Michael Brown should not have been shot dead by police in Ferguson, Missouri. His hands were up. He was unarmed. It doesn’t make any difference whether or not he had stolen earlier something that day. If he had committed such a crime, he should have been given appropriate justice, not a volley of bullets. At the time he was shot, there was simply no excuse for what happened to him.
Somebody else had his life stolen from him, too: a man named Jesus, killed for no good reason. Jesus also died with his hands up. He had been ethnically profiled by the Roman occupying army in Jerusalem, and was brutally murdered on a cross.
The accretions of belief that have developed since the days when Jesus preached and healed in Palestine tend to obscure the fact that his death was wrong. Many Christians presume that Jesus had to die as a blood sacrifice to cover the sins of humanity. They see the behavior of the people who participated in the events that led to Jesus’ execution as players fulfilling their roles in the drama of salvation. But really they were accomplices to a murder. The cross is a lot more serious than much of Christian theology makes it out to be.
Blood sacrifice was an everyday concept in the first century, when virtually all meat sold in the markets came from animals sacrificed ritually to one god or another as a means of re-establishing harmony between the powers of heaven and the fates of humans on earth. But now that we buy meat in shrink-wrapped packages at supermarkets, what sense does this doctrine really make? It’s way past time for Christians to move on and face the real and enduring meaning of the cross.
Jesus should not have died at all. He committed no crime. He broke no laws. The revolution he promoted was non-violent. God did not want him to die. Humanity did not and still does not need him to die. His crucifixion was a crime against humanity and a violation of God’s law of love. The cross is a sign of humans’ inhumanity to each other, calling us to stop the killing and the abuse and the insensitivity and the fear. It’s a sobering reminder to us to follow the way of love and compassion and courage and forgiveness instead. The cross is a turning-point in human history. It’s a moment when people confronted the failure of their old ways, and discovered another way to live. It’s the crossroads of human history between “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth” and the way of mercy and forgiveness.
So in the aftermath of the terrible tragedy in Ferguson, Missouri, let us take a long clear look at the cross once again and see it for what it is. It is a powerful reminder that peace in our neighborhoods isn’t something that can be enforced with local police armed with high-powered surplus military equipment. It’s a grim visual statement of the consequences of a pre-emptive policy of shoot first, ask questions later. It’s a sobering symbol of what happens when a society puts less value on human life than it does on arbitrarily-defined standards of public safety.
We’re all implicated in the crime that happened to Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. Too few of us show up to vote. That hands public offices over to purveyors of fear and hatred. We didn’t push hard enough for the repeal of draconian “three strikes” laws that have filled our jails and prisons with staggering numbers of mostly non-violent criminals. We didn’t object when small-town police forces became armed with leftover gear from the Iraq war, tempting cops to treat petty criminals as if they were enemy combatants.
So it’s time to turn back to the cross and bow our heads and repent of our indifference. It’s time to turn at this crossroads, away from paranoia and toward reconciliation, away from crude tit-for-tat justice and toward a justice tempered with mercy. Michael Brown didn’t have to die for our sins, any more than Jesus did. But perhaps their deaths will wake us up to the personal, social, and structural changes we need to make to prevent such deaths from happening ever again.