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.
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.
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.