08/25/2014 05:22 pm ET Updated Oct 25, 2014

Of Facebook and Ferguson

Most mornings, one of my first acts while I'm sipping my coffee is to log onto Facebook. Amid various updates from my Facebook friends, I usually encounter a variety of blog posts dealing with world events. Reading about violence and unrest in Gaza, Ukraine, Iraq, and most recently, Ferguson, Missouri often leaves me overwhelmed, depressed and, to a degree, feeling powerless.

Part of the power of social media is its ability to immediately communicate information to a wide range of persons and, in some cases, promote action. From galvanizing the Occupy Wall Street movement a few years ago to the recent ALS Ice Bucket Challenge, social media has redefined how we communicate and how our collective actions can make a difference in the world. Yet social media has not improved one aspect of our human nature -- it hasn't broadened our attention spans. I am very much aware that many of the news posts and blogs that find their way to my Facebook wall will simply roll by me like the ending credits of a film until they disappear. Social media is indispensable to how we engage the world. But the fissures exposed by events in Ferguson require more than the power of social media to generate momentary public outrage. They require sustained critical reflection and communal conversation on issues of political power, economic justice, and, most especially, racism.

In a recent op-ed piece in Time magazine, former NBA All-Star Kareem Abdul-Jabbar noted that the symbiotic connection between race and poverty remains a persistent, yet largely ignored evil in America. Whenever violence is perpetrated against those who are poor (and disproportionately African American) "that heartless leviathan we call history" swallows these events up, eradicating them "from the national memory." The depressing truth of Adbul-Jabbar's assertion is that this symbiotic relationship between race and poverty remains constant in American history. Prior to his death, Martin Luther King, Jr. commented that addressing issues of race and poverty in America was not only about material resources; it was discovering a national will to care. Many persons of religious faith and prophetic insight like King fervently believed that pressing problems of social justice required deep-seated spiritual and moral wisdom. However, moral suasion becomes transformative only when it connects with the everyday experiences of a flesh-in-blood community.

The moral-ethical questions raised by the shooting of Michael Brown, and the 2012 killing of Trayvon Martin, have led to renewed calls for Americans to engage in "a national conversation" on race. However, part of our dilemma and tragedy is that we are not only groping with how exactly to create a conversation, but in the case with many white Americans to acknowledge that racism exists. Social media can serve us well as a sort of cultural shock treatment. We can see in a new way, often in real time, what is occurring in places like Ferguson. Yet social media also serves as a prism of America's racial divide. If anything, social media has become its own arena for venting racism. Even a cursory view of sites like YouTube reveal a wide array of videos promoting "white victimhood," showcasing everything from conservative political pundits to a range of Obama conspiracy theorists (and oftentimes, the racist comments left by viewers speak for themselves).

In a recent blog, Paul Raushenbush noted that whites who are concerned with combating racism need to get off their computers and engage in meaningful grassroots activism. A critical part of this "offline" engagement must include face-to face conversations with those who are part of the communities where we live, work, play, and worship. An engagement against racism and poverty requires political action. But at its core, combating racism is a central question of faith that affects every person living in America. For white Americans this means challenging the cycle of avoidance.

Sadly, Ferguson is not just another example of racism, but of white America's denial of its racist past and present (as the so-called "counter protest" groups in Ferguson reveal). This is a cycle that must be addressed if there is to be any hope that America's racial divide can ever be healed. Moral-ethical suasion alone is not enough to engage the systemic evils of racism in the U.S. However, it can be an effective tool to help overcome our tendency to look at Ferguson through a lens of helplessness -- and empower us to respond in meaningful and transformative ways.

Movements of social change don't emerge from people of privilege. Yet oftentimes these movements are galvanized when people who hold power experience some sort of a "conversion." Such conversions are not about cheap grace, but about persons who are able to recognize injustice and feel a responsibility to alleviate injustice. Can these transformative moments occur online? Perhaps. Can they occur when communities engage one another in painful, yet honest face-to-face conversations on issues of race, class, and privilege? Here, I am more hopeful. Are these transformations easy? Never. But nothing about faith is supposed to be easy.

In all likelihood, I will continue to feel overwhelmed by all the various posts and blogs that I encounter on Facebook. However, my challenge, and the challenge of every American right now who might feel overwhelmed by social media, is to fight against feeling hopeless by finding ways to engage our specific contexts. Ultimately, my hope is that what is happening in Ferguson might become a transformative moment, as opposed to another historical leviathan.