Community Christian Church of Springfield

4806 E. Cherry
Springfield, MO 65809
(417) 877-7821 





Sermon

While Ferguson Still Burns

November 30, 2014
Community Christian Church of Springfield, MO
Roger Ray, pastor

 
(an excerpt from an Independence Day speech delivered by the former slave, Fredrick Douglass, in the presence of President Millard Fillmore in 1852)

At a time like this, scorching irony, not convincing argument, is needed. O! had I the ability, and could reach the nation's ear, I would, today, pour out a fiery stream of biting ridicule, blasting reproach, withering sarcasm, and stern rebuke. For it is not light that is needed, but fire; it is not the gentle shower, but thunder. We need the storm, the whirlwind, and the earthquake. The feeling of the nation must be quickened; the conscience of the nation must be roused; the propriety of the nation must be startled; the hypocrisy of the nation must be exposed; and its crimes against God and man must be proclaimed and denounced. 

There is a Buddhist parable about a group of monks who were traveling with their abbot when they came upon an uprising in which a group of peasants were fighting against government soldiers.  The abbot said to his disciples, "We must join the conflict."  Confused and surprised by this uncharacteristic demand, they asked, "Master, on which side should we fight?"

"Both," the abbot replied.  "The government must learn to care for the poor and not to mistreat them, and the poor must learn to respect the powers that bring order to our society."

I'm not typically indecisive.  In fact, I'm sure that most of you would readily assure me that I am more inclined to be decisive when I should hang back and think about things a little longer.

In May I drove a thousand miles to participate in a Moral Monday March in North Carolina where the state legislature has been taking very deliberate steps to keep black citizens from voting.

I have not, however, driven the 200 miles between Springfield and Ferguson, Missouri to participate in demonstrations there since the August shooting of Michael Brown.  The right wing politicians and much of the media in North Carolina bemoaned the fact that there were "out of state agitators" swelling the numbers of the Moral Monday Marches in their state.  If only I had known how vociferously they were going to object, I would have had a t-shirt made that said, "Out of State Agitator."  "Agitator," is, in fact, one of the more flattering things that I have been called.

But when the Prosecuting Attorney in St Louis County, Robert McCulloch, finally announced on Monday evening that there would be no indictment against officer Darren Wilson in the shooting death of Michael Brown, there was a predictable outburst of looting and burning on the part of a small minority of those involved in the demonstrations that have been ongoing in Ferguson since Brown was killed in Mid-August.

Tuesday morning, the Ferguson Police Chief, Tom Jackson, was angry that the clergy had not shown up to do more to prevent this from happening.  You know that I often complain about pastors not taking to the streets often enough but I have not participated in the Ferguson demonstrations.  In part, I have stayed away because I don't think that I need to help clean up the mess that Ferguson's city government and police department created through years of racial discrimination and over policing of the black community.

 I don't agree with those who set fire to buildings in Ferguson, or who looted stores, or who fired shots or threw stones at Ferguson policemen..... but, I understand why they are angry and why it is coming out this way.

And I want for you to know, if you have not heard it in the news already, that it was not just black protesters who were setting buildings on fire.  Michael Brown's family's church in Ferguson, the Flood Christian Church, was burned to the ground that night after having received more than 70 threats from white supremacist groups. Our corporate media keeps an audience by making white people feel superior to and somewhat afraid of black people.... They appear to have no incentive to even report on white criminal violence against the black community.

But, still, I didn't go because I couldn't get comfortable with the push to portray Michael Brown as a martyr that represents the plight of young black men in America.  And I don't think that Officer Wilson is the incarnation of evil that we want to fight.... Still, I understand those who think differently.

Michael Brown was a kid but he evidently used his size and his ability to intimidate others to push boundaries that he, if he actually did what he was accused of, would certainly end up badly.

Similarly, we were horrified this week by the news of a 12 year old boy, Tamir Rice, being shot and killed by Cleveland police.  Again, the boy was technically unarmed but he had a real looking BB gun and he was pointing it at people in a public park in order to make them think that he had a gun.

He should not have been killed.  The police should have managed the situation much better.  Tamir needed a good talking to but he didn't need to be shot, or arrested, or anything of the sort.  BB guns are still legal and they are still sold in the toy department of Walmart....they probably shouldn't be but they are and as long as they are, it shouldn't be a crime to buy one.

There were, however, many things in the Ferguson case, in Officer Wilson's testimony and subsequent interviews that are disturbing.  That he said that Brown looked "demonic" and that he was afraid for his life.... So much so that he fired his weapon 12 times, hitting Brown six times, possibly killing him when he was still a hundred feet away.

Wilson had never fired his gun on duty before.  He was not known as being either a racist or for being excessively aggressive, but when asked if there was anything that he could have done differently, he insisted that he did the only thing that he could.... I wasn't there, I don't know what I would have done in the same circumstances, but I can't help believing that there were a whole lot of things that could have been done short of using lethal force.

I don't think that Wilson was likely a monster but that he not only didn't get an indictment but that he can't even say that he wishes that he had wounded Brown rather than killing him.... Couldn't he at least say that he wished that he had not killed Brown?  Well, as I said, I understand why there are riots in Ferguson.

But in this same week, decades old charges of rape against the seemingly charming and lovable comedian, Bill Cosby, seemed to come in such large numbers that it is no longer possible to ignore them.  A new TV show featuring Cosby has been canceled and even his appearances in Las Vegas have been canceled and Vegas is not known for setting a high water mark in their expectations of virtue in their performers.

If he is only 10% guilty of the charges against him, then his career is over.  But six years ago people were saying that big named entertainers like Bill Cosby and Oprah Winfrey had made it possible for Barak Obama to win the 2008 election to become the President of the United States.  Here is the paradox that we have to be willing to deal with as mature adults.... His sex crimes are horrible.... And he was a transformative figure in race relations in America.

Thomas Jefferson, John Kennedy, Gandhi, Martin Luther King, even Dorothy Day, all had some things, sometimes horrible things, to be ashamed of in their personal lives.  So, yes, Michael Brown wasn't a saint.... But you don't have to be a saint to deserve not being shot by the police.

In many ways in spite of how they died, it was fortunate that Gandhi, Kennedy and King, all got to leave the stage of public attention before their personal lives became fodder for media taunting.  No one can stand the scrutiny of a probing modern media that is more interested in what happens between your bedroom sheets than they are in the rampant injustice against an entire race of people in our streets.

Al Sharpton may show up for every public civil rights fight, but he is not the face of civil rights, nor is Cornell West, ... though I don't know of any substantive moral criticism of either Sharpton or West... but then neither are Bill Cosby or Michael Brown to be dismissed because we know of some things that they did that were wrong.... Or am I alone up in here as the only person in the room who has made some mistakes?

We have to stop allowing the mud slinging and public humiliation of any individual to take the power out of the larger issues.

No, rioters should not burn down businesses or police cars to avenge Michael Brown.  But, folks, racism is real.  Wilson should not have shot Brown.... That, however, was an individual event and the rightness or wrongness of the public's anger can not be judged based on whether or not Michael Brown reached in the Police patrol car window and fought Officer Wilson for his gun.

Every life matters.  Michael Brown's death is tragic and important but the issue of state sponsored racism did not begin or end with Michael Brown.

Black men are disproportionally stopped by the police, they are five times as likely to be charged and jailed for the same offense as a white person is.  Even the way the penal system is written discriminates against black people.... Jail sentences for possessing crack cocaine used to be many times the punishment for having powder cocaine.... Crack being preferred in black neighborhoods and powder cocaine being more popular among members of Congress and the Senate.

You may think that I'm exaggerating but I will point out as just one example the recent resignation of the Florida representative, Trey Radel, after being arrested with cocaine and he had been one of the legislators pushing for drug testing of all food stamp recipients.  I guarantee you that a higher percentage of members of Congress would be found to be using drugs than are food stamp recipients.
If we couple drug testing of elected officials to drug testing of welfare clients, there will never be a bill passed mandating drug testing of people on welfare.

Al Sharpton and Bill Cosby, though condescending in tone, were not wrong to counsel black young men not to try to make themselves look threatening and anti-social.  Crime in the black community is not an imaginary problem.

However, I can tell you how to cut crime in the black community by as much as 90% in a single year and I'm not even all that smart.  We could cut crime, I'm going to claim by 90%, by creating good paying manufacturing jobs in the inner-cities, by funding our urban schools the same way predominantly white private and suburban schools are funded, by decriminalizing drug addiction and by offering treatment for addiction rather than incarceration...AND, if I may add.... By instituting sane gun laws and by making health care universal.

We turned the "war on poverty" into a "war on drugs" and it has evolved into a "war on the poor."  I don't like to use words like "stupid" in the pulpit, but this shift in public policy is stupid....well, not entirely stupid.... It is mostly evil.  Racism in 21st century America is a choice, an institutionalized, wicked, inexcusable choice and it is time for it to end.

More than a decade before President Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, a run-away slave, Fredrick Douglass, was asked to deliver a 4th of July address in Rochester, New York.

Perhaps next summer we may just read the address in its entirety as our sermon for Independence Day but I used an excerpt from it for our wisdom lesson today.

But if I may summarize, in the years before the Civil War, before the end of slavery in America was anything but certain, he reminded his white audience that the Independence they were celebrating on the 5th of July had been given to them by a generation of brilliant and largely peaceful people who had simply had enough of the oppression of the British crown.

He said, "Oppression makes a wise man mad. Your fathers were wise men, and if they did not go mad, they became restive under this treatment. They felt themselves the victims of grievous wrongs, wholly incurable in their colonial capacity. With brave men there is always a remedy for oppression."

There were those who were scandalized by the suggestion that we forcefully reject the oppression of Great Britain.  There were those who protested the Civil War and refused to serve in it, insisting that the end of slavery would come gradually and peacefully if we just gave it time.

So, I understand why anger among the black communities of our nation's major cities can go from the boiling point to the point of open flames.  As President Kennedy said, "Those who make peaceful revolution impossible will make violent revolution inevitable."

I don't want to be guilty of exaggerating for effect because what I want to say, I want to be understood literally:

America is at a breaking point.  The income disparity that is driving the middle class into poverty and making the burden of poverty unbearable is not sustainable.  The absence of jobs that pay a living wage and the inaccessibility of health care, transportation, housing and education so that a smaller and smaller slice of society can be obscenely wealthy will push our once great nation to the point of violent revolution if we cannot intelligently correct our course.

The news media on both the left and the right use fear and misinformation to keep a profit generating audience.  The Republicans and the Democrats both serve corporate interests and both are guilty of wholesale deception of the voting public.

In the real world, however, racism is real.  Poverty is real.  Schools in poor neighborhoods are breeding grounds of ignorance, crime, and addiction, making them a pipeline into for-profit prisons.  It isn't slavery but it has so many of the elements of slavery in it that you have to strain to defend the differences.

A hundred and sixty years ago, Douglass said:
For it is not light that is needed, but fire; it is not the gentle shower, but thunder. We need the storm, the whirlwind, and the earthquake. The feeling of the nation must be quickened; the conscience of the nation must be roused; the propriety of the nation must be startled; the hypocrisy of the nation must be exposed; and its crimes against God and man must be proclaimed and denounced.
Men and women, I suspect that there are young black men in Ferguson who have turned over police cars and thrown Molotov Cocktails at stores who could not even tell you why they feel such violent rage.  Just as, if they can catch the white extremists who burned down Flood Christian Church would not be able to sensibly describe why they are so afraid of black people and why they give vent to such hatred and violence.

We know that it wasn't the death of Michael Brown or the vilifying of Darren Wilson.  Those are the fuses on a social bomb that has been under construction for 200 years.... A fury that was born in slave ships and at the business end of whips on long forgotten plantations.

The rage comes from media that feeds a gullible public on subtle forms of racial fear and hated, disguised as entertainment.  As Noam Chomsky has said:  "As long as the general population is passive, apathetic, diverted to consumerism or hatred of the vulnerable, then the powerful can do as they please, and those who survive will be left to contemplate the outcome."

So, my friends, it is up to us not to be passive, apathetic, nor easily diverted by corporate media, nor led by our ignorant, racist friends into hatred of the vulnerable....because will must not let the powerful do as they please.  We must not stand idly by.




Roger L. Ray, D.Min. 

Pastor
Community Christian Church
4806 E. Cherry Springfield, MO 65809
(417) 877-7821

"I have the audacity to believe that peoples everywhere can have three meals a day for their bodies, education and culture for their minds, and dignity, equality and freedom for their spirits. I believe that what self-centered men have torn down men other-centered can build up." (Martin Luther King, Jr. - Nobel Speech)
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