Earlier this week, I attended the “Moral Monday” protest in Ferguson. The protest was called by the Ferguson October group sponsored by Hands Up United, and is modeled on a series of Moral Monday protests organized in North Carolina. Since 2012, the movement has called attention to a wide range of issues mostly around racial discrimination and other forms of social injustice; civil disobedience is often a part of the rallies. Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove and the Rutba House in Durham have been actively involved in this movement from the beginning. Moral Mondays differ from other forms of social activism in their reliance on communities of faith; this week’s protest was specially planned for clergy, and pastors from the area and from out of town participated.

Protestors gathered on Monday morning at Wellspring Church and marched down N. Florissant Ave. to Ferguson’s Police Station. A chalk-outline of Michael Brown was drawn on the pavement and prayers were offered in his memory; the crowd together recited a litany of the young black men killed by police this year. The protest lasted four and half hours, the length of time Michael Brown’s body lay unattended in the street. The most dramatic moment of the event occurred when rabbis, pastors, and priests confronted the local police who had lined up to guard the City Hall. Each police officer was met with a clergyperson who looked him directly in the eyes and said, “A great injustice has occurred in the shooting of Michael Brown. I urge you to repent. I offer to take your confession now.”

This action made me uncomfortable, and apparently I wasn’t the only one. Early this week, Rev. Greg Weeks from Manchester UMC wrote an editorial for the Post-Dispatch titled, “Faith Perspectives: On Demand Confessions Seldom Work.” Weeks argued that demanding individuals confess and repent requires a personal judgment, which is presumably always wrong. (I would challenge, however, that the judgment was communal and ecumenical. How else can we judge?) Individual officers are not guilty here, and the sins of the institution should not be laid at their feet, he wrote.

I admit, I was thinking similar things as I stood with the protesters in the pouring rain. Standing face to face with police officers, some of them younger than myself, I felt compassion; I saw someone like myself looking back. The golden rule came to mind, and I realized that I would not want to be treated in this way. Moreover, I was scandalized by the militancy of the protesters, the shouting and fist-pumping, the palpable anger. Over and over, we were reminded by organizers that this was a “militant act of civil disobedience.” To top it all off, the demand for immediate repentance and confession felt like a threat to the police, a weapon to be deployed.

Yet that’s exactly what the demand was intended to be – a weapon of combat. It was also intended to juxtapose the 9mm strapped to the side of each officer on the line. A weapon just like this killed Michael Brown, and weapons just like it kill hundreds of black men every year. Thousands of men are dying unnecessarily, some by actual weapons, others through lack of access to decent healthcare, education, and employment. Many of the young men we work with in the Mark Twain neighborhood are (literally) killed by despair. How do we combat these powerful weapons which destroy so many bodies? Not with the same type of weapons. I’m reminded of David’s speech to Goliath: “You come against me with sword and spear and javelin, but I come against you in the name of the Lord Almighty, the God of the armies of Israel, whom you have defied.” We bear the weak weapon of words, of ritual and symbolic action. The weakness of the Word.

Andy Gill noted that white Christian pacifist types get squeamish around militant protests because they fail to appreciate the active and aggressive side of peacemaking. He goes on to say that the reason white “pacifist” Christians are able to speak out so forcefully against militant action is that they are beneficiaries of violence. He writes: “it’s hypocritical for Christian’s to say something along the lines of, ‘Violence against injustice is never acceptable’ while we are benefiting from a violence that began with Constantine and has yet to stop since.” Unlike our neighbors, we have the luxury of not fighting because of our privilege and power in society. Yet Christ did not allow his privilege to prevent him from standing with the oppressed and dying with the criminals. Peacemaking and reconciliation require action, and pacifist Christians in particular must learn how to be aggressively-passive.

Origen, the early Christian apologist, wrote that Christians do not fight like the emperor’s troops, with physical weapons, but rather they combat evil through prayers. Our prayer on Monday was not a Gethsemane, thy-will-be-done prayer, but rather a get-thee-hence temple-cleansing prayer. After all these years, I’m still trying to reconfigure the image of Jesus meek-and-mild to the Jesus who was angry at the Roman occupation, disgusted by the moralism of the religious leaders, and outraged by the abuses of the Temple-industrial complex. Jesus called individuals and groups to repentance; he publicly shamed Pharisees, and accused them (individually and collectively) with murder (Jn. 8); he encouraged his followers to creatively disobey unjust laws (see Walter Wink’s interpretation of the Sermon on the Mount); he participated in something like the “Theatre of the Oppressed” in the his “triumphal” entry to Jerusalem and the cleansing of the Temple. In other words, Jesus militantly opposed the religious and political injustices of his day, albeit in unconventional ways. Thus, when Paul exhorts us to take up “spiritual” weapons, he doesn’t mean to deny the materiality of our struggle; he’s simply saying that our weapons are not 9mm. They’re more powerful because they do not kill the body, but strike the soul.

I mentioned above that I was moved by the humanity of the officers in front of me. Seeing these men as fully human evoked a compassionate response; it shielded them, even from nonviolent attack. And I felt secure knowing that these men probably saw me as fully human too. It was easier for us to acknowledge our common humanity because, as I said, we look the same. The goal of the protest is to extend that security to the vulnerable among us, those who are discriminated against because of the color of their skin, by forcing our community to attend to this population. I’ve heard so many times from black neighbors that if it had been a white boy walking down the street in Ferguson that Saturday afternoon, he would not have been shot (and available statistics bear out this intuition). As we sang over and over in the rain on Monday morning: “Until the killing of black men, black mothers’ sons, is as important as the killing of white men, white mother’s sons… We who believe in freedom cannot rest it comes.” We who believe in freedom cannot rest.

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