Possibly not even residents of Ferguson, Missouri fully comprehend what’s happened there in recent months after the shooting death of Michael Brown by Officer Darren Wilson. Wilson was not indicted by a grand jury last week, prompting protests and rioting not only there, but in other cities, including my own, Atlanta, where black and white seem to work together better than in any city in which I’ve lived.
A CNN commentator complained about the extended “whine” of the Ferguson district attorney regarding initial reports by social media and the media in general, but I do think social media as well as the internet can enable a virtual lynch mob to form opinions without a full and accurate story, not to speak of due process. We love that when it topples despotic dictators, but we should be concerned when it may bias either a judicial outcome or public opinion, especially when sparking violence.
I have found it difficult to talk about these events even with people who share my political views, so strong are our opinions.
So I want to talk about the larger problem when it comes to conversation about this and all contentious issues. “Stand your ground” laws that permit use of violence to protect ourselves are simply outward signs of an inner, spiritual problem. “Standing up for yourself” has now become “stand your ground” when it comes to any issue, as if the ground you’re standing on is first, yours, and second, high holy ground.
When I believe the ground belongs to me and mine, when I consider mine the high moral ground, or even worse, holy ground, there is little room for listening to the concerns of another. This could apply not only to our conversations about Ferguson, but also about Washington and Jerusalem and every other place of conflict.
Forgive me for once again citing NPR, but a recent study reveals that people fail to “hear” opposing views because they doubt their opponent is basing their opinion on positive motivations.
Adequate incentive is required to begin to see another’s perspective: in the study, a financial incentive did the trick! I believe a spiritual incentive could as well. As Jesus said, go the extra mile, turn the other cheek, give your cloak as well as your coat, love your enemies and pray for those who oppose you.
What also interferes is that we defensively fear the other is assigning negative motivations to us.
When you’re standing your ground, it’s hard to share, and find common ground.
I personally experienced this recently while discussing a New York Times article about police experts speculating if Officer Wilson could have performed his duties in such a way to create a different outcome. On ABC News Wilson unequivocally rejected that anything he might have done could have avoided the tragedy. Now, in our litigious and “gotcha” culture, I understand that self-doubt and uncertainty become indicators of guilt or malfeasance, but if I had done something that ended in someone’s death—no matter the circumstances—I would have been wracked with guilt and doubt, wondering what I could have done to avoid or prevent that.
But trying to tell this to a friend came across as minimizing Michael Brown’s bullying and threatening behavior and maligning Darren Wilson, which I did not intend.
Both Brown and Wilson could be said to “stand their ground.” Republicans and Democrats, Israelis and Palestinians do the same. And it begets either stalemate or tragedy.
The day I write this I felt encouraged by another Times story by Manny Fernandez and Brent McDonald about someone trying to bridge the gap in Ferguson. Lt. Jerry Lohr, who manages the security of the Ferguson police headquarters, wears no riot gear and carries no baton. He treats protestors like people, saying “please” and “thank you.”
“Allowing people to talk on a one-on-one level does a lot as far as building bridges,” he says. “They may not agree with what I’m doing, but now they at least know my name and my face. I’m human again. They realize that I’m a person. I’m not just a uniform. We have to bridge this gap. It’s not going to happen overnight. This is going to be a long-term relationship, a long-term commitment, that both sides are going to have to make.”
Preach it, brother!
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