by Andrew Packman
On August 9, 2014, Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson, a 28-year old white man, shot and killed Michael Brown, an 18 year old, unarmed black man.
On September 16, 2014, Wilson appeared before a grand jury where he submitted his account of the events that day. He described an exchange of words, an exchange of blows, and eventually, a one-way exchange of gunfire.
There is plenty worth analyzing here. We could talk about the history of police brutality in the United States or the sociology of white flight from places like Ferguson. We could talk about vast hegemonic systems of racial oppression or the de facto necropolitics that claim white mastery over black life and death.
But I want to draw our attention to a more intimate domain. I’m curious to explore what Darren Wilson saw that day.
Of course, we can’t literally get inside Wilson’s head to see the world through his eyes. Even if he had been wearing a body camera (and I deeply wish he had been), this technology, which promises a kind of first-person perspective, would not give us access to the real-time flow of Wilson’s consciousness. The perceptions, cognitions, desires, judgments, assumptions, and blind spots that got jumbled together to make up his experience are lost to us. All we have are his words, recounting events that happened over a month earlier, spoken in a courtroom wherein his future would be decided.
According to Wilson, this moment he is about to describe comes after he and Brown struggled for control of his gun. The officer eventually gains control of the weapon and fires a shot through the door panel of his vehicle, shattering the window. This startles both of them, and a chunk of glass cuts Wilson’s hand. I want to focus in particular on the way Wilson describes Michael Brown’s face:
And after [Michael Brown] did that [stepped back from the shattered glass], he looked up at me and had the most intense, aggressive face. The only way I can describe it, it looks like a demon, that’s how angry he looked.
Wilson’s attention to Michael Brown’s face continues throughout the entire altercation. This is how he described the awful final moments:
His hand was in a fist at his side, this one is in his waistband under his shirt, and he was like this. Just coming straight at me like he was going to run right through me. And when he gets about that 8 to 10 feet away, I look down, I remember looking at my sites and firing, all I see is his head and that’s what I shot. I don’t know how many, I know at least once because I saw the last one go into him. And then when it went into him, the demeanor on his face went blank, the aggression was gone, it was gone, I mean, I knew he stopped, the threat was stopped. When he fell, he fell on his face.”
A lot of things happened on August 9, 2014. Michael Brown’s parents lost a son. Dorian Johnson, the man walking with Brown before he was shot, lost a friend. And Darren Wilson slayed a demon.
Wilson’s religiously loaded perception of Brown marks a site for theological inquiry. Two questions present themselves. What is the theological significance of Wilson’s perception of Michael Brown as a demon? And more specifically, what are we to make of Wilson’s preoccupation with Brown’s face? He makes reference to it no less than three times in the short passage cited above.
There is something peculiar about human faces. While every other object in the world may be grasped and put into its appropriate box by perceiving it in light of some concept, human faces resist this kind of encapsulation. Sure, we can describe the faces we see. But we’ve all seen how imprecise police sketches can be. Until you are confronted with the real, live, flesh and blood face of “Andrew Packman” or “Allie Lundblad” or “Yvonne Gilmore”, you won’t really know how we look.
To press this point further, Emmanuel Levinas argues that even when we do sit face to face with another person, we still can’t fully grasp them. That’s because there is something uniquely transcendent and uncontainable about human faces. While they show up in our visual field the way that colors and rocks and skyscrapers do, they do something that these things don’t do. Levinas says that, when we encounter a human face, it “expresses” something to us, it “speaks” to us. Before we know anything theoretical about a particular face, that face has already addressed us with a moral command. And the content of this command is, simply: “you shall not commit murder.”
Following a long line of Jewish thinkers before him, Levinas sees in the human face the image of God, the “צֶלֶם אֱלֹהִים”. While we might go around objectifying everything else in the world, grasping it with our concepts in order to know it and make it our own, Levinas claims that the one thing that remains un-objectifiable, infinity itself, “gleams in the face of the Other, in the total nudity of his defenseless eyes, in the nudity of the absolute openness of the Transcendent.” This infinite transcendence we encounter in the face makes a claim on us that is unconditional. No matter who you are, no matter what moment in history you live in, no matter what culture you come from, you cannot get off the hook for failing to respect this infinite demand: do not murder me. The moment you encounter a face, you are on this hook – it precedes and even constitutes your consciousness. This moral imperative holds you responsible, even if you were “just following orders.”
Perhaps this explains Darren Wilson’s persistent reference to Michael Brown’s face. Like Levinas, Darren Wilson was mesmerized by the face of the Other. While a whole host of factors, both sociological (racism, white supremacy) and theological (the noetic effects of sin), distorted his perception of Brown’s face into that of a demon, the glorious marks of the Transcendent still shone through, searing his memory with the inextinguishable image of God.
And while the testimony Wilson gave before the grand jury may have exonerated him before the law of the land, Levinas helps us to see a deeper truth in his words. Hidden deep within that testimony lies a more profound one, the testimony of Wilson’s conscience. And on this register, the unconditional, infinite demand of Michael Brown’s face, the face of the Other, the image of God, continues to bear witness.
Levinas and Wilson are both mesmerized by the human face. But their perceptions were diametrically opposed. Where Levinas sees the imago Dei, Wilson saw an imago daemoni. What went wrong with Darren Wilson’s moral and theological perception on that humid August day? What must go wrong for us to mistake the face of God for a demon?
Andrew Packman is a Ph.D. student in Theology at the University of Chicago Divinity School and is ordained in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ).