Clergy, faith playing pivotal roles in Ferguson, says Emory's Franklin

Aug. 27, 2014

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Elaine Justice
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elaine.justice@emory.edu

As events in Ferguson, Missouri, have unfolded, Americans have witnessed the role of religion and religious leaders in dealing with the despair and tumult that has gripped the community, says public theologian Robert M. Franklin.

Franklin, newly appointed to the James T. and Berta R. Laney Chair in Moral Leadership at Emory's Candler School of Theology, shared his observations on the religious implications of recent events in Ferguson and the outlook for the future.

On the role of clergy in Ferguson, Missouri:

"Clergy are the community's natural grief counselors," says Franklin. "Since grief stages include anger and denial, clergy, as ritual experts, help mediate chaos, fear and uncertainty. And they do so through actual gestures (public prayer, exhortations) words (sermons of hope, empowerment or shaming bad behavior) and through their mere presence. The clergy collar is a potent symbol and uniform that declares that God is present in this chaos and tragedy. Clergy function as an 'alternative power structure' to politicians and police. We have seen this in the streets of Ferguson."

On Michael Brown's funeral:

"The funeral was framed as a 'home going,' an emerging emphasis in black church funeral culture where people refuse to mourn in despair," Franklin says. "They rejoice, dance and shout to declare victory over death and injustice. I noticed that CNN's live coverage of Michael Brown's service revealed this cultural practice to the nation. Only clergy can lead such communal catharsis and healing processes."

On needed next steps:

"Many clergy urged protestors to channel their energy into voter registration, a valuable, constructive recommendation but psychologically inadequate," says Franklin. "I would like to see more clergy stand in the tradition of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to call for racial-ethnic dialogue that leads to community rebuilding and reconciliation. Archbishop Desmond Tutu's truth and reconciliation method could offer clues about rebuilding Ferguson as a better community. Someone must bridge the divide of competing protest marches for the victim and the officer."