A beloved black sister shared that she could not get behind the protest slogan “Never Again” while law enforcement agents are continuing to kill unarmed black men and women. In her lament, I heard an echo of the brilliant and, dare I say it, prophetic song “What’s Going On” by the late Marvin Gaye. The words “there’s too many [mothers and fathers] crying” are as true today as when Gaye recorded the song in the early 1970s. Those who have lost loved ones to a system seemingly bent on devaluing the presence of black people on this earth may well ask, “What’s going on”?
“Brother, brother, brother
There’s far too many of you dying”
Now as then, Gaye’s reflections hold up a mirror to racism in America. In Marked: Race, Crime, and Finding Work in an Era of Mass Incarceration, published in 2007, author Devah Pager selected ex-offenders and other young adult men and had them apply to hundreds of jobs in Milwaukee. She found that black men who had committed no crime “fared no better in their job searches than white men just out of prison.” A recent analysis published by The New York Times found that “[m]ore than one out of every six black men who today should be between 25 and 54 years old have disappeared from daily life” because of early death or imprisonment (“1.5 Million Missing Black Men,” April 20, 2015). Often missing from such statistical analyses are the experiences of black people of various identities, yet they too confront injustice. Like black men, they are precious in God’s sight. The black people who are alive but “missing” are not dead to Jesus. God’s love is alive to their presence. As a nation, are we?
“Picket lines and picket signs
Don’t punish me with brutality”
Bias brutalizes black lives. Apathy abides in silence. Ignorance cloaked in religious piety condones oppression. Jesus refused to endorse such spiritual impotency. He upheld the most disfranchised to teach the disciples and his followers about the power, love, forgiveness, and wisdom of God. He aligned himself with and identified himself as a marginalized member of society (Matthew 25:34-35). Will we follow Jesus’ example and love those who are treated as modern-day lepers?
Love does not avoid the difficult questions, turn a blind eye to inequity and injustice, or shy away from the radical expressions of love that Jesus called us to live out. That is why Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me” (Matthew 25:40). His willingness to serve and be served by the disfranchised can be partnered with the following questions posed by Alicia Garza, a driving force behind the term, concept, and movement #blacklivesmatter: “What would your life look like if black lives did matter?” and “How can we close the gap between that vision and our realities?” (“#Blacklivesmatter: The Spirit of Protest” symposium, Pacific School of Religion, and American Baptist Seminary of the West, April 18, 2015).
“You see, war is not the answer
For only love can conquer hate”
If war is to be avoided, and if love is to conquer hate, we must allow Jesus to shape our views on the prevalence of racism and race in America. When Jesus served others, he entered no-go areas—whether they were personal, relational, spiritual, religious, cultural, socio-economic, or geographical. No area or person is off-limits to God’s love (Luke 4:18). As pastor Francis Chan author of Crazy Love: Overwhelmed by a Relentless Love notes, “Lukewarm people call ‘radical’ what Jesus expected of all His followers.” If we are to follow the way of Jesus we must consider that his ministry to the marginalized inconvenienced many, especially those in authority. Like Jesus, when we serve “[i]n the midst of suffering and pain [we] interrupt business as usual,” said Rev. Traci Blackmon, a pastor who has been on the front lines of the Ferguson response to Michael Brown’s killing. She asserts that “[t]here must be space made at the center for people’s suffering, pain, agony, bent-overness if [our Christian response] is to be authentic” (“#Blacklivesmatter: The Spirit of Protest” symposium, Pacific School of Religion, and American Baptist Seminary of the West, April 18, 2015). Blackmon’s views correspond with Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assertion that “constructive, nonviolent ‘tension’ is necessary for [our spiritual] growth” as individuals, Christians, and as a nation (“Letter from a Birmingham Jail”). King also stressed, “intolerable conditions . . . cause individuals to feel that they have no other alternative than to engage in violent rebellions to get attention . . . [and so, within the context of a rebellion] a riot is the language of the unheard” (“The Other America”).
Still, those who stand on the margins—such as “the unheard”—hear and see themselves even when others do not. Responding to the distorted media coverage of the uprisings against racial injustice sweeping the nation, one black male protestor, Kwame Rose, who participated in a peaceful protest in Baltimore, accused the journalist Geraldo Rivera of “exploiting black pain” — a charge that could be leveled at any media outlet. Conscious of how the media misrepresents black people, Rose added, “We don’t need your false coverage.” When Rivera dismissed his comments, this black man of the margins, with an astute and brilliant mind said,
No, don’t walk away once we start talking — that’s the problem. You want to report that we’re thugs and we’re breaking shit down… You’ve got these people around to protect you from all these black folks. We’re the ones that need protection… We’re angry… A black man can raise his voice, and you don’t have to be intimidated… You’re not here reporting about the boarded up homes and the homeless under MLK. You’re not reporting about the poverty levels up and down North Avenue… You’re not here for the death of Freddie Gray.
(Helen Nianias, The Independent, April 30, 2015)
Freddie Gray, a young black man, died on April 19, 2015 while in police custody, having sustained a broken neck and severed spine. He did not receive immediate medical assistance for his injuries. The world will never hear his voice again. Like Gray, Kwame Rose, who lambasted Rivera will be “unheard” by many. Still, his words of resistance invoke many voices, past and present. It is worth noting that Jesus never discredited or repudiated the story of an individual, and he never used a person’s experiences to position himself as being morally superior.
“You know we’ve got to find a way
To bring some lovin’ here today”
Marvin Gaye was right—we’ve got to find a way “to bring some lovin’ here today”—not tomorrow, but today and in the tomorrows to come. Unfortunately, as pastor Francis Chan has pointed out, “We live in a time when Christians need to be told that they are supposed to live like Christ.” A poor imitation of Jesus is a travesty of faith. Denial of injustices is a denial of God. Christians must rise up, and like Jesus, hear the voices of the “unheard”, and reach out to and learn from the “despised” (1 Corinthians 1:26-28). When we lose sight of their humanity, when we refuse to see them as members of God’s human family, we lose sight of ourselves, and of God. Our hope must rest in the God whose love created humanity; a love that refuses to bow to racism, tolerate injustice, deny the existence of inequities, or sacrifice love to hate (Mark 12:30-31).
Image: Rommel Canias / Shutterstock.com
Dr. Claudia May is a specialist in African American and Caribbean literature and popular culture, a spiritual writer, poet, and a spiritual director (see http://www.claudiamay.org/). She is a visiting scholar in the Department of African American Studies and African Diaspora Studies at the University of California, Berkeley, and a recipient of the Pacific School of Religion President’s award. She is a passionate follower of Jesus, a woman of prayer, and a lover of biblical stories and wisdom.