A balm for the soul
Blues artists, the slaves who composed the spirituals, psalmists, and practitioners of the spoken word have much in common. These artists sing and rap about, and testify to, the pain and joys of those inhabiting their songs. They live out raw, jarring, messy, brutal, unresolved, and buoyant experiences through their lyrics. Emotions infuse the blues through the driving wail of a guitar, the lament and spirited tones of a piano, and the voice of a lived experience. By documenting personal and fictional experiences, blues artists disregard the approval of critics. When they unravel the testimonies of others, they snub those who insist African Americans should present an acceptable face to those who wish to denounce certain behaviors as endemic to a supposed deviant race. Though he does not actually reference the blues in his classic work The Souls of Black Folk, one can apply the words of the great thinker, scholar, and activist W.E.B. Du Bois to a reading of the genre. At its core, the blues refuse to entertain the “peculiar sensation” of “double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity”.[i] Wellsprings of grief, hope, prophecy, and worship permeate the spirituals. Writers of the spiritualsaffirmed their humanity by creating an art form within a system that deemed them as chattel and unhuman, and thus – incapable of ingenuity. Rather than renounce their feelings and curtail their theological explorations, these slaves embraced their experiences and allowed their critical minds to mine Scripture through song. No matter how messy they are, the full range of human emotions is expressed in the psalms. The psalms also accommodate free expression. Psalmists adore God through worship and bring all their concerns to a God who listens. Spoken-word artists give voice and meaning to experiences not yet spoken. Christian spoken-word artists dare to share their heart, views, questions, and worries with a God who cares. Their words emerge as modern-day psalms and are fashioned as living biblical narratives. Being able to channel the blues, the spirituals, the psalms, and the works of Christian spoken-word artists gives me the courage to not hold back my rage. Together, these genres invite transparent storytelling.
To feel anger
Anger must be felt, and voiced, and ultimately surrendered to God. Denying our anger means we deny our humanity. Anger is neither a one-time event nor an irrelevant emotion. It is not forged in a vacuum or divorced from social ills and it is not pretty. It does express a facet of our humanity, beautifully. Context gives birth to anger. Anger does not always have to be coherent or palatable, but it must lead to love. This necessity, that anger inspires love, causes the emotion to become more complex and useful. Difficult and angering times can often lead us closer to a God who is not overwhelmed by the situations we encounter. We can discover a God who is not in the business of telling us to ignore our anger, and who is not blind to social inequities.
Transparent conversations with ourselves, with each other, and with God give voice to our anger, frustrations, fears, prejudices, and concerns. Such exchanges deepen our awareness and understanding of our complex histories and human experiences. Because of this, I will not steep my anger in poetic rhythm, or couch my words in pleasant metaphors, or polish my reflections with becoming platitudes. This is not a performance. This is not a game. Racism is not a trend. Black lives matter is not a hash tag or a brand to be bartered, commodified, and abused. Racism is not a fashionable statement. Many crimes against black people still have gone unpunished in America. I am angry. I am enraged. I am weary of the history of racial injustice being repeated time and time again. I need to feel this anger and not swallow it or make it palatable for others to tolerate. Nor will I rush through my anger. I intend to grieve well. I will not hush my sadness. A sense of helplessness sometimes grips me. In this moment, I embrace my humanity. I don’t have to be strong or have all the answers or always be up for the fight. I feel my weakness. I need to feel anger so it does not consume me. Still, there are times when I don’t want to lose control of my emotions. In these moments, I hold back my tears. In other instances, each of my prayers transform into interrogations of, “Why!?” I lobby words like rocks at God. I find it difficult to forgive those who show no remorse for taking the life of another. And Jesus listens. When I shout in my heart, God holds me. I yell out my grief and God grieves alongside me. When I consider the prevalence of racism in this country, I follow the example of Job, and dare to “argue my case with God” (Job 13:3).[ii] And God is not overwhelmed. I cry hard tears, tender tears, and silent tears. And Jesus stands by my side, even when I don’t feel him or sense him.
Like so many, I wrestle with the hurt and the abuses that come with being a black person in America. The legacy of racial injustice shadows us. And so, today, I grieve. I cry out my own version of Jesus’ lament, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” (Mark 15:34). I pray. I grapple with the questions, “Why have you forsaken us?” and “Have you forsaken us?” even as I proclaim, “I know you have not forsaken us”. I pray. I enter into a Garden of Gethsemane moment and encourage those around me to pray for insight, protection, and guidance. At the same time, I cling to God and ask him to hear my cries and outrage for the black and brown men, boys, women, and girls whose deaths see little-to-no justice, especially when they die at the hands of someone in the position of authority. Psalm 88 reminds me that my prayers may not lead me to a light at the end of the tunnel straight away, or present me with immediate answers to my concerns, but this psalm promises me that God will journey with me through the pain, the hurt, the anger.
O Lord, God of my salvation,
when, at night, I cry out in your presence,
let my prayer come before you;
incline your ear to my cry.
For my soul is full of troubles….
Mahalia Jackson’s performance of Thomas A. Dorsey’s “Precious Lord, Take My Hand” reflects the unease permeating my thoughts when she sings:
Precious Lord, take my hand,
Lead me on, let me stand,
I am tired, I am weak, I am worn;
Through the storm, through the night,
Lead me on to the light:
Take my hand, precious Lord,
Lead me home.[iii]
My weariness and resolve find voice in the spiritual “Sweet Chariot” when the singer announces,
Now I’m sometimes up, I’m sometimes down
Comin’ for to carry me home
But still my soul feels heavenly bound,
Comin’ for to carry me home.[iv]
Weakness marries with strength and teaches us to hold onto hope in the midst of adversity. The spiritual “Sweet Chariot” teaches us to be present to the range of emotions we feel and not allow our circumstances to define our existence, deny our despair, or encroach on our critical consciousness. Faith shadows anguish. Today, I cry out to a God who will not say, “Pull yourself together” or “Tone down your cries”. Faith courts paradox. Sorrow marries with hope. Love conjoins with anger. Today, I listen to Nina Simone’s “Why?”, a song she wrote after Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. I live through her words:
We can all shed tears; it won’t change a thing.
Teach your people: Will they ever learn?
Must you always kill with burn and burn with guns.
And kill with guns and burn – don’t you know we gotta react?[v]
My prayers also inhabit the blues lyrics of Victoria Spivey who sings in “I Can’t Last Long”:
Well it’s dark and dreary: no matter where I go
For the lights in my room: even refuse to shine.[vi]
And when I go on my prayer walk, my prayers embody the blues lyrics of Maggie Jones’, “If I Lose, Let Me Lose”, through which she sings:
I got on my [prayer] walking shoes,
I’m going to walk away my blues.[vii]
Today, I follow the example of Jesus. I come before a God who does not require me to be diplomatic when I bring all of myself to him. I don’t have to present myself in a certain way to God. I don’t have to hold my hands up in surrender and say, “Don’t shoot”. The God who gave me breath gives me room to breathe. Being unarmed before God is liberating rather than debilitating. My prayers are unedited and unscripted. Time and time again I bring my questions, my doubts, my anxieties, frustrations, and needs to God and he never turns me away. I bury my face in the chest of a God who listens to me and is not overwhelmed by my fears, my distress, my grief, my rage. And as I grieve the death of Michael Brown and Eric Garner, wounds that are only just beginning to heal are torn open again, and again, and again as the senseless death of another young black man goes unpunished. I cannot allow my anger to consume me for it will destroy me. I cannot permit my anger to take root because it will erase joy in my life and foster hatred toward those whom I consider my enemy. Love must triumph over injustice. My humanity, our humanity, matters to the God who created us. Just as God can be present to my pain and be in touch with the hurt of others, I receive God’s permission to be attentive to my own anguish. Those whose experiences are similar to my own comfort me. I may not be able to serve others in that moment and I am OK with that. Even Jesus stepped away from the crowd, stopped serving others, and went to a lonely place to pray and spend time with his heavenly Papa (Mark 1:35).
Expressions of lamentation; expressions of agency
A dear and treasured seasoned woman of God, Reverend Ann Jefferson, has observed that we have lost the art of lamentation. The words of Job, Jeremiah, Jesus, Mary, Elizabeth, and Naomi enable me to immerse my anger in lamentation. I need to feel my anger. My anger stands alongside the anger of those who grieve the death of Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, and other named, nameless, and forgotten black men, women, and children. And as we mourn, as we wail, as we weep, as we bang our fists on tables, and hold and talk to one another, we will share war stories about those who have fought against, confronted, and been victims of racial and sexual injustice. We will share the war stories we have lived through and pass on to another generation those testimonies that have been passed down to us. We will talk about how we strive to overcome, battle against, and struggle with, racial terrorism, today, yesterday, and tomorrow. Our tears flow. We are passionate. At times we feel depleted. The pain of our stories sometimes overwhelms us. Sometimes our experiences stun us into silence as we ponder our familiar and unspeakable memories.
As we watch another news clip that screens the senseless death of yet another young black male, another human being, these scenes kindle our rage. We think of our fathers, and husbands, and brothers, and sons, and nephews, and grandfathers – all of whom have been stopped by police, profiled, brutalized by mobs, and dismissed by officials. So often these black men and boys are told they are not good enough. Many are spoken at rather than to, or told they are not professional enough, or will never make the grade. These black men, these black boys, are told through both actions and words that they are too black, too light, not man enough, not human enough, not smart enough. They are told through actions and deeds that they should be content with being exoticized as the subject of someone else’s gaze.
Dance for us, black man. Perform for us, black man. Smile for us, black man. Make us feel comfortable, black man. Put us at ease, black man, before you say hello. Shut down your rage, black man. Don’t have an opinion, black man. Live in another part of town, black man. Be docile, black man. Speak in a language we understand, black man. Humor us, black man. Smile at us, black man. Tap for us, black man. Jump for us, black man. Sing for us, black man. Bow your head down, black man. Run for us, black man. Don’t get too ambitious, black man. Know your place, black man. Speak when you are spoken to, black man. Don’t stand up for yourself, black man. Shuffle, and live up to society’s low expectation of who you are and what you can, or in some cases, cannot become.
Thankfully, I know so many black men who say “no”: “No, we will not dance to your tune”; “No, we will not be your puppet”; “No, I will not listen to you at this time. I also need someone to listen to me, and hear what I have to say”. These black men are visible to themselves even as they are invisible to others, but they know that seeing themselves and valuing their worth is a daily work, a daily struggle. So many black men I know speak their truth on their own terms and refuse to see themselves through the lens of those who condone prejudice. But they also hurt. Racism shadows them. Racial profiling targets them. The black men I know don’t pretend to have all the answers to all they experience. Many struggle with trying to make sense of how a society creates ways to demean them, dishonor them, ignore them, kill them. Black men are not supermen, and black women are not superwomen. Like the blues, the spirituals, spoken-word poetry, and the psalms, we must give one another room to express our hurt, our weaknesses, our failures. We must celebrate our strengths and nurse our hurts; we must acknowledge our shortcomings and prejudices; we must revel in the life-giving joys we experience; we must embrace our full and wonderfully complex humanity.
“Coulda been me”
Lecrae, a Christian hip-hop artist, often shares personal details and political views in his lyrics that some Christians might deem unsavory. In a recent interview that I conducted with him, Lecrae maintained that scars serve as a reminder of the times God has met us in the midst of our pain and healed us; they allow us to show one another that Jesus heals wounds and cares about the inequities in our world. Lecrae argues that if we don’t share our testimonies, if we don’t reveal our scars to one another, we rob ourselves of the opportunity to teach others that Jesus is ever present to our needs, concerns, and emotions. As I contemplate the deaths of so many black men who have died at the hands of authority figures, I have asked myself and others how can the historical wounds of racism heal if racial inequity infiltrates history and shadows every fabric of society? Why are so many churches silent when the subject of race in America becomes the latest trend? As I write, it occurs to me that I have not asked God these questions.
When pondering the senseless deaths of black men at the hands of authority figures, many black men in America, through their experience and that of others, inhabit the observations put forward by the Christian hip-hop artist Trip Lee who raps in his song, “Coulda Been Me”:
Every black man I know
Got stories like those, reaping what they ain’t sow
When they assume you a thug from the jump
It don’t matter if you strapped with a pump
Look I don’t know if Mike Brown had his hands up
But I’m writing saying homie I’ma stand up …
And say it’s real when I feel like it coulda been me . . .[viii]
Later in the song Trip Lee offers advice to young black men that is worth repeating:
I wanna say to all my young black men
I know it’s feeling like we just can’t win
But in your anger don’t sin
Don’t affirm what they thinking
Don’t let nobody tell us we ain’t got worth
Some will try to shut us down it will not work
I know it ain’t fair, but we know that He cares
And one day he’ll wipe away tears . . .[ix]
Tears will continue to flow. Anger, when provoked, will re-surface. Defiance and self-love will carry many of us through the trials we confront. Today, tomorrow, and the days that follow, while I nurse my anger and ask God to meet me in my agony, I will ask God to comfort the parents and family and friends of Michael Brown. I will ask him to embrace every parent who must lament the loss of a loved one without ever knowing whether an injustice will be rectified and whether justice will prevail. As I consider the systematic abuses that thrive on the marginalization of others, I resist the temptation to shut down emotionally and spiritually, and I ask God how I can respond to this latest injustice as it pertains to the killing of another black man. I sensed God telling me that I should continue to love and support those black and brown men and boys I encounter in my daily comings and goings. I cannot save the world. I cannot save every black person from the prejudices they face, but I can ask the creator of love, the God of love, to show me how I can treasure and be cherished by those in my life. Love is not a one-way street. It ought to foster mutual appreciation and support.
What is a Christian to do?
Time and time again, I observe so many Christians struggling to recognize and deal with anger. Unfortunately, when the subject of racism surfaces, a large number of Christians find this topic uncomfortable to discuss or they have a limit as to how long they are willing to engage with the issue of race in America. More often than not, they prefer to douse the subject of rage with apathy and denial as they stampede toward biblical verses that speak of love and forgiveness. What is a Christian to do when social injustices continue to flourish? What is a Christian to do when the perpetual onslaught of racial prejudice ignites anger over and over again? What is a Christian to do when injustices continue to breach the civil rights of another human being and cause racial wounds to be further exposed to prejudice and inequity? I wrestle with all of these questions. Still, I know it is important to embrace my questions and those of others. I know it is important to bring all my emotions and thoughts to a God who created emotions and a critical mind.
Wisdom teaches me to be mindful of when and where I can express my anger. Not all Christian circles want to hear my anger or live through the hurts that come with being black in America and in the West. God has led me to safe places where I can articulate my anger with those who will not question or minimize my hurt. I don’t have to defend my anger. In this sacred space, my hurt does not take a back seat to those who do not live daily with racism. Today, I am thankful for the black friends, colleagues, and relatives who have chosen to come together and create a sacred space where we can share our concerns without having to justify our feelings or qualify our experiences. I am learning that it is important to find safe spaces to moan, to sigh, to cry out, to shout, to share emotions, concerns, feelings, and thoughts with those who live daily with racism. Now, more than ever, I have needed to surround myself with my black brothers and sisters.The slaves of old were determined to worship God on their own terms. In African-American faith in America, Larry Murphy maintains that slaves created an invisible church in rural enclaves from where they “spoke low to the ground so that the sound would not carry”.[x] They also hung wet blankets on branches and spoke and sang “into a pail of water” so that the sounds of their worship would not attract the attention of slave owners.[xi] Within these places, they worshipped God freely.[xii] Worship functioned as an act of resistance. These slaves worshipped a God whose power and authority is greater than that of any on earth. In Slave Religion: The “Invisible Institution” in the Antebellum South, Albert J. Raboteau asserts that,
at the core of the slaves’ religion was a private place, represented by the cabin room, the overturned pot, the prayin’ ground, and the “hush harbor”. This place the slave kept his own. For no matter how religious the master might be, the slave knew that the master’s religion did not countenance prayers for his slaves’ freedom in this world.[xiii]
This week I gathered with friends, colleagues, and mentors – all of us as free black people. We created an invisible church that was visible to us and to God. We cultivated our own hush harbor experience. In this gathering, honest and transparent conversation reigned. In this sacred assembly, we did not reduce our testimonies to tailored sound bites. In this sacred space, we saw each other, listened to one another, laughed together, heard each other, and held one another. We echoed the narratives of our ancestors. Every testimony was, and is, relevant. The familiarity of our stories both comforted and saddened me. Our shared and disparate histories reminded me that we do not stand alone.
I cannot deny that friends and acquaintances of different races and identities, in and outside the church, have journeyed with me through difficult seasons in my life. I am thankful for their support and I am still committed to the dream that all peoples may experience the love of God. I am still committed to working within the church and building alliances with those whom I do not share the same beliefs or convictions. Partnering with others humbles me. The individuals I encounter teach me that I have so much to learn about how to love others from all backgrounds. Still, I am grateful for the legacies, courage, creativity, and vision of black people whose lives can teach us all about the wisdom and love of God.
Worship: “A weapon of offense and defense”
Many slaves understood that claiming America as home was not a given reality for everyone. Similarly, the concept of home is still an illusive reality for many, who, as Lecrae raps in “Welcome to America”, do not feel as if they are a part of America even though they are born, “made in America”. As Lecrae points out in this particular song, “Mama told me I belong here/had to earn our stripes/had to learn our rights/had to fight for a home here”.[xiv] In comparison, slaves fought for their home on earth and for the right to redefine the meaning and purpose of home.
In Deep River: Reflections on the Religious Insight of Certain of the Negro Spirituals, Howard Thurman celebrates the spirituals when he states that,
the existence of these songs is in itself a monument to one of the most striking instances on record in which a people forged a weapon of offense and defense out of a psychological shackle. By some amazing but vastly creative spiritual insight the slave undertook the redemption of a religion that the master had profaned in his midst.[xv]
As I follow the example of my – our – slave ancestors, I cry out to a God who will not tell me to hurry up and get over my pain. These giants of the faith teach me that no matter how bleak things are, I must embrace their hope in a God of love and justice who sustains us through all trials.
I look to my African American slave ancestors for inspiration and wisdom. When they responded to each other’s moans, they signaled their agreement that their pain was real. Their collective, impromptu, and staggered moans welled up from the depths of their souls. Their deep, seemingly fathomless moans and their shouts, declared that they were not alone. They did not suffer in silence. Each moan echoed an individual’s agony, but also the communal pain suffered by those forced to endure such terrifying mistreatment. Though these human beings were enslaved, they exercised their agency by articulating through their moans that they were human; they could feel. When they beat their chains against the roughly hewed wood – wood that was soaked in salt water and peppered with their blood – they announced their resistance against inhumane treatment and declared that they were human. Many rebelled and fought back against their persecutors. Sadly, some took their life. Many chose not to inhabit an enslaved mentality that denied their emotions, and against all odds they created a sense of community.
I am also deeply thankful for the psalmists who do not shy away from the feelings they experience when they confront adversity. They declare, “The Lord is near to the brokenhearted, and saves the crushed in spirit” (Psalm 34:18). They give me permission to ask God, “Do you work wonders for the dead?” (Psalm 88:10a). They acknowledge that, “Many are the afflictions of the righteous, but the Lord rescues them from them all” (Psalm 34:19). When I think of all those black men and women, boys and girls who have died at the hands of authority figures, I plead to God, “Show [us] a sign of your favor, so that those who hate [us] may see it and be put to shame” (Psalm 86:17).
At times, I don’t know what to say or do. At times, I do not know how I ought to pray. It is in these moments that the following verse gives me comfort, “Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words” (Romans 8:26). God gave me the breath of life. God breathes in me. Without Jesus, I cannot breathe. I use this breath to give voice to my hurt, my anger, my sorrow, and my hope. Of late, I’ve needed to surround myself with those who claim Jesus Christ as Lord, Savior, healer, justice worker, and lover of our souls. I am learning to pray through the words of the great civil rights leader Fannie Lou Hamer who announced, “I am sick and tired of being sick and tired”. I am learning to be real with God and to not withhold from him what I am really thinking and feeling. When I pray, I ask God:
Is your steadfast love declared in the grave,
or your faithfulness in Abaddon?
Are your wonders known in the darkness,
or your saving help in the land of forgetfulness?
When I pray through the psalms, I am reminded of the spiritual, “I’m Troubled in Mind”:
Oh, Jesus, my Savior, on Thee I’ll depend,
When troubles are near me, you’ll be my true friend.
I’m troubled in mind,
If Jesus don’t help me,
I surely will die.
When ladened with troubles and burdened with grief,
To Jesus in secret I’ll go for relief.
In dark days of bondage to Jesus I prayed,
To help me to bear it, and He gave me His aid.[xvi]
As I look to Jesus for guidance, I need to pray alone and with others. I need to pray within the church and outside the church. I need to participate in ring shouts. As noted on negrospirituals.com, this form of worship “start[s] perhaps with a Spiritual, and the ring beg[ins] to move, at first slowly, then with quickening pace. The same musical phrase is repeated over and over for hours”.[xvii] I need to moan through my pain, but also communicate through this mode of worship, the “blissful rendition of a song” that “often mixe[s] with humming and spontaneous melodic variation”.[xviii] I need to listen to the blues, to gospel music, and Christian hip-hop. I need to worship God. Scripture guides my actions.
Injustice must not leave us spiritually impotent
It is vital that injustice does not leave us spiritually impotent. Addressing social injustice is not a singular preoccupation but a communal effort. I am learning to walk alongside those who are unlikely allies. In this, I am reminded of the disciples who, when seeing Jesus talk to a woman from Samaria, “were astonished that he was speaking with a woman, but no one said, ‘What do you want?’ or, ‘Why are you speaking with her?’” (John 4:27). To cite Lecrae’s song “I Say I Won’t”, I must no longer be “scared to be different”.[xix] I am asking God to help me confront the social ills of our world within, and outside, the context of church. I may be called to march, to petition, to organize and to raise my voice. Ultimately, I am called to serve others, for “faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead” (James 2:17). I can’t speak for anyone else, but I know I fall far short of living out the verses of 1 Corinthians 13:4–7:
Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.
Whatever God calls me to do, however God wants me to serve, he is teaching me that apathy and inaction is not an option. And yet, as I reflect on Scripture, I realize that Jesus’ disciples, and various characters (like Jonah, for example) were sometimes afraid and did not always willingly follow God’s instructions – or, in the case of the disciples, adhere to Jesus’ teachings (Matthew 26:36–46). Even Jesus found it difficult to submit to God’s call on his life (Matthew 26:36–46). These human stories are good companions as I confront my own complex humanity and that of others. I can follow Jesus’ example and bring my fears, anxieties, and concerns to God. And like Jesus, I will try to pray that God will give me the courage to love those whom I encounter as I journey through the storms of adversity.
Loving in the midst of adversity
Today, tomorrow, and in the future, I will hold the precious brown and black men and boys that I am privileged to call father, uncle, nephew, mentor, teacher, counselor, friend, brother. I will continue to pour into their lives, to love them, to pray for and with them, to listen to them, to support them, and indeed, to fail them. Equally, I need others to partner me as I learn how to ask for and receive love from those men in my life who are willing to cherish black women. I will ask them to do the same for me, because I need the beloved black and brown men and boys in my life. I need their strength, their wisdom, their beauty, their creativity, their faith, their skills, their expertise, and their love. I need God’s wisdom to teach me how to love when confronted with the parts of our humanity that cause us to hurt one another. In my heart, mind, and soul I will hold the black and brown boys and men in my life that bit tighter and tell them again and again “I love you”. As we forge relationships with one another I dream that we will encourage each other to be guided by a God who treasures and loves us. Jesus is the way to reconciliation.
Let us continue to be each other’s advocates, and laugh, have fun, and cry together. Let us continue to play and organize and engage in debates. Let us argue, frustrate, and forgive one another. Let us pray for, and with, each other and look to a God who can be present and everywhere at the same time. Let us worship God together and learn the ways of Jesus. Let us care for others. Let us be led by God, the creator of love. Let us reconcile. Let us celebrate the fullness of our complex humanity. Let us not see each other as perfect but rather as individuals who alongside our attributes make poor choices and hurt one another. We don’t always have to agree. We can wrestle with our beliefs. Our differences foster understanding. Our disagreements remind us how much we need God to love one another. Let us not let ego triumph over humility. In this, I need Jesus more than ever.
God, love, and action
I cling onto the belief that senseless killing and abuses anger and sadden Jesus, and violate God’s commandments that we should “love the Lord [our] God with all [our] heart, and with all [our] soul, and with all [our] mind, and with all [our] strength” and “love [our] neighbor as [ourselves]” (Mark 12:30,31). And so, in the midst of my anger, I am learning to love others from this wellspring of God’s extravagant love. Sometimes I stumble. Sometimes I get discouraged. Sometimes the practice of love feels too costly, too difficult, but somehow God gives me the strength to hold onto his vision for love. Trip Lee recognizes his need for God when he raps:
Where’s your hope at? Mine is in him,
Where is your hope at? Mine is in him,
We got work to do, but my hope is in him,
They got work to do too, but my hope is in him.[xx]
I find hope in God’s teachings. My hope also finds expression through the testimonies of those who have gone before us. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s sermon that he delivered in 1967, “Where Do We Go From Here?”, speaks powerfully to me:
In this decade of change, the Negro stood up and confronted his oppressor. He faced the bullies and the guns, and the dogs and the tear gas. He put himself squarely before the vicious mobs and moved with strength and dignity toward them and decisively defeated them. (Yes) And the courage with which he confronted enraged mobs dissolved the stereotype of the grinning, submissive Uncle Tom. (Yes) He came out of his struggle integrated only slightly in the external society, but powerfully integrated within. That was a victory that had to precede all other gains.[xxi]
I stand alongside those who face down racism with dignity, courage, and integrity. They follow a God who refuses to see black people as invisible because he sees us. We cannot be silenced, because God hears us. We don’t always have to be strong, because God is our strength. We are loved because the creator of love loves us. God does not love us more than any other, but he loves us all the same. We are precious in God’s sight.
Michael Brown. Your parents call you son. They held you. They provided for you. They loved you. They supported you through all the ups and downs of life. We see you. Eric Garner. We embrace you. Trayvon Martin. You will not be forgotten. Tamir Rice. You are special. You are “fearfully and wonderfully made” (Psalm 139:14).
You are all loved. Beloved ones, we grieve your death. You are someone’s child, someone’s son, someone’s precious one, someone’s baby, relative, husband, father, someone’s friend. Beloved ones, you were and are somebody. Michael, Eric, Trayvon, and Tamir, you could be my brother, my son, my child. You are beautiful. Mistake is not your name. Wrong is not your name. In the words of Nina Simone’s song, you were “young, gifted, and black”. You did not have to be superhuman or without shortcomings. You, like any other human being, were just that: fully human. And then I think of those black individuals, in America and further afield, whose lives also matter to God. Their lives were tragically cut short because of violence. Whatever their identity, God knows these precious individuals by name. God sees them. God hears them. God loves them. We see you. I see you. Unloved is not your name. Your life matters to us, to me, to God. Rest, dear ones. Rest.
Dr. Claudia May is a specialist in African American, Black British, and Anglophone Caribbean literature, theatre, and popular culture and received her Ph.D. from the University of California, Berkeley. She is a Visiting Scholar in the Department of African American Studies and African Diaspora Studies at the University of California, Berkeley, a recipient of the Pacific School of Religion President’s award, and a Spiritual Director. Claudia identifies herself as God’s beloved daughter and is a passionate follower of Jesus. She is a woman of prayer and a lover of biblical stories and wisdoms. For more than a decade she has ministered to men and women serving on the frontline of ministry. She is the author of Jesus is Enough: Love, Hope, and Comfort in the Storms of Life (Augsburg Fortress).
[i] W.E.B. Du Bois, The Souls of Black Folk (Rockville: Arc Manor, 2008), 12.
[ii] All biblical passages cited are taken from the New Revised Standard Bible.
[iii] Thomas A. Dorsey, “Precious Lord, Take My Hand,” in Nancy C. Lee, Lyrics of Lament: From Tragedy to Transformation (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2010), 120.
[iv] Ronald Herder, Best-Loved Song Lyrics (New York: Dover Publications, 1998), 337.
[v] Nina Simone, “Why?” http://www.lyricsfreak.com/n/nina+simone/why_10192592.html
[vi] Victoria Spivey, “I Can’t Last Long,” in Michael Taft, Talkin’ to Myself: Blues Lyrics, 1921–1942 (New York: Routledge, 2005), 562.
[vii] Maggie Jones, “If I Lose, Let Me Lose,” in Michael Taft, Talkin’ to Myself: Blues Lyrics, 1921–1942 (New York: Routledge, 2005), 341.
[viii] Trip Lee, “Coulda Been Me”, http://builttobrag.com/coulda-been-me/
[x] Larry G. Murphy, African-American Faith in America (New York: Facts on File, 2003), 24.
[xii] Albert Raboteau, Slave Religion: The “Invisible Institution” in the Antebellum South (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1978), 215.
[xiii] Ibid. 219.
[xiv] Lecrae, “Welcome to America”, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qlx9jZcBkNA
[xv] Howard Thurman, Deep River: Reflections on the Religious Insight of Certain of the Negro Spirituals (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1955), 36.
[xvi] “I’m Troubled in Mind”, http://www.hymnlyrics.org/hymns_spirituals/im_troubled_in_mind.php
[xix] Lecrae, “I Say I Won’t”, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yho9Y0xXz0g
[xx] Trip Lee, “Coulda Been Me”, http://builttobrag.com/coulda-been-me/
[xxi] Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., “Where Do We Go From Here?” http://mlk-kpp01.stanford.edu/index.php/encyclopedia/documentsentry/where_do_we_go_from_here_delivered_at_the_11th_annual_sclc_convention/