Enter, reader, and take a seat. I am sorry I did not reply earlier: the temptation to ignore the entreaties outside my door grows strong some days, especially when my own work clamors for attention. But I began a blog to address matters of life – not merely the assessment of religion, art, and philosophy, but applying the lessons learned through the study of these disciplines to the real arena of ethics and life – in this case, to the unrest in Missouri. Forgive me if it sounds trite, sentimental, or even ill-conceived: there are no experts in life, after all, and I am in my early lessons – but I won’t get any wiser by navel-gazing, and it’s better we talk than pass along in silence.
In Ferguson, Missouri people are suffering and dying. That may sound alarmist, but it remains true. A teenager was shot by a policeman. This is, at the best of times, tragic – at the worst of times, a grievous misuse of power. Which of the two it was in this case is difficult to ascertain: no one of us was present for the initial violent act, and our news organizations, stymied on the one hand by intentionally-withheld information, and on the other by the ensuing chaos, have been unable to provide a clear picture of the events that have transpired – or at least a clear and irrefutable picture of culpability.
Which is not solely their fault. Evidence only rarely yields motive.
But don’t let me be confused as an apologist for anyone here. I am a trained skeptic, not a judge of souls, and from my chair hundreds of miles from Missouri, I cannot see who has erred, by how much, and for what reason. And lest you be too enamored by the ready information and updates of the Internet, let me remind you that you, too – no matter who you are – cannot see the whole picture.
I don’t want to gloss over the horrific injustice perpetrated against young black men: too many have died to be called coincidental, or accidental, or exaggerated statistical anomalies. When cops shoot anyone, it is awful. When cops shoot unarmed people, it is more awful, no matter who is shot. Even in the name of justice and the law, killing remains awful. And if young black men in our country have to fear law enforcement rather than feel protected by them, then something is clearly wrong. There are no ‘buts’ to be had in this case. Police are supposed to protect us – sometimes from ourselves – and if we fear them even when we are abiding by the law, then they have too much power.
And it’s too late for apologies when somebody is dead.
But it’s also too late to re-write history. I’ve heard it said that we are witnessing an uprising, not a riot. I doubt that is the case, but even if it is, we should no more want an uprising than a riot. American government is broken – perhaps even irrevocably broken – but only madmen look forward to the bloodshed involved in an uprising, even when it is warranted. And while there are certainly peaceful idealists among the protesters – men and women heroically trying to enact positive change in the world – there are also thieves and madmen looking for an excuse to steal and to murder. Just as there are undoubtedly racists among the police presence, armed and lethal, while other policemen and women are earnestly trying to keep the peace and protect the citizens of this country. But, as always, these noble efforts are drowned out by the gunshots and breaking glass. Fault the journalists if you will, but they are only writing what will print.
I’ve heard it said that this is the work of an oppressed minority taking what is owed them, after all other options have failed. And I have no pat solution to this. As a Christian, I believe that I, sitting idly, watching injustice creep and poverty fester among the minorities in our country, deserve death. I have no excuse, just as I have no excuse for sitting comfortable and well-fed in my dormitory while millions die in Africa, or war rages in the Ukraine, or bombs explode in Gaza. I enjoy privilege every day, and I cannot identify with the persons who do not. I cannot sympathize with them as I should. I don’t know their fear, their suffering, or their helplessness. My sympathy is instead with the bystanders in Ferguson: the people huddling in their homes while the riots rage, who seek security instead of power, a return to the status quo rather than the justice they may deserve, and who hope that tomorrow, when the smoke clears, what little they had will not have been taken away.
I can only quote pithy morals and judge, even as I am commanded not to judge. I must judge, in spite of the Biblical command, because I must choose each day not to support one side or the other, to defend clear-headed reasoning over anger (justified though it may be). I must judge, because I must decide whether to sit inactive, waiting for knowledge, or take to the streets in outrage and escalate an already-tragic conflict. I must judge, because nobody – not even you, reader – can force me to join you. Nobody can force me to act, or to sympathize with the persecuted, or to appreciate the injustices perpetrated each day of this conflict. I – and everyone else who is passively watching this story develop on televisions and computer screens, smart-phones and tablets – everyone of that vast, silent majority – must choose, for themselves, based on what little knowledge they have, what the right course of action is. Most of them will do nothing. Very few of them will do anything noticeable. And some will only be more scared, more reactionary – making tomorrow’s riots more violent than today’s.
Are you so sure of your own cause, reader? You tell me I am a part of the problem, that I sit too smugly in my distant chair. And I am. I and all of my kind, sitting miles from your conflict, indifferent to your plight. We are many arbiters, unconvinced by your pleas. We are too smart to be fooled by rhetoric; too lazy to take up your cause. And yet without us you are helpless. Without the smug majority I represent, you will never effect the change you want. And our standards are high: unreasonably high. You must be nothing short of perfect – for every flaw you betray will be magnified in the photographer’s lens. It is unfair, unjust, and will remain that way until your truth is louder than all the endless lies. This isn’t romanticism – this is truth, blunt and ugly. Things will not change because people will not change. Some policemen will be bigots, politicians will be too cautious to act, persecuted minorities will remain frustrated, journalists will report only the most salacious details of the story, the majority will remain indifferent, and violence will invariably be met with violence. You say we are unreasonable: change is unreasonable. Unreasonable, unlikely, and absurd.
Don’t like that answer? Well, neither do I.