What can people of faith do about racism in America?
"Then the LORD said, 'I have observed the misery of my people...I have heard their cry...Indeed, I know their sufferings...' - Exodus 3:7
For the last few weeks, the eyes of America have been riveted on the town of Ferguson, Missouri, a formerly little-known suburb of St. Louis. It was there on August 9th that an unarmed African-American teenager named Mike Brown was shot six times by police, sparking ongoing protests and demonstrations by grief-stricken and outraged citizens. Clashes between demonstrators and heavily armed local police, highway patrol, and the Missouri National Guard have been the subject of extensive coverage and all manner of commentary across broadcast and social media.
These demonstrations in Ferguson represent something more than just lament for the tragic death of Mike Brown. They are an outcry at the demonization of black men, racial profiling, institutional racism, intergenerational poverty, the militarization of law enforcement and a culture of incarceration in America. Over the last three weeks, Ferguson has become a flash point for urgent issues facing minority communities, issues which have been largely unnoticed or ignored by the majority white culture. The #Ferguson hashtag no longer just refers to the events happening in Ferguson but has come to represent a national conversation about the toll that institutional racism and its many diabolical expressions has taken on our fellow Americans.
In the days following Mike Brown's death, columnist Leonard Pitts, Jr. described the protests as "an act of outcry, a scream of inchoate rage. That's what happened this week in Ferguson, Mo. The people screamed." These screams echo of the cries that God heard from the Hebrews enslaved in ancient Egypt.
A Burning Bush. A World On Fire.
This week's reading from the Hebrew Scriptures is the familiar story of the Burning Bush, in which God appears to Moses on Mt. Horeb as a bush that is aflame yet not consumed by the fire. This story is commonly remembered for the way God appears to Moses in the bush, God's instructions for Moses to remove his sandals because he is on holy ground, and most of all for the revelation of God's name, "I AM." Amidst all of these rich moments, any one of which would serve as a profitable source of preaching and reflection, what is sometimes missed is the occasion for this encounter.
It comes about because God has heard the anguished cries of the Hebrews enslaved in Egypt. According to the Book of Exodus, the Hebrew people in Egypt had grown so numerous that Pharaoh, the king of Egypt, perceived them as a threat and decided to enslave them. They labored under bitter conditions and were the subjects of centuries of prejudice, violence, and oppression. Their young men were the targets of unfair profiling, with Pharaoh ordering that all Hebrew boy children should be thrown in the Nile (Exodus 1:22).
It reminds me of one of the most heart wrenching moments in the Ferguson coverage: an interview with an African-American woman. With deep pain in her voice, she said she no longer wants to have children, "Who would want to raise children, especially a young man, in this kind of world?"
Exodus says, "The Israelites groaned in their slavery, and cried out. Out of the slavery their cry for help rose up to God." (Exodus 2:23). God hears their groaning and remembers the covenant with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and now comes to his people's rescue. God appears to Moses in the burning bush--no doubt, burning with righteous anger and with justice--and God calls Moses to liberate the Hebrews from their oppression.
In this passage, we read that God hears, sees, and knows the suffering of God's people. God says, "I have observed the misery of my people...I have heard their cry...I know their sufferings, and I have come down to deliver them and to bring them up...." (Exodus 3:7-8).
What we witness in this story is a God who is fully engaged with the plight of the oppressed, a God who is moved by their cries, and a God who responds with action. This is the God we see attested to throughout Scripture, especially in the work of the Hebrew prophets and the ministry of Jesus.
At the heart of the Bible story of the burning bush is the beating heart of God--a heart that burns with compassion and justice for the oppressed of every time and place.
Let My People Go
Today, God hears the cries of those in Ferguson and all who are oppressed. As in the story of the burning bush, God sees, hears, and knows their pain. God also acts in the face of injustice and demands the end of oppression. God instructs Moses to go tell Pharaoh, "Let my people go!" Let my people go from racism, oppression, profiling, and militarized law enforcement. Let my people go from the exploding gap between the rich and the poor, from unfair and unequal working conditions. Let my people go from unfair and unequal incarceration. Let my people go.
And yet, I can imagine everyday Egyptians during the time of the Exodus asking themselves, as many are doing today, "What's the big deal? Why is everyone so upset? Why don't these people just go back to their daily lives? Why do I have to be bothered with all this?"
This kind of apathy can be just as harmful as teargas and rubber bullets sprayed amongst peaceful protestors. Institutional racism and all it entails is not only a function of history or the specific, intentional actions of people who actively oppress. Institutional racism, which we see on display in Ferguson, is enabled by people who don't see--or don't want to see--what the fuss is all about--people who enjoy the privileges of being white without recognizing its cost to the whole people of God.
In the wake of #Ferguson, we must be willing to see systems of oppression, the suffering they inflict, and take steps to dismantle them--to let God's people go. For steps you can take, I recommend Janee Wood's excellent article, "Becoming a White Ally to Black People in the Aftermath of the Michael Brown Murder".
The Reverend Keith Anderson serves as pastor at Upper Dublin Lutheran Church near Philadelphia and is co-author with Elizabeth Drescher of Click2Save: The Digital Ministry Bible (Morehouse, 2012). A popular blogger on religion, new media, and popular culture at pastorkeithanderson.net, he employs a wide range of social media to minister on and offline. Pastor Anderson speaks regularly with local and national church groups, synods, and other organizations on the practice of digital ministry and the impact of digital culture on face-to-face ministry. He received his pastoral training at Harvard University Divinity School and The Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia.
For Further Reading
On the Run: Fugitive Life in an American City by Alice Goffman
Bible Study Questions
1. In this passage we hear that God was moved by the cries of the Hebrews in Egypt. What affect have the cries coming from Ferguson had on you? Have they moved you to compassion, anger, sadness, indifference, or in some other way?
2. Moses initially felt inadequate to the task God to which called him at the burning bush. What are the hurdles or challenges you face to taking a more active role in advocating for social justice?
3. Where do people need to be "let go" from oppression in your community? What are the steps you can take to help?
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