I have not commented on the shooting of Michael Brown for many reasons. First of all, because I think a lot of people use these tragedies and the following unrest in exploitative ways, seeking agendas and so on. I also think that because I am not part of that community and I do not know the people involved I cannot add anything of value into that particular situation. Though, I do have my opinions, which mirror many in the church. I think that the whole thing was handled horribly, and I think that there is a serious underlying justice issue that we are overlooking, but I think it is more than about race or even Michael Brown. I think there is a systemic societal problem that stems from our loss of love for one another.
There might have been a time where America was seen to be utopia. When I started out in ministry, the image from many I served was that time fell somewhere between 1948 and 1962. For a certain class of people, and living in a certain area, this might have been true, but memories are often clouded.
Having turned 40 last week, I found myself thinking fondly back to the 80’s and my childhood. Funny how I had forgotten how towards the end of the decade my dad was coming home worried that he would be part of the next round of layoffs and the stress and frustration that brought to the family. We forget that like today, the economy was all over the place. Also, with the increased capabilities of computers, many jobs were phased out and many were let go. Like many of my friend’s parents, my Dad, while worried about his own job, as the manager of his department, was often the one who had to let others go.
Trying to break away throughout our history people have attempted Utopian Societies. In almost every case, when groups have attempted to create utopian communities they, too, have failed. And we ask why? The answer is simple, as humans we have the inclination to always put our personal needs and safety before others.
Go back and listen to some of the political speeches from the early 90’s when things like universal sentencing and 3 strikes and zero tolerance laws were enacted. These had nothing to do with justice, and everything to do with making one segment of the population feel comfortable and safe.
A healthy society cannot be built on laws. The founding fathers knew that laws could only be an aid, but it is the principles that you believe in that have to be the guide. Hence, why the Constitution is a document that is based on principles and the Bill of Rights is primarily protections of individuals’ civil liberties. The problem 225 years later, is because of fear, greed, and power we have abandoned our principles and accepted laws that protect some and expose others.
The problems with principles are that they can be forgotten. Some would say this is what happened with the Pentateuch. By the time Jesus came, the society lost the knowledge of the principles that guided the laws and merely followed the laws without a sense of compassion or understanding. So Jesus comes to correct that. His witness through his actions consistently shows love (even when he gets angry). Christ states: “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill (Mt 5:17).” His fulfillment was to show a better way “Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law.”
You see, at the end of the day we have to recognize that the problem with the Michael Brown situation and all the situations like his has to do with a fundamental lack of understanding about justice. When justice is about “protection” it takes sides. It allows for one group to have power over another. When justice is about vengeance, we often find ourselves taking the place of God, making God-like decisions over others’ lives. But when we follow justice following the principle of love that Christ teaches, we find that we are living into a community that is mutually caring, connected, and growing together. We find that we are lifting up each other, not forcing them down, and we mutually grow.
Rev. Dr. Bryan James Franzen