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Symbols, Faith, and Hope: Michael Brown, Jr. and President Barack Obama

by Ben Sanders

As Christians, we believe that God is good. We also believe that God’s goodness can never be fully understood by humans. Our inability to fully understand God’s goodness marks the difference between God and creatures, including us humans. Because of the radical difference between we creatures and the Creator, we use symbols to remind ourselves of God’s goodness and to reinforce faith and hope in a better future. The most important symbol of God’s goodness, the symbol that assures us that the gap between God and us has been lovingly bridged by God’s self is Jesus Christ. For Christians, the use and interpretation of symbols is a central and vital part of faith. Without symbols, we forget the difference between who we are and who God is and we can fall into the trap of idolatry by equating our thoughts and ways with God’s. Jesus reminds of how important it is to interpret symbols when he asks us, “Who do you say that I am?” This question is an invitation to the necessary task of interpreting Jesus’ presence in our lives; we must accept this invitation and task daily in order to remain faithful.

Our world is made up of many other symbols, symbols that are not explicitly grounded in Christianity. Christian faith requires making sense of these symbols too. Michael Brown Jr., the unarmed young black man shot and killed by officer Darren Wilson (who, by the way, has also become a symbol in all of this) on August 9, 2014 has become a symbol. President Barack Obama is another symbol. Right now, the interpretation of these two symbols is vital to Christian faith in the United States. It is vital because these symbols remind us of sin for which we (especially here in the United States) have not adequately repented, the sin of white supremacy. White supremacy is the idea that white life is fundamentally more valuable than non-white life. Despite the Bible’s teaching that God created and loves human life, white supremacy distorts this teaching. White supremacy is sinful because it tries to retell the creation story, insisting that white people are closer to, more valued by, and even equal with God. White supremacy is the sinful logic that allows Michael Brown to be killed without anyone being held responsible.

The killing of Michael Brown, Jr. and the decision of a grand jury to not indict the officer responsible for the killing is a symbol of the depth of white supremacy in America. It symbolizes the practices of assaulting the character of dead black children as we defend their killers. It symbolizes social acceptance of racism and violence. It symbolizes preferring law and order to love and justice. It symbolizes an irrational fear of black bodies in U.S. society. But others will try to interpret the symbol of Michael Brown’s killing in other ways. Some will insist in implicit and explicit ways that Michael Brown deserved to be shot and killed. They will insist that Officer Wilson was within his rights to “protect himself,” and that on the grounds of our legal system, Michael Brown’s killing is tragic but acceptable. We must resist these latter interpretations.

President Barack Obama is also a symbol. When he was elected in 2008, he was a symbol that (some) progress had been made. No one can deny that President Obama’s body inhabiting the office of presidency is a magnificent sign in a country that once enslaved such bodies from birth to death. However, President Barack Obama is a complex symbol. I was among the many who wiped tears of joyful disbelief from my eyes when President Obama was elected. But Cornel West was right to insist that we ought to celebrate Obama’s election on election night and become his biggest critics the next day.

Too many people have felt that we cannot or ought not critique the symbol of President Obama, despite his obvious shortcomings as President. Many have felt that “they” were already giving him enough grief and “we” ought not pile on. Instead, many thought, “we”—who helped elect President Obama—ought to offer unwavering support to Obama because “they”—anti-Obama folk, including but not limited to racists—were already giving Obama enough trouble. After all, President Obama is the “first black president” and if we don’t support him, there may not be a second. It is far past time to give up on this approach. President Obama’s insistence on the rule of law in the face of yesterday’s grand jury verdict reveals the dark side of what his presidency symbolizes. To have a “black president” stand on national television and recommend rule of law to persons that have been victimized by the legal system since the very founding of this country is beyond wrong. President Obama’s words, spoken from behind the presidential seal and in the context of Michael Brown’s killing and lack of legal indictment, reflect an evil logic, one older than 1776, that supports and sustains the sinfulness of white supremacy.

If such a critique means that we risk never having another “black president,” so be it. Tragically, Obama’s presidency has affirmed something we have known for far too long. We are and must become the leaders and role models we have been waiting for. One of the things often said about President Obama is that he symbolizes previously unforeseen possibilities for young people, especially young black people. This is true, but President Obama represents not only unforeseen possibilities for good but also—and perhaps more importantly—unforeseen opportunities for evil models of leadership and community that unwittingly reinforce the system of white supremacy.

If having a “black president” means that we must stand idly by while the President reinforces laws and orders that deny God’s love for us all and assault our hopes for good, whole, healthy community, then I pray that God keep us from ever having another black president! Until having a “black president” means having a progressive president who puts justice and love before our ideas of law and order, why invest so much energy in the presidency?! Instead, I pray that God strengthen, empower, and encourage us to be the leaders and role models our children need. As we enter the season of Advent, that season of hopeful anticipation for the birth of new, loving life, we need to focus on what it means to faithfully interpret the symbols of Michael Brown, Jr. and President Barack Obama. Our interpretation of these symbols may very well determine whether our hope for a better world for our children is fulfilled or failed.


Ben Sanders, III is a doctoral candidate at Iliff School of Theology in Denver, Colorado, and a board member of the Baptist Peace Fellowship of North America.


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