What do you see when you look at this picture?
In essence, that is the question St. Louis Prosecuting Attorney Robert McCulloch asked the grand jury to determine in his case against Officer Darren Wilson, who shot and killed unarmed 18-year-old Michael Brown on Aug. 9 in Ferguson, Mo.
According to an early report in TIME, McCulloch made an unusual move: He did not specify a specific charge for Wilson.
In a recent phone interview, Denise Lieberman, co-chair of the Don’t Shoot Coalition and senior attorney for the Advancement Project, explained to me: “Grand jury proceedings occur in private, so we don’t know exactly what’s been said … However, we’ve been told that the prosecutor is not making a recommendation to the jury about whether to indict and what charges … That is fairly unusual, if in fact that is true.”
Rather than specifying charges, two senior attorneys in his office are presenting all the evidence as it becomes available and letting the grand jury decide what charge(s), if any, that evidence warrants.
McCulloch’s office claimed the process of presenting all of the evidence is fair because the grand jury, which is representative of the community of St. Louis, is able to see all of the evidence and then offer its decision.
According to Ed Magee, a spokesperson from McCulloch’s office, grand juries usually only review a few pieces of evidence. “Normally they hear from a detective or a main witness or two. That’s it,” Magee said in an early September interview with the Washington Post.
By presenting all the evidence to laypeople, reportedly without legal interpretation, McCulloch is basically raising a proverbial Rorschach to the grand jury and saying, “see what you see.” That is not a passive act in a society where 75 percent of people tested display some measure of unconscious racial bias. I believe McCulloch is employing unconscious bias to defend Darren Wilson.
That is why 35 cities are preparing rallies to take place the day of or the day after the grand jury announces its decision.
But as the church considers the events of these days, perhaps the greatest challenge we face is this: Will we allow our view of “what we see” to go unexamined? Will we “conform to the world” — giving permission to our unconscious biases to guide our thoughts and actions? Or will be transformed by the renewing of our minds, as Paul calls us to be? (Romans 12:2)
In the first church, the sacrament of baptism itself stood as a symbol of this transformation. The first followers of Jesus confronted the unconscious biases handed down to them from the Roman Empire. The empire enforced and reinforced its divisions of power: male and female, Jew and Greek, slave and free. To become a follower of Jesus was to be washed of the conscious and unconscious biases inherited by the systems and structures of empire. Women led, slaves were set free, and Jews and Gentiles were brought into one common communion — both exercising equal power with the church. The image of God in all was seen, affirmed, cultivated, protected, and served.
What if the church today upon baptism called believers to examine all the ways we have soaked in the unconscious biases of the American empire? What if we reexamined our relationships with and assumptions of who should have power in our nation, in our cities, and in the church?
What if that examination revealed the image of God neglected, unseen, and even denied because of unconscious bias among us?
By the time you read this post, the grand jury may have made its decision. But regardless of the grand jury’s decision, the fight to defend the image of God within Michael Brown will not end. The church and communities of faith across the country can rise up and declare that they will no longer be conformed to the biases of this world. The church can set its face toward long-term change. We can demand a criminal justice system that sees the inherent dignity in all human life.
Lisa Sharon Harper is Senior Director of Mobilizing for Sojourners and co-author of Forgive Us: Confessions of a Compromised Faith.
Image: Rorschach test, exopixel / Shutterstock.com