We don’t know who first said the measure of a society is how it treats the weakest,” but it has been said in one form or another by Gandhi, John Paul II, Pearl Buck, and Hubert Humphrey. The expression is much older than any of these examples with an origin that goes back to an unnamed source traced to at least the 19th century. When German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer borrowed it, he identified the “weakest” with our children.
“I can’t close my eyes and make it go away.” That has perhaps been said by many as well. When I think of it, I think of the words being sung by U2 front man Paul Hewsen. Most people of a certain age know the context. It is from the song, “Sunday, Bloody Sunday” about the Bogside Massacre when unarmed Catholics were gunned down by a British paramilitary group who propped up a Protestant population that “respected the rule of law.” On the events of that day in January 1972, we had one side feeling threated by an IRA sniper and using live bullets to “keep the peace.” On the other were those who felt long betrayed by “the system” and who did not grow any fonder of it once 13 defenseless men, seven of them teenagers, were murdered. From here the Troubles, a time still in its infancy, became a story of the failure to understand.
I will admit right now where this is going. If you read this in late 2014 in America you know already….it is about Ferguson Missouri, a place not unlike Derry in 1972. Ultimately what I want to get out is larger than any particular place. It is about our children, who though weak and with malleable minds grow stronger every day and will one day make decisions about justice that will impact generations to come. It is also about how we betray them when we neglect to teach them the necessity of understanding others.
The reality is we do not know everything about Ferguson and we never will. We do not know what went through Darren Wilson’s head when he pulled the trigger. Perhaps he was scared or perhaps filled with hate, though neither situation really means he broke the law. All we really know is Wilson killed an unarmed man and the law justified the decision. The end effect is a child is lost and a family grieves for a young man who nobody knows what he would have done with his life. And for Wilson, he will forever be a pariah to many if not most, even if he had just cause for his action.
We do not know everything about Ferguson, but there a few things thinking people know as they are obvious. There is a history of the rule of law breaking down for minorities in the United States. This is not to say that happened in Missouri, but the history is there. If we want to make our system the best it can be (and it will never be perfect) we have to start with that acknowledgment. To not be forthright about the weakness of the system and to not seek to improve it betrays our children. It makes some people fearful and not wanting to operate in its necessary confines and it makes others oblivious to the fact justice is meant to be blind. If we fail to see these things, we will always have the likes of Ferguson.
The other obvious thing that betrays our children is when we role model burning down a street. I won’t say much in the matter, but I do know I would have paid much more attention to the protests I saw on TV if I saw thousands marching in unison with signs rather than the lawlessness marked by burning buildings and thievery.
Are we going to continue tell some our children to live with the hand they are dealt and things can never get better? If we do then we will always have cities in flames. Are we going to tell others the system is always right? If we do that then will fail to see justice’s miscarriages and forever live in a fractured nation. Perhaps we can just do what we mostly do; we can close our eyes and hope it goes away, but that did not work for Derry and I doubt it will work for Missouri.
Or maybe we can teach our children to see clearly. We can tell them that great and proud people do not light up the night with acts of arson and the rule of law is to work for everybody and not just those who dwell far away from minority communities and poverty. To do this we must first teach our children to understand one another.
Understanding is not the same as agreement. It does not condone systems or actions, but it is a start to reconciliation and a better society. Understand why a grand jury may have ruled the way they did….don’t necessarily agree with it, just try to see the point of view. Understand why Ferguson was lit up, though please disagree with the actions. Understand striving for a righteous society means respect for the rule of law, but also continuously refines the system in place and never closes its’ eyes hoping that injustice will go away without our effort.
Society is only as righteous as it treats the weakest. Bonhoeffer is right; these are our children. Michael Brown was one of these and so is Darren Wilson. So were the young Catholic men in Derry and the British paramilitary members, who though not very old, had the power to take life. All of these were and are the children of mothers, but they are also the children of God created in His image regardless of color or creed and all those other divisive things which are not at all divisive to God.
We cannot bring back Michael Brown or the young men of Derry any more than we can remove the tragedy and hopefully remorse of taking life that accompanies Wilson and those British soldiers in this life. What we can do is work for the day that no more who are created in the image of God die at the hands of those who are also created in His image.
Image from Chicago Now, Creative Commons