Ferguson Is Bigger than Any Grand Jury Decision

All this fuss over waiting for a grand jury decision!


But there is more to the story than Michael Brown lying dead and Darren Wilson having pulled the trigger. Of course the tragedy of that single death is immense. Of course the agony that Michael Brown’s family and friends are going through is unfathomable. So is that experienced by Darren Wilson and his family and friends. They and the shop owners and citizens of Ferguson surely feel they are being ground up in the irrational, ineluctable  monster we sometimes call “The Public.”


Who knows what will happen next? Who knows who will be mowed down and ground up by the monster?


Right now all attention is on that grand jury decision. But there is a monstrous machinery that is even more threatening. The real issue is the way governments, and especially our criminal-justice systems treat the poor.


Yes, it is a racial thing. No matter how whites might want to wish racism is a thing of the past, it is definitely not. It is far too easy for the police and the public to see young men with darker skin as a threat and make them into criminals by our treatment of them.


But bigger even than that is the way we have managed to criminalize poverty itself. When the “tough-on-crime” movement met the cost cutting, “the best government is the government that governs least” movement, municipalities and states across the country started adopting policies that called for people before the courts for petty infractions to pay fees—lots of fees. People guilty of little things from loitering to parking violations to possessing small amounts of marijuana, became liable not only for fines, but for court costs and supervision. When they fall behind in payments because they can’t afford them or they can’t get transportation to the courthouse, their debts to the courts grow and grow.


What started as an attempt to force people to take responsibility and clean up their messes has become a slippery slope and then a black hole that virtually criminalizes poverty. If Charles Dickens were alive he would feel right at home. He would see a system just as sinister as the debtors’ prisons and labyrinthine legal bureaucracies that swallowed up the poor of his day.


This massive conspiracy against the poor is just one part of a picture that has created a shameful gap between the haves and have-nots of America. The gap is getting bigger by the day. And a critical mass of Americans has been blinded to it by the relentless propaganda machine paid for by the richest Americans. This propaganda has convinced the majority of “likely voters” that regulations and progressive taxation are the same as tyranny, when really they are the only protection society has against tyranny.


Republicans, Democrats, libertarians, Tea Party patriots: Hear me! If we don’t do something to stop digging the poverty hole deeper and wider, we will all soon be so far down the only way up will be revolution. If we don’t seek out and support candidates who will fix our criminal justice system and our taxes and our program of social safeguards, we will have created a society marked by something far more ugly and destructive than Dickens could ever have imagined.


Let’s all envision and work for government that will lift people out of poverty, not stomp them deeper into it.


[And if Christians wonder where they should stand on this, let them rend their garments and read over and again  two of the lessons of the Common Lectionary appointed for Christ the King Sunday. In them the prophet, Ezekiel, speaks for a Lord who says he will surely punish the fat sheep who bully the thin and weak ones, and Jesus speaks of the coming judgment that surely will reward those who feed and help the hungry, poor and prisoners, and will condemn those who ignore their plight (Ezekiel 34 and Matthew 25).]

About John

John is a retired pastor of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America who has served congregations for over 40 years, including in rural, suburban, campus ministry and urban settings. His love of Border Collie sheepdogs has been fortified by his many friendships with shepherds all around the world. Nothing he has ever or will ever accomplish is as significant as the patience God, his wife and his friends have shown in putting up with his deficiencies.
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