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The Parable of Ferguson

From our Dec. 21 issue

By Gerardo James de Jesus

The city of Ferguson, Missouri, erupted again on November 24, and nothing prevented it: not the pleas by Michael Brown’s parents for protests to be peaceful, not the diligent intervention of clergy, and not a more subdued presence of law enforcement. As a priest who practices psychoanalysis, I am keen on exploring what evokes such behavior. It’s not just about reversing destructiveness but of learning how the behavior might, as odd as this may seem, benefit an enraged soul. After all, we repeat actions if they make us feel better or attract attention.

To understand this rage, we cannot dismiss what underlies the behavior. Embedded in the African American story is a deep sense of alienation that shapes the psychology of a people. In the words of the late novelist James Baldwin: “Negros in America are always enraged.” Jesus got it right, sooner than any social psychologist deciphering the core of rage. Jesus often recited parables to awaken truths that others avoided, and he granted Peter’s request to clarify a parable about the source of evil in human hearts (Matt. 15:13-20). Can we find in Ferguson’s tragic story a truth that broadens our understanding of multicultural ministry and race relations? Will Ferguson become a modern parable for the church?

When relationships have lost the bond of trust, enemies emerge. When we no longer feel like we belong, or have never felt like we belonged despite being told otherwise, a dissonance occurs: a felt experience, at times expressed in rage, that can appear to others as self-pity or playing the race card. A woman in a domestically abusive relationship knows such rage. When the heart changes, twisting rules and lying to survive become the new normal. Moral virtues begin to contort. It’s all about survival.

What prompts enraged souls to destroy their own surroundings? The answer lies in how we treat one another. As Jesus described the two great commandments: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind” and “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Matt. 22:36-40). When a people’s perspective is suppressed, love is scant. What we believe does not coalesce with what we experience. Anger escalates, it finds an outlet, and there goes the community.

Yes, when the “heart becomes really deceitful above all things,” it truly becomes “desperately wicked.” People have trouble understanding this if they have not experienced profiling or the inability to find a job. But the Church must understand. It must understand how our core relations affect everything, for better and for worse. With this recognition will come new opportunities for healing alienation and mistrust.

First, we need to think incarnationally by placing ourselves on the side of the alienated, just as Jesus did. Jesus comes to us as a circumcised Jew, a member of a politically disenfranchised class in a land occupied by Romans, a man from a ghetto known as Nazareth (see John 1:46). Jesus knew alienation through and through, but responded in a transformative mode. He affirmed the humanity of the non-Jew, the uncircumcised, the despised Samaritan, the slave, the woman of ill repute, the foreigner or immigrant with his unfamiliar language and Greek culture, and even the hated Roman soldier who represented the occupier. As theologian Ray S. Anderson wrote in The Shape of Practical Theology (IVP Academic, 2001): “Jesus penetrated through these social and cultural forms of humanity and addressed the true humanity of each person, and so revealed his own humanity as the touchstone of divine grace.”

Second, incarnational thinking opens us to what we would rather avoid in ourselves, and it calls us to community. Why do I feel uncomfortable around you? Do I focus on another’s rage to hide my complicity in it? Am I afraid of losing popularity? Church leaders should cultivate human souls (see Heb. 13:17) by teaching them to build community. The incarnate Word, Jesus Christ, is the model. He comes not as the doctor diagnosing and exacting a cure but as one who suffers with us. The poor and marginalized trust Jesus because he becomes them (Phil. 2:7; Matt. 25:40). Intentionally hearing one another’s stories is essential to “breaking down the dividing wall” that fosters alienation (Eph. 2:14).

To see ourselves less as members of an ethnic group, political persuasion, or ideological bent and more as the body of Christ is a matter of conversion. We cannot care about what we choose not to see; or, as St. Augustine put it, you can’t love what you don’t know. Jesus came under unjust legal proceedings that led to his death. But Christians today, all over the world, live among people who fear being profiled, deported, and jailed.

Finally, the Ferguson parable is about more than just a white cop killing an African American teenager amid a tense confrontation. It is symptomatic of human brokenness that can only be met by a radical, incarnated love that is willing to go with Jesus “outside the camp and bear the abuse he endured” (Heb. 13:13). In this communion of solidarity, we can find purpose in the rage of our brothers and sisters. The Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., once said that “a riot is the language of the unheard.” The parable of Ferguson provides another opportunity for us to listen in loving surrender.

The Rev. Gerardo James de Jesus is assistant priest at St. Mary of the Angels Church in Orlando.

Image: Protest at Ferguson Police Department by Jamelle Bouie, via Wikimedia Commons

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