white police officer. That’s about all we know of the situation. Various opinions have been offered by the media as to what actually happened. Yet, at this point the investigation continues and the general public is not privy to facts…only speculations surrounding the entire event.
The president spoke about restoring calm in the community. Sheriffs and now the National Guard have replaced local law enforcement. There is a national controversy about police departments, how they maintain the public trust, what equipment they should or should not use in explosive situations, and how they respond to groups of people identified by categories such as “minorities”, “impoverished”, “uneducated” and a litany of titles used to pit ethnicity against ethnicity, socioeconomic level against socioeconomic level, and community against community.
I am not a young, black male. I am a woman of a certain age who happens to be Caucasian. I know nothing of the day-to-day life, joys, frustrations, hopes, dreams, or lack of hopes and dreams that can come from growing up in a difficult urban setting. In kind, most young, black males know nothing about people who look like me. Yet, our human nature tries to make some crazy, twisted sense out of seriously misguided attempts to categorize groups of people by what they look like and where they come from when indeed the only means to know someone is to listen to their story with the intention of appreciating what they know about life based on where they come from and what they have been through. This is not to say we must condone every action with some Freudian rationale that the events of life forced the person to act as they did and therefore they are no longer responsible for what they do. Rather it is to understand that all of our behaviors are the product of what we believe life to be. That does not minimize the fact that we are always personally responsible for the choices we make – even when life does not seem fair.
Over the past generations, people who look like me have come through discrimination in academics and professions like medicine and law; religious roles and ordination; equality of wages; and business advancement opportunities. We have experienced cutthroat tactics from those who ”made it” and joined the rank and file of the “good old boys club” rather than mentoring those who came behind them. Some expected my generation of women to be submissive or subservient to men. I recall the question a fellow seminary student asked during a classroom discussion on women in ministry. “Why a woman would ever want to be a pastor?” He went on to question why women couldn’t simply find their fulfillment in being a wife and mother. The year was 2004. The young man asking the question was African-American.
You see, the discrimination against women wasn’t simply the result of a white, male dominated society. One must note many women held similar beliefs of who we were expected to be. It took radical thinking people of both genders and a variety of backgrounds and races to change the thought controlling paradigm which kept women and girls from using all of their gifts and talents to enrich the world we all live in. And, it took time to move all of us from a place where we accepted a dated archetype – even if we didn’t like it – to a place where we were respected for our abilities. We had to enter unknown places, boldly and with respect for those who were attempting to navigate the same uncharted territory with us. Mistakes were made, however underlying everything was the knowledge that we all have something to offer society that cannot and should not be squelched because we happened to be born female.
I remember asking the young man why he wanted to go into ministry, suggesting that his motivation and mine were very similar. Our differences in appearance could act as a barrier to understanding each other or our similar beliefs and perspectives on ministry could form a bridge to navigate who we are and whose we are in God’s world.
That brings us back to the young man, the police officer and a media frenzy. Certainly what happened in Ferguson, MO was not isolated. Reports of police brutality are plenty, not only among young black men, but also among people of every ethnicity. So are stories of law enforcement officers, caring and compassionate men and women, who put their lives on the line everyday to protect and serve. It’s not only African-American families who need to teach their young how to respond when confronted by an officer. We must all teach our children respect for authority as well as how to diffuse a situation that is moving out of control. Even bigger is the need to teach our children not to pigeonhole another into ethnic, socioeconomic, political, religious, or sexual orientation categories complete with characteristics that all people within a certain demographic must have.
Women had a difficult task as we moved forward toward gender equality. I am convinced that part of our ability to change the perception of what our roles should be was because of family life. No, I am not going down the path of who’s a good father and who isn’t. Nor am I going to focus on what makes a “good family”. Those are not my issues to judge. I am saying that at the end of the day, whether it was the suffragette protesters demanding the right to vote or the corporate executive trying to break through the glass ceiling, women went home. And, in that home they interacted with fathers, spouses, sons, uncles, brothers, and male neighbors. In work and at school they spoke with counterparts who were men. Every step of the way, women had opportunity to talk and to be heard about life as it was compared to life as it should be. These conversations impacted attitudes on so many levels! Men began to question whether or not they would want their daughters, wives, sisters or mothers treated as second class citizens. Conversations from the dinner table, the family reunion, the conference room, the classroom and the bedroom slowly changed a woman’s role in America so that opportunities for girls and women began to resemble the opportunities available to boys and men.
Unfortunately, the task is even more difficult as our nation attempts to bridge racial divides. Many homes and communities remain homogenous. Our human nature elicits a sense of comfort and acceptance when we spend time with people who look and think the way we do. Social media and news publications generate information that pits liberals against conservatives; affluent communities against impoverished communities; race against race when indeed these sources spew conflict as a means to sell something for a profit and not to actually inform the reader in an attempt to bring people together. We go about our business setting barriers around town of where we are comfortable going and places we avoid. We talk among our friends about “those people” and “what are they thinking” when indeed we are all in this game together. We become “those people” to individuals and groups with whom we have not had the opportunity or taken the time to share meaningful conversation. We don’t understand each other’s viewpoints and choose not to take the time to listen to what we have done to perpetuate attitudes and reactions to…well…people who look like us – whatever the features are that lump us in our particular groups whether they are based on skin tone, religion, socioeconomic levels or any other polarizing characteristic. And, at the end of the day, we all go to our homes without the luxury of having to talk, listen, compromise, yell, cry and finally understand someone who looks, feels, and acts differently than we do.
The thing is, life isn’t fair and the more we expect it to be fair the more disillusioned we will become. But, if we can begin to act out of compassion for others and the desire to get to know them and what makes them who they are; if we can show respect for another person and their experiences in life; and if we can share our abundance, whether it is riches, knowledge, or the ability to see the good in all of God’s creation, then, and only then, we might have a chance at changing this mess we have all created. It’s about knowing that the world is bigger than our problems – even when our “stuff” seems insurmountable. It’s also about knowing when to ask for help and finding that place or person who will gently and lovingly guide us as we stumble through this crazy, mixed up thing called life.
Ferguson, MO can be a turning point for all of us. Which paradigms will we cling to and which ones will we shift and change to reach for that utopia Martin Luther King, Jr. so beautifully described when he challenged people everywhere to judge others not by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character? I might add that list could include to not judge someone based on the town they live in, their income level, what political party they ascribe to, or any other polarizing characteristic we can think of.
It’s time for us to move forward together and create a reality of compassion and inclusion. Life will never be fair, but it can be better.