What can Christians learn from the events in Ferguson?
Not necessarily politically or even racially, but with the Kingdom in mind, what can be learned?
Like many of you, I found myself last Monday night watching the grand jury verdict and the ensuing demonstrations (both peaceful and violent). I’m pretty sure the media was the only winner. There was little middle ground to be found. There was, however, much division. Where there is no middle ground, landmines always abound.
In the death of Michael Brown, I don’t pretend to know the details. The vast majority of us don’t, either. So as I searched for #Ferguson tweets while watching CNN’s coverage, I pondered what could be learned from this moment. Primarily as a Christian, what does this event teach us? Considering God’s concern for humanity — God’s desire to see all men know to Him — what should we learn?
In the eyes of God, there are two groups of people — forgiven and not. Found and lost. Alive and dead. That’s it. And God’s ultimate desire is to see everyone come to life. Many verses teach us as such (example: 1 Timothy 2:4). As crazy as it seems, Christians have been given the stewardship of the Gospel. So in a very real way, there is a spiritual “us” and “them.” There is a division, like in Ferguson. A “spiritual Ferguson,” for this conversation. At times it can feel adversarial. There have even been riots and demonstrations from both sides.
Here is why I make the comparison: As Christians, if we hope to cross the divide and attract the “lost” to become “found,” there are some things we must embrace. Here are a few that came to mind while watching the events unfold in Ferguson.
1. You can’t reach people you don’t know personally.
It’s tempting to see people in groups (hello stereotypes), but people are not groups. People are individuals. Individuals with stories, backgrounds, hopes, and dreams. Individuals with desires. With issues. With baggage. Just like you and me.
As Christians, if we hope to reach people far from God, we must be willing to engage with people far from God. We must know them personally. Individually. And we must be willing for them to know us, too. To know someone means to be known, as well.
Again, I’m removed from Ferguson and the surrounding community, but my guess is there’s not a lot of relationship forging in their midst. There are groups facing off, not individuals being connected. Of course, it might be a little too late for relationships to begin now, which brings me to…
2. Trust is the currency of influence.
Trust is hard to gain, yet easy to lose. It can take years to build trust and only minutes to lose it. As Christians, we must acknowledge the powerful connection between trust and influence. To influence people toward a relationship with Jesus, we must first gain trust, which takes time. In most cases, a lot of time. People far from God often have a negative perception of God because of His followers. They don’t trust Him, because they don’t trust us. We can thank many, many churches and Christians for our trust issue.
As Christians, we must work hard to gain trust if we desire to gain influence.
Ferguson is a prime example of a trust gap. Or maybe a trust chasm — like a Grand Canyon hole of trust. The lack of trust from both sides is astounding, and lack of trust creates a lack of hope. Many questioned the demonstrations and riots, but I saw people behaving without hope.
3. Seek out similarities.
As different as both sides appear in Ferguson, there are more similarities than differences. Now, similarities don’t sell in the media. Similarities aren’t profitable coverage for CNN. But people are people. We all have hopes for the future. We all desire protection and safety for our children. We are not as different as we tend to believe.
In the media coverage, I saw posters that read, “Black Lives Matter.” The assumption was white people mattered more. Twitter was full of #BlackLivesMatter tweets. This is a true sentiment. But so also is “White Lives Matter.” And “Asian Lives Matter.” We could simply drop the adjective for #LivesMatter. People matter to God, so they should matter to Christians. All people. As Christians, we have the opportunity to raise the value of life on earth and in the life to come.
4. Differences don’t have to divide.
When we choose to engage with people not like us, we choose to engage with tension. There is always tension in points of separation. Like the ends of a rubber band, the greater the separation, the greater the tension. In most aspects of life, there will be tension between Christians and non-Christians. The tension can be good. It can be leveraged. It’s part of Peter’s belief in 1 Peter 3:15. To pretend it doesn’t exist is an opportunity lost.
Collectively, the people of Ferguson will never see the world the same, because people are different. But while differences can separate us, they can also be leveraged to create healthy conversations and connect us. Differences don’t have to divide.
5. Have empathy for the other side.
When it comes to non-believers, Christians should always possess empathy. Remember, we were all once lost, too. Christians too often forget what it was like to be lost. When we can embrace our former lost-ness, we can find empathy for those still seeking more to life.
In Ferguson and beyond, I’m certain everyone wishes Michael Brown’s life could have been spared. Most people value life. But the lack of empathy in the courtroom was noticeable (at least that is what I felt). I realize it was a court of law. The legalese was necessary. But a lack of empathy is never necessary.
6. Timing matters.
I can’t understand how announcing a verdict at 8:00 p.m. CST was smart or strategic. Maybe I just don’t understand police work (which is highly possible), but allowing protestors to demonstrate and riot in the cover of nightfall? Seriously? Nothing good happens after midnight, right? That’s what my parents always told me in high school. And let’s not suggest riots weren’t expected! The police don’t wear riot gear for fun.
The point is timing matters. It’s no different when Christians are hoping to connect with non-believers. Not every non-believer is at the same place. Not every non-believer is ready to hear the “truth.” It’s that “He who has hears, let them hear…” thing. Therefore, there is not any one approach to or timing for evangelism that works, either. I do know this – a relationship starts the timer better than anything else.
7. Put down the riot gear.
I grew up in summer VBS’s singing songs like “I’m in the Lord’s Army.” It’s a cute idea, but that doctrine can be really dangerous. Armies are meant to protect at all cost. They kill when necessary. Overtake enemies. Force surrender. Armies exist where divisions occur. Where there is no middle ground, landmines always abound.
If we are talking about fighting Satan, then I’m good with the illustration. Unfortunately, too many Christians apply this doctrine to the lost. We put on the Lord’s riot gear and charge those far from God. Then we wonder why non-Christians throw rocks and bottles in our direction. The Bible is not a weapon. I’ve never seen anyone argued into faith. It’s nearly impossible to hug someone while wearing riot gear.
Riot gear might be a necessity for police, but it’s detrimental when used on the lost. Instead, we should learn a lesson from Ferguson and put down our swords.
8. Choose forgiveness.
It would be insensitive to suggest the Brown family forgive the police offer. That’s not my place. Same in reverse. I imagine Officer Darren Wilson regrets taking a life – whether justified or not. But here is a reminder for Christians.
Forgiveness, while difficult, is always required. We should forgive because we have been forgiven (Ephesians 4:32). I can only guess what would have transpired in Ferguson had either (or both) parties forgave. Again, I don’t know them, the details, or their relationship with God, but I do know forgiveness is freeing. It releases the grip of the grudge.
Forgiveness by Christians displays a powerful lesson to non-Christians. A lesson only learned through experience. I believe that’s partially why we are commanded to forgive. Both to release ourselves and illuminate life for others.
We all join in praying for the people and community of Ferguson. Even more, we pray for the community of people far from God, seeking acceptance, belonging, and care from illegitimate sources. I believe if Christians today could embrace relationships, trust, empathy, forgiveness, and pay attention to timing, the world would be a better place, because many people living in darkness would find the light of life through those of us who are alive.
How else would you suggest Christians remove the division between the lost and found?