Witch Hunt(s) in Ferguson

hess3325 via Ancestry.com
Warrant of Execution for Sarah Averell Wildes, Sarah Good, Rebecca Towne Nurse and Elizabeth How.

Sarah Wildes was a witch. At least that is what the good people of Salem, Massachusetts thought. She was accused, received a hasty trial, and then was executed by hanging for witchcraft in Salem, Massachusetts on July 19, 1692. The Rev. Cotton Mather, a highly influential minister and prolific writer from nearby Boston, helped to create and nurture the religious and social context that made this possible.

Sarah caught my interest because she was also the sister of my fourth great grandfather. History reports to us that she was something of a nonconformist in a prevailingly Puritan society. As a young woman of 22, she was whipped for fornication and in her 30s she had the audacity to wear a silk scarf–which apparently was also a chargeable offense.

Sarah also was scandalized for marrying her husband John, a widower, too soon after the death of his previous wife, angering the community for this impropriety. Her new husband’s former sister-in-law was the first to circulate rumors that Sarah was a witch.

For a number of people, the public prosecution of Darren Wilson has felt a lot like a witch hunt. Prosecuting attorney Robert McCulloch embodied this sentiment when he blamed “the 24-hour news cycle” and social media for the unrest in Ferguson. Now that the grand jury has decided that there wasn’t sufficient evidence to charge the officer with a crime, a number of these individuals feel vindicated in their support of Wilson. They’ve followed the story, some closely and others less so, and while they may have some sympathy for the loss of life, they feel justice has been done and that it is time to move on.

Another group of people observed the shooting death of Michael Brown and came to some radically different conclusions. Like the previous group, they vary in how closely they’ve observed things, but even when they look at the very same data they arrive at contrasting conclusions. In general, they see Brown’s shooting as an injustice perpetrated by Wilson and a corrupt system that assigns a lower valuation for the lives of people of color. Some point to quotes by Wilson about Brown looking “like a demon” to underscore the way racial bias influences our actions.

It is hardly news that people are viewing the happenings in Ferguson, and the larger issues of racial inequality, through very different lenses. A CNN/ORC international poll found that “whites and non-whites” were significantly divided in their opinions on whether Wilson should have been charged with murder. A 54% majority of non-whites believed he should face murder charges while only 23% of whites felt the same. Something beyond the color of one’s skin certainly must account for the thirty-one points of divergence.

When you stop to listen to, or read the words of, those who protest; you begin to discern something familiar undergirding their righteous anger and thirst for justice. You hear stories of persistent, systematic, witch hunts; young men of color accused of crimes they did not commit, sentenced more severely than their white counterparts, and shot dead in the streets with their hands holding only wallets, toy guns, or nothing at all. And these narratives, dismissed by some as anecdotal, happen with a frequency that speaks of something that is hard-wired into the ways things “work.”

Though Sarah Wildes may have been a free spirit, she wasn’t a witch. The religious and social context of the day created space for “trials” in Salem that would take twenty lives before reason would once again guide peoples’ actions. Social historians have suggested that our collective memory of this tragedy helped to shape the healthy space that resides between church and state, and accusation and judgment.

The church was complicit, and arguably, a driving force in the Salem witch trials. It would be difficult to make the same claim today about a church that no longer shapes societal decisions with such a heavy hand.

But that is different than saying we are powerless or that we bear no responsibility.

The church is called to create and nurture a religious and social context that makes equality, reconciliation, and a revealing of God’s justice possible. Even when we differ in opinion, and in best practice, we still share this holy calling.

Rev. Osagyefo Sekou made a compelling case recently for the presence of Christian clergy out on the streets. Rather than just being on the side lines, or serving as peacekeepers, he argues that clergy are “called to be protesters — at once outraged and disciplined.” I would contend that the whole church, and not just its clergy, should be supportive of nonviolent demands for justice. Even if one holds the belief that Wilson was innocent in this case, is there not value in passionate voices reminding us that, to God, all lives hold equal value?

The situation in Ferguson is but the latest to expose the polarized divisions that separate Americans along the axes of race, class, and politics. Too often our churches simply accept these differences and design/cater their services toward one particular group. While there are blessed exceptions to the truism that Sunday Morning is the most segregated hour in America, we need more of them. Without diversity in the proverbial pews, we are less likely to hear alternative views or to truly encounter difference in the holy context of relationship.

Some questions to consider

  1. What is your church doing to work toward a world where equality, reconciliation, and a revealing of God’s justice is possible?
  2. What risks are you taking corporately, and personally, for those who have less power or privilege?
  3. Is your church more oriented toward the inclusion of diversity or focused on serving the needs of one particular group?
  4. What can we do within the church to create intentional relationships across differences in race, ethnicity, class, theology, and age?
  5. In your own experience, how have healthy relationships impacted the way you discussed/encountered areas of difference?

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Image Credit: Adapted from “Witch on Board” by Nwardez via Flickr.

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