A Reflection on the recent incidents in Ferguson, Missouri

By Nathan D. Baxter
Posted Dec 2, 2014

[Union of Black Episcopalians] Members of the Union of Black Episcopalians join with the larger African American community in outrage regarding the inherent injustice reflected in the Grand Jury process, attitude and decision.

While we believe in the “Rule of Law”, the African American Community has too often seen how the process of law can be legally manipulated in such a manner to deny  transparency, equity in voice regarding “the evidence”,  and finally an occasion for a just court hearing.  Many legal experts, while acknowledging that there is little chance of revisiting the decision, question the irregularity of a Prosecutor presenting for the potential defendant rather than the victim.  However one favors the issues, in the African American community this is one more example of how the “rule of law” can obfuscates opportunities for justice and imply old stereotypes of our unworthiness for Human Dignity.

The UBE with other voices of our community reminds our Church and our society that Ferguson, while being a unique political context, is only one example of violence and racial denigration in black communities around the nation.  From the 1787 Constitutional “Three-Fifths Compromise”  (African Americans counted as 3/5 of person for census purposes), to the  legacy of lynching in the Jim Crow and Civil Rights era, to the continued fruits of that  legacy which stereotypes blacks (especially  males) as criminally inclined, beastly aggressive,  and lacking fundamental intellectual and social qualities to merit human dignity.  In many cases these are unconscious assumptions.  But the Michael Brown case and the casting of the victim as a thug, the armed police officer  (who shared much of Brown’s physical stature) as a fearful victim, and that as a group of black eye-witnesses  are proven liars by “evidence” has been repeated too many times to be dismissed.  A recent article in the Daily Beast (11/26/14) reports:

“According to data stretching from 1999 to 2011, African Americans have comprised 26 percent of all police-shooting victims. Overall, young African Americans are killed by cops 4.5 times more often than people of other races and ages.”  All of this does not exclude cases such as the Trayvon Martin saga (justified by his being in the wrong socio-economic neighborhood), the black on black violence emanating from the political and economic cages we romantically call “inner-city ghettos” in America.

The Episcopal Church, in all its diversity, is an American Institution.  Institutions are critical because they transmit from one generation to another “institutes”; that is corporate values and assumptions necessary to sustain and advance culture and identity.   Institutions not only transmit, they play a role in critiquing, interpreting, and challenging such powerful essential qualities in our common life.  This is why every revolution of social change in America has drawn from ideals and language of the Church.  Because “institutes” are spiritual qualities, the Church is the ultimate institutional harbinger of matters spiritual…including equity, justice, reconciliation and the divine gift of human dignity.

With this in mind, my greatest fear for our communities and our nation is that legal disappointments and inherent negative reaffirmations regarding the worth and human dignity of African Americans is leading to Cynicism in the larger community and a sense of despair within the black community.  Cynicism and despair always leads to violence—violence against others or ourselves.

Even though the Union of Black Episcopalians is deeply saddened by the implications of the Michael Brown case, we claim the role of the Christian Church—even our Episcopal Church, as an agency of hope.  We are very grateful for the strong statements of empathy, protest and reconciliation by bishops and other Episcopal Church leaders.  We are particularly grateful for the statement of our Presiding Bishop and the “on the ground” leadership and voice of Bishop Wayne Smith of Missouri.

The Chapters and interest groups of the UBE are committed to:

  • collaborating with the Episcopal Church, civil rights groups and leaders in local communities to be a voice of hope against cynicism (that’s just the way “it is”) and despair (no option but rage);
  • providing suggestions and resources, especially to black congregation for having productive conversations (Adult and youth forums, Coffee hour programs, etc);
  • encouraging, collecting and forwarding liturgical resources which enhance the spiritual perspectives and sustenance in the struggle for justice;
  • AND most of all, empowering the concerns, ideas and voices of our youth and young adults whose generations bear the contemporary brunt of racism.

Regarding the latter commitment, with Ms. Annette Buchanan, National President of the Union of Black Episcopalians, we met this week with our young adult leaders (board members and advisors).  Their ties to other communities of color in our Church and to their peers in the black community provided indispensible advice and insights for moving forward the agendas of hope, justice and reconciliation.  As I have seen young white, brown and black faces marching in Ferguson and other local communities, I am chastened and encouraged.  I do hope that all congregations of our Episcopal Church will take time to talk with their youth and young adults about race and violence; and that we will LISTEN to their thoughts on these matters of justice and reconciliation.  I am finding that there is valuable experience and passion for justice in what may be the most diverse and strongest sinew in the body of our church….our youth.   Our youth as leaders are an indispensible contribution in our search for a new prophetic voice for a more inclusive Church and society.  In my anger and frustration, they reminded me of my vocation as a Christian and a bishop: that “In Christ There is no East or West, There is no North or South…. All Christly souls are one in him throughout the whole wide earth.”  This must be our message, our mission and our undying hope.

— The Rt. Rev. Nathan D. Baxter is retired Bishop of Central Pennsylvania and Honorary National Chair of the Union of Black Episcopalians.