There is an old Christian spiritual entitled “Were You There”. The verses of the song lead the Christian believer along the path of the Crucifixion of Jesus the Christ. The purpose of the song is to remind the believer of their responsibility in the brokenness in the world; questions such as, “were you there when they nailed him to a tree and were you there when they laid him in the tomb?” are reminders that this brokenness is the cause of suffering and death.
I have been reminded of this old spiritual for the past couple of days, while hearing the stories coming from Ferguson, MO, and discussions from around the world about the death of Mike Brown, and I have been rather vocal about my feelings on the subject, partially because my daughter-in-law has been posting so much information on Facebook, and mostly because I think that we need to be vocal about atrocities when they take place. Reflecting on Ferguson should cause each of us to reflect in the same way that “Were You There” calls the faithful to reflect. Ferguson is not a tragedy because of Mike Brown, Ferguson is a tragedy because we can still avoid the recognition of ourselves in the streets of Ferguson.
I have been told many times, “I can’t comment, I wasn’t there.” I disagree. We were there on the day that Mike Brown was killed. We were there because we placed ourselves there each time that we ignored or participated in prejudice in action. When we as a people can believe that the poor are poor only because of bad decisions, and not because of our own elitist ideologies, we create the need for riots in the streets of Ferguson.
I have been involved in a couple of discussions about the rioting, and my answer is always the same “rioting is a poor choice; but what do you suggest a society with no voice do to be heard?” I do not condone the rioting, but neither do I condone the ideology that keeps oppressing the poor, whether the poor be Black, White, Hispanic, or any other human being. When Mike Brown was killed and the community cried out did we answer? Most of us did not. Most of us did what we are conditioned to do, we waited for the news story to change so that we could move back into a world where we can deny that we were there, and those who did not walk away are making us very uncomfortable. In the Christian Easter Tradition, the song “Were You There” is highlighted during Holy Week because within Holy Week the faithful are to be reminded that they are a community, and that their actions can be part of the problem; Ferguson is simply re-introducing us to the truth that we were there all along and not paying attention, just like the song reminds the faithful that they are present at the Crucifixion each time that they harm their neighbor in one way or the other.
I suggest that we talk abut Ferguson, not with language of understanding what happened between Mike Brown and the police officer (a tragedy such as this cannot be understood) but in the language of helping each other to see our part in those streets. I have been blessed to be clean and sober for a bit over 27 years. In my early years of sobriety I found solace in the rooms of AA and what that experience taught me, and still teaches me, is that we are all exactly alike. Each and every human being has the same hopes and dreams. We may have different mask, but rooms like AA help us to remove those mask and traditions such as Christianity should help remove those mask as well. Songs such as “Were You There” exist so that the faithful will ask themselves what part they are playing in the brokenness of the world, and Ferguson continues to be active because we are refusing to acknowledge that we are part of the problem.
Ferguson is not about who is right and who is wrong (I am pretty sure there is right and wrong on both sides), although it is difficult to avoid placing blame when something this tragic takes place; Ferguson is about the possibility of becoming a better society. “Were You There” when Mike Brown was killed? I was; I know very few who were not, but Ferguson can open our hearts and Ferguson can make us look at each other fully, maybe for the first time. I hope to see the person in every single man or woman who walks beside me or who passes me; all I have to do is strive to see how alike we are and stop looking for how we might be different.