Some Baptists in St. Louis Respond to Ferguson Crisis

August 20, 2014

Ethics Daily ran my latest article on Friday. The piece, "Some Baptists in St. Louis Respond to Ferguson Crisis," looks at how various Baptist churches in the St. Louis area are working to help build peace and reconciliation in their community in the midst of peaceful protests, violent looters, and overly-militarized police officers. Looking at various Baptists - including Southern Baptists, National Baptists, American Baptists, and Cooperative Baptists - I found that most churches in the area remained publicly silent even as the local turmoil sparked international headlines. Some churches, however, are attempting to advance the common good with cleanups, prayer gatherings, and public statements.

As the Ferguson crisis shows, the most important times for churches to minister in their communities often cannot be pre-planned. Although I focused the article on words and actions of key churches, I remain bothered by the large number of churches who missed the opportunity to speak out. Churches should not join in pre-judging the situation (we can leave that job to TV and radio pundits who - apparently lacking teargas - instead poison the air with outrageous rhetoric), but neither should churches just hope it all goes away. As I ended my piece on Friday:

As the streets of Ferguson fill with teargas, protest signs and SWAT teams, perhaps more Baptists in the area will leave the quiet sanctuaries and address the community's crisis.
Silence in the midst of the crisis in Ferguson suggests we have too few prophets today.

Thankfully, many churches in the St. Louis area are trying to shine a light into their community. In addition to the ones I wrote about, several other news stories have brought good news by highlighting the work of churches in Ferguson and other St. Louis suburbs. These stories include ones by Time magazine, the Washington Post, and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Ethics Daily also ran a piece by Terrell Carter, an African-American Baptist minister in St. Louis who used to be a police officer in the city. His balanced piece offers suggestions on how to respond to the tragedy. With these news accounts, churches offer a strong witness to those seeking hope and love in the midst of turmoil. 

The leadership of church leaders has not gone unnoticed by civic authorities. In comments about the crisis, Missouri Governor Jay Nixon noted the positive efforts of "faith leaders" in Ferguson. Some pundits across the country have tried to politicize the crisis by attacking Nixon, but they have demonstrated their inattention to facts. Many criticized Nixon for not coming to St. Louis sooner even though he spoke at a gathering at an African-American church on the Tuesday before the worst of the street violence even occurred. Over the next two days, some people - who may have just then tuned into the crisis - erroneously claimed Nixon had yet to come to the area (apparently the armchair pundits find it easier to tweet than research).

Some critics of Nixon have claimed he looked uncomfortable as he spoke, suggesting he must be feeling guilty for not doing more. One reporter for a large, East Coast paper even claimed Nixon seemed especially uncomfortable speaking at a African-American church as if he hadn't been to one before. Those pundits apparently have never heard him speak before, because he sounded like he always had. Nixon has not won elections based on his charisma but on his ideas and actions (as attorney general he came up with the "no-call" list that stops telemarketer calls, so he really didn't need to be charismatic to win elections after that!).

Nixon has held statewide office for more than half my life and I grew up in the state capital so I have heard him speak on many occasions. Most recently, I heard him speak in January at the founding meeting of Faith Voices for Jefferson City, which was held at an African-American church.

Although I do not agree with Nixon on all issues - in the Ferguson case or overall - I appreciate his willing to engage with the faith community on key moral issues. I am also glad he has challenged the over-militarization of police officers - an issue that will hopefully be considered nationally now as police receive weapons from the military, including teargas that is banned in international warfare as a chemical weapon (yes, that means our military can't use it in war but our police can use it on peaceful protesters and journalists). State Highway Patrol Captain Ronald Johnson, who Nixon put in charge, has helped show better ways of policing than the Ferguson approach of creating a war zone. But the treatment of Nixon and Ferguson by national press confirms that many pundits seem more interested in ratings than truth as they throw rhetorical fuel on the fire.

Christian leaders must strike a better tone and offer a more helpful path. Nixon has rightly praised church leaders in the St. Louis area who are part of the solution. Hopefully Baptists and other Christians in St. Louis will continue to set a positive example with their words and deeds.