But God

About ten years ago, Janet Parker, a pastor from Virginia, went to Rwanda, where, ten years earlier, in just 100 days between April and July, an estimated 800,000 to 1 million people had been slaughtered. Most of them had been members of the Tutsi minority, and had been targeted for extermination by members of the Hutu majority. Janet was in Rwanda to attend a church conference.

“I saw a beautiful land and a lovely people, whose smiles almost hid the haunted look behind their eyes. But as they opened their hearts to me and shared their stories, as they took me around to the countryside, I glimpsed the horror that still stalks this wounded nation like a wraith.”

“Rwandans themselves do not fully understand what happened to them. Again and again they said that the genocide was ‘insanity,’ that ‘it didn’t make sense,’ and ‘cannot be explained.’ Most poignantly, Violette Nyirarukundo, a survivor and a Presbyterian church leader, thanked us for our presence and said, ‘Please tell us the truth. We need to better understand ourselves.’”

Janet felt both moved and humbled by that statement. Later she realized, “We should have asked our Rwandan friends the same question. As representatives of an international community that failed to respond to the unfolding genocide, we might ask Rwandans and the other neglected victims of violence in the world, ‘Please tell us the truth. Help us to understand ourselves (…).’”[1]

We need one another to understand ourselves; we can’t do it by ourselves. Here in the U. S., we live in a different country, but a wounded nation nonetheless, stalked by the horrors of slavery and racism. Earlier this month, the Civil Rights Division of the U. S. Department of Justice published a report of its investigation of the Ferguson Police Department. Somebody had to go there on our behalf and tell us what was going on, and not because Ferguson is a particularly racist town and we’re always looking for a scapegoat. Somebody had to go there and tell us the truth, because we need to better understand ourselves.

I read the report and I want to share some of the findings with you.

Ferguson’s law enforcement practices are shaped by the City’s focus on revenue rather than by public safety needs. This emphasis on revenue has compromised the institutional character of Ferguson’s police department, contributing to a pattern of unconstitutional policing, and has also shaped its municipal court, leading to procedures that raise due process concerns and inflict unnecessary harm on members of the Ferguson community. Further, Ferguson’s police and municipal court practices both reflect and exacerbate existing racial bias, including racial stereotypes. (p. 2)

(…) The City’s emphasis on revenue generation has a profound effect on FPD’s approach to law enforcement. (…) Officer evaluations and promotions depend to an inordinate degree on “productivity,” meaning the number of citations issued. Partly as a consequence of City and FPD priorities, many officers appear to see some residents, especially those who live in Ferguson’s predominantly African-American neighborhoods, less as constituents to be protected than as potential offenders and sources of revenue. (p.3)

The numbers are remarkable:

Of the $11.07 million in general fund revenue the City collected in fiscal year 2010, $1.38 million came from fines and fees collected by the court; [the numbers in fiscal year 2011 were similar]. In its budget for fiscal year 2012, however, the City predicted that revenue from municipal fines and fees would increase over 30% from the previous year’s amount to $1.92 million; the court exceeded that target, collecting $2.11 million. In its budget for fiscal year 2013, the City budgeted for fines and fees to yield $2.11 million; the court exceeded that target as well, collecting $2.46 million. For 2014, the City budgeted for the municipal court to generate $2.63 million in revenue. (p. 10)

Not surprisingly, racial bias becomes obvious in traffic stops: African-American drivers in Ferguson are more than twice as likely as white drivers to be searched during vehicle stops despite the fact that they are found in possession of contraband 26% less often than white drivers.

But the bias isn’t just statistical:

In email messages and during interviews, several court and law enforcement personnel [including supervisors] expressed discriminatory views and intolerance with regard to race, religion, and national origin. The content of these communications is unequivocally derogatory, dehumanizing, and demonstrative of impermissible bias. (p. 72)

A November 2008 email stated that President Barack Obama would not be President for very long because “what black man holds a steady job for four years.” (…) A June 2011 email described a man seeking to obtain “welfare” for his dogs because they are “mixed in color, unemployed, lazy, can’t speak English and have no frigging clue who their Daddies are.” An October 2011 email included a photo of a bare-chested group of dancing women, apparently in Africa, with the caption, “Michelle Obama’s High School Reunion.” (p. 73)

In the days following the publication of the report, City Manager John Shaw, municipal Judge Ronald Brockmeyer, and Police Chief Thomas Jackson resigned, but again, the value of the report, beyond good and much needed recommendations for reforming the system of law enforcement in one of our towns, is to help us understand ourselves better. This report illustrates how collectively we create institutions that reflect and embody our racial biases and our contempt for the poor, and how those institutions in turn shape and form us and our children.

The wickedness exposed in the findings is small and ugly, but it is greater than what can be addressed via personal morality or public policy. The mess we’re in is much greater than we want to admit. We want to hold on as long as we possibly can to the illusion that we just need to try harder. Better schools, better laws, better legislators, better judges, city managers, and police chiefs – nothing wrong with that, except that the wickedness is pervasive; it is not just around us, it is between and within us. We are captive to destructive forces larger than us, wicked forces that drain love and justice from our life together. And we are slow to admit that we need saving. Trapped in death, we can be convinced that life’s just like that, or worse, that it’s supposed to be like that. Our whole life can be twisted around a lie and we’re convinced it’s the truth, because it’s all we’ve ever heard.

We need saving because we live in a world that is estranged from the Holy One who made it. Estranged from God, we become confused about the purpose of life and who we are, and we lead lives that are destructive for others and for ourselves.

“You were dead,” we read in Ephesians. Which is to say, you were caught in a futile way of life obedient to selfish desires, seeking the approval of a culture built on greed and oppression, helpless to disentangle yourself from the web of lovelessness. You were dead.

“But God,” the witnesses in Ephesians interject, but God, rich in mercy and overflowing love, God loved us even when we were dead and made us alive together with Christ and set us in a place where all of life is at home in the constant presence of Christ. A place of reconciliation where all of us are and know one another to be children of God, brothers and sisters, showing and proclaiming in the world how divine love disentangles the mess of sin and frees us to be truly alive together. We are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus for the life God prepared for us, no longer following the course of this world, but walking in the way of Christ, embodying and reflecting the gracious love that is God. “Have mercy on us and forgive us,” we prayed earlier, “that we may delight in your will and walk in your ways, to the glory of your name.”

As God’s own, we’re not being saved by being taken out of the world, but rather by being taken deeper into it as people of hope and messengers of reconciliation.

Sin is the name we have given to all that alienates us from God and therefore from each other, from the earth, and from ourselves. Sin is pervasive. But God, rich in mercy, is at work in the world. “For all their power to cripple, control and alienate,” wrote Fred Craddock, “all hostilities in the universe will not only cease ultimately, but will be reconciled. For redemption in Christ to be complete, it must range as far and wide as the forces of evil.”

As people who discovered by the grace of God that we cannot save ourselves, we have tasted the freedom of the children of God. And because we have tasted our true freedom, we live toward its fullness.

We read portions of Psalm 107 this morning, a redemption song whose verses sing of our need to be liberated from our many troubles and of God’s power to deliver us:

Some sat in darkness and in gloom,
    prisoners in misery and in irons,
for they had rebelled against the words of God,
    and spurned the counsel of the Most High.
Their hearts were bowed down with hard labor;
    they fell down, with no one to help.
Then they cried to the Lord in their trouble,
    and he saved them from their distress;
he brought them out of darkness and gloom,
    and broke their bonds asunder.[2]

Sin is the name we have given to all that alienates us from God and therefore from each other, from the earth, and from ourselves. Pride, envy, greed, and racism are just some of the ways in which sin entangles us in lovelessness. Sin is pervasive. But God, rich in mercy, is at work to redeem us.

God tells us the truth: we are forgiven sinners. We are reconciled to God, we are alive with Christ, not because of anything we did, but only because God’s love overflows. This is the place where the healing begins.


[1] Janet L. Parker, “Can These Bones Live? What the church must learn from Rwanda,” Sojourners magazine, April 2006

[2] Psalm 107:10-14 (NRSV)