Cosby, Ferguson, and When Our Narratives are Challenged

I've been deeply saddened by the recent revelations of sexual abuse by Bill Cosby. He's been one of our family's favorite people for years; we've watched nearly all of The Cosby Show.

Trying to wrap my head around the idea that the gentle man who parents so wisely on my TV has in his private life abused women in grotesque ways is incredibly saddening to me, and I'd much rather him stay the admirable, hilarious, precocious entertainer and philanthropist that I've seen him as for decades.

But, that would prevent me from hearing the possible truth - that he's been a predator in his private life and that there are voices of oppressed and abused women that my preferred narrative would silence.  

So, Ferguson. My heart has ached about this for months but I've chosen not to address it publicly because the way this event has been covered in the media has pitted two "sides" against one another and whatever I might say about it leaves me open to being conscripted into either side of the ideologies in conflict.

This may mean that someone in my congregation might listen more critically and less openly to my sermon on Sunday morning because they've ostensibly been able to pinpoint my political allegiances. 

This is incredibly unfortunate and unfair, but it's real. 

So, I want to pass on some thoughts as a Pastor, not specifically about the events of the shooting itself, the lack of indictment, or the merits of the grand jury process, but instead to share how I see the "good news" of Jesus directing Christians to act in response to the larger issues brought to light by what's happening in Ferguson.  

  1. First off, James 1 tell us "My dear brothers and sisters, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry." Our preferred narratives, our ideological dispositions will lead us to survey what's going on in Ferguson (and other places) with a very biased and cursory investigation. We should resist this whether our "lens" is tinted blue or red. I'm a white male, I grew up in relative privilege and safety, I am educated and employed, I had two loving parents who stayed married, I have a savings account and credit cards, I own a house (well sorta, Chase Bank owns more of it than I do!) It would be so easy for me to dismiss the rage and sense of utter frustration that we are hearing from the African-American community in Ferguson because my preferred narrative allows me see my station in life as acquired by my own hard work and ingenuity and wonder what "all the fuss" is about in Ferguson. Instead of choosing to listen I could easily choose to speak, I could choose to become angry, I could post links that pass judgment on the protesters and the irresponsible ways that some have acted. This would be easy. What would be difficult is to listen. Instead of castigating people for burning cars, what would be difficult, but ultimately life-giving is to listen to the thousands gathered around the country who feel unheard - unheard enough to gather nightly pleading with those in power to listen. 
  2. Secondly, there is the consistent refrain, especially in the Old Testament, that God's people are to incline their ear to the poor, the alien, the oppressed. In Psalm 82 Asaph claims that God stands in judgment over unjust leaders, “How long will you defend the unjust and show partiality to the wicked? Defend the weak and the fatherless; uphold the cause of the poor and the oppressed." We don't have to conclude that Darren Wilson or Robert McColloch were wicked in order to choose to listen to those who feel oppressed and harmed by their actions. It seems to me that this Psalm, and the Bible in general gives preference to the oppressed, to the powerless - that we should do our best to listen to their voices over those in relative power. This doesn't mean giving criminals a free pass, this doesn't mean diminishing the rule of law or belittling the efforts of those who seek to enforce it, but it does mean listening a second, or third, or fourth time to the poor and oppressed until they say, "you get it, you understand my situation." 
  3. And, what about a very basic requirement - humility, that we may be wrong? Micah 6 tells us that what the Lord requires of us is, "To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God." Instead of humility, aren't we so quick to identify whatever evidence, whatever commentator or news channel that promotes our preferred narrative and choose to listen to them alone? This is called "confirmation bias." It's a real thing. Liberals and conservatives do it. But, what if we instead chose to inspect and critique our own biases? We can't get out of our own skin, but we can make a choice to consider other narratives, we can choose to consider whether our current station in life, the current voices we listen to predisposes us to limited conclusions on important matters. What's happening in Ferguson has seemed to me to push people into their corners - making them defensive, assertive, combative, but not like Jesus. Martin Luther King Jr. was committed to non-violent protest, and he took hits for his stance. And while recommitting himself and his movement to non-violence he argued that we can't simply dismiss those who protest using different means. He said, "I think that we've got to see that a riot is the language of the unheard." How "unheard" must people feel that they take off work and protest, that they come out night after night, that they choose to burn their own neighborhood? Instead of posting condemnation, couldn't Christians, because of their self-professed identity as the lost and the least choose to listen instead? 

This posture of humility has relevance to so many more issues than just those being exposed by the events in Ferguson. 

Friends, can we listen? Isn't this what we're called to in our own neighborhoods? Aren't we called to listen to the voices of the oppressed, to seek to understand? I pray that I, that the church I lead would choose the challenging way over the easy way.