A False Dichotomy on Ferguson?

I’ve been looking for wisdom on events in Ferguson. I have tried not to confuse my white, redheaded, middle class perspective with a truly biblical perspective—not least because I have to preach on Sundays to a (tiny) half-black congregation, and I’d better speak as an oracle of God and not of the GOP. Or of the NAACP. Not that the GOP and NAACP (or white, middle-class redheads) have no wisdom to offer. But I’d prefer to listen to wisdom that is more reliably pure, peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial, and sincere (Jas 3:17).

And one of my problems is that people generally characterized by that kind of wisdom have differed over Ferguson. They seem to stress one of two poles: individual sin, or systemic/structural sin. That in itself may be an oversimplification. I dunno. I feel like a dilettante when it comes to issues of race and ethnicity; I’ve given a lot of thought to them but not (yet) a lot of book reading. Just the basics.

So I have been looking to Thabiti Anyabwile as a trusted voice on Ferguson—because he’s shown himself to have “wisdom from above” in the past. And (sorry for burying the lede) he recently offered a helpful analog that, I think, reveals that the individual vs. structural debate relies on a false dichotomy. That analog is abortion. He points out, simply, that abortion has an individual level and a political-social-systemic level. American Christians don’t seem to have any trouble addressing both and keeping them appropriately distinct; why can’t we do the same for “racial” issues? I encourage you to read the whole piece. Thabiti speaks respectfully but, especially in other posts he’s written on the topic, he speaks with an angst and a perspective that I just can’t naturally share. And that’s immeasurably helpful to me. To be “impartial” is not to convince yourself that you don’t have a situated perspective but to do your best by God’s grace to understand the perspective of the Other. African-Americans in the US grow up knowing a good deal, I should think, about the white perspective. They can’t escape it. But to be white in America is generally to have the privilege of rarely having to think about your race, and of hardly bothering about anyone else’s. That’s not impartiality; it’s blindness, failure to love my neighbor. So listen to Thabiti, at minimum, to put yourself in the shoes of a black, doctrinally sound Christian.

Two more things I’ve watched/read and found helpful:

I really like John McWhorter as a linguist, and I watched this Bloggingheads.tv discussion which demonstrated that it’s not only Christians (and not only whites) who stress the individual responsibility side of the equation. McWhorter argued persuasively that stressing structural problems to the exclusion of individual sin is a failed strategy for bringing hope to low-income African-American communities. That’s because in stripping blacks of individual sinful “agency,” they also strip them of the agency necessary to do anything about their situation. If the tragic deaths of young black men are wholly due to factors operating upon black communities from the outside, then the solution has to come from outside, too. The people in the projects will just have to wait for the Man to decide to change.

The African Americans in my community can do something about the problems that face them. Individually, they can repent and believe the gospel. And, systemically/structurally, they can appeal to the moral conscience God says He gave to everyone, even the Man (Rom. 2:14-15). That’s basically what this 1988 essay by Shelby Steele says:

Non-violent passive resistance is a bargainer’s strategy. It assumes the power that is the object of the protest has the genuine innocence to morally respond, and puts the protesters at the mercy of that innocence. I think [the Civil Rights] movement won so many concessions precisely because of its belief in the capacity of whites to be moral. It did not so much demand that whites change as offer them relentlessly the opportunity to live by their own morality—to attain a true innocence based on the sacrifice of their racial privilege, rather than a false innocence based on presumed racial superiority. Blacks always bargain with or challenge the larger society; but I believe that in the early civil rights years, these forms of negotiation achieved a degree of integrity and genuineness never seen before or since.

In the mid-’60s all this changed. Suddenly a sharp racial consciousness emerged to compete with the moral consciousness that had defined the movement to that point. Whites were no longer welcome in the movement, and a vocal “black power” minority gained dramatic visibility. Increasingly, the movement began to seek racial as well as moral power, and thus it fell into a fundamental contradiction that plagues it to this day. Moral power precludes racial power by denouncing race as a means to power. Now suddenly the movement itself was using race as a means to power, and thereby affirming the very union of race and power it was born to redress. In the end, black power can claim no higher moral standing than white power.

I just had an African-American person who has faithfully attended my Sunday-morning Bible class for adults tell me that he/she recently resisted and then relented (under the ministry of regular biblical preaching) in admitting a significant, life-altering sin he/she had committed. Far be it from me to have said, “That ‘sin’ wasn’t your fault; you’re the victim of systemic forces you didn’t create.” No, instead I appealed to the first Beatitude I had just preached on—”Blessed are the poor in spirit.” That’s my job as a pastor. But one of my jobs as a citizen is to step back and look at those systemic forces that were indeed operating in his/her case. And I would encourage him/her to lend a voice to any societal efforts that call whites to administer true justice.

I don’t know the “balance” of individual vs. systemic factors in any given case like Ferguson. But I’m fairly sure that pitting the two against one another or picking one over the other constitutes an unhelpful dichotomy.

Author: Mark Ward

PhD in NT; theological writer for Faithlife; former high school Bible textbook author for BJU Press; husband; father; ultimate frisbee player; member of the body of Christ.

7 thoughts on “A False Dichotomy on Ferguson?”

  1. I didn’t find Thabiti all that compelling. My question is, why do we need to comment or have an opinion on Ferguson. We weren’t there. We didn’t sit on the Grand Jury. We don’t know all the facts. Why should we have an opinion either way? At some point we have to trust the justice system to work. We shouldn’t resort to mob rule. That is no solution. For those of us on the outside of an event to speculate is to fail to do the first and to foment or encourage the latter.

  2. I think I carefully avoided making a judgment on the events in Ferguson in particular. But I do feel that I ought to have at least the beginning of a responsible opinion on the issues surrounding it, because of my particular ministry calling.

  3. I am not sure exactly what you mean. My point is that the hysteria in the media and the mob action by protesters are not a part of the solution, they are part of the problem. All citizens, white and black and everyone else, need to act responsibly in order to effect change if change is needed.

  4. I read Voddie’s comments, and they definitely emphasized the personal responsibility part of the equation. My post allows for me to praise such comments, and I sincerely believe that Michael Brown bears personal responsibility for his sins and crimes—I saw one of them with my own eyes.

    However, I think the systemic/structural element should also be discussed. At the very least, I am suspicious of my own tendency to block out the possibility that the very structure of society is in any way racist. I agree with Don that I can’t exercise a radical skepticism; I can’t doubt the system at every turn. And I certainly don’t know enough about the law to complain about the Darren Wilson grand jury in particular. I remember my dad telling me in 1995 that I had to trust the system when OJ Simpson was acquitted. A lot of whites around me were sure he was guilty. My dad said we weren’t allowed to think that, because he had a trial in a court. I agreed—and agree—with my father. (This is before the wrongful death suit took place.)

    But I think we have to be open to the idea that a system which, by God’s common grace, is largely free of corruption and works well when it comes to middle-class whites may have blind spots—areas where it doesn’t deliver justice for folks of different colors and classes. It’s plausible to me, for example, that without any KKK members involved, “the system” has ended up putting black men in jail for longer than it does whites who committed similar crimes.

    I think it’s unfortunate that Michael Brown’s case is the one that has caught such national attention, because it’s hard to discuss the nebulous problems of “the system” when the very concrete sins of the individual were caught on a security camera. It’s this very fact which inclines me to listen to Thabiti. He’s a godly man who’s given attention to these issues, from a perspective I can’t naturally share, for many years. If he, who shares my theological anthropology, still insists that there are/may be systemic problems, I think I should listen. In other words, he doesn’t seem like the type who can’t find it within himself to tell the black boys in my neighborhood to pull their pants up, a bleeding-heart liberal who excuses the sins of every fatherless African-American. I was actually surprised to see his reaction. And this made me listen.

  5. Hi Mark, I partly agree with your dad, except for this: those in the courtroom have to give OJ the benefit of the doubt as he goes into trial Outside observers are under no such obligation. And I believe in that case justice was not served. Nevertheless, no one in the white community suggested rioting in the streets as a result (at least no one I know of!).

    As for the Eric Garner case: well, video cameras only tell you so much. (I haven’t seen the video.) But there is usually much more to the story than a video camera can tell you. We live in a video culture and we think that the camera doesn’t lie. It does, absolutely. You need more facts than a camera.

    On the Ross Douthat piece, he said: But given a landscape like ours, where the police are clearly quite well armed, police work seems to have become (by historical standards) very safe, crime rates are still falling, and the police seem to be dealing out death at an increasing rate Really??? I find that hard to believe. Police dealing out death at an increasing rate? I’d like to see some evidence for this statement. It is not very responsible to make such a claim without backing it up.

    I agree that there are sinners in the police force. In fact, they are all sinners! But I don’t believe the hysteria in the newspapers about corruption and racism, for the most part. There needs to be hard evidence to support such claims, not the simple fact that a white cop pulled the trigger on a black guy (or whatever the scenario is).

    In our country we have far fewer blacks, so it is rarely raised as an issue here, but we do have a lot of First Nations (as they style themselves) who are in trouble with the law. There is probably something of a parallel there and it is true that they have been treated unjustly at times, and especially in the colonial and post-colonial era. I understand their fears, but they don’t resort to mob rule when these troubles happen. They may protest, they push for reform, etc. In our system, anytime a policeman draws his gun, every move is analyzed after the fact. The policemen have to justify everything they have done. I don’t know what it is like in every US jurisdiction, but I am sure it is similar. I don’t think that increasing the bureaucratic laws governing policemen will eliminate occasions where a “minority” person is harmed while an arrest is attempted. We can’t legislate every situation, and we don’t want a society with no police.

    Maranatha!
    Don Johnson
    Jer 33.3

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