“Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him if a great millstone were hung around his neck and he were thrown into the sea.” Mark 9:42
Notice that Jesus uses the word “sin”…he does not say “it is okay, it wasn’t really their fault.” He judges the little one’s actions/thoughts as sin, regardless of whose fault it was. But he puts the greater blame and warning on the one who causes the sin.
I think this type of nuance is extremely difficult for Americans to wrap their minds around because we aren’t used to nuance and we do not like it. We prefer simple clear right vs. wrong. We want a clear “offender” and a specific “victim.” We want textbook scientific answers to respond to every news story, every public policy, every current event but the Scriptures give us a symphony, not a textbook.
Dr. King’s “I have a dream” speech is historic, but there is much more to what he had to say then a few lines our kids memorize in third grade. Young people followed King because he was a “transformed nonconformist.” We talk about responding non-violently and throw out MLK quotes as though the alternative is to passively do nothing. The alternative for Dr. King to violence was sacrificing his body, his sleep, his money, his prestige, and the privileges he had in order to not conform to the evil and sin present in his community.
King challenges us to join him in giving up our privileges, comfort, safety, and security to engage in justice issues. Would he condone rioting? No. But he would understand it and would ask that instead of judging it you be willing to risk all that you have to do something about the plight of impoverished communities. He would warn you that the Jericho road is dangerous. Perhaps the person laying on the side of the road is faking it and just trying to rob you, perhaps robbers wait to ambush you, perhaps you have greater things to worry about, but he would join Christ in asking you to walk the dangerous journey.
Those who are feeling pain by Ferguson and empathizing with those who riot are not saying the rioting is okay. We are not saying it is not “sinful” to riot. Empathy is understanding not necessarily condoning. It is identifying with the one who is angry or lamenting at it all, not saying “please keep doing what you are doing.” Empathy is why Christ was able to weep with Mary and Martha, even though he knew he was about to resurrect Lazarus.
There is a larger narrative and the Michael Brown case is one small story in the midst of the long, tiring, wearisome road that is racial inequality and injustice. If you want to argue the facts of this specific case, then you are missing out on understanding first the larger narrative that makes discussing the details with someone who is angry right now similar to sitting down at a table with someone who speaks a different language. You will only speak past each other if you don’t first understand the two different grids in which these stories are being interpreted.
If you are sick of “talking” about this topic of race then stop talking and just listen. If we slow down long enough to listen to our neighbor, we would know that there is empathy being shared with Ferguson because of what Brown symbolizes, not a condonement of violence. Brown, regardless of this particular case, is symbolic of a much larger story at play in impoverished minority communities across our country.
A clean crisp environment with healthy soil, sunlight, and water promotes an environment for plants to thrive in. A polluted, dark, dry area creates sick plants. A culture of injustice and oppression creates an environment in which those experiencing oppression get sicker and weaker. Do they sin? Of course. Are they responsible for that sin? Yes. But our racial history, current apathy, and hatred of the poor contribute negatively to the environment in impoverished communities in such a way that it makes it easier for sin to fester. In the Mark 9 illustration, we who are middle class are not the “little one” but the one who would be better off having a millstone tied around our neck.
How is it that as Christians we can believe that our sin was so massive that Christ literally bled and died on the cross for our sin, yet sin cannot then be massive enough to contribute to any systemic, societal sins? Isn’t death itself the most obvious communal consequence of the results of sin? If the entire world can experience death through the sin of Adam, is it so hard to imagine then that justice systems, institutions, and opportunities within communities are not subject to the same communal consequences of sin that our own bodies must face? Is it so hard to wrap our mind around not being able to neatly draw lines between our heroes and villains? So even if an individual within a system is not acting sinfully, they may still be part of a system that breaks apart at the seams due to the long term systemic consequences of sin that are particular to our culture and time.
Isn’t that the beauty of the gospel that even if we have contributed to oppression in some way, there is good news for us? We never have to fear the danger of being seen as an oppressor versus a victim because the gospel tells us it is the very fact that we oppress that we need Jesus. We never need to fear having privileges because these privileges are given to use for the sake of those without.
We can stand back and judge the actions of those suffering from the sick environment that systemic sin produces. We can just look to individual sins and judge them, not considering the role that the environment plays to cultivate individual sin like bacteria stuck in a petri dish. Or we can ask what we must sacrifice, what we must suffer, how do we enter that world and be the loving neighbor Christ has called us to be?