On August 9, 2014 Michael Brown was shot and killed by officer Darren Wilson in Ferguson Missouri. Soon enough, the city erupted in rage against law enforcement and Twitter exploded with the hashtag #Ferguson. Today, the names Michael Brown and Ferguson are inseparably connected with the Black Lives Matter movement. Five years later, we are still divided and the social justice agenda continues to create an ever growing division throughout our nation and within religious circles. It’s time that we stop using Michael Brown as a tool for social justice.
False Narratives and Social Justice
Much of what we know about Michael Brown is a lie. Soon after the city was turned into a war zone, it was discovered that the narrative that fueled the rage was actually false. The stories that were popularized and published in newspapers and on television from the sidewalk of Ferguson stated that an unarmed black man was shot with his hands up by a white police officer.
Dorian Johnson, a friend of Michael Brown, gave a story to police officers and the media that ignited the explosion of anger and frustration— eventually turning the city into a war zone. The DOJ report states on page 44 that Johnson “made multiple statements to the media immediately following the incident that spawned the popular narrative that Wilson shot Brown execution-style as he held up his hands in surrender.” That was actually a lie. It was a lie that forever changed Ferguson and created a massive divide among ethnicities throughout the United States.
It would not take long before Michael Brown’s name would show up on t-shirts calling for justice while also being attached to the #BlackLivesMatter social media buzz that swept across our nation. Crowds marched through cities chanting “Hands up” — “Don’t shoot” in protest. It would strike a nerve in the hearts of people across our nation. Hands up poses were offered up by CNN news anchors on live television and by five professional athletes—players for the St. Louis Rams as they took the field for a game after the DOJ report cleared officer Wilson of wrongdoing in the death of Michael Brown.
The whole story of the “Hands Up Don’t Shoot” was a lie. It was fabricated by Dorian Johnson who became known as “Witness 101” to stir the hearts of Ferguson with anger and division. In short, Johnson weaponized Michael Brown as a tool of division against the police officers that he despised.
According to page 8 of the DOJ report:
Although there are several individuals who have stated that Brown held his hands up in an unambiguous sign of surrender prior to Wilson shooting him dead, their accounts do not support a prosecution of Wilson. As detailed throughout this report, some of those accounts are inaccurate because they are inconsistent with the physical and forensic evidence; some of those accounts are materially inconsistent with that witness’s own prior statements with no explanation, credible [or] otherwise, as to why those accounts changed over time. Certain other witnesses who originally stated Brown had his hands up in surrender recanted their original accounts, admitting that they did not witness the shooting or parts of it, despite what they initially reported either to federal or local law enforcement or to the media. Prosecutors did not rely on those accounts when making a prosecutive decision.
While credible witnesses gave varying accounts of exactly what Brown was doing with his hands as he moved toward Wilson – i.e., balling them, holding them out, or pulling up his pants up – and varying accounts of how he was moving – i.e., “charging,” moving in “slow motion,” or “running” – they all establish that Brown was moving toward Wilson when Wilson shot him. Although some witnesses state that Brown held his hands up at shoulder level with his palms facing outward for a brief moment, these same witnesses describe Brown then dropping his hands and “charging” at Wilson.
Michael Brown as a Tool for Politicians
As expected, Michael Brown was used by politicians to press a narrative and connect with voters who were very much impacted by the whole story of Michael Brown. Today, the same thing continues—even though it has been stated openly and publicly that Michael Brown was killed by a police officer while breaking the law and engaging in violence against an officer of the law. Elizabeth Warren tweeted out the following:
5 years ago Michael Brown was murdered by a white police officer in Ferguson, Missouri. Michael was unarmed yet he was shot 6 times. I stand with activists and organizers who continue the fight for justice for Michael. We must confront systemic racism and police violence head on.
— Elizabeth Warren (@ewarren) August 9, 2019
In short, politicians are continuing to use Michael Brown’s name for their own political agenda and as a result—they popularize the lie that he was innocent. This creates further division among ethnicities, fuels racism, and fuels disrespect for police officers throughout the nation.
Michael Brown as a Tool for Evangelical Leaders
In April of 2018, several evangelical organizations including The Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention and The Gospel Coalition teamed up for a conference on the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr’s assassination. The MLK50 event was held in Memphis and was intended to serve as “an opportunity for Christians to reflect on the state of racial unity in the church and the culture. It created the occasion to reflect on where Christians have been and look ahead to where we must go as we pursue racial unity in the midst of tremendous tension.”
However, during the event, a spoken word poem was offered up on the main stage of the conference before all attendees and those watching via livestream. The poem was titled, “Dear Mike Brown.” The artist who performed the spoken word poem is Preston Perry. He tells a powerful story that follows a narrative of injustice. He begins with a personal account with police officers on a chilly January morning in Chicago before moving to the story of Michael Brown.
The first line about Brown states, “Dear Mike Brown. I don’t know you. I don’t know if your unarmed body rose from his bed that morning planning to stick his hands in a squad car.” Notice how Preston Perry uses the carefully chosen language of “unarmed body” to further the false narrative of police brutality. Like politicians, even after the release of the DOJ report, Perry uses Michael Brown to further divide ethnicities and plant doubt in the minds of evangelicals in the MLK50 conference. In his poem, Perry asks the following question:
Dear Mike Brown, your death got me thinking a lot, and I wonder if Fox News ever considers you human or if they purposefully paint you beast in the minds of their viewers. Convinced themselves that every bullet that dove head first in your organs carried justice, numbed America’s conscience concerning you.
While Preston Perry promoted the false narrative of injustice by officer Wilson, it had already been established in the justice system of the United States that Brown’s death was justified. Sadly, as horrible as the scene was, and as tragic as death is, Michael Brown did receive justice. Swift justice in the streets of Ferguson.
The sad reality is that this is not merely a political event. It was a religious event for evangelicals and it promoted further doubt, division, and hatred for police officers in the name of justice. If anyone should understand what true justice looks like—it should be the evangelical community—those who call upon the Lord and have a proper biblical lens by which to look at the broken world that surrounds us.
Why Does Michael Brown Matter?
We can learn some powerful lessons from Michael Brown. We learn that truth matters, justice matters, life is precious, and racism is evil.
The Scriptures reveal to us the importance of telling the truth. When people lie—it not only distorts the facts—it can put people’s lives in danger. When Satan lied to Adam and Eve, it brought death into the world (Romans 5:12; Genesis 3). When Abraham lied to Abimelech king of Gerar about Sarah—it endangered her and Abimelech (Gen. 20:2). All through the Bible we find story after story that reveals the importance of the truth. Proverbs 12:19 says, “Truthful lips endure forever, but a lying tongue is but for a moment.” Ferguson learned this dreadful lesson in August of 2014.
We are called to be people of justice. The very justice system of our nation is derived from the commands for God’s people to seek justice in the Scriptures (Micah 6:8). Although imperfect as a national system of justice, God’s justice is pure, righteous, and will one day be finally accomplished at the final judgment (Rev. 20:11-15). Until then, every Christian must labor in gospel ministry with peace, unity, and a commitment to biblical justice.
Racism is an ugly monster that is alive in our nation (see Article 14 on racism in The Statement on Social Justice and the Gospel). We see it in specific pockets and while it moves in the shadows often—it rears it’s ugly head at times for the whole world to see. Racism is not a white thing. Racism is a sin that is rooted in the depravity of the human heart and is employed by all ethnic groups at times. When the world is stirred with confusion, we must labor to promote the imago Dei—all human beings are created in the image and likeness of God. Michael Brown matters because he was created in the image of God. Black lives matter for the very same reason that police lives matter. Life is a precious gift from God, we must all recognize this truth.
The social justice agenda is not a friendly movement of peace. It has ugly political motives that lie beneath the surface. If you have a hard time grasping that as a reality, ask yourself an honest question—why would politicians continue to use the false narrative of Michael Brown as a means of pursuing justice? Furthermore, within evangelical circles, why would Michael Brown be used in a spoken word poem on the 50th anniversary of MLK’s death to promote biblical justice? Was justice not served for Michael Brown? Was officer Wilson acting out of injustice against Michael Brown? It’s past time that we stop allowing people to use Michael Brown as a tool for social justice.
What exactly is the social justice agenda seeking to accomplish? Five years after the tragic death of Michael Brown, it’s time to admit that Michael Brown has been abused. He was not abused by officer Wilson, but he continues to be abused by those who seek to use him as a tool of division in the agenda of social justice.