Wednesday, November 26, 2014

In Search of a Voice for Ferguson's America (Revised 12/2/14)

I watch Ferguson, Missouri, from the safety of my suburban home as my television displays a bizarre juxtaposition of incongruent images--a torched police cruiser, tear gas and smoke bombs, a mock display of uplifted hands, and a bright red illuminated banner crossing a major thoroughfare and proclaiming the traditional greetings of the Thanksgiving and Christmas seasons. I am ill at ease.

My discontent is palpable but I don't know how to express it or what to call it. I think it is because the truth is so elusive, that the moment is populated by separate realities, many of them unspoken but defining nonetheless. There are many truths here, and not just because people have different experiences. It is because truth is layered, measured, clipped, and disproportionately applied. And so we flounder around in search of explanations. Their banality become most evident when CNN holds a microphone to someone's face and invites a sound bite. God save us from sound bites.

Some think it is all summed up by watching the looters acting like they're running an early Black Friday sale at the local liquor store. It is so infuriating you want to throw a shoe. And sitting in the cheap seats, like my living room, it is tempting to point out how this is the real problem--people don't get it, human greed takes over, and obedience to the rule of law is the issue that needs to be confronted. But it's not that easy.

Then one can turn to the rational examination of facts. Just read the Grand Jury transcript and everything will become clear. The cop was being attacked by a 300 pound thug with stolen cigars, reminded him of Hulk Hogan, had a demonic look in his eye. Convinced his life was in danger, he pulled a gun for the first time as a police officer on duty. He fired off a multitude of shots in defense of his own life, and a teenage kid lay dead on the street. His blood was inside the police car and on the gun, he wasn't shot in the back, and the disparate recollections of many witnesses finally got sorted, adjusted, and crafted into a reasonably believable narrative. It's sad, unfortunate, even tragic, but there is the answer. No, it's not that easy.

How about the threat of anarchy? Who got the bright idea that the way to protest police brutality was to burn down the neighborhood beauty products store, to loot the automotive parts outlet, or to essentially raze by bats or matches an entire block of commerce in your own town? There's no rhyme or reason; there is only the crazed mob mentality that simmers beneath the surface, nesting within the constellation of injustice, unfairness, and inequality that is the lived-out experience of so many people of color and poverty. It takes just a particular moment, a convergence of circumstances, to ignite and then explode. It may not be the best of reasons. But it is a reason; some might say an excuse. That explains it--the presence of anarchy, or the fear of it. Alas, not that easy.

It has been a lot of years since Martin Luther King climbed to the mountaintop--about 46 of them. The nation of equals he marched for, prayed for, got arrested for, and ultimately died for, has come a long way since 1968. We have an African American President and Attorney-General, previously a Secretary of State. Life has improved for people of color. Few could deny that.

But King's dream is far from fulfillment, even if it has been adopted by many Americans of many ethnic and cultural backgrounds. Nonetheless, the events in Ferguson have reminded us of how urgently this nation needs a prophetic voice that can transform this mess of pottage into poetry.

We watched Missouri's governor bumbling his way around on national television, dashing hopes that he could bring sensitive leadership to the defining moment of his political career. We listened to a prosecutor reading a sanitized bill of particulars without seemingly having a clue about how his matter-of-fact prosecutorial tone would only deepen the pain of a community that needed assurance that he had not just a head but also a heart. We observed an array of officials speaking within their limited scope of authority, but few seemed able to understand where their brick fit in the cathedral under construction.

In the days that followed the non-indictment of a police officer and the subsequent torching of a community people took sides. But it was too late for that--the issues had already left Ferguson. Officer Wilson is no longer a cop, but he will find riches by telling his story to the media. Michael Brown will be grieved by his family forever, but he will soon slip from the collective memory of the nation. The question is what will be done with the remnants? What will happen to the ashes in the street, the shards of glass, the bullets collected from the crime scene, the police cruiser laying on its side, gutted and burned and remembered now as an iconic photo in the news magazines. What will happen to it all? Can redemption ever come from this?

A voice. I think that's what I need, what I think we all need. I don't know where it comes from, although I'm betting against cable TV. I doubt it's to be found among the bevy of minions acting as our Congress these days. They can't agree on the type of paper towel dispenser to be used in the Congressional bathrooms. My disposition would lean toward the churches, but they seem so busy deliberating on whether gays and lesbians are persons of worth along with a variety of other preoccupations.

Is there someone out there without preset agendas, with an ability to listen as well as talk? Is there someone who can clear their throat and speak with conviction and yet with humility about life in these United States of America? Is there someone who can convey a message that resonates with the proud moments of our past while pointing to a future of promise. We need words that sound strangely familiar and yet altogether new. Perhaps something like this:
"Listen, my friends, I have a dream about a journey and I must share it with you because I want to invite you to come with me. In this dream we are all together, climbing a mountain, seeking its summit. In this amazing dream we all understand that each and every one of us is of inestimable worth. There are no exceptions, no human quality that separates a human being from our essential worth. Some think it is a silly pipe dream, that it is too hard, too idealistic. Perhaps. I don't know if I will get to that mountaintop or if any of you will. But this dream is about a journey that is worthy of the human family, The mere effort to fulfill it will make us better, more hopeful, more loving. Surely I am not the only one who has this dream? Will  you join with me and risk some scoffing ridicule that we have embarked on a fool's errand? I don't care. I yearn for that mountaintop. I can't quite see it from here. It is, I am sure, out there somewhere, just out of view, just beyond the horizon. It will be a long journey, I am sure. But, oh my, how important that journey will be, how joyous. Do not look back. Do not let voices of skepticism and dissent turn us away. Take my hand, and the hand of another. Come, let us journey together. Let us live the dream once again."
We need a voice like that--clear, visionary, compelling, gentle, prayerful, and trustworthy. Many of us yearn for such a voice. The message from Ferguson's America is that the need for such a voice is no longer just a wistful hope. It is now an urgent necessity.


 (This post was published in the early morning on November 26, 2014. During the course of the days that followed some stylistic edits and a few content revisions were made, especially in the last few paragraphs. These changes did not affect the thesis of the original, but hopefully allowed the English language to express those ideas more effectively. It is doubtful that further revisions will be made, however much they may be needed. In any case, the most current version will always be the one published on the GRANTaMUSEd blog.


  1. Thanks, Grant. This is a thoughtful, insightful message at a time when such messages are rare. I have not seen the evidence so I don't have an opinion as to whether the decision is right or wrong. But I do know that if we move toward your suggestions, the world is truly a better place and we're a better people.

  2. Grant, for many you are that prophetic voice. Well written and well expressed. We all do need reassurance that all is not lost, that the journey is bumpy but love will prevail. Blessings to you my brother ~

  3. Where is the prophetic voice? You are it! I echo Terry and Jack comments. Somehow, we haven't been able to "Lift up (our) eyes and fix them on the place beyond the horizon to which (we) are sent." () mine. I hope, Grant, that you are not the LONE voice crying in the wilderness.

  4. Thank you for helping us discern reality.
    Each of us is hampered by the culture of our early childhood and youth to be totally objective in our personal analysis. I try to imagine prior events in order to understand root causes. It is putting into context past and present events to understand the current situation.
    Unfortunately, I believe, there is a tinge of unconscious racism within each of us that clouds our objectivity.

  5. Thanks for putting into articulate words what I also believe. Doesn't the black community know how badly they hurt their own cause and those of all of us when they torch automobile dealers and beauty supply stores as well as blocks of other businesses? Where is common sense in this debate? And how about the police who guaranteed the businesses that they had everything under control? Where were they when all this carnage occurred? What a tragedy! Everyone failed this crucial test!

  6. The primary feeling I got out of the situation was a sadness at the loss of life of another youth. Whether it was lost at the beginning when drug abuse started or lost when a good kid was shot by a police officer does not matter as much as the fact that another youth has been lost. Too many children have died for reasons that we as a society could and should have prevented.

    I agree that we are in need of another such as King to speak to creating a peaceful equality. Thank you for speaking out, and may we soon take the next step toward King's dream.

  7. Thank you for these words Grant. I agree and wish for a prophetic voice that can lead this nation out of this racist bog in which we find ourselves. With a great deal of prayer I believe we are that voice. It is my opinion that until the white majority in this nation is willing to listen to those whom we have oppressed for centuries, reconciliation and healing will never occur. I would challenge the Community of Christ to begin truth and reconciliation retreats, possibly using our reunions as a place to start. I do not believe we can leave it to the political process. Can we lead the way?

  8. Frank, I have always believed that the core principles of the Community of Christ speak powerfully to the issues of our time. Our focus over the years has been on the worth of persons, stewardship of time and resources, building global inclusive community, reconciliation and diversity, and pursuit of peace. All of those principles are urgently needed in our world.

    In my experience in leadership roles for the church I found our story to be readily appreciated in ecumenical circles. I agree with you that the church has a message to share and should be "in the forefront" of those organizations seeking peace in our time.