My brothers’ keeper: Reflections on Ferguson

From the start, we are our “brother’s and sister’s keepers,” and, recalling the origin of that expression in Genesis, we share in God’s own anguish when God responded to Cain after he had cynically asked if he was his brother’s keeper, “Your brother’s blood cries out to me from the ground, what have you done?”

An unarmed, young, African-American man, Michael Brown, who was shot to death by police – a too-common scenario in our society that unfairly vilifies young African-American males – summons us to responsibility for him.

Our heart aches at the thought of his brief life cut short, and, because he has a claim on us, we cannot be indifferent to his death. We are impelled to find out what happened and hold those responsible for any injustice accountable. If there is no such accountability, no thorough and fair investigation, we would not take seriously the value of the life taken. Our sense of responsibility impels us to the level of legal judgment on which competing claims are adjudicated and court decisions determined.

After his being shot to death, a tape was released supposedly showing Michael engaged in the “strong-arm” robbery of a store. This tape would, no doubt, be part of a court’s deliberation, but it certainly does not warrant his being shot. In addition, this information about the supposed strong-arm robbery by no means diminishes our sense of responsibility for him. In fact, even if the tape is authentic, our responsibility for him would not stop. Although we do not know what Michael’s motives would have been for stealing the cigarillos or roughing up the store attendant, we can speculate about why he might have acted as the tape seems to portray him.

Could such actions be a way of defying or scorning an economic system from which he felt excluded? Could they have been a way of asserting a kind of masculine bravado?

Philosopher Max Scheler explains that when someone is punished for crime, instead of assigning all the blame to the criminal, who may be responsible for his actions, and washing our hands of the situation, our sense of responsibility for the other person, our solidarity with all humanity, ought to lead us to think about how we as a society may have let that other person down.  And so we can ask what if we as a society had given Michael more and better access to our economic system.

Furthermore, could we as a society have provided him with a model of masculinity that might have expressed itself in taking responsibility for others, for example, instead of flaunting bravado? If it is too late to come to Michael’s aid in these ways, can we extend the responsibility we should have exercised on his behalf to other young men of color in similar circumstances?

Before we pass moral or legal judgment on others – and responsibility for them and others demands that we do so – we are responsible for them as persons, and even after a final verdict is reached, we remain responsible for them.

In the situation in Ferguson, there were many others for whom as persons our responsibility extended:  those exercising their democratic rights by protesting, Michael Brown’s family, Officer Darren Wilson, Officer Wilson’s family, those seen on television looting stores, the owners of those stores, the personnel policing the streets in the evenings—and many others. At the same time, in the name of responsibility for all involved, anyone who has unjustly injured others should be held accountable.

One group that tests my own solidarity and sense of responsibility are those who have written what I take to be cruel and racist comments in the comment sections beneath the Internet reports of the events in Ferguson. One can indeed feel sadness for those who do not know how to respond with empathy to the human anguish and vulnerability we witnessed in Ferguson.

One can mourn the fact that those writing such mean-spirited comments seem impoverished by their apparent lack of any familiarity with the goodness of African-American people and culture and by their lack of any knowledge of, love for, or friendship with any African-American person. Had they had such a relationship, it would never have allowed them even to think what they express in their comments.

Beneath the level of moral or legal judgments, we are our brothers’ and sisters’ keepers. Legal and moral judgments must be made and people held accountable, but we are responsible beginning with innocent victims of violence and reaching even to those who deserve moral censure or criminal conviction.

God’s anguish precedes us, extending to everyone, whether to innocent Abel, or even to Cain, whom God marked so that others would not kill him.