Christians – especially those of you who are white, asian-american, in my particular church family, my wider church family, or all those who are often in a position of protection and relative privilege when it comes to law enforcement in our country – I am writing this to you. I believe most of us are trying to sort through what is happening in MO and our nation with the best of intentions, hoping to clearly see the facts and get down to what is fair and right and true. And I get this work, and at some level acknowledge sifting through the details may be helpful. But because so much more is going on right now, and I believe that we need to be in this together at a deeper level as the church, and because I’ve been asked why this is such a big deal – I want to point us in another place.
As a pastor, mother, human being – I am sickened by what our country is now experiencing in the wake of the #FergusonDecision to not indict Officer Darren Wilson. And I am not right now interested in going through the ME reports, the angle of bullets, or the witness reports – I am not even interested in parsing out how it happens that an extraordinary pre-trial through the grand jury went down that resulted in not even indicting an officer that killed an unarmed teenager in the street.
I want to jump right to the main point.
Our country’s systems are broken. Our law enforcement and legal system have an accepted, if not intentional, level of life-robbing violence against the African-American community that is abhorrent, biblically offensive, and should be illegal. The fact that we have to even keep reminding people that #BlackLivesMatter is proof enough; we have to name that a particular part of our population are indeed human, that their pain and suffering and very lives have worth. There is sadly a long list of names, examples, cases, and facts – lives taken – that we could go through to underscore this point.
Think of what happens when we have a friend or family member close to us experience a tragedy. We pray when we hear that a friend is diagnosed with a terminal disease. We mobilize, and rightly so, when someone close to us suffers, or when someone in our local church body dies. We jump up, we make meals, we send cards, we visit, we sometimes even yell at the doctor or help manage crazy family members who are bothering the grieving friend – whatever it takes, right? When we love someone, when we feel their pain, then we engage; when we are close enough to hear and understand their loss – we step up.
As a prophetic leader and pastor I serve with, Rev.Dr. Brenda Salter McNeil, preached this summer, the tragedy of Ferguson is a family matter for the Christian Church. Ferguson is a close-to-our-proximity-so-sit-up-and-pay-attention reality for anyone in the body of Christ. Oftentimes we who are not being directly pressed and grieving can forget, or turn away, or choose to not do the work to understand – but let’s be very clear about this truth. Many in the black church tradition see the narrative playing out between Michael Brown and all the other systems (Officer Wilson, the police handling Ferguson protestors afterwards, the grand jury, the lawyers, the press, the national guard, the online media, etc.), representing their own stories and the ongoing history of blackness in the US writ painfully large. It is about this one unarmed teenager and his family’s pain, and it is also about so much more. It is about the deadly responses of law enforcement in this particular case and it is about all the other times black lives have been lost, from Selma to Montgomery to Cicero to LA. It is about the language chosen and power doled out and the protection granted and withheld to Officer Wilson, protestors, kids, and the community – and it is about every other time, for literally hundreds of years, that black life does not seem to be as worthy of protection and is instead a threat, a problem, the other, the outsider – or even, much too often, expendable.
It is not uncommon, as I hope we all already recognize and lament, to have African-American men in particular seen as threats in the US – whether in the eyes of individual citizens, movie scripts, housing authorities, job interviewers, mall security guards, and yes – to the police. Understanding the long, grotesque history of taking black lives in the US and somehow not caring, not grieving, not being held accountable – and then having the systems that claim law and order and power and decency not be outraged – is far too palatable, far too explainable and debatable with reasonable facts and figures. While every particular case has complex and often debatable realities to it, like militarized police forces and heat of the moment decisions and eye witness accounts, which of course all do matter – that is no longer what is really at stake right now in Ferguson. It is this long history, this very real, painful, deplorable truth of our country that we still today have to remind each other – black lives matter. How we see facts, how we hear witnesses, how we protect or rush to understand or cover or reveal, it is all woven around our racial biases and fears and senses of what is normal, understandable, defensible, fearful. There is no way to extract the reality of how black life is seen, and not seen, as valuable from the Michael Brown case. And yes, of course, all lives matter – but the truth is historically, all lives, and all deaths, have not mattered equally, which is why we have to name the truth still today. This has been clearly shown throughout our nation’s foundations and layered history that stole land and killed indigenous people, imported slave labor, sent prostitutes to the mines, invaded and subjugated, blocked immigration, and then made even black Americans who had served with their lives in the arms forces use separate but equal drinking fountains, mortgage applications, and schools up until just a generation ago. . . .
It is too much. And every time it happens, every time a black life is taken that could have been prevented – a mother shrieks from deep within her womb. Do not let the heartbreaking reality that we hear about black lives being taken so often let us ever forget, that everyone has a mother or father, sister or brother, who would do anything for them, and for whom that life ending almost takes their own in the process. Every time a long-winded, obfuscated, non-responsible explanation is given of why this or that life was ok to end, entire communities bend over in horror and nausea. Children are crushed and expectations buried. Siblings attend funerals and lose their sense of family, forever. Schools have a missing seat and the future has a missing leader, teacher, parent, or prophet. Grandmothers pray and weep and mourn. Churches wail and lament and march and stand alongside those in the dark grief and pain. And we – if we are in the Body of Christ – we should too.
Friends in the church – our arms are being ripped off. Our very limbs and body parts are being dis-membered in front of us and we’re being told it is ok, someone else is taking care of things, trust the doctors, trust the systems as they are to control the bleeding. How would you respond to a family member being told that, for 400 years? Someone you loved being killed, again and again and again, struggling to make it through the anger, grief, pain, confusion, trying to claw ahead and make it better for their kids, for those who come after. If we felt all that, truly felt it, what would we do? When I see that kind of pain, the routinized death, the loss of blood – and when I hear the shrieks, the horror, the grieving, the angry action to make sure not one more life is taken – I want to jump in and do whatever I can, I want to step it up for someone I love. Of course I am not talking about turning to violence, not heaping problems and pain onto a traumatic situation; but I am talking about how we in the church respond to the loss of life, to the deadening of our own body, to the suffering as Christ told us to and as we in the church family should already feel.
Church – we’re being called to arms – not to violence, but to presence, standing arm in arm with the black community and with the church that is speaking up and standing up to our nation – shouting to us all, that BLACK. LIVES. MATTER. Their sons, their brothers, husbands, and fathers – their mothers, sisters, aunties and teenagers – each one, their lives, and their deaths, and do we really hear them – they matter. They are calling, asking, can the rest of us get to the hospital to help, or at least get out of the way with our unhelpful, ignorant, selfish questions. They are telling us, their lives are not safe, not represented, not being seen or heard or held. How will we respond?
We need to respond as the family of God. Practically, I know that it will take many days, weeks, months, and years to do this response. That to stop the bleeding requires multiple levels of awareness, engagement, discipleship, advocacy, lament, relationship, leadership, restoration, prayer, community, strategic action, and even reconciliation and justice and peace. But we start with seeing, hearing, noticing the cries of family, of friends, of a community who is telling us through the pain, anger, and sometimes cross-cultural lenses we might need to learn about – that they are bleeding.
It’s our family. It’s our own body. If I want to work toward hope, toward change, toward justice, toward what God is doing – if I want to be faithful as a disciple, I need my family in Christ alongside and with me. I gotta be there for them, listening, learning, lamenting, yelling, stepping it up – willing to do whatever it takes to be arm and arm with my own people. I won’t always know what helps or how to talk to someone grieving. I won’t always be needed or know just the right way to engage. But just like a friend who has had a death in the family, I gotta be there. Because it’s my people that are bleeding. It’s our people – our body.
Church – if you’re wondering what this looks like or where to begin, I am sharing a list of ideas for action that is by no means exhaustive, but meant to help. Some ideas here have been graciously shared by others. This is how to put some legs on this call to arms, if you will – we all gotta start somewhere. Here are a few basic things I’ve found helpful:
1) Listen and learn with others – read news and reports and tweets and blogs from people within the black church tradition while trying to hear their cries – in particular those given to the family of God.
2) Be bothered – let the tragedy of black life being taken, again, interrupt schedules and emotions and what for most of us are full lives. This is not a call to be weighed down or stuck in guilt, but to be aware, awake, present to the gravity of what is going on. None of us has to do everything, but we all can do something.
3) Pray, grieve, confess, feel what you’re feeling – share with safe people, process, lament, get upset … then rinse and repeat. You may need to take a break from media, from certain relationships, from facebook – but stay in it where its most important for you, with those you love and can impact. Goal is sustaining and deepening engagement, not a flurry of activity or shock value that fades.
4) Read Isaiah, Lamentations, the Psalms, Micah, Luke – pretty much throughout the Bible, read and pay attention to where God calls the people of God and the church to stand up for those being oppressed, mistreated in the courts, those grieving… Yep, it’s everywhere.
5) Don’t forget the hope – the promise of restoration, the power of healing and the Spirit moving and reworking an entire people. As disappointing as the church can be, as flawed and short of our call in so many ways, never forget that there is power in the name of Jesus, and in those who have been called together into a new people, knit together into a Body. We know the Good News, we have been entrusted with it – let’s keep helping each other live it and fighting for life, encouraging each other to stay in the struggle.
More ideas to keep moving forward:
– Leaders, name and address this issue wherever you can, from the pulpit, with your families, with others. Pray about this, name it Sunday morning, talk about it at work, with board members, influencers, etc.
– Read and understand our nation’s history and the racial realities that color both our nation’s and our church’s past.
– Think about how to process this tragedy and how to move forward into action with others. Join online groups, bring this up at your church, read a new blog, talk to your friends and be the one to ask the hard question. Watch and pray and be ready – this will not be a conversation or reality that goes away, we will need to be engaged for the long haul, caring and learning for the long haul.
– Read more from these people listed below – google their work, read their online posts, share their info, check out a book or article. These are all brothers and sisters in the family of God, helping equip and shape the Body of Christ to better understand the entire family of God:
– Brenda Salter McNeil
– Soong-Chan Rah
– Daniel White-Hodge
– Felicia Howell-LaBoy
– Efrem Smith
– Brian Bantum
– Leroy Barber
– Sandra Van Opstal
– Lisa Sharon Harper
– Ed Gilbreath
– Jelani Greenidge
– Tali Hariston
– Caenisha Warren
– Jim Sequira
– Vince Bantu
– Al Tizon
– Eugene Cho
– Alexia Salvatierra
– Rasheeda Graham-Washington
– Cote Soerens
– Jose and Maria Humphreys
– Harvey Drake
– Gail Song Bantum
– Michael Thomas
– Cecilia Williams
– Kathy Khang
– Noel Castellanos
– Dominique Gilliard
– Joel Perez
– Cristina Cleveland