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Keepin’ It Real with Mike Brown, Ferguson, and Ourselves

Jemar Tisby

Who was Mike Brown? Was he an upstanding young man with a promising future on his way to college? Or was he a criminal who disregarded authority and robbed a liquor store on the very night he was killed? The answer to both of those questions is “yes”.

Mike Brown: Kid Next Door or Criminal?

Citizens around the country have exhibited a range of reactions to the shooting of Mike Brown on Saturday. Those reactions range from “Let’s wait until we get all the facts” to “he had it coming” to “this is an outrageous miscarriage of justice.” Portrayals of Mike Brown’s character vary according to each person’s opinion of the situation.

Those who want to point out the injustice of yet another unarmed black youth being killed by a white cop post pictures of Mike Brown that show him smiling, young, and tender. Their aim is to craft a narrative that young Mr. Brown wasn’t doing anything wrong and, in fact, was just a regular old neighborhood kid.

Then the videotape of him robbing a liquor store for cigars and manhandling the store clerk appears. Now that “nice young man” narrative becomes much less believable. And now writing a more negative story about Mike Brown becomes a lot easier. Some were already looking for the pictures of the young man looking imposing and flashing what appear to be gang signs. Now they have stills from a robbery in progress to add to their story.

A piece by the International Justice Review shows a variety of pictures of Mike Brown. The pictures tell a story of a young man who is alternately likable and distasteful. I’d like to think most people will acknowledge that human beings are complex. We all display a blend of virtues and vices. This is true of Mike Brown, too. Although federal officials objected to the video’s release, it certainly shows that Mr. Brown is capable of violence. Yet we also see that he was a much beloved young man, a son, a friend, a community member.

The Image of God: The Image of God Defaced but Not Destroyed

But we really shouldn’t be surprised at the light and the dark in people. The Bible explains this quite well. Genesis chapter one shows that we are all made in the image of God. Young black men, white cops, and everyone else. We are all reflections of the One who made us. And He made us perfect. We were without corruption, violence, selfishness, or malice. Yet, as His image bearers, we can also make choices. Our Maker is not one to force His creatures to do anything. He allows them the dignity of choosing how they want to shape their lives.

In Genesis chapter three Adam and Eve choose to disbelieve God and His word and, in so doing, usher evil into God’s perfect world. Ever since then all human beings have willfully chosen to reject God and go our own way. “They have all gone astray, they are all alike perverse; there is no one who does good, no, not one” (Ps. 14:3). And this is borne out in human history. After Adam and Eve come Cain and Abel, the Flood, the Tower of Babel, and human history becomes the story of misery, ruin, and death.

Even though the image of God in humanity is marred and distorted, it is not completely destroyed. God’s common grace prevents us from being as depraved as we could be. Human beings still have a sense of God since He has revealed Himself in creation (Rm. 1:19-20). This sense of God forms our consciences and gives us a notion of moral virtues even if we constantly fail to live up to the standard.

Keepin’ It Real

What is needed in every situation is an understanding that all people are created in God’s image but corrupted by disobedience. We will all, therefore, at times act heroically and villainously. We see this in the demonstrations in Ferguson. Many people there are engaged in peaceful protests. They are marching, chanting, and praying for change. Others, however, are throwing objects, cursing, and looting. This is image bearing and disobedience on a mass scale.

What we each long for, though, is to be known as we truly are—people with the ability to act both justly and unjustly. And we long to be accepted for all of the good and the bad that we’ve done. This was the desire of the woman at the well whom Jesus encountered in John 4. Jesus peered into the woman’s soul and saw her pattern of broken relationships in a vain search for meaning. He saw her failures and her shame. Yet instead of rejecting her or ridiculing her, Jesus offers her living water.

The woman is transformed by this encounter. She runs back to her town and says, “Come, see a man who told me all that I ever did. Can this be the Christ?” (Jn. 429).

If Jesus had encountered Mike Brown He would have offered him living water, too. He would have seen the Mike Brown who robs liquor stores and the Mike Brown who was beloved by his mother and friends. He would have seen the young man for all that he was and wasn’t, and He would still have offered Himself on the cross for just such a person.

Christ does the same for us all. He sees us for who we truly are. To Jesus we are not a stream of images of social media. We are not the people who others say we are. We are not even the people we ourselves say we are. We are His creation. His image bearers, and the ones for whom He gave His life. But true life can never be attained by living virtuously. In fact, in the spiritual sense of things, we none of us are good. None of us chooses on our own to reach out for God. Instead, God comes to us in the form of a man named Jesus and offers us eternal life.

We don’t need to craft narratives of each other or the world that are completely optimistic nor completely pessimistic. The gospel of Jesus Christ allows us to keep it real about Mike Brown, Ferguson, and ourselves.

9 thoughts on “Keepin’ It Real with Mike Brown, Ferguson, and Ourselves

  1. Tyshan Broden

    Yeah, I just wrote the abridged version of your clarification 🙂

  2. Jemar

    Yes, Tyshan. Although it’s tricky language. None of us is “good” in the spiritual sense. “We all have sinned and have fallen short of the glory of God.” For that reason we all need the Savior. Yet, we are all capable of “good” actions that positively affect others or “bad” actions that harm others or ourselves. Yet none of those “good” actions can restore our relationship with God that sin severed. I’m sure you weren’t trying to make a point about “good” or “bad” but you gave me the opportunity to clarify. 🙂 Thanks for reading!

  3. Amy

    Here are some young whites killed by police “unjustly”. ALL from Feb. – Aug. of this year alone! Yet no riots ensued.

    -20 yr old Dillon Taylor shot while unarmed by black police officer in Utah (http://www.wnd.com/2014/08/black-cop-kills-white-man-media-hide-race/)

    -17 yr old Christopher Roupe killed holding a WII game controller (http://www.complex.com/pop-culture/2014/02/17-year-old-georgia-teen-shot-and-killed-by-police-while-holding-a-wii-remote)

    -18 yr old Timothy Hill killed by State Trooper (http://www.wvgazette.com/article/20140616/GZ01/140619437)

  4. Amy

    I agree with you, that a Christian man is still a sinner therefore he will exhibit both good and bad behavior. I guess I’m just reacting to a lot of illogical and worrisome talk online.

    I’m hearing a lot of reformed leaders saying how sad it is that white Christians aren’t speaking out about this compared to the butcher of Iraq Christians etc. As though the two are alike. Perhaps I have a “white privilege” problem but how can people compare a man being shot who physically assaulted a cop vs. a 5 yr old Iraqi boy being cut in half in front of his father or other children being systematically beheaded by ISIS? I wish someone could explain this comparison to me.

    What confuses and frankly worries me is the amount of Christian leaders both white and black calling the Ferguson event an “injustice” as though this young man was gunned down like civil rights leader Mr. Evers. One gentlemen even compared it to the murder of Emmett Till!!! I was shocked and angered. How in the world are the two the same?

    I resent pastors like Matt Chandler condescendingly saying that if I don’t see this event through the eyes of African Americans then I have “white privilege” and I just can’t see it so he needs to explain it to me. Or the gentlemen who made the comparison to Ferguson and Till said that if I refuse to see this from his point of view then I’m a racist.

    It’s like the word racist is being redefined and broadly applied to people who disagree with the general consensus. This is scary to me.

    I don’t mean to offend but let me share some final thoughts that might help African Americans understand where we with white privilege might be coming from:

    When I saw this story break I thought “oh crap, the guy’s hands were up, what the heck” but then more of the story came out. I thought the man was a boy, like 14 or something, not a 6’4 300lb MAN (do we call 18 yr soldiers who die in Iraq teens or men?). Personally I thought, “if the cop murdered that guy then he needs to go to the electric chair”. Honestly I did. Murder is murder and it needs to be punished.

    But then other details came out and the story took a different turn and then the rioting started. I thought what the heck, why are you tearing up your own town? I don’t understand, I just don’t. Rioting doesn’t really help the image of black society…it just makes people think “wow, these folks are violent and illogical”.

    Then I as a white started to get accused of being a racist because I didn’t see it a certain way online etc. It frankly pissed me off. Especially when I look at the FBI statistics that show that black on white crime is way MORE than white on black crime.

    That registers with me as “I as a white lady has way more to worry about a black assaulting me than a black lady has from a white assaulting her”. Sorry but that’s how it registers within my brain.

    Also why doesn’t this level of rage happen when young black men are murdered in droves all over the U.S. by other black men or another minority? Why is it only when a white and black come together does it bother folks? Of course I am aware of the history of white and black relations, especially in the south, and how that can affect the view but close to 90% of black are killed by blacks….why aren’t people rioting over that?

    These are questions I have been asking and other whites are asking. It doesn’t mean I’m a racist it means that I’m trying to be logical and emotionally controlled in the midst of a situation where a man has died, possibly without salvation. Which is horrible to think about. But please help answer these questions because I honestly don’t understand.

  5. Tyshan Broden

    I really like the way this is written. It completely deals with the good/bad split that so many of us dont deal with. I think we like making a person all good or all bad but the truth is that we are both and we need a Savior.

  6. Jemar

    Thanks, David! Indeed our hope is in Christ alone.

  7. Jemar

    The point is that any person, at various times, can exhibit behavior that is both endearing and revolting, good and bad. We should not be surprised that this is the case. Even Christians do both. Our doctrines of depravity, the image of God, and common grace help make sense of these convoluted character profiles. What matters in the end, though, is whether a person has accepted the only truly good person who ever lived. Each person’s faith, or lack thereof, in Jesus Christ will determine whether one is judged for one’s own works or on the basis of Christ’s work.

  8. Brian

    How can he be upstanding and a criminal at the same time? Smoking weed, robbing a store, assaulting another person and fighting with a cop seems to point away from having an upstanding character….right? Or am I missing something?

  9. David

    This is a complex situation; great article! Thanks for keeping it real. Hope remains in Christ alone!

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