It is so easy to, as the apostle Paul says, to “be overcome by evil.” It is much harder to “overcome evil with good.” A closer look at what’s going on in Ferguson, Missouri, shows that very clearly.
12th Sunday after Pentecost – August 31, 2014
Romans 12:9-21, Matthew 16:21-28 – Pastor Evan Davis
12th Sunday after Pentecost (Year A) – Sunday, August 31, 2014 – Romans 12:9-21, Matthew 16:21-28
St. Jacob’s-Spaders Lutheran Church, Harrisonburg, Virginia
“How Do We Confront Evil?” – Pastor Evan Davis
If you had been walking down the street, going about your daily business in Ferguson, Missouri, at about noon on Saturday, August 9, you would have seen two young black men, Michael Brown and Dorian Johnson, walking down the middle of the street when a police officer in his patrol car pulled up alongside to stop them for jaywalking. A few moments later Officer Darren Wilson shot Michael Brown at least six times. Brown was unarmed at the time of the shooting. That’s about all we know for sure.1
If you have followed this story at all, chances are you feel strongly about it. And I will not be able to resolve all your feelings about it today. If you don’t know much about it or feel very strongly about it, I ask you to listen. Because it’s the details of what happened, some of which are unclear, that cause so much outrage. It seems that when Officer Wilson pulled up alongside the two young men, words were exchanged. Either Wilson or Brown or both were saying some things that will get the blood boiling. Quickly, things got physical. As the police tell it, Brown shoved Wilson back into his car and “physically assaulted” him, including reaching for his gun. But as Michael Brown’s friend Dorian Johnson, who was standing right next to him, put it, Officer Wilson grabbed Brown by the neck and tried to pull him down. Then, as Johnson tells it, Wilson shot Brown once while still in the car, then as Brown ran away, he shot him again. At that point, Brown turned around, put his hands up, said “I don’t have a gun. Stop shooting!,” but Wilson approached Brown and fatally shot him several more times.2
It’s easy to see why this event has stirred up such anger and frustration not only among the African-American community of Ferguson, but in millions of people of all races around the country. As of 2010, 67% percent of Ferguson’s population was black and 29% were white. However, the mayor, five of six city council members, six of seven school board members, and 50 out of 53 police officers are white. From the perspective of many black Americans and many Americans in general, there is a systemic bias against blacks in how the law is enforced. On the other hand, others see an unjustified reaction against a police officer risking his life to do his job. The protests that followed the shooting have been peaceful sometimes, and violent at times. The police response has often seemed to be excessive, with tear gas and rubber bullets being fired from armored vehicles, and at other times it’s been quite fair and responsive.
I’m not here to give you the definitive interpretation of what happened that day, or the protests that have followed. What I’m interested in, what I believe Jesus and his apostle Paul would want us to be interested in, is how we respond to this tragedy, and every other tragedy and conflict in our lives. Today is our last Sunday of a summer of listening to God speaking through Paul, and as he brings his letter to the Romans to its conclusion, Paul is telling a bunch of forgiven sinners that there is a different way to live – they don’t have to live the way this world lives anymore.
Last week we heard Paul’s words, “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds.” Don’t we know the way of this world? Isn’t it so predictable? Some on the streets of Ferguson responded to this terrible tragedy by looting and burning businesses. Some in the police force responded by hurting innocent people and suppressing an honest, open conversation about what happened. We all know where that road leads…more distrust, more fear, more anger, going round and round in a cycle of conflict and violence.
It is so easy, as Paul says, to “be overcome by evil.” To slip so easily into anger and revenge. Into only hearing the side of the story we like. It is so much harder to “overcome evil with good.” Because that means listening to people and perspectives that make our blood boil. It means genuinely loving those people we think are dead wrong or even deliberately trying to hurt us. It means not claiming to be wiser than we are, but rather holding out the possibility that we may be wrong, at least in some way. It means responding to tragedy with prayer and hope. It means being patient even when people scream at you. It means taking up your cross and following Jesus into receiving suffering but never dishing it out. It means going to find those families who are weeping – Michael Brown’s family; Darren Wilson and his family – and weeping with them.
Can you imagine what it would be like if we took Paul’s words really seriously, when he says, “if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink?” Can you imagine the riot police going to hurting, angry families not with tear gas but with compassion, maybe even with dinner? Can you imagine families from Ferguson’s African-American community going up to the riot police who are there to tear gas them and instead of bringing threats bringing a bottle of water for parched throats? This is what it means not to be overcome by evil but to overcome evil with good. Some have called it Jesus’ Third Way. It is a way of responding to anger, pain, and injustice not by laying down and letting people walk all over you but also not with violence. Rather, this Way of Jesus and Paul is to actively love those we might consider to be enemies. It is to have the courage to look our supposed enemies or those who want to do us harm right in the face, and love them in such a way that exposes their brokenness, to love them in a way that disarms them, that reveals the truth.
This is not easy, and we cannot do this on our own. Can you imagine, genuinely loving someone who has insulted you, or hurled rocks at you, or killed your friend, or treated you unfairly? We certainly can’t sit back from a safe and comfortable worship service and ask those in the heat of this conflict to do what hardly seems possible for us. Only by the power of the Spirit can we turn away from evil and overcome it with good. Only through prayer. Only through listening. Only through gaining the perspective and courage and abiding love the Holy Spirit provides.
But it seems the Spirit is working – it seems the Spirit is out there in Ferguson, transforming hearts and minds, because I saw the pictures and heard the story of Capt. Ronald Johnson, the black Highway Patrol officer who single-handedly changed the whole tone of the policing and the protests by restraining his officers and leading the evening march himself and actually listening to the cries from the hearts of those in that community.
I can imagine it, because I’ve seen the pictures and heard the story of Pastor Willis Johnson (no relation) who walked into a situation where a young man was about to be arrested for blocking an intersection. He walked up to that young man and put his body between him and the police. He said, “I just embraced him. Because he was so angry, and you could feel it in his body, you could feel it in his speech.” He knew that we’re called to weep with those who weep. He says, “People who are hurting need to be affirmed in their hurt; people who are angry need to be affirmed in their anger […] He prayed, “Give him the strength – give us the strength – to be courageous enough not to do what they expect us to do.”3 Later that week Pr. Johnson hosted a community conversation at his church bringing together about 200 people, “black and white,” the mayor, the police, many who had protested, many who had been hurt.4 They didn’t solve it all that evening, but the truth was spoken. People were affirmed in their hurt and their anger.
That’s God’s work in our hands. That’s what we proclaim – that the Holy Spirit is active, changing people, transforming their minds so that they are not overcome by evil but that they might overcome evil with good. That they might respond with unexpected love. It’s not an easy road. It’s a road we can walk only with humility and faith and the love of Christ that leads us to take up our cross and follow him. Pr. Johnson, a man who has taken up his cross, observed, “I am hurt. Sometimes I feel a little helpless. But I am hopeful, because I know there’s a better day.”5 If our brother in Christ there in Ferguson is rejoicing in hope, then we surely can rejoice in hope and persevere in prayer, knowing that there will be a better day – a better day in Ferguson, a better day in our own lives, and a better day for the world. Amen.
1Amanda Taub, “11 essential facts about Ferguson and the shooting of Michael Brown,” http://www.vox.com/2014/8/18/6029019/9-essential-facts-about-whats-happening-in-ferguson-missouri-michael-brown (accessed August 30, 2014). “Shooting of Michael Brown,” Wikipedia article, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shooting_of_Michael_Brown (accessed August 30, 2014). Future facts cited in this sermon are from these two sources.
2Information from Taub’s article.
3NPR, “Ferguson Pastor: This Is Not A Race Issue; This Is A Human Issue,” http://www.npr.org/2014/08/14/340422502/ferguson-pastor-this-is-not-a-race-issue-this-is-a-human-issue (accessed August 30, 2014).
4Michel Martin, “Pleas To Ferguson’s Leaders: To Help Heal, Acknowledge Our Hurt,” http://www.npr.org/blogs/codeswitch/2014/08/29/343675302/plea-to-fergusons-leaders-to-help-heal-acknowledge-our-hurt (accessed August 30, 2014).