The last week has been an absolute torment. We’ve been outraged, sickened, saddened, frightened since video emerged of four police officers using undue force and killing George Floyd before our eyes. How can this happen today? Where is all of this coming from? When will it stop?
One of the things I am most grateful for is mobile phone cameras.
In the last few years, people of colour have been risking their own lives to film the ‘regular’ traffic stops they face, that all too frequently and all too quickly result in their own bodily harm. It is painfully clear that this is not a new trend, but rather a trend that we (the rest of us who are privileged enough not to be capriciously stopped and harassed) are only now becoming aware of…or seeing for ourselves.
I’ve been aware of this since I was at the University of Texas and my friend Sangeeta, whose parents were Indian, said her father, a nerdy engineer, was frequently stopped on their way between family in Houston, TX and their home in Lake Charles, Louisianna just because he had the nerve to drive at night. She told me about the terror it struck in her to see her father afraid for himself and his family. In seminary I heard quiet rumours of disbelieve that some of our professors were ‘routinely’ stopped in Princeton, NJ for driving while black. Princeton is a small town, you’d have thought the police would have gotten to know these scholars, who were there for years, and stopped pulling them over. They didn’t. Friends have told me of the moment their parents sat them down and had the talk with them…about being black after dark…and during the day. How they weren’t considered ‘cute’ anymore, but were beginning to look like men and would be perceived of as a threat just walking down the street. How they should change THEIR behaviour so as not to draw attention.
These were peaceful accounts. No one I know, thanks be to God, has had a violent encounter with the polices.
Now, I know police officers, too. I know that’s a tough job to do and that so much of it is about perception, about reading a situation, about determining threat in a split second. I know that the VAST majority of cops are good, kind, caring people who have gone into their line of work out of a desire to serve their community and do some good. What we are seeing unfold in videos and live streams, isn’t just about poor training or a few bad eggs, though, what we’re seeing is about a systemic problem that is the undercurrent of society (American and our own) – racism.
I grew up in a racist society among racists. My friends and I thought we had risen above it when we could proudly declare that we were ‘colour blind’. Now we can see, in our 40s, that that is just another means of negation. To ignore someone’s colour is to ignore an important aspect of who they are, how they see the world, and how the world sees them. Our children now, hopefully, can see that race IS important, but not as a determining factor of intelligence, belonging, safety, or criminality. Race is important because it is part of the whole person and the whole person, each and every whole person, matters.
Right now, some will want to hold signs that say “All Lives Matter”. All lives DO matter. However, just the desire to ameliorate the tense feelings that “Black Lives Matter” evokes, is a clear sign that we need to be clear and precise that who we are advocating for right now is people of colour, especially black people of colour.
When Jesus told the story of the shepherd and the 100 sheep, he spoke of seeking out the one who was missing. He was not turning his back on the other 99 sheep. The other 99 sheep were safe. He told us to go and seek the one who was not safe, the one in need, the one in peril. Black people are in peril – in society and in our hearts. If a house is on fire and the fire brigade comes, they don’t spray the entire street because all houses matter, they spray the house that’s on fire. If we go to a Breast Cancer fun run to raise money for research, we don’t hold up a sign that says “all cancers matter”, we are there to face breast cancer – to raise money and awareness for breast cancer. All lives do matter, but right now, people of colour, specifically black people are in peril. Black people are seen as a threats, as outsiders even if they’ve lived somewhere for 50 years (hello, Windrush?). Black people are seen as other. And Jesus told us that we were supposed to be concerned for the ‘other’. To seek out the one in peril. Even if 99 were safe and accounted for, we should seek the one in need, gather them on our shoulders and carry them to safety – risking even our safety and security to do so.
This is not a fight for ‘them’. It is a struggle for us, to undertake within ourselves as much as in society. In a statement from my seminary (Princeton Theological Seminary), Ann-Henley Nicholson wrote: Lost lives should always grieve us – and in these cases, appall us – more than the loss of anything else. Therefore, until every life matters in practice and not only in theory, we proclaim black lives matter as a corrective and renew our commitment to prepare people for transformational ministry in times like these.
Therefore I urge you to not change your Facebook profile picture to black and think you are done. That’s a symbolic gesture, and as a minister of Word and Sacrament, I think symbols are mighty important, but we can’t stop there anymore than we can stop at the table having been fed and proclaim that we are living the life to which Jesus called us. It is just the beginning to make a symbolic gesture. Now is a time to read book by black authors and seek out black theology, learn from black bible commentators, and reread the works of Martin Luther King, Jr. to hear the plight of our sisters and brothers and to be inspired toward personal transformation, which might, if we are very persistent, lead to the transformation of society.
It might feel slow. Nothing will be fast enough to change what should never have been. If we work, ourselves, bit-by-bit…that is bit-by REAL-bit to route out and transform our own racism, we can bit-by-bit transform our neighbours, our communities, our society. This is my hope. This is my prayer.
Liz Blythe is the Locum Minister at Wellington Church