I was in South Africa on August 9, when a young, unarmed black man was killed by a white police officer in Ferguson, MO. It didn’t take long before Michael Brown’s story was on all the news channels in South Africa. After that, in every media interview I did Ferguson came up. “How could this have happened?” all the journalists asked. When I laid out the pattern of this happening regularly to men of color in America at the hands of white police or other men with guns, they were stunned. “White cops couldn’t get away with that anymore in South Africa,” they said.
On my speaking tour I met a new generation of South African leaders who are not content to just re-tell the stories of winning political freedom. They are now laying out their own agenda and vocation—of turning political liberation into economic liberation and gender equality, goals that have yet to be achieved. Economic inequality is actually greater now than under apartheid and gender violence is a frightening epidemic. But a rainbow nation they now are and the image of a young black man with his hands in the air being shot multiple times by a white American policeman was appalling to both blacks and whites.
As a young man, I was deeply blessed and forever changed when I was invited into the South African struggle during the 1980’s. I witnessed the miracle of Nelson Mandela’s inauguration and the birth of a new nation which taught me my theology of hope. Back then I learned what it means to “believe in spite of the evidence then watch the evidence change” as I often say.
Now I was blessed again, coming back to South Africa and making a deep connection with a new generation of leaders. I watched Ferguson from South Africa. As we celebrate the 50th anniversary of events from our own civil rights movement it’s time for a new generation and a new agenda to be lifted up. At its heart will be reforming a criminal justice system that still reveals America’s original sin of white racism. The myths of a post-racial society have been swept away by the structural racial realities of our arrests, sentencing, and convictions. The mass incarceration of people of color is the fatal flaw that undermines the success of the civil rights movement. This is America’s ongoing apartheid.
Young men of color are vulnerable to white men with guns, whether police officers or new white vigilantes whose violence has become legally justified. Every black family in America, of every class and status, knows that to be true. Every black parent has had “the conversation”—a painful fact to which every parent with young boys must recognize and respond. And when young men of color are rightfully distrustful of law enforcement, our society is in deep moral jeopardy.
The young people I met on my trip know they cannot achieve a genuinely new South Africa without a new relationship between all races. Christians call that reconciliation, but these young people realize it can only be trusted by concrete commitments to racial and economic justice. And that applies to us too. Black churches must not be left alone to fight the mass incarceration of their young people. A racial issue must be turned into a gospel issue for churches and a democratic issue for the nation. Both the gospel and our democracy are being tested by the kind of events that keep happening in places like Ferguson.
A young black South African leader told me what happened to him when he worked for the Salvation Army in the United States. He and two of his young white co-workers were driving one night when a white police officer pulled them over. The cop asked the driver for her license and registration, which were in her bag. When my friend lifted her bag to her the cop pulled his gun and said, “What are you doing?” When he explained the cop holstered his weapon. But when the young man suggested that they turn down the car radio so they could hear the officer, the cop put his gun in the black man’s face and said, “What did you say to me?” This was in Rhode Island, not Florida or Missouri. “I grew up knowing I might get shot in South Africa, but didn’t think I would get shot in America,” my young friend told me.
This behavior is a sin—against our brothers and sisters, against true democracy in America and ultimately a sin against God. The sin must be repented of and turned around. Reversing the sins of a racist criminal justice system must become an agenda for a new generation of Christians from every race and faith community in America.
Jim Wallis is president of Sojourners. His book, The UnCommon Good is available in stores.