Opinion
Police in riot gear detain a demonstrator protesting against the shooting of Michael Brown, in Ferguson, Missouri August 19, 2014.   REUTERS/Joshua Lott Police in riot gear detain a demonstrator protesting against the shooting of Michael Brown, in Ferguson, Missouri August 19, 2014. REUTERS/Joshua Lott  

Ferguson, Race, And Riots: Must It Always Be ‘Us’ Against ‘Them’?

Photo of Jason Scott Jones and John Zmirak
Jason Scott Jones and John Zmirak
Authors, 'The Race To Save Our Century'
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      Jason Scott Jones and John Zmirak

      Jason Scott Jones is a filmmaker and human rights activist. His film projects include The Stoning of Suraya M., Bella, and Crescendo. He was national grassroots director of Sen. Sam Brownback’s presidential campaign in 2008, and is president of Movie to Movement and the Human Rights Education Organization (H.E.R.O.). He lives in Hawaii. The Race to Save Our Century (Crossroad, August 1, 2014) is his first book.

      John Zmirak is an editor, college teacher, screenwriter, and political columnist--co-author with Jason Scott Jones of the new The Race to Save Our Century (Crossroad, August 1, 2014). He is author of the popular Bad Catholic’s Guides, Wilhelm Röpke, and The Grand Inquisitor (graphic novel). He is a former editor at Investor’s Business Daily. His work has appeared in Aleteia.org, The Blaze, National Review, The Weekly Standard, First Things, The American Spectator, USA Today, Commonweal, The American Conservative, and The National Catholic Register; and he has contributed to The Encyclopedia of Catholic Social Thought and American Conservatism: An Encyclopedia. He has been a commentator on Fox News and the Christian Broadcasting Network. He edited a number of popular guides to higher education, including (for 10 years) Choosing the Right College, and served as press secretary to Louisiana Governor Mike Foster. His columns are archived at www.badcatholics.com.

Do you know what happened, and who was right, in the shooting in Ferguson, MO? Not beyond a reasonable doubt — you’re not on that jury, thank God. But are you pretty sure you know who was to blame, and which side you’re on? Having watched the TV coverage, consulted your gut, and recalled your own experiences both with street crime and the police, have you come to a fairly solid opinion — whether or not it’s one you’d admit in public? And do you just happen coincidentally to be siding with the people who look and live most like you?

Welcome to the human race. Objectivity is difficult, human beings are naturally tribalist, and abstract justice is a remote and icy goddess, whom most of us serve about as well as we do the abstraction called “chastity.” Our very flesh rebels against it. As we wrote in our new book, The Race To Save Our Century:

Empathy is a challenge for each of us, and we spontaneously feel it more intensely and automatically toward those who are closely related to us—first, our close relatives, then those who look and talk most like us.  Insofar as racial and ethnic groups can be experienced as a vast, extended family, outsiders are sometimes easier to exclude from the circle of empathy. Some American Indian tribes refer to their members as “humans,” using other epithets for nonmembers; Greeks scorned “barbarians” (non-Greeks) as much for their odd appearance as their uncouth-sounding speech and alien customs. We could multiply such examples of spontaneous xenophobia by looking at cultures on every continent and in every century.

Our heads tell a different story. The Bible and the entire Christian tradition proclaim that all men are brothers, descended from a common set of parents. Science teaches us the very same thing, and shows us how biologically trivial ethnic differences really are. Both moral and medical science demand that we regard each other as equals. We are born the same way, share the same human nature, can intermarry and produce healthy, fertile offspring, are bound by the same transcendent moral order, and alike face the destiny of the grave. If you prick us, each of us bleeds.

And yet, and yet. If you saw a street fight between a group of people of your own ethnic group and social class, and people of a different group and class, how would you feel? (Be truthful here.) Would you lean back and try objectively to assess the respective claims of the different sides — or would you feel a strong urge to grab the nearest stick and wade in to protect “your own”?

Of course there will be exceptions based on personal history. In Ferguson, MO., there are surely black citizens who are so disgusted by urban crime (blacks are disproportionately its victims) that they side reflexively with the police. White people who have suffered from abusive cops or who deeply distrust the government might cheer on the protestors. And of course, a certain type of white liberal who preens over his rejection of “primal” instincts will proudly side with any Other, as a way of marking his own membership in the most selective tribe on Earth, the Western elite.

Don’t get us wrong. In the aftermath of the Holocaust, the Armenian genocide, the rise and fall of eugenics and the forced sterilization of thousands of Americans led by groups such as Planned Parenthood, it is a very good thing that educated Westerners have been taught to reject the temptation of racism and nationalism. But the lessons we learned from all these horrors were woefully incomplete. As we wrote in The Race to Save Our Century, the takeaway from the bloody twentieth century seems to be merely:

  1. It is wrong for white people to discriminate against others.
  2. It is wrong for European nations to conquer and colonize non-European nations.
  3. Because Hitler used ethnic identity as a pretext for murdering people, Western nations must abandon any ethnic or historical basis for their identities—even nations that were conquered and terrorized by Hitler, such as Poland and Ukraine.
  4. None of these lessons apply to non-Western nations or nonwhite people living in them.

This “White Man’s Burden” code of morals is clearly deficient. It’s a brittle and partial political construct, unmoored in any deeper vision of the dignity of man as the image of God, enforced by social shaming and political correctness. Nor does it prepare us for dealing with the most menacing forms which racism and nationalism take today — the rage and aggression of radical Islam, and the murderous hatreds that divide many non-white, non-Western nations.

What is worse, this little postwar catechism lets minority groups in America completely off the hook — exempts them from moral scrutiny as if they were somehow incapable of rising to the same heights that the rest of us inhabit. We treat rabid instances of nationalistic passion in nations such as Mexico, and the racist stances adopted by some Latino organizations in the U.S., as if they were quaint or charming tribal customs immune to critique. We condescend to black citizens, and greet street riots that destroy mostly black-owned businesses as if they were unavoidable. We cannot hold “those people” culpable for burning stores or smashing windows. They simply can’t help it, can they?

The only way that the incident in Ferguson, MO., and similar tragedies can be resolved responsibly is for us to find the deepest roots of our shared humanity — which lie in our common origins as sinful but dignified creatures of the same creator God. We know that human justice is never perfect, that each of us is deeply tempted to bias and selfish groupthink. We acknowledge these sins and repent them, and strive as fellow citizens and sinners to follow the formal processes of justice, which are designed precisely to force each one of us to stretch beyond his prejudices. Perhaps the best single thing that could happen in Ferguson would be a massive, multi-ethnic tent revival. It was in the tents of the Great Awakening that the abolitionist movement took fire, and in the black churches of the South that the non-violent movement for civil rights was shaped. If we are to find common ground that lets us build a common life, it will happen around the altar. Or else it won’t happen at all.

Jason Scott Jones is a human rights activist; John Zmirak is a political columnist. They are co-authors of the new book The Race To Save Our Century: Five Core Principles to Promote Peace, Freedom, and a Culture of Life.