When Darren Wilson shot Michael Brown and the Ferguson riots began, I was about two weeks into motherhood. As a white woman raised and homeschooled in the suburbs of North Jersey, I didn't know what to make of it all. I grew up with a very simplistic and skewed view of how our justice system works in North America. The police were the goodies who put away the baddies. If you weren't a baddie, there was nothing to fear. Race didn't even factor into the equation.
I knew racism existed. I knew that when my mother visited the deep south, she saw confederate flags still waving and houses with window signs that said: THE SOUTH WILL RISE AGAIN. But those were racist individuals, weird people stuck in the past.
Then Ferguson happened. And slowly (perhaps too slowly), cautiously, I began to read more, to listen to different voices than the ones I'd been hearing most of my life. I started to see that the shootings of unarmed black men like Michael Brown were not isolated one-off events, but part of a disturbing pattern of violence rooted in systemic racism. Men and boys--boys like 12-year-old Tamir Rice--the victims of police brutality and murder because of the belief (whether conscious or subconscious) that the lives of people of color are not only unequal to white lives, but insignificant. Because of the lie that black lives, black bodies, are an inherent threat to white lives and must therefore be contained, controlled, annihilated.
If you're not tracking with me (and even if you are), I invite you to read. Read Michelle Alexander's The New Jim Crow. Naomi Murakawa's The First Civil Right. Cornel West's Race Matters. James Cone's The Cross and the Lynching Tree. Drew G. I. Hart's Trouble I've Seen. Watch this talk by Soong-Chan Rah. That's just to get you started. And, hopefully, you'll begin to see that what happened to Michael Brown and now Alton Sterling (and hundreds before and between) are not isolated cases.
We cannot be silent. We cannot remain unaware.
The more I study the Bible, the more I see how the individualistic focus of Protestantism (particularly the North American evangelical variety) makes us easily blind to systemic problems in our justice system and communities. This is not a new critique of contemporary Protestantism, but I am seeing more and more how the focus on individual and inward purity has become a distraction from the very real and urgent need to look outside ourselves and love our neighbors as ourselves. Think about it: the idea "as long as I myself am not a racist, I'm okay" is insular and concerned only with inward purity alone, and has little to do with the embodied, outward act of loving your neighbor's black skin as much as you love your own white flesh.
This focus on individual sinlessness/purity is antithetical to the corporate understanding of ethics in the covenant community of God found both in the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament. This isn't to say that individuals weren't personally culpable for their own sin, but there was the understanding that their own sin affected the whole community. In turn, the community itself could be guilty of corporate sins and injustice.
In fact, when you step back and look at the sweep of the Mosaic Law, the gist of the entire law is: here's how you approach God (the just law-giver) through ritual performance and purification, and here's how you live in peace with your neighbor. Jesus said as much when asked asked what the greatest command in the law was: "'You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.' This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: 'You shall love your neighbor as yourself.' On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.”
Much of North American evangelicalism has lost that horizontal aspect, thinking that we can actually realize the vertical aspect of loving God without loving our neighbors. Thinking that if we abstain from certain things or keep our minds and hands pure, that we don't have to worry about problems of justice that are bigger than us as individuals. If I've learned anything over the past two years, it's that I am not just responsible for my own individual behavior, but those of my community past and present.
As a white American woman, I am culpable for the African slave trade in America and all the other atrocities committed by white people against people of color, even the slaughter of Native Americans that happened long before I was born. It doesn't matter if I wasn't there. I'm responsible for the havoc my ancestors have caused, along with the ways in which I perpetuate the cycles of injustice today.
If you are a Christian and believe the Bible has any kind of claim on your life and doings, I challenge you to delve deeper into it. Know that its stories are deeply rooted in this sense of communal responsibility from generation to generation. A simple, but poignant example is found in the beginning of Deuteronomy, where the prophet Moses begins a series of four speeches to the Israelites as they are about to enter the promised land.
Some years ago, the previous generation of Israelites had been enslaved in Egypt, but God rescued them from Egypt and brought them to Mt Sinai (also called Horeb). On the mountain, God spoke with them and revealed his presence through thunder, earthquake, and fire. At the mountain, God and Israel made a covenant, a particular relationship sworn with solemn oaths. God gave them the Law, and Israel swore to keep it, casting their lot with this God who had rescued them and promised to bring them safely to a land of their own. But many of the Israelites of that generation broke the covenant by committing idolatry and died in the wilderness before they entered the land.
As Moses speaks to this new generation about to enter the land, he starts with a history lesson. He reminds them of their history with God: how he brought them out of Egypt and revealed himself and his Law to them at Sinai/Horeb, and how they broke the covenant. The point here is that this history Moses remembers is their history despite the fact that technically it was their ancestors, the previous generation, who experienced all these things. Moses speaks with them directly in the second person about the revelation of God at Horeb and exhorts them, saying:
Watch yourselves, lest you forget the things your eyes saw, and lest they depart from our heart all the days of your life. Make them known to your children and your children's children—how on the day that you stood before the Lord your God at Horeb...And you came near and stood at the foot of the mountain, while the mountain burned with fire to the heart of heaven, wrapped in darkness, cloud, and gloom. Then the Lord spoke to you out of the midst of the fire. You heard the sound of words, but saw no form; there was only a voice. And he declared to you his covenant, which he commanded you to perform, that is, the Ten Words, and he wrote them on two tablets of stone. (Deut. 4:9-13)
Moses speaks to the people as if they were there, as if they themselves saw the presence of God atop the mountain. As if they themselves had sworn to uphold the covenant and keep the laws, even though it was their ancestors who had done so. And with this memory comes a warning: don't forget what your eyes saw. Your eyes. Don't forget how God revealed himself and his covenant. Don't forget that when he rescued your ancestors from Egypt, he rescued you, too. Just because you weren't there, doesn't mean this salvation and this covenant isn't yours. Don't forget the covenant like your ancestors did and commit idolatry. Don't forget.
If you're like I was two years ago, you may be white and bewildered (I'm still white, but only slightly less bewildered). Bewildered because we have grown up with a different memory, a different consciousness than people of color in America. While we have been permitted the unholy privilege of forgetting the atrocities of slavery committed by our ancestors, people of color don't have this luxury because the fallout from these initial injustices never went away. It still plagues their lives, rearing its ugly head in many different forms--macro- and microagressions--and most heinously in the continued slaughter of innocent men and women at the hands of those who have sworn to "protect and serve."
We are dealing with fundamentally different memories of how our common history has unfolded. In my white-washed memory, there's no way a cop would pull over or assault another human being because of their skin. In my white-washed consciousness, slavery is a thing of the past--done, dealt with and gone. I don't see what it's like to be abused for my skin because I've only ever lived as a white body. And so my white-washed reaction is that the discrimination doesn't exist. The brutality isn't there. I need more facts. But this is the sight of privilege, the toxic permission to forget.
We--white Americans--have forgotten what our eyes saw. Now, with the use of body cams and social media, our eyes see what they have forgotten. We are starting to wake from our amnesia. But the gut reaction to the horror of our own making is suppression of the memory. We don't want to believe that we are capable of such monstrosities. That we have done these things and continue to do them. We can't believe that the blood of Alton Sterling is on our hands. We can't believe what we've done. But we need to. If we do not face and lament our sins against our neighbors, there can be no healing for anyone. There can be no restoration. There can be no change.
We need to start listening to different stories. We need to tell different stories. Black lives depend on it. All lives depend on it. We are one body, and when one member is killing the others, it's only a matter of time before the whole blessed, beautiful body dies.