It amazes me that the small town of Ferguson, essentially unknown to most of the country just 10 weeks ago, is now a part of conversations happening all over America and around the world. Its story has so impacted us that we use Ferguson as a noun, not to describe the city, but to more concisely say “the black community whose legal protests and acts of civil disobedience showcased to America that distrust of police is often the result of a history of exaggerated responses of violence toward people of color.”
Ferguson has become synonymous with resistance.
As Ferguson marches on, they have become a great teacher. They taught us about military-grade weapons being used in small, suburban towns. They reminded us of the importance of journalism and its necessity to record police abuses. They taught us the power of social media to bypass traditional modes of broadcasting and still capture the attention of people around the world. They asked us to make the systemic connections between Eric Garner, John Crawford, and Michael Brown, refusing to consider these deaths isolated incidents of coincidence.
More than 10 weeks since the first protests sparked, Ferguson is still teaching us about leading a sustained, creative movement. Ferguson forced us to revisit the words of Martin Luther King Jr., to dig up pictures of the 1960s protests, to ask ourselves, “how far have we really come?”
Ferguson is a great teacher, but are we great students?
The Burden of Silence
I imagine churches across the country are responding differently to Ferguson. Some have already mobilized people and other resources to support Ferguson’s resistance efforts. For them, Ferguson is a weighty reminder of why the congregation works so hard to support justice efforts in the local community.
Others translate support into proselytization. Viewing Ferguson only as a mission field to be evangelized, they head down to St. Louis to save the souls of the lost protestors. Packing up privilege and respectability politics in their suitcases, they hand out both like unwanted tracts to passersby.
I suspect many more churches remain silent on the issue. For some, silence is an act of willful disinterest, believing there is nobility in neutrality. But for others, the silence is evidence of fear. Pastors, leaders or congregation members are shown, often in painful ways, that speaking up is too risky an endeavor. So they turn toward other avenues of advocacy, leaving the church entangled in ignorance and apathy.
In his Letter From Birmingham Jail, Martin Luther King, Jr. warns, “The contemporary church is so often a weak, ineffectual voice with an uncertain sound. It is so often the arch supporter of the status quo. Far from being disturbed by the presence of the church, the power structure of the average community is consoled by the church’s often vocal sanction of things as they are.”
The Status Quo Is Not Working
If the Church is to be a good student of Ferguson, we must challenge the status quo. We must find intolerable the current ideologies that allow indifference to thrive. As Ferguson chants #blacklivesmatter, it’s time to decide if we believe it’s true. For if we believe black lives matter, surely America must rid itself of the fear of the black body. Surely we would have to challenge the assumption that black people are innately violent. We’d have to rid from our psyche that the only way to confront black men is through immediate violence and swift gunfire. We’d have to declare that blackness is not a crime; that its existence is not deserving of greater police might. We’d have to vote and advocate with conviction that police cannot treat people differently according to race, class, gender or any other form of personhood. If we really believe that black lives matter, we must be moved to action.
Ferguson is asking: How many more videos of lifeless bodies do we need to see? How many more dying words do we need to hear? It’s time for reform, and with this charge, Ferguson leads the way—but will our churches be good learners?
Austin is a resident director and multicultural liaison at Calvin College. She writes regularly on her personal blog austinchanning.com and is a regular contributor for Todays Christian Woman. Follow her @austinchanning on Twitter.