At [Dylann] Roof’s bond hearing, Chief Magistrate James Gosnell allowed Collier to deliver a statement to the suspect who joined via videoconference: “I just want everybody to know, to you, I forgive you. You took something very precious away from me. I will never talk to her ever again, I will never be able to hold her again. You hurt me. You hurt a lot of people. But God forgives you, and I forgive you.” – Jonathan Merritt, “What Does it Take To Forgive Someone Like Dylann Roof?”, Religion News Service, June 22, 2015
I am a clergywoman in the African Methodist Episcopal Church. I am in mourning and I refuse to be comforted. Like the story of Rachel weeping for her children (Jeremiah 31:15; Matthew 2:18), I will not allow my anger and lamentation to be silenced. With silence comes complacency, and the stakes for are too high. The very soul of American Christianity is on trial, and progressive platitudes of reconciliation will not save it. The type of healing we need can only be borne out of lament — a lament that holds space in the deepest pits of our beings for the piercing sorrow and rage being expressed by black communities, cultivates empathy, and puts restorative justice at the center of our collective action. It is a type of lament some of my dear sisters in ministry have begun to call prophetic grief. As one of my beloved heroes, Rev. Dr. Jacqui Lewis of Middle Collegiate Church in New York notes, “Love looks like this: Prophetic grief. Tears falling heavy. And activism that ends racism.” – Rev. Jennifer Bailey, “Refusing To Be Comforted: Charleston, Black Death, And Prophetic Grief”, Sojourners, June 20, 2015
People take comfort in religion. I often find that amusing, because my faith isn’t very comforting, not really. Oh, I have a sense of inner peace that comes from what I can only call an intuition of the Divine. That’s just a fancy way of saying I have within me a sense of God’s presence in and around my life. That doesn’t keep away the nagging questions that arise most days. Certainly not in the face of events in Charleston last Wednesday night. That this mass murder happened in a church leaves me even more bereft. A holy space has been made an abomination. Holy ground has been more than shod upon by feet in shoes. Human blood has tainted a place of refuge and worship, sanctuary in all its nuanced meanings. What happened in Charleston strikes me, so far away and so different, as an act of violence not only against African-Americans as a people; it was defiance against God and God’s claim upon our lives, our spaces, and our hearts and minds. I’m at a loss as how, exactly, we are to move forward in the face of a simultaneous affront against humanity and God.
It certainly doesn’t help that the families of some of the victims have offered young Dylann Roof the one thing too many of us would find impossible. Statements of forgiveness from the loved-ones of the murdered ring so loud, it’s nearly impossible to raise an objection or offer a “. . . but . . .” after so that we don’t just stop with those words and pretend the world has been made right. Which is not to say such forgiveness isn’t a revolutionary act. It is, perhaps, perhaps the single most revolutionary statement to emerge from this horror. We who stand at whatever remove from events in South Carolina cannot gainsay what they have chosen. Forgiveness in the first instance was theirs to offer or withhold. I know that I, for one, only stand silently, my eyes closed.
I also know, however, that Dylann Roof has done so much more than kill nine faithful Christians gathered to study the Word in what should have been the most safe place imaginable. He has shown the whole world the horrible wriggling thing that exists underneath the rock that is our national self-image. Too many of us white folk will rush to silence any and all voices that don’t conform to these words. As one commenter on Peter Laarman’s piece, quoted in part as the caption to the photo above, wrote: “This article is darkness inspired by darkness. I see nothing redemptive or productive here. It’s cathartic and understandable maybe, but not helpful beyond that.” If as Christians our words are not “redemptive” according to some formula that is opaque to me at the moment, they they aren’t “helpful”. Of course, the entire article was, to my mind, redemptive precisely because it offered a vision of us facing the reality of our worst selves, as the author notes, in the mirror black folk hold up to white America.
All of us prefer simple cause-effect relationships. Whether it’s a bat hitting a ball that flies over the left-field fence, human conception that result from two special types of cells interacting, or the larger sweep of social movements and historical events, even if it’s something as interesting as that old poem, “For Want Of A Nail”, as long as we can trace effects back to their causes, we can understand how things work. In his essay collection After Auschwitz, the late Richard Rubenstein offered a simple cause-effect relationship that, as difficult as it was to consider, made sense: In the wake of the intentional, rational mass killing of six million Jews, belief in the God of the Covenant and the holiness of the Covenant people was no longer tenable.
In the summer of 1991, I read another book by Rubenstein, coauthored with Christian theologian John Roth. Approaches To Auschwitz: The Holocaust And Its Legacy, offers both a history of the development of the genocide against Jews, Roma, homosexuals, and others. It also examines the aftermath, from historical and social implications to religious implications. In the midst of having tidy, clear answers in my head, I read the following:
During the 1970’s, Reeve Robert Brenner polled a thousand Israeli [Holocaust] survivors to ascertain the religious change, rejections, reaffirmation, doubt, and despair that the Holocaust brought them. Selecting the subjects at random from survivor rosters, especially from those carefully maintained at Yad Vashem, Israel’s national Holocaust Memoria, he received more than seven hundred responses to a lengthy questionnaire. Of those who responded, one hundred were interviewed personally, the remainder by mail. . . .
. . . Within hi random an representative sample, one of the most fundamental findings is that 53% “consciously and specifically asserted that the Holocaust affected or, to a certain extent, modified their faith in God.” The other 47% “averred that the Holocaust had no influence on their beliefs about God.” . . . The most salient feature of this [religious] transformation is that of the 55% who before the Holocaust believed in “a personal God” who is involved in humanity’s daily life, more than one in four rejected that belief either during or immediately after the war. Nor have they reclaimed it since. . . .
. . . Brenner’s research found a vast array of religious responses among the survivors who responded. They included Orthodox Jews who say the Holocaust was God’s punishment for Jewish refusal to honor their historic covenant with the Go who mad them a chosen people. Others affirmed God as One who is impersonal, uninvolved in human history generally or in the Holocaust specifically. And if nearly three out of four of the 53% who found their faith affected or modified by the Holocaust underwent “either a complete los or an attenuation of religious faith,” the remainder reported the the Holocaust made them more religious. Over all about 5% of Brenner’s sample were transformed from atheists into believers. If that figure seems insignificant, Brenner puts it in a different light by noting that “nearly one of every four religiously transformed survivors began to believe in God because of the Holocaust. . . . In all, Brenner observes, the total loss of faith in the existence of God among his sample of Holocaust survivors came to 11%. (pp.293-295)
So much for neat and tidy answers. Our prepackaged assumptions about how people should act, about the simple, clear cause-effect relationships between events and their impact upon social attitudes run up against the reality that human beings react in a variety of ways, including ways for which our own prejudices cannot account.
From that moment, I have preferred the messiness of reality, its contrariness and contradictions, to the all-too-tidy answers offered by those who claim to know how people ought to live their lives. Reality confounds us. Contemplating that too much can cause a person to seize up, not act. Sometimes, it can cause us to turn away, prefer the comfort of our prejudices. Rejecting reality, no matter how uncomfortable reality might be, is a sign of illness. Whether or not I like it, the world really is the way it is, and it is far better to consider the variety than rest comfortably with one’s preferred ways of living and understanding the world.
In the wake of last Wednesday’s shooting in South Carolina, there have been so many voices clamoring for attention. Yes, mine included. They say all sorts of things. They say we shouldn’t rush to judge or politicize. They say we should refuse to surrender our grief. They say we should understand the events in light of American’s blood-soaked racial history. They say we can never know why Dylann Roof did what he did. They say we must look in that mirror African-American lives hold for us, and recognize the reflection no matter how hard that can be.
They say we should forgive the killer.
At this point, I’m not sure to whom anyone should listen. I know I’ve fallen prey to leaning toward the words that accord with my understanding of the world. Knowing nothing will come from this event, no national come-to-Jesus-moment regarding race, I merely reaffirm my preference for more radical voices, amplifying them as much as I can. In these voices I hear the call to repentance and self-reflection, from the need for honest self-appraisal to the need for some act of mass confession for everything from stolen wealth to mass death that is as much a part of American history as our alleged exceptionalism. The voices, however, cover the gamut, and my preferences aren’t what is at stake. What’s at stake, rather, is how we as one people – black and white, Asian, Latino, Other, male and female, gay and straight and other – own this event as an American event. While I wrote yesterday the search for “meaning” in historical events, particularly religious meaning, is a fool’s errand, that doesn’t mean we cannot make sense of what happened.
It only demands that we answer the question: To whom do we listen for guidance? It seems too easy, at least to me, to settle solely for the voices of forgiveness from the victim’s relatives. That takes responsibility away from all of us to look at what happened. We can all say, “Well, they forgave him. Who am I to say anything afterward?” Dietrich Bonhoeffer called that cheap grace. It’s a dodge, a way around what is always more difficult.
All the same, I recognize that others will act and react in different ways. Which leaves me wondering if, perhaps, silence might not be the first order of business. I do know I have no answers that satisfy anyone but me. And I’m willing to allow that satisfaction to be disturbed by reality. I just don’t think anyone has a monopoly on wisdom.
So many voices. So many verdicts. Too many experts. Lord, teach us to listen with discernment.
Michael, Rena, Nalin and I are praying for the victims and families touched by tonight’s senseless tragedy at Emanuel AME Church. While we do not yet know all of the details, we do know that we’ll never understand what motivates anyone to enter one of our places of worship and take the life of another. Please join us in lifting up the victims and their families with our love and prayers. – South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley, Statement on Charleston church shooting
Why can’t we simply grieve and pray for the families of the victims of the shooting in South Carolina? Instead, whenever one of these tragic events happen, we are immediately inundated with polarizing political punditry from both the left and the right. I don’t want a “conversation” about race, guns, or whether more mass murders are left wing or right wing. If your first thought isn’t for the victims or their families, then maybe you should remain silent rather than rush to make your political point while standing in a puddle of blood. – Post from a Facebook friend (and childhood neighbor)
Violence is a part of America’s culture. It is as American as cherry pie. – H. Rap Brown
I heard someone on the news say, “Tragedy has visited this church.” This wasn’t a tornado. This was racist. This was a guy with a Rhodesia badge on his sweater. You know. So the idea—I hate to even use this pun, but this one is black and white. There is no nuance here. And we’re going to keep pretending, like, ‘I don’t get it, this one guy lost his mind.’ But we are steeped in that culture in this country and we refuse to recognize it. I cannot believe how hard people are working to discount it. . . .
Nine people were shot in a black church by a white guy who hated them, who wanted to start some sort of civil war. The confederate flag flies over South Carolina and the roads are named after confederate generals and the white guy is the one who feels like his country is being taken away from him. We’re bringing it on ourselves. And that’s the thing. Al-Qaeda, ISIS, they’re not shit compared to the damage that we can do to ourselves on a regular basis. – Jon Stewart, The Daily Show
I sang this song a hundred, maybe a thousand years ago.
No one ever listens. I just play my song and then I go. – Kansas, “Miracles Out Of Nowhere”, lyrics by Kerry Livgren
I didn’t want to write this today. In fact, I thought long and hard before sitting down to put down on screen what I am thinking. Everyone and their brother’s sister-in-law will offer opinions, views, make declarative absolute statements about everything from race relations to Second Amendment rights to a preference not to “politicize” such horrible violence. There will be millions of words pouring on to computers around the country that plea for all of us to turn away from the violence, not to look at what happens when human bodies are cruelly violated by bullets, to just shut up and cry and forget everything else. We are really good at that, we Americans. We are so well trained to glance away from violence, to turn our ears from the wailing and screaming.
After the shooting in Newtown, CT, I did something really stupid. I started demanding we repeal the Second Amendment the Constitution. Circumstances that day, however, brought out the worst in me. I sat in my office that cold December day, trying to work while also trying to stay abreast of events. I refused to consider the worst was the case. When the news broke that 20 small children were among the 26 dead, I went numb. That afternoon, when I go home, I hugged my daughters and fought back tears. I was enraged. I was terrified. The thought that still haunts me, families burying their small children the week before Christmas, presents that would never be opened, voices of happiness singing carols and laughing when the best present ever were opened falling forever silent, was in the front of my mind. I reacted, and for that I apologize.
The problem, really, isn’t the Second Amendment. I will say right here and now that firearms aren’t an issue. Not really. Like hammers, they’re just tools. They’re not magical devices that make otherwise sane, rational people suddenly decide to kill. Nor are they talismans in the hands of the insane. They’re just tools. Some of these tools were made for the sole purpose of killing other human beings, to be sure. That does not mean, however, they are the problem.
We’re the problem.
Many societies believe that names are powerful things. A person’s name tells others who that person is. Ancient Hebrew religious belief placed such a high value on names the God of the Hebrews refused to offer such a name. Reference to the God of the Hebrews was oblique, referencing what God did without ever saying who God was.
In the same way, long-standing Roman Catholic practice in the Rite of Exorcism is to demand the demon give the Exorcist it’s name. Once the demon has surrendered its name, the exorcist has power over it and expelling it becomes far easier. Names have power, you see.
We Americans, by and large, refuse to name our demons. We won’t look them in the eye. We’re terrified that saying the name will only make them appear. We would far prefer mundane words are used, that no one says anything that might bring to light the horrible monsters that eat at our soul. Many of us demand silence from those who insist we need to invoke the names of our demons. For the most part, we don’t want an exorcism. Isn’t it terribly modern to insist demons don’t exist, that Exorcism is the residue of some kind of magical thinking that no longer applies?
The terror behind all this is fear the demons are all too real. We see them all the time. We hear their voices. We know what evil they wreak. Too many of us feel helpless, scared these demons might find their way to us, leaving us strangers to our better natures. The faces we see are just too familiar for us to rest easy these creatures will pass us by.
A young man comes to a Wednesday night Bible Study. Of course he is welcomed. Why wouldn’t he be welcomed? An hour passes. What goes through that young man’s mind, well, we’ll probably never know for sure. Was he building up courage? Was he waiting for some particular moment? Do these things matter in the end? You see, in the end, he pulled out a firearm and killed nine people. He killed them because they were black and he white. He killed them because black bodies have always been targets for white people. Black women can be raped by white men at will and whim; a black man would pay for his life by speaking to a white woman. Black men were strung up, emasculated, burned, beaten, their deaths the focus of community gatherings, a kind of rite of social purification at which people took photos, fighting for a place by the corpse. To pretend these realities played no role in what happened Wednesday night in Charleston is to refuse to see our national demon.
People who don’t want to see this demon, well, I get it. Who wants to look at our national ugliness so clearly? Who wants to admit they share in our on-going national mental illness? Who wants to be tagged racist or bigot? Who wants others looking at him or her with fear or disgust? As long as we continue the pretense that we are good people, that we Americans are A Good People, then we can dismiss events such as the shooting in Charleston as unfathomable tragedy. As long as we don’t see the black bodies pierced by bullets, their beauty disfigured by violence and hatred, the blood everywhere, we can mourn without really knowing what it is to die as an African-American in America. We can mourn, we can pray, and then we can forget all about it because making fun of Kanye West and Kim Kardashian – a black man marrying a white woman, something that offends our national sensibilities to no end; let’s not forget he’s a black man who refuses to be silent or humble like we expect black men to behave, and she is portrayed as a whore because only a whore would be willing to marry a black man – is so much more important than considering how it might be possible that these folks might not have died in vain.
Our history of racial violence is not something that ended with Lee’s surrender at Appomatox Courthouse. It didn’t end with the Supreme Court decision Brown, et. al. v Board of Education of Topeka, KS. Folks didn’t suddenly embrace African-Americans as equals when Pres. Johnson signed the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Too many people dismiss the realities of the daily humiliations and fears of our fellow Americans as the creations of fake demons we call “race hustlers” and “reverse racists”. There are so many people who will console us with the false peace of easy answers, or refusals to talk about what’s going on, or who will point at a young white person killed by an African-American. These are all actions of our national demon. That demon doesn’t just kill; it lies, it offers us blindness masquerading as comfort, and tells us stories with just enough truth to keep us from asking difficult questions.
This isn’t about some “Other” who is racist, as opposed to we well-intentioned and certainly good white folks. This isn’t about making distinctions between “black thugs” and “innocents dying in Church” so that our conscience isn’t troubled by the need to mourn all the deaths by violence of African-Americans. Until we all say this demon’s name, own it, and say that it possesses all of us, we are no closer to being able to get rid of it than any other time. Until we can look at photographs of bodies torn apart by bullets and see our brothers and sisters lying there, surrounded by their life-blood spattered everywhere, we are going to continue to hear stories of more people dying. Because black bodies have always been the property of whites, rage and fear will push others to destroy that property. Racism and all that is bound to it; violence as American as cherry pie; our refusal to name what ails us, to confront it without fear; these are staring us in the face from Charleston, SC.
Do we look away?
I have a feeling we will.
Well, yesterday’s post certainly stirred up some defense of the police. I posted it to Facebook and almost immediately two people in particular took issue not so much with what I wrote, but with the principles of (a) criticizing police departments, and painting with such a broad brush; (b) including the issue of race (because, as we all know, it is only liberal racists who are racists by bringing up racism when there is in fact no racism because even conservatives like Martin Luther King). While I dealt with one bug-a-boo in particular – that police “risk their lives with every traffic stop or every domestic call” – I thought the broader criticism needed some repetition because the two people criticizing what I never said and would never say needed to be clear on the position I was taking.
First of all, I am not the least bit interested in the personal feelings of any given law enforcement officer when it comes to race. I was speaking of the entire culture and community of law enforcement, from the local three-cop town up to and including federal law enforcement in all its various guises. As institutions, law enforcement is what it has always been – a vehicle for maintaining not only the law, but through that the social status quo. Part of that status quo is our long history – nearly four hundred years – of white supremacy and the dehumanization of people of color. I know people don’t like hearing or reading about that; it makes them uncomfortable. It even makes them angry. That doesn’t make it any less the case. That I certainly include myself among those who benefit from our racist society is true enough. I recognize all the ways institutions in this country bend over backward for people like me: I’m white, I’m male, I’m middle-aged, and I’m upper-middle class if our latest economic statistics are true. I am one of those for whom this society maintains certain racial and class divides. That I reject those various privileges, speaking out against the unjust, corrupt, violent, and immoral actions of a society that actually benefits me doesn’t mean I don’t receive those benefits; they accrue regardless because they are built in to the system. It only means that, as an individual – and hardly one of much importance – I do what I can to make it clear that our society and its institutions, particularly the police, are designed to maintain white privilege and power.
Second, for some reason, my two particular interlocutors seemed to think that criticism of the police, and in particular of police racism meant that African-Americans are innocent little lambs who commit no crimes, including hate-crimes against whites. Not only did I not say that, I would never say that, and could never say that because it isn’t true. African-Americans are criminals at about the same rate as people of other races. The difference, however, is that most African-Americans are assumed to be criminals, particularly when they gather in large groups. You see a group of white youths walking down the street, you might give them a bit of stink-eye if they don’t let you pass. A group of African-American youths, however, and be honest – how many of you would or have crossed to the other side of the street? I know I have. I’m not proud of that.
All of this is to say there are bad, horrible people out there who do bad, horrible things, including attack people just because of their race. Nothing I wrote yesterday either denied that fact, or the need for police departments to apprehend people who commit such heinous crimes. My argument, in fact, was that their work would be better, would be more efficient – the number of open cases that will never be closed increases despite nearly a quarter century of steady decrease in crime – and more successful if, rather than act on particular assumption about the race, class, and gender of those who commit various crimes, they would actually work from evidence and pursue the evidence rather than “their gut”, their experience, or the default position – some black kid did it. The number of innocent people – innocent people of color – on Illinois’s death row was so high that former Gov. George Ryan placed a moratorium on executions. The state legislature was later embarrassed into revoking the death penalty all together, making any maximum sentence life without parole. Some of these men had spent decades fighting for their lives; the Supreme Court has already made it far more difficult to introduce exculpatory evidence years after the fact, including DNA evidence. Now, I’m going to guess that at least some of those men released by the State of Illinois had criminal records. Maybe one or two of them had been, and maybe still were, bad people. Some are, you know. Just bad, from their head to their toes. That in no way means they should forfeit their lives for crimes they did not commit. Racial bias in capital cases is a long-running sore, as is sentencing bias in cases of whites caught with powder cocaine versus African-Americans caught with crack.
Finally, the number of instances of police just screwing up – from using paramilitary entry tactics in the wrong home (some of which have included deaths of every age cohort, from the elderly to small children) to holding people because they might have the same name as a wanted criminal to a case in New York City several years ago where three cops opened fire on a suspect and managed to wound several bystanders without hitting the suspects at whom they are shooting; these are many, varied, and by and large involve people of color, particularly youths. Which is not an argument against the police. It is, rather, a demand that the police do a better damn job. Mistakes are always inevitable, of course. That doesn’t mean checks and balances in the system can’t reduce both their number and severity.
And remember, for every innocent person sent to prison for a crime they did not commit, that means there’s still some bad guy out there, committing crimes, threatening life and health and property.
A kind of postscript. Another bug-a-boo tossed my way was that I shouldn’t criticize unless I was actually a police officer. Such a position would render impossible any reform whatsoever. It is the right and duty of all of us, particularly those of us in positions of relative privilege and power, to demand better of our police forces. Their job is not to be judge, jury, and executioner. Their job is to apprehend those suspected of committing a crime. It is up to others to determine if (a) a crime has been committed; and (b) who is and is not responsible. The police, however, are so far off the rails on this basic social function, not least because they serve our larger social and cultural status quo, which includes maintaining the racial status quo, they are, functionally, outside any accountability whatsoever. Even the mild criticisms I’ve made are considered by many out of bounds, a kind of declaration of war against the police, and some odd desire to see no police at all and see people who commit crimes as not guilty of having done so.
The only way this is going to change is if more people make it clear that the entire culture of law enforcement, from the little village up to and including the federal government is broken; actually, it isn’t broken. What it is is functioning in such a way that it, rather than uphold the law and protect our communities, it upholds our social status quo and protects the privileged. That the abundant evidence this is so seems invisible to some, well, I can’t do much about that. Nor can I assuage the hurt feelings my criticisms have made. This isn’t personal, an attack on any police officer in particular, or even particular police department. Shoot, my nephew is a police officer, specifically a DeKalb County (IL) Sheriff’s Deputy. I don’t think he’s a bad person at all. Quite the opposite, in fact. As a police officer, however, I would be wary of seeing his lights suddenly appear in my rear window. Again, not because he’s a bad person. But because, as a police officer, he’s been trained to respond to any situation as potentially life threatening, which means he will always be ready to use lethal force.
It is precisely this place we must start to change the culture of policing in our society: while it is certainly possible any particular call or traffic stop might pose a hazard to the life and health of a police officer, the vast majority do not. We must make the exceptional just that – the exception rather than the expected norm. Perhaps, then, fewer people will be angry and feel the need to demand our police do their jobs better.
As events continue to unfold in Ferguson, MO, it becomes ever more clear how the violence, the anger, the resentment, the fear, and most of all the division between African-Americans and whites show us who we are as a people. It would be wonderful to believe we are our best selves. It would be even better if we lived our best selves. The facts of the matter, however, demonstrate not only the systemic violence that continues unabated against minority communities, but the lack of any desire by whites to take a stand against injustice, oppression, and a death penalty meted out not by judges and juries but police officers in the course of their duties.
I’m writing this Sunday morning, August 24. I’m writing this before I head off to church, to worship the God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, Elijah, the Father of Jesus Christ who died and rose to deliver us from slavery to sin and death. I’m writing this before I join millions of American Christians in what continues to be the most segregated hour of our weekly lives. We live in separate worlds. We experience the world in different ways. We come to understand who we are in our relationships to society at large and the power structure through different historical lenses and different – vastly different – experiences. And we continue to worship as if our Gods were different beings. We say the same words, we sing the same hymns, we pray the same prayers. The words, however, mean something very different because we in white America continue to pretend that our experiences and definitions and history define a norm to which all others must give credence.
In a Reuters article carried on Yahoo News today, authors Nick Carey and Edward McAllister paint a picture of Ferguson divided by race, by sympathy, and by whether support is offered to the existing power structure or the very legitimacy of that power structure is called to question. One of a group of whites gathered in a bar in support of Ofc. Darren Wilson says, without understand the way her words indict Wilson, the Ferguson Police Department, and the United States: “It’s not about black or white, it’s about rule of law.” The insistence on color-blindness and the rule of law give away the game. As long as we refuse to recognize the reality of race, and how it impacts how the law is upheld, Fergusons will continue to happen. As long as “the rule of law” means police impunity in minority communities, Fergusons will continue to occur. As long as white people refuse to stand with our fellow African-American sisters and brothers and demand accountability from those in authority, Fergsuons will continue to occur.
On a side note, I do wish people would stop saying things like, “He/She’s been tried and convicted in the press!” Because that is precisely why we have a free press: so we the people can be exposed the abuses of power and demand change. The standards of evidence for public discourse are not the same as those in a court of law, nor should they be. For example, years ago I was chastised for calling Mark Foley a pederast. I had, as the cliche says, tried and convicted him. I made the point there was enough evidence in the public record to insist my description of Foley’s unsavory sexual predilections was both warranted and fair. Whether or not he had ever committed an actual crime was irrelevant. I would say the same about Ofc. Wilson. Whether or not he committed a crime under the statutes of the state of Missouri or the United States is irrelevant. That he killed an unarmed young man, a young man who carried no weapon, had committed no crime, and represented no threat other than being a young African-American male is the single, indisputable fact of this entire on-going story. Whether or not Wilson was an upstanding police officer, personally harbored neither hatred in his heart nor fear in his soul for African-Americans, or the Ferguson PD had a history of racial tolerance that was exemplary, above board, and transparent are neither here nor there. The long history of sanctioned violence against African-Americans determines the narrative focus, not Wilson’s personal morality.
And here we are on Sunday morning. I’m going to go to a predominantly white Church and worship a God that I hope will hear pleas for racial justice. I hope the Holy Spirit rips the scales from our eyes so that we can see the hurt, pain, rage, and fear among communities of color. I hope we are able to see in the shot and bleeding bodies of Michael Brown and Kajieme Powell the broken body of Christ. I pray that we are willing to demand justice for their deaths, demand an end to racially-motivated official violence. Most of all, I pray that as we as a congregation gather around the communion table, we remember all our fellow Christians not only of other faith traditions and confessions, but other races, nationalities, languages, and histories are gathered with us because it is God who calls us to God’s table. I believe the sacrament is the first place for healing to begin. Let it be so in all our churches today and in the days and weeks to come.
One death is a tragedy. A million deaths is a statistic. – Josef Stalin
As events continue to unfold in Ferguson, MO, much of the online discussion focuses on the excessive firepower of police departments, no only there but around the country. This is a good discussion, and needs to take place in precisely the way it is unfolding: focusing on the extreme imbalance in firepower, with local police departments purchasing surplus military equipment, including planes, helicopters, drones, recoiless rifles, and automatic weapons. More and more police departments have trained SWAT personnel being used for routine actions such as serving warrants. Even as the crime rate has fallen precipitously, police continue to arm ever more heavily, now dressing in full combat gear to deal with peaceful protesters. How anyone in a position of authority thinks this is either a good idea or is going to end well for anyone involved is beyond my comprehension.
The real story, however, is the freedom, even impunity, with which police seem to operate in African-American communities and neighborhoods. If the death of Michael Brown were a single instance of a police officer reacting out of fear or anger, it might well be that there would be no need for all the talk about peripheral issues such as the hyper-militarization of our municipal police forces. The fact is, however, that Michael Brown is both a tragedy and a statistic. He is a single victim of excess police violence; whatever happened that day, both the police report and witnesses agree Brown was shot in the back while fleeing the scene. At the same time, his death is yet another depressing statistic in our long national narrative of state-sanctioned violence against African-Americans, particularly young African-American men who have always been viewed as posing the threat of violence against whites.
At some point, the discussion needs to return to the reality that we as a society tolerate far too much official violence aimed at minority communities. When people talk about “racism”, this is precisely what is at issue. The term has been overused to the point where its real meaning has become shrouded in images of the Klan burning crosses on lawns, or historic photographs of lynchings turned into community events. That such is no longer part of our life, at least on a daily basis, we console ourselves that ours is no longer a racist society. That, however is not what I, for one, mean when I say ours is a racist society. Nor am I that concerned with whether or not this or that white person harbors fear or hatred of minorities in his or her heart. That is the question of bigotry, and for now is a separate issue.
American history, viewed from the perspective of African-Americans, is two centuries of keeping 13% of the population under control by any means necessary. From slavery to Jim Crow to mob violence to official violence to the War On Crime, the War on Drugs, the rise of the prison-industrial complex, white flight and the abandonment of our urban centers, we continue to construct policies and practices that limit the freedom of African-Americans. This creates situations in which police and courts feel free to act both arbitrarily and with impunity when the subject is black. Whether or not any particular police officer, or police force, has or doesn’t have a history of racial animus, the reality is that ours is a society in which official violence against minorities, particularly minority youth, is not only tolerated but encouraged. The result is not only the death toll of African-Americans at the hands of police; it is also the disproportionate response when African-American communities rise up and demand accountability for those who terrorize their homes and neighborhoods. No amount of explanation and context-setting makes the photographs coming from Ferguson make any more sense. On the one hand there are men and women marching in the street, insisting the police be held to account for Michael Brown’s death. On the other are the police with dogs, automatic weapons, sniper rifles, mine resistant vehicles, and full body camouflage body armor. At what point does it not become obvious this is not only morally wrong, but can only result in more violence and possibly more death?
For people of faith, following these events should be painful. We should recognize our complicity, as fellow Americans who support local police forces, including providing the money for purchasing the weapons on display not only in Ferguson, MO but around the country, through our taxes. We should repent of our silence in the face of the daily reality of official oppression that all too often erupts in the violent death of African-American, Latino, and other minorities, particularly youth. We should be a voice not only for peace, but for justice. Part of acting out our faith must be the demand that our police forces return to their essential function: helping neighborhoods and people, rather than arming themselves against the people they are supposed to protect. We should demand legal accountability for any act of violence against any civilian, including civilian oversight boards for each and every case where a defendant is injured or killed. The police need to be accountable, not to themselves, but to the law through people who are charged with holding them accountable. It is long past time to rein in the threat of violence too many people face from cops. Our churches should be the loudest voices calling for justice, peace, accountability, and the imposition of the rule of law over police forces around the country.
We need to make sure Michael Brown’s death means something, instead of becoming yet another check mark in our too-long history of a racist power structure murdering a young person of color. We can do that if we live out our call to be people of peace who serve a God of justice. My prayer is we might begin to travel this road, and soon. The cost in lives keeps rising.
A clergyman who goes to the south, for the first time, has usually some feeling, however vague, that slavery is wrong. The slaveholder suspects this, and plays his game accordingly. He makes himself as agreeable as possible; talks on theology, and other kindred topics. The southerner invites him to talk with these slaves. He asks them if they want to be free, and they say, “O, no, massa.” This is sufficient to satisfy him. He comes home to publish a “South-Side View of Slavery,” and to complain of the exaggerations of abolitionists. He assures people that he has been to the south, and seen slavery for himself; that it is a beautiful “patriarchal institution;” that the slaves don’t want their freedom; that they have hallelujah meetings, and other religious privileges.
What does he know of the half-starved wretches toiling from dawn till dark on the plantations? of mothers shrieking for their children, torn from their arms by slave traders? of young girls dragged down into moral filth? of pools of blood around the whipping post? of hounds trained to tear human flesh? of men screwed into cotton gins to die? The slaveholder showed him none of these things, and the slaves dared not tell of them if he had asked them. – Harriet Jacobs, Incidents In The Life Of A Slave Girl
For nothing better can I consider the present abolition rage. Not that I would consider the simple idea of extending liberty to the slaves, fanaticism, when and where it can be done consistently with the general good – But what are the prominent features of abolitionism? They are no other than the avowed determination to force the freedom of the slaves, regardless of the injury herby inflicted on them, in opposition to the providence of God, to the constitutional compact by which the states have been confederated, and to the good of society….
But let us briefly review some of these positions. –
1st. Abolitionist, whether successful or not, is injurious to the slaves. It scatters discontent, and therefore unhappiness among them in their present state; it increases their insubordination, and thus subjects them to severer usage: should it free them from bondage, it would at the same time free their masters from the care of providing for them, and leave them an improvident class unprovided for, to suffer in rags and starvation, or under crime and its effects.
2nd. The scheme is in opposition to the providence of God. It requires but little acquaintance with the blacks as a people, to be convinced that by nature, they are fitted for greater usefulness, and the enjoyment of more comfort, in a state of bondage than in a state of freedom. In this state the providence of God had placed them among us, before we became a nation, and the same providence which brought us into existence as a nation, and gave us the most perfect and favorable form of government on earth, left them in their bondage, with the masters control over them guaranteed by the Constitution. Until, therefore, God by his providence deprives us of our happy form of government, or disposes the slave States to engage in the work of emancipation, these abolitionists are fighting against the indications of providence.
3rd. Abolitionist is injurious to society at large, because it seeks to remove the slaves, without benefiting them, from a state of subjection in which they are useful producers, and to throw them loose, to squander their time in idleness, and to live by stealth upon the labors of others. – Letter to Cincinnati Post and Anti-Abolitionist, published April 16, 1842
Rev. Dr. Fullcreed. Why, as to keeping slavery out of the church, out of the pulpit and our prayers, Mr. Freeman, I know you abolitionists have been in the habit of making objections, but here are difficulties attending the introduction of slavery. Some of our church members think it improper, and we dread getting the church divided by introducing exciting topics. For the same reason we omit the notices and prayers. But for the poor heathen there is no objection against praying or paying. – Excerpt from Dialogue on Slavery, A Play, 1843
When a man sells his daughter as a slave, she will not be freed at the end of six years as the men are. If she does not please the man who bought her, he may allow her to be bought back again. But he is not allowed to sell her to foreigners, since he is the one who broke the contract with her. And if the slave girl’s owner arranges for her to marry his son, he may no longer treat her as a slave girl, but he must treat her as his daughter. If he himself marries her and then takes another wife, he may not reduce her food or clothing or fail to sleep with her as his wife. If he fails in any of these three ways, she may leave as a free woman without making any payment. (Exodus 21:7-11 NLT)
Is marriage a Divinely instituted institution, as we claim in our ceremonies? I personally do not believe so. It is, rather, an institution of the legal community in which it exists, subject to changes as law, custom, and time dictate. In the Bible, polygamy was assumed. Even after the establishment of the monarchy and David’s successful revolt against Saul, not only was polygamy still a state institution, but for the king concubinage was also permitted by law. To claim, somehow, that our current heteronormative, singular marriage for life, a relationship and institution rooted in love and ordained for all time by God has anything to do with the Bible is an example of Biblical illiteracy promoted by those who would control an institution whose right to control properly rests with the legislatures that create and regulate it.
There is far more clarity on another social institution than marriage in the Bible: slavery. When the United States was struggling with abolition prior to the Civil War, while both sides appealed to religious texts to support their views, the pro-slavery side certainly had the advantage that nowhere in Scripture is there an injunction to free slaves, unless certain conditions are met, particularly if the slave in question is a fellow Hebrew. The chattel slavery enforced on Africans need not follow the seven-year rule precisely because the differences between the persons involved were superficially profound. Slaves of African descent looked so different from the Scots-Irish and English landholders of the south; the differences in physiognomy must be the basis for even more profound differences in everything from personality to intelligence. With the testimony from slaves to curious northerners that the slaves were happy in their estate firmly established; with the discrediting of stories of cruelty because everyone knew the African-American freed slaves were liars and trouble-makers; with the backing of Scripture to support the on-going enslavement of millions of human beings – abolitionism was not only detrimental to the health of the nation. It would do a disservice to those who needed slavery to civilize and even (partially) humanize them. It also violated clear Scriptural mandates supporting the institution of human bondage.
Yet, slavery passed away, after five years of bloody war and the passage of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution. Rather than enforce the legal equality of the freed slaves, the United States succumbed to white supremacy – already firmly entrenched since colonial days in our relations with both the native populations and the African slaves – and limited the social and political rights of the newly freed slaves. Sixty years ago, with the Second World War showing the logical conclusion of racist policies (as if the on-going lynching of African-Americans in the south weren’t evidence enough that Americans were willing to kill those they thought “inferior”), African-Americans began to work, through the courts and in acts of local agitation, to overturn the legacy of legal discrimination.
The churches were as divided as the nation on the whole matter of racial justice. Martin King’s Letter From Birmingham Jail was a response to “sympathetic” white clergy in the south who nevertheless urged King to work gradually for change. Like “Rev. Dr. Fullcreed” in the play excerpt above, people get upset when controversial issues are pushed too hard in church. King’s response, of course, was that the demands of justice, rooted in the revelation of God, demand action now. Combined with a faith in the basic tenets of the American Constitution, King’s belief was a powerful force.
Yet, there is little doubt that King and other clergy working to overturn racial discrimination were pushing against not only three hundred-plus years of entrenched white supremacy; they were not only struggling against established law at both the national and state level; they were not only insisting that the customs of the American people were, in fact, anti-American. They were also reinterpreting the Scriptures, ignoring many passages of Scripture that took slavery for granted as a legal, social institution. Looking at the place of African-Americans in our national life not through a lens of pseudo-scientific racism; of a history that encouraged the bondage of millions of human beings; demanding that the wages families and even corporations earned as a result of slavery be transferred, at least in part, to those who had actually created those earnings pushed back against a simplistic view of capitalism; reinterpreting the Declaration of Independence and the US Constitution as part of the Providential plan not to keep people of Africa and African descent in perpetual bondage, but guaranteeing their full legal humanity, as understood through the lens of the Gospel – these folks were heterodox, standing against Scripture and history, unlike the orthodox who always seem to insist they have those things on their side.
So, despite thousands of years of the general practice of slavery, over three centuries of chattel slavery in the United States, the combined claimed wisdom of observers, pseudo-scientists, and religious divines to the contrary, we have made great strides in understanding our African-American brothers and sisters as fully human co-creators of the American project. While supported by Scripture and tradition, slavery in the United States came to an end, and we are a better people for it.
Marriage is no less a social institution with a long and varied history, not just here in the United States but around the world. To insist there is some “thing” we call “marriage” that rooted in Scripture, well, folks can go find Scriptures to support pretty much anything they want. We United Methodists are struggling to come to terms with the social and legal changes in the United States. I think it best we take a lesson from our own nation’s history with chattel slavery, repent of the many ways we have supported the dehumanization of sexual minorities, and open ourselves to these social changes that are already taking place, viewing them not as some moral degeneration but the movement of the Spirit in American life, a movement to which we should hold firmly and faithfully. Marriage isn’t a sacrament; it isn’t even a Divine institution. It’s just a legal ceremony. We in the churches get to bless these folks who pledge to spend their lives together, to help make one another, and our world, better because of it. It’s time to separate out social institutions that are mentioned in the Bible and “doctrine” and the practice of ministry. A living church is a church that feels the Spirit moving, even -perhaps especially – in ways that make us uncomfortable. Let us embrace this Divine Discomfort together.
UPDATE: With a hat-tip to my friend Charles Horton, I came first came across this book review of the racist history of the Alabama-West Florida Conference during the Civil Rights era. In reading, I discovered something called “The Methodist’s Layman’s Union”, an unofficial group much like both Good News and the Methodist Federation for Social Action, an organization across the south during the 1950’s and 1960’s that actively opposed desegregation. From a brief discussion of the group on the web page of the North Alabama Conference, comes the following:
Interestingly, these same “Christian” segregationists whose organizations were formed to resist the Supreme Court decision, later maintained that the Civil Rights Movement was against the work of God since it disrupted law and order. An anonymous segregationist, states,
Do they ask that we obey man rather than God? Do they think there is law and order in the most integrated city in the United States? To accept integration is no guarantee of law and order. Quite the contrary is true. From the considered instructions laid down by God, it would seem some violence to prevent integration is better for a country than integration, with its widespread lawlessness (Bass 21).
The author of the piece on the Layman’s Union, R. G. Lyons, notes that there was actually a wide array of preferences across the Conference, from outright resistance to desegregation to embrace of desegregation immediately as a moral act in keeping with the Gospel. I highlight this, however, to note that even racism was thought to be orthodox and work at integration heterodox, at least by some. So, pardon me for not buying the whole “orthodox/heterodox” nonsense.