Even without the litany of horrors that have made 2014 a year to forget if we could – hundreds of Nigerian girls abducted, sold and raped into slave marriages, their teachers and male classmates slaughtered, a plane with all souls aboard inconceivably disappeared into thin air, another plane from the same airline is shot down as Russia invaded and annexed Crimea – this Christmas is marked by violence the likes of which I have no comparison in my lifetime.
The deaths of Mike Brown and Eric Garner and lack of consequences faced by their killers are the tip of an iceberg of death. Black boys and men and, women like Renisha Boyd and girls like 7 year-old Aiyana Jones are being killed with abandon, particularly at the hands of the police. Black people are being killed by police at rates ranging from one every 72 hours to one every 28 hours by some accounts. (These accounts cannot be verified because of the lack of reporting by individual police departments.)
The racist biases against black people in this country and individual internalization of that bias lead to the disparate treatment of black folk at the hands of police. Unarmed black people, including children in their beds are shot to death and armed white folk are not even checked to see if they are in compliance with Open Carry and other firearm laws while white cop-killers are brought in alive to stand trial.
Too many black families are grieving the loss of their loved ones, many during these holidays and holy days. And many of us mourn with them, not as they mourn, but we mourn. And some of us are afraid for our brothers, sons, fathers, nephews and husbands. It is all too much. How can this be Christmas?
What does Christmas have to say to our broken fearful hearts? I’ll tell you the truth, the promise of eternal life is not comforting right now, neither is forgiveness of sins. I want to know what Christmas has to do with, say to, say about black life being snuffed out in American streets with little consequence.
There is one reason I haven’t thrown my bible against the wall and walked away long ago. One word actually. Immanu-El. God with us. God is with us. God is with us, dying in the street. That comforts me.
Mahalia Jackson’s Sweet Little Jesus Boy is one of my favorite Christmas carols. It is a poignant articulation of how much the story of the poor Babe of Bethlehem has in common with that of the black person in racist America. It is decades old, originating in Jim Crow and still relevant.
This Christmas I remember Jesus born to a fast-tailed girl and God was there, with her. Pregnant, single, presumed promiscuous. I remember a marginalized man, born into a world in which his people were subject to brutality at the whim of the people who oppressed his people. And God was with them. I remember a man who didn’t stick around for long eventually leaving a single mother to manage on her own, but God was with her. I remember a man whose protests against the powers of this world, including the collusion of some of his own folk led to death row. I remember a sorrowful mother told in his infancy that she would feel pain like being stabbed in the heart because of what the world would do to her child. And God remained with her. Even when the state executed her child and placed his bloody corpse in her arms.
The violence of this Christmas season is not new. It is not new for African Americans who survived the Maafa, slavocracy, Jim and Jane Crow, state-supported lynchings, the prison industrial complex. We have survived because God has been with us. It is not new in the history of the world. We will survive trigger-happy police trained by their fear and society’s racism to demonize and exterminate black people. We will survive because God is with us.
We will survive and the world will change. Empires, conquerors and oppressors fall, rot and die and the world continues to turn. Another favorite song is The Canticle of the Turning, a modern take on the Virgin’s hymn, The Magnificat. Mary’s response to threat of death she was under as an unwed pregnant girl in a society that policed women’s bodies and sexuality with lethal violence was to look back at how her people made it over because God was with them. Mary looked back to one of the Mothers of her faith, Hannah who would be known as a prophet in Judaism – perhaps she was by then – Hannah for whom tradition teaches Mary’s own mother was named.
Hannah sang that God is a World-Turner (using the imperfect signaling future or even present action). Mary sang that Hannah’s prophecy was true (using the past tense). The empires that occupied Hannah’s Israel were long gone. Mary’s Song survived the empire that oppressed her and executed her son.
Finally (but perhaps not finally!), Immanu-El is with us in death and beyond death, transforming death into life.
The violence of that first Christmas, and of this one, those between and those to come will never have the last word because God is Immanu-El. God is with us. We will survive. We will thrive. And we will turn this world around.
The fires of your justice burn in us and will not be extinguished. With you we proclaim that our black lives are sacred. And this crucifying, lynching world does not have the last word. It is Christmas and you are Immanu-El. God is with us.
If you cannot be merry or happy this Christmas, be blessed. Blessed Christmas.
God of Justice who declared black lives matter at the dawn of creation by scooping up a handful of black earth with which to craft humanity in the image of divinity,
We thank you that our radiant blackness is neither accidental nor incidental to your glory.
We join you Holy One, in your lament for the stolen lives of your precious children: Trayvon, Rekia, Mike, Renisha, Tamir, Ayanna and so many, many more. And we partner with you in righteous action to transform this sin-sick world.
We pray your heavenly benediction on those assembled [here], those who will protest and those who will not or cannot. We bless those protesting in other places around this nation and world proclaiming that black lives more than matter but that black life is sacred, and your very image.
And we pray your earthly benediction on and with us, for you are Immanuel, God with us. We pray your protection and know that you are with us in the streets because you are a ride and die God. Lastly we pray for the work: the transformation of the culture of policing, prosecuting and the entire unjust justice system. We pray for those police officers and citizens whose hearts are full of hate and fear. Touch them with your love in and through us. And let us together dismantle white supremacy that all black life: gay, straight, bi, trans, women, men, children in their beds, felons on lock down & homeless teens in the street will survive and thrive because we matter. Black life matters. Black life is sacred. Amen.
Soldiers Police officers asked John the Baptizer, God’s servant, “And we, what should we do (since we have been moved by the Gospel to be baptized)?” S/he said to them, “Serve with integrity.”*
*Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages.
When I was an army chaplain I called this the Soldier’s Gospel. It was important for soldiers to see and hear that their military service was not prohibited by their faith, particularly at a time when non-violence is often lifted up as the only way for Christian, religious or other ethically guided people.
Serve with integrity.
I find myself turning back to that text in these evil days. The models of policing that are dominating our public and private spaces are thuggish, brutal and lethal. And, they are shaped by the racism that pervades our country and our institutions so that individual police officers, without regard to their own ethnicity, violently perpetuate institutional racism. Yet neither policing nor police officers are inherently evil. They are part of a system, of structures which shape their policies and tactics and their own perceptions and responses.
Serve with integrity.
Perpetuating race-based stereotypes is not serving with integrity. Integrity is a difficult path. It means acknowledging and dealing with your own individual racism and that of the system in which you live and work. It means taking a hard look at your own arrest statistics and those of your department. It means coming to terms with the way your own biases shape the way you see, respond and police. It means operating against your biases against black bodies – seeing black boys as men, black girls as promiscuous, black women as prostitutes and black men as thugs. Serving with integrity means holding yourself, your sister and brother officers and your department to a higher standard.
Serve with integrity.
The work of dismantling racism and reversing its programming in public and private, individual and corporate. Police officers have a sacred trust and responsibility to protect and serve, assess, de-escalate and respond appropriately. Lethal violence should always be a last resort.
Officers, we need you. We need to be able to trust you. In the name of all that is holy and humane: Serve with integrity.
I am proud to have co-authored this statement with my colleague Dr. Keri Day on behalf of the Black Church Studies program and Faculty of Brite Divinity School:
The Black Church Studies program at Brite Divinity School, along with administrators and members of the faculty, lament the recent decision by the Grand Jury not to indict Darren Wilson for the killing of Mike Brown. We believe that a trial jury should determine whether the facts of the case warrant a murder conviction. We mourn Mike Brown’s death and believe that racism is subverting the due process of justice in the Ferguson Police Department and Prosecutor’s Office. The ongoing criminalization of Mike Brown hinders compassion, care, and fairness not only in Ferguson, Missouri, but across our nation. The cry of Job 34:17 – “Shall one who hates justice govern?” – is an apt warning to America, insofar as racism erodes the legitimacy of our law enforcement.
We at Brite Divinity School stand with the Mike Browns of America. We demand that public institutions be held accountable for their chronic, oppressive, and often violent bias against African Americans. “Let justice roll down like waters; and righteousness like an everflowing stream” (Amos 5:24). African Americans are routinely desecrated by America’s law enforcement and justice system. We feel outraged by such inhuman practices and trace their roots to a fundamental refusal to acknowledge the sacredness of black bodies. We deplore the widespread criminalization of African Americans, we denounce the structural racism that corrodes our society, and we join those who embody justice, compassion, and respect for all people. Let us work together toward equality and fairness in our social, political, and judicial systems.