Delivered at the College of William and Mary , April 12, 2015
When I was invited to William and Mary, Walter Scott had not yet been lynched by a police officer in North Charleston, SC. When I was invited to William and Mary, four children hadn’t lost their 50 year old father. When I was invited to William and Mary, Judy Scott had not lost her 50 year old son. When I was invited to William and Mary on March 30, Walter Scott was still alive, engaging in the workaday life of a million other black people, fretting over bills, planning a wedding, delighting in the unpredictable dynamics of domestic life. When I was invited to William and Mary, Walter Scott was not yet a hashtag. And yet today, April 12, 2015, he is. Like Renisha McBride, John Crawford, Emmitt Till, Michael Brown, Tanisha Anderson, Trayvon Martin, Jordan Davis, Oscar Grant, Yvette Smith, Eric Garner, Miriam Carey, Tamir Rice, and so many before him, Walter Scott has been thrust to the forefront of white American supremacy’s narrative domination, degradation, dehumanization, and — dare I say — genocide.
According to the people at Mapping Police Violence, thirty-six black people were lynched by law enforcement in the United States last month, meaning that every twenty-one hours in March 2015, another black family and community lost a beloved friend, relative, and confidante and white supremacy in the United States of America expanded its reign of terror. Yes, terror — police terror- ism, state-sanctioned terrorism of black lives that didn’t began when, in 1619, between twenty and thirty Africans were brought to Jamestown, a British settlement just six and a half miles away from where we stand on this very day. This terrorism is nothing new. It stems from slave patrols established in the early 18th century, mobs of white men who tasked themselves with perpetuating the enslavement and oppression of black people. It stems from the posture of a white supremacist society that thrives off of, in the words of scholar Michelle Alexander, a “permanent undercaste”. Yes, undercaste, not underclass, since class assumes that social mobility is within the realm of possibility.
This terrorism is nothing new.
Since Walter Scott’s lynching last Saturday — if last month’s rates of law enforcement-initiated lynchings are consistent — nine black people have been murdered by police, the contemporary heirs of those colonial slave patrols. Nine black people who have become another social media hashtag, another theme of a candlelit vigil, another black parent’s nightmare.
A nightmare that 47 year old Eric Harris’ family is well-acquainted with. Just days before Walter Scott’s murder, Harris was killed by a “special deputy” in the Tulsa, Oklahoma police department. The deputy claims that he meant to retrieve his taser, but “accidentally” retrieved his gun, “accidentally” pulling the trigger and lynching Eric Harris.
One of the unfortunate pieces of this nightmare is white American Christianity’s complicity in this complex of web of white supremacy. For decades, white churches relegated black Christians to balconies, using the religion bearing the name of Christ as a tool of social, economic, and emotional violence. And while many white Christians were using Christianity to exclude or demoralize black people, black Christians were creating — in ingenious ways — communities of belonging and songs of resistance. “We’ve met jail and violence too, but God’s love will see us through, keep your eyes on the prize hold on, hold on.” Jail, violence, enslavement, and white supremacist interpretations of Christianity could not — cannot — quell the spontaneous shouting and singing of black churches.
One of the unfortunate pieces of this nightmare is white American Christianity’s complicity in this complex of web of white supremacy.
There is a spirit — some might even call it the Holy Spirit — that inhabits black Christian prayer and worship. You know that spirit: the foot tapping, body-swaying, hand-clapping, head-bobbing Spirit of the living God that emerges not from white imperialism but from black suffering and struggle. It is the resilience that comes from surviving the brutality of enslavement, segregation, Jim Crow, grotesque rates of unjust incarceration, sub-par schools, and the constant surveillance, brutality, and harassment of law enforcement. It is the quickening, enlivening realization that at the center of the cosmos — of life itself — is love, our own beloved-ness.
The Holy Spirit is — in the words of theologian Dr. James Cone — the Spirit of Liberation. This Spirit doesn’t need bombs and guns and militias and warships. All it requires is the human body, the blank canvas on which God seeks to create the masterpiece of the Beloved Community.
This captive-liberating, slave-empowering, chain-loosing Christianity did not find its genesis in a vacuum.
This captive-liberating, slave-empowering, chain-loosing Christianity did not find its genesis in a vacuum. It formed as black people were, for centuries, turned away from white houses of prayer. Just this morning, I prayed at Bruton Parish Episcopal Church, a church that did not admit its first black members, the Blayton family, until 1954, the year Brown vs. Board was heard and decided at the Supreme Court. So again, you have a white church using religion to bar black people from its pews. This is, for all intents and purposes, a white church practicing the white theology passed on to them by a white Jesus.
In my childhood and adolescence, my mother — ever the theologian — would always ask how white Christians could be racist while claiming to love and follow Jesus Christ. “How can you pray in church on Sunday and kill, without remorse, a black person on Monday? How?” In the words of Daniel Ismael Aguilar, many white Christians have inherited a form of Christianity in which the “‘White’ Jesus of the slave master [is] completely divorced from any implications of freedom or justice related to civic matters.”
“It is very important how time is seen. The Pueblo people and the indigenous people of the Americas see time as round, not as a long linear string. If time is round, if time is an ocean, then something that happened 500 years ago may be quite immediate and real, whereas something inconsequential that happened an hour ago could be far away…The curvature of time in space. So I grew up among people whose experience of time is a bit different. In their sense of time 500 years is not a far distance and that’s why there is no need for the reinterpretation. That passage of time doesn’t mean the same thing to us as it might mean in a culture where the people stretch the string out and say ‘Oh, this was a long time ago’. That is not the way my people experience time.”
This quote from an interview with Native American poet and writer Leslie Marmon Silko has helped me wrestle with the social, theological, and spiritual dimensions of the drama unfold-ing in Ferguson and Staten Island and dozens of cities across this country. Playing out on a million television, computer, and phone screens, the nation has become captivated — if only for a moment — with the perpetual plight of black people. When a Michael Brown or a Rekia Boyd is killed and their stories get a bit of air time, the first thing that comes to the mind of many people is that these are isolated events, that this a new phenomenon, that police terrorizing black bodies is a “new” thing, thus linearizing time, stripping history of its rich dynamism.
In those moments, I am confronted with the ways in which dominant white cultures use time in violent, linear ways. Because if you’re the dominant culture, you have to do that. You have to frame history as a series of unrelated events. You have to convince the oppressed of to- day that their oppression is not tied to the oppressed of the past. You have to convince the public that mass incarceration and the so-called “War on Drugs” is not in continuity with the enslavement of black bodies from 1619 to 1865. You have to convince yourself that economic reparations for black enslavement are not due to living African-Americans.
You have to convince yourself that time has no curvature, that time is indeed linear. And yet, the blood of Emmitt Till, Nat Turner, and thousands of black Americans cry to us from the ground, pleading with us to remember that their deaths are round and are part of the vast ocean of American history; that their deaths occurred in the ongoing dialogue between violent, unchecked white supremacy and the value of black life in America.
The blood of Emmitt Till, Nat Turner, and thousands of black Americans cry to us from the ground.
In August, I joined forty-five activists from the DC area for a twitter-initiated trek to Ferguson, Missouri. We registered people to vote, listened to the stories of residents who assured us that local law enforcement had a reputation for abusing power, and visited the place where Michael Brown was mercilessly gunned down by Darren Wilson. On that day, I bore witness to cement that had become another altar of white supremacy, another site of the black body serving as appeasement for the gods of white supremacy. On that day, I was awakened to the import of Michael’s death, his connection to other crucified black bodies, and our government’s refusal to consider black people full citizens of the American democratic project. Then and there, time collapsed. It lost its linearity. It became round. It became an ocean. The waves of Bloody Sunday, the Nat Turner Rebellion, the 1811 Enslaved Peoples’ Rebellion on the German Coast of the Louisiana Territory, and the death of Trayvon Martin came crashing down on Ferguson’s Canfield Drive. “500 years is not a far distance” and that is how my people experience time.
When my mother was pulled over for being black a couple of years ago or was called a nigger on her mail route or my father was called a monkey multiple times on his job, they were experiencing the gravitational pull of white supremacy.
The same gravitational pull that forces people to claim “I am Darren Wilson” or “I can breathe” or that “all lives matter” or that the United States is “post-racial” because we have a black president.
If my parents can experience these kinds of attitudes and remarks in my lifetime, in a “post-racial” America, then time really is an ocean, time really is round. Which means that time is also round enough, fluid enough, to bring the crucifixion of Jesus Christ to our very moment. Just last week, western Christians — meaning Christians west of Rome — observed Holy Week: the events surrounding the Jesus’ momentous entry into Jerusalem, his arrest, trial, death, burial, and resurrection. Through long, dramatic readings, liturgical processions, and ancient rituals, the Church brought to life what we consider to be the most important week in human history.
In that week, Jesus embodied God’s vulnerability, God’s proximity to the suffering peoples of the world. In Jesus’ death on a Roman cross, God dignifies the deaths of political prisoners and prisoners for the sake of con- science, members of death row, and other people who die outside the centers of power and privilege. In the death of Jesus, the last become first and first become last. In the death of Jesus, God subverts the present social order, offering preference and platform not to the wealthy and well- connected, but to the impoverished and hidden. In the death of Jesus, God decries the beheading of enslaved rebels by angry white slave patrols on the German Coast in 1811.
If time is an ocean — and it is indeed — then Michael Brown was not alone when his limp, lifeless body lay on the scorching cement of the Missouri summer sun. As Michael Brown lay there, so did Jesus. And so did Rekia Boyd. And so did Renisha McBride. And so did Tanisha Anderson. Because in God’s economy, every person has dignity, every death is significant, and every ounce of suffering is remembered.
As Michael Brown lay there, so did Jesus.
Today in church, we heard the story of St. Thomas, the apostle who is often remembered as “Doubting Thomas”. After his resurrection at Easter, Jesus appeared to the apostles, showing the marks of the nails in his hands and side, but St. Thomas wasn’t present. After the appearance, the other apostles tracked Thomas down and said, “We have seen the Lord.” And Thomas, ever the sensible person replied, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.” Unless I see the Jesus who suffered, the Jesus who is wounded, the Jesus who is scarred, I will not believe.
A week later, Jesus appeared to the apostles again, this time with St. Thomas present. And Jesus shows his scars to them. And Thomas ends up exclaiming, “My Lord and my God!” This evening, I commend Thomas and his courage to demand that Jesus show him that he is the Jesus he remembers: the Jesus who hangs on the cross, the Jesus who endures the brutality of Roman law enforcement, the Jesus who dies on the margins of imperial society.
Which brings us back to our earlier discussion of white theology’s inherent linearity, sense of supremacy, and erasure of Jesus’ cruciform vulnerability. It is difficult to admit that Jesus died at the hands of empire when you yourself are empire. It is difficult to emphasize the nonviolent nature of Jesus’ journey to the cross when people like George Zimmerman claim that his killing Trayvon Martin was part of “God’s plan”. Zimmerman’s claim may seem far-fetched on the surface, but it is the logical outcome of this white theological complex: the assumption that the subjugation, degradation, and dehumanization of black people is natural part of the cos- mic order, a God-ordained reality that needn’t be subject to change. The assumption that queer bodies and disabled bodies and female bodies and queer, disable, female bodies, and Latino bodies and Asian bodies and Indigenous bodies are just props on the stage of white supremacy.
To say, “Black lives matter”, then, is more than a rallying cry. It is a theological claim, a God claim, a deeply faithful claim. It is saying that Jesus is present in, with, and through the suffering bodies of our own day and that the wounds of crucifixion are the wounds of Walter Scott and Michael Brown. Therefore, to dismiss or ignore the people lynched by police terrorism and brutality is to ignore the broken and fragile body of Jesus Christ. To say “black lives matter” is to resist the insidious temptation of white supremacy, the temptation to minimize and trivialize black suffering or any suffering not endured by white people. It is bringing into stark relief the difficult reality of terrorism inflicted on black bodies on this continent since 1619, six and a half miles from where we stand in this very moment.
To dismiss or ignore the people lynched by police terrorism and brutality is to ignore the broken and fragile body of Jesus Christ.
Now, a word about “racial reconciliation”. It has a nice rhetorical ring to it, doesn’t it? And my friends, I am happy to read and engage the buzz around this phrase. But first, we must be willing to do the hard work of defining reconciliation, dispel the myth that this work of reconciliation is a “two way street”, and remind people that reconciliation can’t take place when a part of the populace is being systematically erased by white supremacist law enforcement, modern day slave patrols.
Therefore, I would caution you, like I must caution myself, that reconciliation does not come without reparations. And, you can’t reconcile something that was never conciliatory. I repeat: Reconciliation does not come without reparations and you can’t reconcile something that was never conciliatory. Now, it would be nice to go on and on about the utopia we so desperately want, but you can leave that for the birds.
Reconciliation does not come without reparations.
At the center of the season of Easter — which is being celebrated for the next forty-three days in Episcopal, Lutheran, and Roman Catholic Churches — is the resurrected body of Jesus. It is God mending and healing the breeches of human history. It is God making possible what had before been impossible. It is black people, white people, Indigenous people, Latino/as, Asian people, and everybody else taking to the streets of our cities, towns, and villages to make the radical claim that black lives matter. And as we march on the streets, tweet on our phones, confront apathetic legislative bodies, awaken campus communities, and continue bringing the value of black life to the public square, we are practicing resurrection.
We are breathing life into dry bones. We are raising up what has been cast down and restoring that which has atrophied.
Before I take my seat, I want to draw your attention, again, to Jesus’ crucifixion scene. At this point in the narrative, all of his apostles, except John, have deserted him. And there are two women left: Mary Magdalene and Mary, the mother of Jesus. When Jesus was born and Mary and Joseph presented him at the Jerusalem Temple, a man named Simeon promised Mary that a sword would pierce her heart. And believe, with everything in me, that that sword was his crucifixion. And like black mothers and fathers over the years, Mary watched a ruthless empire take the life of her child. The child whom she loved. The child whom she raised. The child whom she carried in her womb for nine months. She watched him die. The same way Judy Scott witnessed Walter die and the same way Leslie McSpadden loved Michael Brown and the same way Mamie Till loved Emmitt. And there, Mary weeped, entering a tragedy far too brutal for words. And a piece of her died that day. Just as a pice of us dies every twenty-one hours. “And yet,” in the words of Dr. James Cone, “God took the evil of the cross and the lynching tree and transformed them both into the triumphant beauty of the divine. If America has the courage to confront the great sin and ongoing legacy of white supremacy with repentance and reparation there is hope beyond tragedy.”
This can happen. This must happen.
We are imperiled if we cannot recognize the cross of Jesus for what it is: an instrument of torture transformed into an instrument of love; a sword made into plowshares; a spear made a pruning hook. And as you know, this transformation does not occur overnight. It is the slow, vulnerable work of ordinary people, animated by the wild, dancing, contagious, spontaneous Spirit of Liberation. And the difficult, arduous task is ours — white, black, Latino, Indigenous, Asian — to muster the strength to realize we are already Dr. King’s Beloved Community. That law enforcement terrorism ends when we take guns out of the hands of xenophobic police. That another world — where love reigns — is possible.
Originally published at holabrody.tumblr.com, reposted with permission.