Long after #Ferguson is no longer trending on social media, we will still be engaged together in the social construction of Ferguson. We are Ferguson. Ferguson is us. As the collective, we co-construct in our relationships the prejudices, public perceptions, the dialogues that have happened and those that have not which created Ferguson.
We create Ferguson together. It is the privileging of voices and the un-privileging of others that defines the conflict in Ferguson, Missouri that has come to capture the imagination and wonder of the U.S and indeed, the world.
Had I walked down the middle of a street in Ferguson as a white man, I would never have faced the high risk of getting shot to death that Michael Brown did. I can hardly enter into the grief that the family of Michael Brown feels. I have two precious children, both eighteen years of age—the same age that Michael met his tragic death.
Ferguson has moved today from riots and police lines to a community forum sponsored by public radio. The space between demonstrators and the police line is the space where neglected dialogue turned to horrible and violent conflict.
The ideas of social constructionism—or relational constructionism—call us to communal accountability. We create our worlds together through our words, our worldviews and our actions. It is a process that we participate in, often unconsciously. As we become conscious of how we co-create our worlds and our relationships, we become responsible for our own choices. It is our choice to speak up or to be silent. It is our choice to participate or not participate in power over others. It is our collective choice to empower some voices and to disempower others.
U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder astutely observed on his arrival in Ferguson that there are deep and neglected conversations that need to happen. But, what are those conversations? They are surely about race, class, and community policing. They are about justice and discrimination. They are about participation and non-participation in democratic processes. They are about prejudice and diversity.
Does dialogue about diversity even begin to touch the depth of the conversation we need to have within ourselves and with each other? It has been said that justice is love finding its way into the public square.
Diversity and racial equality are agendas. I persist in maintaining that any time we begin with an agenda instead of beginning with attentiveness to relationships we walk down a narrow alley that is likely to have fierce combatants facing off against each other in deadly conflict.
The work of relational constructionism, as I understand it, is the work of peacemaking. It is also the work of place-making. How do we together create places where there are not privileged and un-privileged voices? How do we together create places where all voices are truly heard?
Even contemplating that question does not call me to the place of dialogue. It calls me first to the place of deep and silent and prayerful reflection. It calls me to the sacred place of relational presence. The space between the demonstrators with stones and law enforcement with tear gas canisters is uninhabited and uninhabitable space. The space of relational presence is the inhabited space where relationships are valued above agendas allowing the sacred potential of relational being to emerge.
With holy imagination let us enter into the place where we rise above the distinctions and differences that divide us. Let us enlarge in Ferguson—in ourselves, in our world– that greatly diminished space where the din and clatter of gunfire and protests quiet to the whispered voice of peace. May the task of relational constructionism, of place-making, of peace-building begin!
Your insights and comments on the importance of relational presence are awesome. The need to hear the voices around us is critical; however, these voices are often distorted and censored by and through the media to create a sensational perspective of what is happening for the sake of generating interest (or hype) rather than presenting multiple perspectives on an issue or incident.
I am personally familiar with Ferguson, having lived most of my life in the St Louis area. I don’t think you would want to walk down the streets of Ferguson as a white man on any given day, especially after dark, because the chance of you getting shot, robbed or attacked by the “residents” (like the young man caught breaking the law) are much greater than any black person being shot by the police.
The solutions to creating peace lie in the hearts of all involved, not in weapons, power struggles, and lawsuits. The many honorable residents of Ferguson are disgusted with the media coverage of their city. They would love to have a relational presences among themselves and others.
Dr. Garner: I am deeply honored that you took the time to respond so thoughtfully to my post on #Ferguson. I have great respect for your work. I so concur that the “solutions to creating peace lie in the hearts of all involved.” I am keenly aware that the narrative of the young man shot in Ferguson is only one of the woven narratives that leads to the co-construction of the tragedy of Ferguson. Surely, the police officer who shot Michael Brown has his own narrative. There are such complex layers to the ways in which we co-construct our world through language, worldview, belief systems and cultural traditions. To the extent that I may well have oversimplified the narrative of the events of Ferguson, it is a reflection of the world and worldview I construct. How do we embrace that Michael Brown may have been a “young man breaking the law” and at the same time the beloved child of a grieving Mom and Dad? How do we embrace that a U.S. Justice Department may find that the police officer who shot him may have abused the trust given him as a ‘peace officer’ and may have broken the law with far more tragic consequences, and also may have been a person acting from his own fear? These complexities of Ferguson are similar to those I see in nations at war with each other. To find peace, there must be some way for all of the narratives that come to the table to be honored and not just some of them. Thank you for entering into a meaningful dialogue about this. Let us together practice the ‘relational listening’ that allows us to see the person behind the words and the rhetoric, honor the differences we hold, and value relationships above agendas. Kindest wishes and appreciation for the wisdom and insight you bring forward. Samuel Mahaffy