Thursday, March 5, 2015

The Ferguson Police Department Directly Shows Up in the Gospels, And Here's Why

There is a gang of well-funded thugs depicted throughout the Gospels.  They pop up every now and again, either directly through their presence or through a (often profoundly negative) reference to them, be it by Jesus or someone else.  Their gains are ill-gotten, their methods are immoral, and their reputation, as a result, is in tatters.

I'm talking about the tax collectors.  Willing, even eager, collaborators with the occupying Roman empire, these unscrupulous chaps would aid in the providing of tribute to Rome by paying directly for the right to collect taxes in a certain section of town or countryside.  They, in turn, went to each of the households to collect cash or in-kind materials as taxes to cover that as much as they could muster for themselves.  Call it a finder's fee, if you feel like being excessively charitable...or, if you're down with calling a spade a spade, call it what it was: extortion.

This is why the tax collectors were almost universally loathed in New Testament Israel.  It had (has) nothing to do with whatever animus we may have today towards the IRS;  Biblical tax collectors were rightly seen as government-sanctioned thieves worthy only of contempt.  They took from families with little to line their own pockets when they already had so very much (because, remember, they had to pay up for the right to collect these "taxes" to begin with).

Why do I tell you this little obscure, albeit informative, tangent?

Well, I imagine by now, you have heard all about the Justice Department's scathing, no-punches-pulled report on the depth and depravity of the systemic racism within the police department of Ferguson, Missouri.  I wanted to write about it at length earlier, but them sermons ain't gonna write themselves (unless I take a page out of Ben Stiller's rabbi character in Keeping the Faith and download them off the Internet, but that's not my jam...also, I think making a 15-year-old movie reference officially makes me "modern" and "contemporary" in mainline Christianity, but that's another can of tuna).

Anyways, yesterday, I posted this to my Facebook page while thinking about how to try to explain the notion of white privilege--in Ferguson, it apparently meant not only being free from this sort of robbery, but free from having to pay for your fair share of government services:

Been thinking about this. If you're white and are wondering how the racism of a police department like Ferguson's somehow directly benefits you, consider that if you enjoy paying lower local taxes, that is because the city makes up for that revenue deficit by levying as many fines as it can. And in Ferguson, those fines were levied on African-Americans, not Caucasians. That's how you directly benefit: they're paying for more of the government services than you are. (Also, aside from you being less likely to be searched, frisked, arrested, have police dogs sic'ed on you, and so on.)

It puts the whole idea of "makers" and "takers" on its head, right?  I mean, if you're paying less for government services than a person of color down the street from you who also happens to have less gross income than you do, well...I think by most interpretations of the term, that makes you the "taker," mate.

But it is way more than just our rhetoric that we use on people whom we perceive as moochers.  WAY more.  Because that is just a symptom of the underlying deadly disease, which is, quite simply, that we are no better than the tax collectors of Jesus's day.  In fact, we may well be worse, because those tax collectors didn't care who you were, whereas if the emails being leaked are any indication, Ferguson police officers gave a mighty large number of f**ks about what color YOUR skin was.

And they parlayed that prejudice into tax collector-like behavior, using government-sanctioned power to extort money from folks who had relatively little of it to fund their government.  Just like the tax collectors of Biblical Israel, the Ferguson police department saw their populace not as constituents to be protected and served, but as cash cows to fund the means of their power.

Which means that the Ferguson PD is every bit as worthy of contempt from us today as tax collectors were from first century Israelites.  But there's a catch in this, too.

Because one of the Twelve, one of those closest to Jesus, one of those traditionally held to be a Gospel writer, even, was, in fact, a tax collector.  Some call him Levi, some call him Matthew, and probably many called him other names that are not printable on a Christian blog.  But when Jesus called him to, like Peter and Andrew and James and John, drop everything and follow Him, Matthew obliged.

And in so doing, he met up with a Zealot, one of the Israelites most violently opposed to Rome's occupation of the nation, Simon.  I can only imagine the kinds of cage fights those two might have had.

Except that they were united by Jesus Christ, and I have to think that this unity came with some sort of forgiveness proffered by Simon to Matthew (and honestly, probably from the rest of the Twelve to Matthew as well).  There is no way that Matthew could have stayed one of the Twelve the entire time if the other eleven did not forgive him his own crimes and excesses as a tax collector.  There's just no way you live day-in, day-out with someone for three years without getting past something that monumentally divisive and horrible.

And if the other disciples were willing and able to reconcile with Matthew, that means that we have to as well.  It means that the Matthews of our day, beginning with the Ferguson police, have to be honest and own up to their own sins and repent of them.  But it also means that we have to recognize that God is willing to extend forgiveness to them, even if we aren't.

Personally, I'm not, both because I remain thoroughly disgusted but also because mine is not the forgiveness needed.  I was never harassed, bullied, or persecuted by the Ferguson police.  But God was, every time one of His children was harassed, bullied, or persecuted, and if He is still willing to offer the right hand of mercy, means there is hope.

That's the good news.  That's the entire point of THE Good News, of the Gospel.  In the face of despicable evil, God's desire for reconciliation is unshakable.  We might not want it to be, but it is.

If God reconciled with Matthew, then hopefully, one day, we can reconcile with each other.  It will take the powers that be in Ferguson to bravely swallow their pride and confess in full to how horribly they have wronged their own citizens, and if by some miracle that does indeed happen, the broken and unjust world in which we live might have actually changed for the better for once.

It is a hope I have.  Because in God, there is hope.  There is always hope.

Yours in Christ,

No comments:

Post a Comment