Many good people live and work at the intersections and I occasionally invite someone to tell a story from where they stand. Linnea Peterson is a first-year student at Luther College in Decorah, Iowa, where she is majoring in Economics and English. She wrote for this blog last summer about the film The Fault in Our Stars, and reflects today, on what would have been Michael Brown’s 19th birthday, about her experience at the intersection of the #BlackLivesMatter movement, campus vigils, and familiar religious tunes.
Here is her reflection:
Note: The #BlackLivesMatter movement is, and should be, led by people of color. As a white person, I know that I cannot fully understand the grief and rage that people of color experience when they see their brothers and sisters killed by those who should be protecting them, and then see those same killers walking free. This piece is not meant to replace or invalidate the voices of people of color speaking out within the #BlackLivesMatter movement. Rather, it is a compilation of my reflections as a white American Christian on the way I’ve crossed paths with the movement.
For the past three weeks, my college has held a #BlackLivesMatter vigil every day from 10:50-10:55 a.m. Just enough time each morning to say a couple of words about one of the many, many unarmed black civilians killed by police officers in this country, and then to hold a moment of silence. During these moments of silence, I’ve found my mind returning almost invariably to hymns, and I’ve been reflecting on what that means. Here are my thoughts.
During the vigil for Michael Brown, my mind turned to the hymn “Borning Cry” by John Ylvisaker. It’s a hymn about God’s presence throughout our lives, and it traces life’s journey from birth through baptism, childhood, youth, marriage, middle age, old age, and finally death. My family has sung “Borning Cry” at countless family reunions, and I used it as the basis for my speech at my great-grandmother’s funeral. For me, the hymn is one of comfort, and it reminds me that I’m safe in God’s care.
But during the moment of silence for Michael Brown, thinking about “Borning Cry” didn’t leave me feeling warm, fuzzy, and secure like it usually does. Instead, it made me think about the privilege of growing up, the privilege of getting to progress from one stage in life to the next. It’s a privilege that many people, including Michael Brown, will never have. When police gun down unarmed black civilians, they take away those civilians’ chances of reaching middle age, old age, and death in peace.
Michael Brown was my age, 18 years old, when Darren Wilson killed him. As young adults, we’re still in the first verse of the hymn, wandering off to college in a blaze of light. But Michael Brown will never reach his destination because he was felled just as he started to wander. The God of “Borning Cry” rejoices to see each life unfold; could this God do anything but weep when lives are crumpled up long before they are ready?
The following week, the vigil honored Rekia Boyd, a different victim of police brutality, also young, also black. Boyd, a young woman from Chicago, was shot by an off-duty police officer who fired his gun five times into a crowded alleyway because he thought he was in danger. Boyd’s killer was acquitted on a bizarre legal technicality because the judge thought he was guilty of a greater crime than the one with which he was charged.
As we took a moment of silence to remember Boyd, my thoughts turned to the African-American spiritual “Were You There.” “Were You There” is a Good Friday spiritual that my church sings annually. It’s about Jesus’ crucifixion, and it focuses on the gritty physical realities of Good Friday, asking,
“Were you there when they crucified my Lord? Were you there when they nailed him to the tree? Were you there when they pierced him in the side? Were you there when the sun refused to shine? Were you there when they laid him in the tomb?”
The cross has become a symbol of Christianity, but in the Roman Empire it was the state’s method of killing non-citizens. Crucifixion was the government’s painful, inhumane way of dealing with the “other” whenever the “other” made too much trouble. Remind you of anyone?
As Christians, we annually mourn our savior’s death at the hands of an inhumane and unjust empire that had the power to kill innocent outsiders with impunity. As American Christians, we are called to extend our mourning to the many, many other deaths that continue to result from officially sanctioned injustice and inhumanity against “others” in our own communities.