On a hot August night, a white police officer shot a young unarmed black man in a community just north of a major American city. Rumors spread through the community that the man had died and soon people were out on the streets, protesting and even looting stores.
The city was Harlem. The year, 1943. The young black man was a soldier intervening as the police officer arrested a young woman. The young man did not die, but his shooting tapped into the frustration of the community. 71 years later, the people of Ferguson are experiencing a painfully similar story.
From our reading of Exodus today: “Now a new king arose over Egypt, who did not know Joseph.”
For years the Egyptians and Jews had a good relationship, thanks to Joseph. However, in today’s reading many years have passed and the text tells us that the Pharaoh has forgotten about Joseph.
And what happens when the Pharaoh forgets? He instructs his people to oppress the Jews. He does not remember their story together. He does not remember the power of God that binds them together. Pharaoh forgets and so the Jews suffer.
What happens when we forget our story?
Well, ask Michael Brown. Or Eric Garner. Or John Crawford. Or Ezell Ford. Or Dante Parker. All five are unarmed black men who have been killed by law enforcement in the last month alone. We don’t know exactly what happened between Darren Wilson and Michael Brown, we have not yet heard the full story. But the shooting has tapped into underlying feelings of injustice about how black men are treated by police all over our country and those concerns are certainly backed by data.
The actions of that night in Harlem have repeated themselves over and over and over in this country.
And this week and last we have seen images of police in full military gear pointing loaded weapons at unarmed protestors, assaulting and arresting journalists, even shooting pastors and other peaceful protestors with rubber bullets.
We have been awakened to the face that we have forgotten our story.
We have forgotten that through Jesus, all humanity, whatever our race, have become one in Christ. We have forgotten that every life is sacred and precious.
And in case you’re thinking, “Wait a minute, some of these men were breaking the law! These weren’t all innocent people.” Consider this.
Did you get that? Four year old black children make up less than a fifth of public preschoolers but, nearly half of the four year olds suspended more than once are black.
Four year olds. Are they guilty?
The writer Mikki Kendall, a black woman, was so tired of the multiple violent and sexist Twitter comments she received every day, she tried an experiment with some of her friends. They swapped out their profile pictures, so Mikki’s picture became that of a white man. Her white male friends switched their photos with photos of black women. Her Twitter handle was exactly the same, but immediately, the threats and harassment stopped. The same people who insulted her now had thoughtful questions about what she was writing. The same people! And her male friends who switched their pictures? One of them only lasted two hours. He was stunned at the horrifying invective launched at him when people thought he was a black woman.
Consider this, in a 2012 Pew poll, the researchers discovered that 75% of white social networks are 100% white. That means that 3/4th of white people do not spend any social time with a single friend of another race.
There is something wrong with us. I doubt these police officers or pre-school teachers were overtly racist, though clearly the twitter trolls were. The police officers and preschool teachers are probably perfectly nice people. They are probably a lot like us. I think the problem of racism is so deeply ingrained in us that we aren’t even aware of our bias. We shoot unarmed young black men, we suspend young black boys because deep down, we are afraid of them. Call it white privilege, call it systemic racism, whatever it is, we are infected.
I wish I knew exactly what the cure was.
Maybe part of the cure is remembering our history. As I rabidly followed news coming out of Ferguson this week, I realized I know very little about the history of race in Charlottesville. I know about Sally Hemmings of course, but that was about it. In the last couple of days I’ve tried to learn as much as I can, but it is just a beginning.
Did you know that at the beginning of the Civil war there were more free and enslaved black people in Charlottesville than white? Did you know Jefferson thought blacks were incapable of the full range of human emotion? Did you know there was a community of freed blacks called Canada where the South Lawn of UVA now lies? You can even see a memorial there. Did you know that in the 1960s, African American homes and businesses were destroyed in Vinegar Hill as an act of “urban renewal”? Did you know that Greencroft Club was begun because Jews and blacks were not allowed in Farmington?
Remembering our shared history is only part of the solution. Even if we learn everything there is to know about our community’s racial history, historical knowledge can only get us so far.
History can’t tell us who we are and how we are connected. History tells us how we are broken, but not how we can be healed.
In our Gospel today, standing in a center of Roman power, a town named after Caesar, Jesus asks his disciples who people say he is. Peter gets the answer right—the Messiah, the Son of the Living God.
The God we love came to disrupt the power structures of the world that tell us what we are worth. He is a living God, who loved us so much and was so grieved by our inability to love him and one another, that he was willing to become human.
He became Michael Brown. He became the victim of our sin, so we wouldn’t have to sacrifice each other any more. His sacrifice should have been the last. His sacrifice was enough for us.
And yet, here we are.
There is still hope for us. We can pray that this living God will help us see our sin more clearly. We can pray that this living God will build empathy in our hearts instead of fear. We can offer ourselves to God as agents of change.
Clergy and other Christians in Ferguson have been doing just that. They have walked alongside protestors and police officers these last few weeks, offering empathy, offering love, helping to diffuse conflict, while still calling for justice. The Episcopal Dean of the Cathedral in St. Louis, Michael Kinman, has written eloquently on the connection between the Eucharist and the Christian response to Ferguson, but he has also acted as a physical barrier between police and protesters this week. He articulates and lives his faith.
Christians and other good hearted people, black and white, have worked for peace together in Ferguson: cleaning up the streets, feeding children who were unable to start school. And people of every race, across the country have been raising money for the St. Louis food bank, which was hit very hard with the school delay.
We can join this faithful group and can be part of change in our community and country. But first we must look deep in our hearts, and be willing to confront any fear and ignorance that may lurk there.
May God help us.