Well, whether some like it or not, we have been thrust into a national dialogue on race, violence, and the legal system. I can’t lie, I can often get very frustrated by the same old story being played out over and over again. How many more young black males have to die? Since slavery has ended thousands and thousands of black men have been killed, being seen as disposable, in contrast very few black killings happened during slavery because we were seen as valuable property. Ida B. Wells, a brave and courageous black woman, spoke up and brought national attention to the lynching crisis that exploded after slavery and went well into the 1900’s (Last recorded tree lynching took place in the 1980’s). In the 1950’s, Emmit Till’s murder became a national symbol after the country reacted to the images of Emmit Till’s 14 year old deformed dead body that was placed on the cover of black magazines. Originally from Chicago, Till was visiting family down south when he was dragged from his uncle’s home, beaten, and had an eye gouged out. He was eventually shot in the head, and had barbed wire and a heavy cotton gin tied around his neck as his body was disposed of in a river. His crime, supposedly whistling at a white woman.
There is a long legacy of black life being disposable and unvalued in American life. While there have been tons of senseless murders that have taken black life, some particular names have continued to shape Black American historical memory, probably because of the details surrounding each situation. Let’s remember some folks who have had their lives abruptly ended because of America’s pathological racism. Michael Donald, lynched in the 1981, James Byrd’s dragged to death behind a truck for 3 miles in 1998. Amadou Diallo shot at 41 times (hit 19 times) while unarmed and pulling out his wallet in 1999. Sean Bell was shot 50 times and killed the night before his wedding in the Bronx in 2006. Oscar Grant’s murder while handcuffed and on his stomach by a cop in Oakland was recorded by several camera phones and uploaded online in 2009. And more recently of course we have been mourning the death of Trayvon Martin while also dealing with the unarmed shooting of Ramarley Graham last month. There are so many other folks who have lost their lives similarly, but these names for most are familiar and recognizable names which remind us how vulnerable it is to be a black male in America, and also how the legal system often fails to uphold justice for ALL.
How should we (Black Christians) respond to such a legacy of racism or to the apathy towards black life? The New Black Panther Party supposedly has put out a $10,000 bounty for Zimmerman. While I can sympathize with their frustration with our legal system and the reality of how many black people never find justice in it, I continue to believe that we can not utilize the same violent tactics imposed on us if we desire to see a new humanity usher into our world. That said, I find the legacy of the Black Panther Party and the spirit of Nat Turner and his violent slave rebellion as very natural and normal responses to injustice and oppression. While I reject the use of violence, I do share that same spirit of frustration with racial injustice in America. In fact, sometimes, that same natural response emerges in me in greater amounts than other times. I hate the negative ways black people are treated and the apathetic and cold responses that come from some in the dominant culture. And it is hard not to project those feelings onto all people who participate in the dominant culture.
And then I am reminded of the Oppressed and Crucified One being made a public spectacle and shamed on the cross. Jesus, like many other vulnerable Jews at that time, experienced the weight of an unjust and violent system that didn’t value Jewish life. According to all the gospels, Jesus was a threat to the Jewish-Roman power system in Jerusalem. In response, they employed their technique of public torture and humiliation, which was always just as much about intimidating the masses as it was to punish the individual. James Cone in his most recent book, rightly compares Roman crucifixion to American lynchings of black men. This offers us a helpful glimpse culturally into the horrendous nature and role of crucifixion in 1st century Palestine. Yet it is there hanging on the Cross that Jesus cried out…
“Father, forgive them, for they don’t know what they are doing.” (Luke 23:34)
He didn’t demonize them, he didn’t call for a violent revolution like Peter or Barabbas. He graciously asked the Father to extend his forgiveness to them. The vision of Christ was a gracialized vision, in that those that his eyes laid on, burdened him, in that even those who were oppressors in the traditional sense, were ultimately enslaved and broken people needing to be shown the way back to the humanity originally intended by God. It’s as though his gaze continually made distinctions between the horrendous acts that he opposed, and the people who were enticed and enslaved by those systems which temporarily benefited them. His ability to see oppressive dominant peoples through gracialized gazes allowed him to make the root of the problem opaque and highly visible, that is he saw the evil systems and forces that enslave humanity rise to the surface, while graciously seeing the transparency of all humanity which desperately is in need of a Victor and Liberator. This doesn’t mean that Jesus responds the same way to all people, it is very evident in the Gospels that Jesus takes sides with and extends extra compassion towards the socially marginalized. However, folks like the young ruler and Zaccheus, who both hoard wealth, are both given the opportunity to accept the grace being extended towards them which would liberate them from the grips of this world. Just like then, some now will accept and some will not accept such grace, but that is not our issue to worry about, that is between them and God. Our responsibility is to hold firm to that same gracialized vision Jesus did, in that we see EVERYONE as needing liberation from invisible yet powerful forces.
I am not sure how much longer this national dialogue will go on. We continue to be the United States of Amnesia, quickly forgetting recent history, or as Dr. King called it, “a 10 day nation”, which moves on to the next big thing after 10 days. But for me, I am in it for the long haul. I will be like a persistent poor widow demanding justice from an unjust judge (Luke 18:1-8). And as I confront empires, systems, and forces that enslave people and oppose God’s Kingdom, my prayer is that God would help me have Christ’s gracialized vision towards others, especially for those in the dominant culture who participate in oppressive practices and who are blind in their ability to see Jesus in those they harm (Matthew 25:31-46).