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Rev. Thomas, the former General Minister and President of the United Church of Christ, is now a professor and administrator here at CTS. Follow his timely, provocative writings on the issues of our day.

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Occupation in Ferguson

In a class on congregational leadership last week we talked about how churches should address the racism inherent in the events at the court house and in the streets of Ferguson.   “Given the fact that it’s the end of many families’ Thanksgiving holiday, and that this will be the first Sunday of Advent, what would you say?” One student noted that Jesus’ birth took place in the midst of a military occupation by Rome. Shouldn’t this provide a biblical context for the realities of Ferguson and so many other communities of color in the United States?

To most of the people sitting in the pews of our predominantly white mainline congregations in Advent, the notion that many of our neighbors experience the police, prosecutors, and courts as a system of control and terror akin to the occupation of first century Palestine by imperial Rome will come as a shock. White, economically secure citizens are conditioned to see the police as friends, valued rescuers in an emergency, a welcomed security force keeping bad actors at bay. Even when stopped for a traffic violation, police are typically polite, if stern, to privileged Americans. White America may acknowledge the reality of the abusive cop, or the unjust sentence, but these are seen as aberrations, exceptions. They prove no rule. The police are not occupiers; they are a vital part of the communal fabric that makes our world safe and secure. For white America, the police play these roles well.

People of color, particularly young Black and Hispanic men, experience a very different reality. Guilt or innocence are irrelevant factors in a racist dynamic that labels these young men suspicious and, therefore, subject to being stopped, questioned, accused, incarcerated, abused and shot in obscenely disproportionate numbers. White families welcome the protection afforded to their teens and 20 somethings by the police. Families of color fear the acts of control perpetrated by the police over their children. Most white families believe their children survive, in part, because of the presence of the police. Many families of color believe their children survive, in part, insofar as they can avoid interactions with the police.

To the residents of Palestine, Roman soldiers were symbols of an imperial system designed to control their lives, their movements, their behavior and, above all, their political activity. The centurion with his body armor and weapons was not “your friend.” He was Rome’s “long arm” and crushing heel. It was into this socio-political reality that Jesus was born. And it was the dynamics of this reality that ultimately led to his execution. Occupation always benefits the privileged; it is never benign.

People of color don’t hate all police officers or assume that every officer is racist. And when violence does break out in their communities, as it did in Ferguson last week, they want what all of us want – a police force that will stand in the way to protect them and their businesses, something that notably failed to happen in Ferguson. What induces rage, as it has in Ferguson and elsewhere across this country, is an occupation that uses the police to intimidate and control, that refuses to hold them accountable for even the most egregious abuse, and that fails to consistently employ them to protect when chaos does threaten.

To liken the current crisis in the United States to an occupation is not to deflect blame to some invisible foreign army. Nor is it to indict all police officers or place all blame on the criminal justice system. It is rather to indict much of white America for its failure to treat people of color as full citizens and as neighbors. The police and the prosecutors are officers of a state apparatus that ensures privilege for some. They are agents paid to protect that privilege by controlling a population white Americans find disturbing, suspicious, dangerous, and alien. We would prefer it to be a benevolent occupation, but in the end we have shown ourselves willing to grant the police wide latitude, willingly arm them with the latest military hardware, and easily dismiss the violence they perpetrate in our name and for our benefit as justified.

This hard, perhaps offensive portrait is not likely to be the Christmas pageant many of our congregations want. But then we’re not eager to hear John the Baptist’s searing phrase “brood of vipers,” either, and few of us relish Mary’s joyful undoing of the rich. Nor do we linger long over the story of police violence unleashed against the male infants by the Occupier’s proxy, Herod.  Advent has much to say to the crisis symbolized by Ferguson. If we render that Word silent in favor of happier carols, we invite a merrier tune that is, sadly – and dangerously – irrelevant.

John H. Thomas
December 4, 2014      

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