When I think of the events occurring on August 9, 2014 in Ferguson Missouri, I am struck by the realization that it only takes a single spark to ignite a firestorm. Yet, it is impossible for such a storm to be ignited without the proper conditions for it to occur. If the forest catches fire it is first likely that it has become dry and tender. A spark upon a moist and nourished landscape is likely to affect little. Lightening can strike the nourished land, and still not ignite a firestorm. The fact that the events of August 9, 2014 have caused a storm of unrest, protest and violence is merely an indication that the community of Ferguson, and we as a nation, have failed to nourish very important parts of our society.
If we fail to water our garden, how can we complain that it does not bear fruit, and when it burns to the ground, how can we blame it that it did not produce? Events like this in our society call us to examine ourselves, not only as a society but as individuals. The most dangerous nature of prejudice is that it is insidious, unspoken and implied, rather than outright declared. When we carry within us any thought that another is somehow to be considered less deserving than ourselves, we withhold the nourishment necessary for society to flourish.
We may proclaim, “Oh not me. I’m not prejudiced. I’m not racist, sexist, homophobic, etc.” But, if we are honest with ourselves we realize that the human ego seeks to elevate itself above others rather than to recognize itself as equal. The illusion of our ego is that it is possible to elevate our own feelings of worth by putting others down. In fact, the opposite is true. The flip side of the ego is that we may believe ourselves to be less deserving than others. We may buy into reinforcement of worthless feelings perpetrated by repeated abuse and belittling. Either way, an imbalance is created that, from time to time is tipped, forcing us to face that which we quietly ignore in our complacent day to day lives.
Prejudice is imbalance. It is a failure to recognize that we cannot deprive others without depriving ourselves. If we fail to water the garden, we deprive ourselves of the fruit that it may bear. If we fail to nourish any part of our society, we deprive ourselves of the gifts that segment of society may offer. Ferguson Missouri, like other triggering events of our past, is a reminder that we need to become aware of what we are doing to ourselves. So often it is human nature that we forget.
We think it is okay that things are happening to "them" as long as it is not happening to us. Ferguson reminds us that it cannot happen to them without also happening to us. The stark polarization that has been created by the unrest in Ferguson points quite clearly to an “us versus them” mentality in our country. When prejudice ceases to exist, there will be no “them” or “us.” There can only be “we.” We are human beings. The same red heart beats in everyone’s chest and the same red blood flows through everyone’s veins. The same longing to be treated with respect, honor and dignity dwells within every soul.
The danger of these types of firestorms in our society is that the backlash can strengthen prejudice and incite further polarization. It is the nature of prejudice to drive a minority to the extreme, and blame them for being there. When a segment of society fights back against insidious betrayal, it is easy to say that they are just proving what we already believed about them. If we do that, we forget that any of us when backed into a corner would come out fighting. We expect segments of our society to just accept being in that corner. We expect certain groups to just accept the role we assign them rather than giving them a chance to prove that they are more than our preconceived notions.
Prejudice is generalization. It concludes without proof. It blames the whole for the behavior of a few. An example of this erroneous logic would be that if a Presbyterian cheats me, Presbyterians must be cheats. A few among the protesters take advantage of the situation to pillage and loot, therefore the black community must be made up of thugs. The flip side is that one policeman shoots an unarmed man, therefore the police engage in brutality and can’t be trusted. We must be very careful that prejudice does not also become self-fulfilling prophesy in which our unspoken expectations of another person's behavior causes us to treat them in such a way as to incite the behavior we expect. There is no, “I told you so!” Prejudice is never the result of what is happening outside of us. Prejudice is the result of what is happening inside of us.
The events of Ferguson Missouri have caused us to proclaim many things that are untrue. This has caused us to jump to conclusions without having the facts and that is the very nature of prejudice itself. These events are not a call for us to examine and criticize what “they” do. These events are a call to look deep into ourselves. It is the “I” that must be examined. It is within my own heart that change must take place. It takes the examination of my own soul and the questioning of my own beliefs to create healing. Judgment cannot heal. I cannot save anyone through condemnation. It is only through deep honesty with myself that any lasting and effective healing can take place. Only deep honesty, and examination of my own selfishness can bring me to the realization that I must treat others as I would wish to be treated.
When we examine the statement, “We hold these truths to be self-evident that all are created equal” we must conclude that it is not possible to deprive any segment of our society and have a true democracy. It is not possible to grant rights to some which we withhold from others, for that cannot be equal. It is only in the respect and honor of “freedom for all” that any of us may claim our own true freedom. It is only by honoring the rights of everyone that any of us may truly experience what it means to have human rights.
For many years I have asked the question, “What would the world be like if everyone adopted just one simple goal? Relinquish all malicious intent.” Think about that just for a moment. I cannot do this for anyone but myself. I cannot enforce this for anyone but myself. I can only hope that by adopting such a goal I could one day be a significant enough example that others might realize the value of cherishing the same goal for themselves. It is not an easy thing to achieve, especially since I have been an angry man with a strong a sense of entitlement. I have often failed. However, I am grateful to have recognized that my thoughts of entitlement were inherently malicious, for I cannot see myself as deserving at the expense of others without being malicious. Prejudice, in any form, is malicious. Sometimes it is difficult even to recognize an intent of my mind as malicious. It can be so habitual that I don’t even realize that I’m doing it. Yet, it is through observation of myself that I learn how to love.
In the forest, it often takes a firestorm to cleanse the ground for new growth. There are types of seeds that do not germinate until burned. May the recent events ignited in Ferguson be the final cleansing of our nation. May the seeds of love grow out of looted stores and burned buildings. May compassion and forgiveness replace dark anguish and tattered grief. May we truly come to understand that we are one people, one nation, indivisible with liberty and justice for all.