Ferguson, Breath, and Justice

Ferguson, Breath, and Justice

When Derrick Rose wore a pre-game warm-up shirt that said, “I can’t breathe,” I sensed that a movement might be underway. When Nashville residents laid down in the middle of Interstate 24 on a busy Thanksgiving traffic night, I sensed that a movement might be underway. When Isaiah Fish, TNU Class of 2014 and M.Div. Candidate at Union Theological Seminary in the City of New York, wrote me about his social justice concerns, I sensed that a movement might be underway.

Is Ferguson and New York City a one-week news cycle or the beginning of a call for justice from a nation still sinning and healing?

I cannot “experientially know” what my neighbors in Chestnut Hills and Napier Courts know. They have grown up in a very different narrative than mine. Although I grew up in the “Bombing Capital of Mississippi” during the Civil Rights era, I was on the side of the fence that never feared a police officer. And I still don’t. They are friends of the university who work out in our gym, drive though our campus, attend the same community meetings that I go to, and deliver hot chocolate to protesters in the middle of the interstate while redirecting traffic to keep them safe.

Could Ferguson happen in Nashville?

Yes. It only takes one person who misuses entrusted authority.

Since I cannot speak for African-Americans, I will speak to white folk. Unless we feel in our gut that law enforcement officers may do us harm, we will not understand the protest now occurring. Unless we sense that we are suspect for the color of our skin, we will not be able to grasp the angst of our neighbors. And I’m not sure this is even possible.

I’d suggest two biblical references for your consideration. We pile up spite against the Pharisees because we never lived in their narrative. Had we understood what they were tying to do in their time, most American Christians would have been on their side. Their agenda was remarkably similar to the political right of our day. But they have been caricatured, and rightly so, as opponents of the coming Kingdom of God, so we are against them. We pass judgment on them without knowing their narrative, just as they passed judgment on Jesus without knowing his narrative. Of course they were wrong about Jesus. But do we know why?

The other biblical reference is Genesis 1:26. God formed humankind out of the dust of the earth and “breathed into his nostrils the breath of life,” and he became a living being (Hebrew, nephesh). The breath of God turned a clay character into a nephesh. The root of this word is neck or throat. It is the most vulnerable part of the human body. Conquered people bared their neck to the conqueror in submission. The victor had power to take life. The bent neck was admission of such.

The other meaning of nephesh is throat, the passageway by which our life is sustained. Through it we receive air, water, and food. We are dependent beings, fragile bodies, needy persons. When we are deprived of air, we die. And maybe when we are deprived of justice, too. When an African-American man says to a white police officer, “I can’t breathe,” he is saying that his humanity is endangered by the way power is being used against him. All humans should listen.

Isaiah Fish sent me this quote:

‘I can’t breathe’ could very well have been uttered by Jesus on the cross—Jesus Christ, an oppressed minority under the most powerful government on the planet who was legally put to death by the state. But at least Jesus had a trial. The impunity with which police officers can continue to kill some of the most vulnerable members of society, the latest being Garner, is terrifying. May this be our moment of repentance for a sin that has plagued our nation for over 400 years…The highest ideals of our faith insist we never demonize anybody, much less kill that demonized other. We worship a God who made all people in God’s likeness and bestowed each human with the mark of the divine…In today’s society it seems that corporations are people but people of color are not. So now we march. Now is the time to build a sturdy and empowering infrastructure for a social movement. The degradation and demeaning of black and brown life must stop.”

—Serene Jones in “Corporations Are People But People of Color Are Not,” as found on Time.com, published 5 December 2014

Isaiah went on to write:

During my time at Trevecca, I often heard the school honoring those that have fought and struggled for racial justice in the past. From hearing Dr. Charles Johnson speak on campus to having friends annually travel to meet and spend time with John Perkins in Mississippi, I witnessed the school consistently reaffirm its commitment to social justice.

“As one who found my theological voice in classes in the religion department encouraging me to seek liberation and justice, I am fully convinced that Trevecca is truly striving to understand what it means to be a Christian institution in a world that is so blighted and devastated by racism. In the same spirit, I firmly believe that it would be a major mistake for Trevecca to speak highly of these individuals and condemn the xenophobia of the past while avoiding the struggle that many of Trevecca’s neighbors in the immediate community are still facing on a daily basis here and now.”

This post is for white folks, for my black and brown neighbors, for the Trevecca community, and for all who have ears to hear.


  1. Randy Anderson says

    Given that the two cases(Ferguson and New York) have little in common, it is a bit of a disservice to conflate them in some sort of Procrustean attempt to focus the narrative on race. The idea that the City of New York is detailing squads of police to collect penny-ante tobacco revenue is appalling enough on its own merit. Having spent some time as the only white worker in an exclusively African American workplace, I am content to stand with the General Superintendents and exhort folk to seek to be agents of reconciliation. As usual, I enjoyed your work, old friend, and would give a lot for a cup of coffee with you.

  2. Pam McGraner says

    I’m just a mom of a junior at Trevecca, but my husband and I have worked very hard to teach our daughter to be color-blind. We’ve prayed about how to teach her that, we’ve talked and talked in our family about the atrocities of bigotry of any kind and that first, and foremost, that if you don’t feel as if Jesus would do it, then it’s safe to say that you shouldn’t.
    As a Christian and a woman living in America, my heart has been broken numerous times of the things I’ve seen over the past few years – from the harsh, insensitive, unkind things I’ve heard those claiming to be Christians say, to what is occurring now to people of color. The anger at the injustice of it all seems to be coming to a head. I have literally wept at the plight of people of color, at the parents who’ve lost their children to violence, at the injustice that seems to be running rampant.
    I have a 15 year old niece, Ryleigh, who is bi-racial. My sister adopted her at birth and was privileged enough to be in the room when she was born. I remember how I sobbed, in gratitude, my tears landing on her sweet little head, when I first held her. She is so special, so precious. My daughter, Caitlyn & Ryleigh, are closer than sisters. None of us can imagine life without her.
    I remember lying in bed one night, watching an incident on television, where a white police officer in North Carolina, shot a black man for absolutely no reason at all. A man who was not guilty of anything. I remember hearing the black man say, “Why did you shoot me?” then apologizing for having reached back in his car for his wallet, which the officer had asked for. Thankfully, he was only injured, not killed. Fear gripped my heart and I realized at that moment that our Ryleigh was at risk, in a way that I had never thought of before. I had heard the U.S. Attorney General, Eric Holder, speak of the conversation he felt forced to have with his son, about what to do and how to behave if ever stopped by a police officer. Make no sudden moves, keep your hands in plain sight – do nothing without getting permission specifically from that police officer. He also said that he had hoped that he would never have to tell his son those things – that the world would change enough to where that wouldn’t be necessary. It hasn’t.
    I’m hurt and angry at the conversation that my sister and brother-in-law are going to be required to have with Ryleigh, just to keep her safe. Where I’ve always told my daughter that if she ever needed help or was in trouble, to seek out a police officer. Police officers are there to help and serve and the majority do just that. But sadly, there are some who see the color of one’s skin first and form judgments based on that. So now, when Ryleigh is told that police officers are there to help, she will also have to be told how to stay safe, should she ever be stopped one. This can’t be right and how it must break the heart of God. I want it to break mine too – so that I do everything I can to help or make the situation better – not worse. To hopefully, show the love of Jesus to all – especially those that feel downtrodden, discriminated against, broken and helpless.
    So my prayer is that the Christian community can be a force of positive, loving change so that EVERYONE can become color-blind. Thank you, Dr. Boone, for never being hesitant to talk about the tough issues. Thank you for the call for all of us to hear and then to do.

  3. Gary Lee Parker says

    As I read this article, I fully approve of the content which definitely should be spoken and acted upon to bring racial justice. One is excluded in these protest is the other injustice that needs to fight along with this one as some people involved in the Reconciliation Ministry Network did in protesting in Ferguson. As the Boston University dean reminded me that injustice anywhere is injustice. A number of years ago, I read a Studs Teakel book that interviewed people who are still living in poverty or racial unjustice stituations stating that a new movement must arise with a similar figure/prophet as Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. even though they said it could be a white person. You see racial injustice has ties to poverty that affects all racist as well as LGBTQ rights then there is the injustice in how we treat people who ae disabled whether they are Blind, Deaf, Physically Impaired, Mentally Impaired, or Mentally Ill. It is easier to look the other way, but as far as churches that proclaim the Weselyan Holiness Theology we cannot look the other way because of our committment to Jesus’ Way, not Humanity’s Way. It is easy to see the past mistakes and repent of them, but it is harder to see are present sins and repent. As the text about John the Baptist in this past Sunday’s Lectionary from Mark 1:1-9 stated that Repentance without life change means nothing. As we gather to repent of our personal sins, national sins, and church sins may we choose to move in the right direction to change our lifes. How many church have been guilty of sin in perpetualting institutiional racism and other institutiional sins, not just the United Methodist Church and the Church of the Nazarene, but other churches as well or maybe even other faith instituions that are not Christian based? Lord, have mercy on us that we become active and pro-active in living our whole lives as Jesus calls us to live in inclusion.

  4. Dorman Dowling says

    Long before Jesus took His last breath, He stopped the “narratives” and the “conversations.” When truth was discarded, and “justice” meted out to him in the self-interest of both the religious leaders and the secular leadership, Jesus had no more to say.

    “When he was accused by the chief priests and the elders, he gave no answer. Then Pilate asked him, “Don’t you hear the testimony they are bringing against you?” But Jesus made no reply, not even to a single charge—to the great amazement of the governor. Matthew 27:12-14

    “Are you the king of the Jews?” asked Pilate. “You have said so,” Jesus replied. The chief priests accused him of many things. So again Pilate asked him, “Aren’t you going to answer? See how many things they are accusing you of.” But Jesus still made no reply, and Pilate was amazed. Mark 15:3-5

    Even in John’s account, after a lengthy conversation, it is obvious there is an abrupt end with a question about the truth. “You are a king, then!” said Pilate. Jesus answered, “You say that I am a king. In fact, the reason I was born and came into the world is to testify to the truth. Everyone on the side of truth listens to me.” “What is truth?” retorted Pilate. John 18:37, 38a

    There well may be a movement underway, but what if that movement is born out of the same “justice” Jesus encountered? What if social justice concerns as of late are born out of self-interest concerns and not the truth? What if, “I grew up in a different narrative” is just a xenophobic, Pilate-like excuse not to deal with the truth?

    There is no doubt that we live in an imperfect world. But could it be that recent “racial pain” and “injustice” are borne out of the unjust judgments of motive? Could it actually be that this movement has been conceived out of the vilest injustice of all; a God-usurping, trial-less, conviction of the motive of an individual’s heart? If so, then it would be easy to go along with the crowd and say self-righteously, “What is the truth?”

    When Derrick Rose wore a pre-game warm-up shirt that said, “I can’t breathe,” I am certain he had no credible knowledge of what motive existed in that police officer’s heart. Derrick Rose’s action was to demonize another person. A movement borne out of that kind of marred view of humanity is what the church ought to point out as a misguided movement, but instead we wash our hands of it. A movement like that goes against the God we worship, who has bestowed His likeness upon the human race, and desires we all seek the Way, the Truth, and the life.

    Without further narrative or conversation, I am flushing this movement. It needs no further inspection. Its only importance is found in the remembrance of its iconoclastic residue.

    Dr., despite my curtness, your thought-provoking posts are appreciated.

  5. “Yes. It only takes one person who misuses entrusted authority.”

    As far as Ferguson goes, this quote was never clearly proven. There were many witnesses who saw very different things. Some even saw things that the physical evidence clearly proved didn’t happen. I felt Wilson’s post grand jury interview with ABC news was smug and did nothing to help him positively amongst his detractors. But based on the evidence presented at the grand jury hearings, the idea that he misused his authority can’t be proven beyond reasonable doubt.

    What we do know:
    Brown stole cigarillos earlier in the day.
    Brown attacked and choked the owner of the store.
    Brown, at some point hit Wilson, in the face.
    Brown was not shot in his back. (as some witnesses testified)
    Brown was not shot on his knees. (as some witnesses testified)
    According to the medical examiners involved in the case, you can’t rule out the possibility that Wilson’s testimony is true.
    According to the medical examiners involved, you can rule out that much of the testimony against him is not true.

    Making this case the poster child for police abuse of power will only cause more divide.

    I do believe African Americans are not afforded the same respect by police in general as caucasians.
    I do believe we need reform in many police departments in the U.S.
    I do believe that Christians should speak out on things like this.

    I don’t believe that Ferguson had to be a miscarriage of justice simply because an unarmed African American man was shot by a white police officer. In some ways, this instance seems just as much a rush to judgment as thinking an African American defendant must be guilty because he’s African American.

    If anything, this shows just how sin warps our relationships for ages. The injustices done to African Americans has no doubt been influential in the inability for many to make a better life for themselves and the generations that follow. The sins of hundreds of years of slavery and then the oppressive years beyond it have caused a distrust in black communities. Caucasians have definitely earned that mistrust. Do I understand why many are skeptical because of what happened between Brown and Wilson? Yes. But that doesn’t mean we should judge Wilson based on past events. He should be judged based on the evidence of his particular case. And I haven’t heard many people who believe that he absolutely used excessive force based on normal police protocol actually talk about the hard evidence.

    Ken Dixon, TNU class of 1998, NTS class of 2004

    • Ken,
      I applaud your courage and support you position. You cannot make broad assumptions based on facts that tend to be slanted toward a distorted political or social agenda if you truly desire to be an agent of change and/or Christ like. I find it a bit irresponsible to make such broad based statements without truly studying the facts much like the thought of many who say “I saw it on TV therefore it must be true.” We all have deep seated believes that influence our thoughts and cause us to take a particular position on issues of the heart whether it be our hearts be cleansed or dirty. Change comes about slowly if at all but the pervasive attitude that social justice is more important than justice is a sad commentary on our society and what we have become.
      Mike Harper TNC “76”

  6. Growing up in the poor neighborhood of Southwest Philadelphia and having Pastor in places like St. Louis and Seattle i’ve witness many different racial interaction over the last 50 years. We are not were we want to be, but we are not were we use to be.

    My black Pastor friends and staff members that I’ve been privileged to know and love through the years would be glad to know we are having such conversations. I wonder though as I’ve been in communication with several if we in the white Christian community blur the issues as much as the media has done?

    If we mention what Martin Luther King Jr. said about his desire to have his children not judged by the color of their skin but by their character of their lives; we get quickly judged by some intellectual white people of not really understanding the pain and frustration that people of color live with in our cities. I wonder what Martin Luther King Jr. would want to say to our white community about the fearful approach to even address the issue of character?

    I’ve seen transformation come when all aspects of an issue are allowed to be laid on a table. But, there seems to be a drum beat that is happening, that our only role is to listen. Listening is only one part of ingredient of a community receiving the healing it needs. There needs to be a balance to both sides of the narrative of people of color and the narrative of the men and women that protect all communities.

    We’ve started the conversation but will we embrace the hard task of transformative love, action and accountability?

    Thank you Dr. Boone for allowing the openness of all narratives to be addressed.

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