During college, I worked at a large hospital in the city of St. Louis. The neighborhood seems better now, but at the time it was one of the most dangerous in the city.
Late one night, I was heading for my car in the parking garage. I stepped on the parking garage elevator as a man was stepping off.
The doors were just starting to close when the man whirled around and wedged his body between the two doors. Terrified, I cowered against the back of the elevator and gasped. I was too scared to scream. In less than a second, I imagined all sorts of awful outcomes.
The man instantly realized how his actions appeared. His face softened. “Sorry,” he said. He backed out of the elevator and let me continue alone.
Once I calmed down, it became clear what had really happened. He had simply forgotten something in his car and needed to go back. He had no plans to harm me. When he saw my distress, he kindly chose to wait for another elevator so I wouldn’t be frightened.
And before I write further, I should probably mention that the man in this story was white.
With the news out of Ferguson, I’ve been thinking a lot about my seven years in St. Louis. I’ve wondered about several of my former coworkers who lived in the North County suburbs. When I later worked for a retail chain, I even filled in a few times at a store in Ferguson. It was a quiet there then, nothing like what’s being portrayed in the media.
While I was still working at the hospital, a black coworker mentioned she would be stopping at a nearby grocery store after work. I warned her to be careful. A friend had been loading her groceries there one afternoon when a man got in her car with a gun and told her to drive. She was lucky that all he wanted was a ride. My coworker shook her head. “I’m safe there, because I belong in that neighborhood. You and your friends don’t.”
Another time, another coworker and her husband were looking for a house. I mentioned a new subdivision I had driven by in the south part of the county. She laughed. “Me, live down there? That’s hilarious.”
And that was the thing. We worked together, ate lunch together, laughed together, and discussed our lives together. But after work, they would drive north, and I would drive south. Unless your workplace was integrated, you could spend most of your days interacting with only those of your own race. I’ve seen a lot of racism, and most of it started with ignorance. We can’t cure ignorance if we’re not interacting.
I think of another friend, white, whose son was murdered. Yes, his own bad choices had put him in that place on that night, but that’s not what we talked about. I didn’t shrug because he wasn’t making a valuable contribution to society anyway. I mourned the loss, both of life and potential. I could be that grieving parent. That’s what we do when something happens to teenagers who look like my son. We aren’t so quick tell ourselves that it won’t happen to our kids, because we know it could.
The gospel requires us to take an honest look at the evil we harbor in our hearts. Becoming a follower of Christ means we set aside our self-righteousness and trade it for the only thing that can make us right with God—the righteousness of Jesus Christ. That great exchange discussed in 1 Corinthians 5:21 has implications for all of eternity (1 Corinthians 15:19), but the change it effects, that future perfection that we long for (Romans 8:23), begins here (Romans 6:4–5). It begins imperfectly, and we still fail, but it begins. So, how should the gospel inform our thinking about Ferguson?
We Can Be Honest About Sin
The gospel strips away any hope of self-justification. Self-justification is the only hope of the non-believer, but we have something better—something that actually works. We don’t have to be afraid when sin is exposed, because that’s when the light can shine in (Ephesians 5:13–14, Psalm 112:7).
What sin am I referring to here (i.e. Which “side” am I on)? All of it. The sin of racism. The sin of violence. The sin of injustice. The sin of using a tragedy for personal gain. The sin of half-truth. The sin of covering up. We should rejoice at the truth, even if it hurts our “side” and forces us to rethink our position on certain issues.
We Can Be Honest About Death
Death is the enemy (1 Corinthians 15:24–26). Our society often tries to sugarcoat it by saying “it’s a natural part of life” or mock it by making it entertainment. But when death separates us from the ones we love, we mourn. We don’t need anyone to explain that this shouldn’t be so, because we feel it in the wrenching of our souls. When a believer dies, we do have the comfort of knowing they are with the Lord (2 Corinthians 5:8), but even then we still grieve.
We Can Be Honest About Our Unworthiness
We don’t deserve our salvation. We can’t do anything to earn it. We can’t make ourselves worthy of the grace of God. That unworthiness then affects how we view others.
Sometimes, like in the story of the Good Samaritan, it means helping the hurting at personal cost. The Good Samaritan didn’t evaluate if the injured man deserved his fate. He didn’t weigh whether the injured man would properly appreciate his help. He just helped. Helping someone is a journey of many steps; the first is not looking away.
Michael Brown was created in the image of God. That alone makes his death a tragedy. His death is a tragedy whether he was an honor student or a criminal. Measuring a person’s worth by their contribution to society is the same evil that gave birth to eugenics and Nazism. It’s the same evil used to justify abortion and assisted suicide. Mourning the death of Michael Brown doesn’t automatically condemn the officer’s actions any more than mourning the murder of my friend’s son celebrates drug deals made in back alleys.
I think back to the man on the parking garage elevator. I jumped to the wrong conclusion that night. But it was a conclusion based solely on that man’s actions, not his race. As long as white people are hitting the locks on their car doors just because a black man is walking by, we still have a problem in this country. As long as we have groups of people who have been silenced so often that they expect it, we have work to do.
The problems in St. Louis started generations ago. They won’t be fixed in a day. But we need to stop looking away. We need to stop telling ourselves why it won’t happen to our kids and realize that it’s only by the grace of God if it doesn’t. Then we need to weep with those who weep.
I’ve decided to keep the comments closed on this one. Thanks for understanding.