Yesterday was the one-year anniversary of the death of Sandra Bland, a black woman who died in the Waller County jail in Texas in after being arrested under dubious circumstances. The circumstances of Sandra’s death say everything about how American Christianity has been made toxic by the idolatry of white male authority. I talked about this story in my book chapter “Outsiders Not Insiders,” so I figured I would share an excerpt on this grim anniversary. Sandra’s “sass” in responding to the Texas highway patrolman who arrested her is no different than the “sass” with which Jesus responded to the high priest when he was on trial. If Jesus had been “respectful” to the authority figures of his day, he never would have been crucified.
[From “Outsiders Not Insiders”]
I watched a video of Texas highway patrolman Brian Encinia arresting Sandra Bland, one of many black people who have died recently in police custody under questionable circumstances. After pulling Bland over for not using a turn signal, Encinia ordered her to put out her cigarette because he considered it disrespectful to his authority. When she refused to put it out, he told her to get out of the car, and she said she didn’t have to get out because she wasn’t under arrest. So he threatened her with his Taser gun and forced her to get out of the car, after which there was apparently a scuffle off-camera (some allege that he beat her up), leading him to charge her with assaulting a police officer.
It was fascinating to see the difference in comments between two sides of people who watched the video. In the perspective of one side, Sandra Bland had an attitude problem, and she should have simply obeyed the cop. The other side understood Sandra Bland to be asserting her legitimate rights and refusing to treat a cop deferentially just because he had a badge and gun. A friend who lives in Texas posted something about the arrest on Facebook, and one of her friends chimed in to say that she knew Encinia personally and he was a good Christian man, so whatever happened must have been Sandra Bland’s fault.
I don’t doubt Encinia is a good Christian man who sincerely believes that he must respond severely to any challenge to his complete authority. Encinia is the twenty-first-century embodiment of [16th century Spanish theologian Juan Gines de] Sepúlveda’s order of command and obedience, whose ethos is echoed in the response to the protests of black killings by police by the evangelical Christian leader Franklin Graham [on his Facebook page]:
Listen up—Blacks, Whites, Latinos, and everybody else. Most police shootings can be avoided. It comes down to respect for authority and obedience. If a police officer tells you to stop, you stop. If a police officer tells you to put your hands in the air, you put your hands in the air. If a police officer tells you to lay face down first with your hands behind your back, you lay [sic] down face first with your hands behind your back. It’s as simple as that. Even if you think the police officer is wrong—YOU OBEY.
Then the high priest questioned Jesus about his disciples and about his teaching. Jesus answered, “I have spoken openly to the world; I have always taught in synagogues and in the temple, where all the Jews come together. I have said nothing in secret. Why do you ask me? Ask those who heard what I said to them; they know what I said.” When he had said this, one of the police standing nearby struck Jesus on the face, saying, “Is that how you answer the high priest?” Jesus answered, “If I have spoken wrongly, testify to the wrong. But if I have spoken rightly, why do you strike me?” (John 18:19–23)
I wonder how many black people have been struck in the face by white authority figures for “mouthing off” the way Jesus did to the high priest. Jesus never said, “Yes, sir,” to any authority figure. He spoke the truth without packaging it in politeness. He didn’t go to religious leaders privately to give them constructive criticism. He called them out publicly. He didn’t go through the proper channels to address his concerns about money changers exploiting people in the temple. He drove them out with a whip. That’s why he got crucified. If Jesus had followed Franklin Graham’s advice, he might not have been killed. What does it mean that he didn’t?