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Janine Santoro T’16

An essay by the Master of Divinity alumna.

Language Matters: Calling Out White Supremacy in the Pulpit

Many of us have been spending the past few months preaching about the sins that stem from white supremacy. For some, it might have only been a sermon or two, as they carefully tread the waters of white congregations by finding neutral or easy-to-swallow approaches in doing so. Others might have been a bit braver by having a sermon series, perhaps with an optional anti-racist book group to coincide with it. A few of our churches have been vehemently affirming through sermons and ongoing community dialogue and protests that Black lives matter every week. Still, many others have kept silent, thinking it better to just ride out the Black Lives Matter movement, until years from now when it feels safe to reflect on how we can be better neighbors and advocates for each other—in hindsight. Earlier this year, I found myself using the word “murder” in a sermon. When I looked it over again and again, something didn’t feel right. If words are merely symbols that point to the thing in which we want to signify, then “murder” wasn’t cutting it. The definitions and implications of “murder” can be broad, depending on the act and the intent. The manner of death I was preaching against could not be watered down to something so general, with the intentions being too inconclusive. It wasn’t until the morning I read of Ahmaud Arbery’s demise that I realized the gruesome way in which he was targeted and exterminated brought to light the cringeworthy word I had been seeking: lynching. However, I found myself so taken aback by the term; I became afraid to use it. I feared that upon using the word, I would be perceived as being too dramatic or too abrasive. Perhaps the congregation would seek to revolt or to discredit me for being too political or accuse me of trying to instill guilt among white congregants, causing further division in an already struggling church. I found myself afraid—but used it nonetheless, as there was no way to unsee the truth of what happened to Ahmaud, and no other word would do his story justice.

The Black Lives Matter Movement has seen a great increase in momentum this year. The names of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Elijah McClain have risen to the surface in the headlines in 2020 as being victims of police brutality. However, in the case of Ahmaud Arbery, who was chased and shot down by two white men with guns who believed he “looked like a man suspected in several break-ins,”[i] he became one of the first this year to be declared not only a murder, but a lynching.[ii] There were soon other names added to the list: 38-year-old Malcolm Harsch from Victorville, CA was found hanging on May 31st of this year at a homeless encampment, and 24-year-old Robert Fuller from Palmdale, CA was found in a similar fashion on June 10th, only two weeks later.[iii] Fuller’s death was ruled a suicide since there was “no evidence of foul play.”[iv] Then there was Dominique Alexander, 27, found hanging in Manhattan Park on June 9th.[v] A Black teen was also found dead in Spring, Texas in the parking lot of Ehrhardt Elementary School, with the police claiming once again that there were “no signs of foul play.”[vi] On May 27th, 2019, just a year before these newer waves of protests began, a trans woman named Titi Gulley was found hanging from a tree in Rocky Butte Park, a homeless camp, in Portland, Oregon. At that time, “police didn’t ask any questions about Gulley’s death and treated her concerns with indifference” despite other people in the homeless community saying they witnessed her being murdered and “hung to make it look like suicide.”[vii]

While there are more incidents that were spotted across the country, these dominant narratives claim suicide, while those close to the victims have maintained them to be murder—or in more precise terms—lynching. In a tense, political climate where we find that our Black siblings are dying at the hands of either those in law enforcement or those that believe they can take a perverse interpretation of the law in their hands, “suicide” looks less believable. When “no foul play” has been found repeatedly, we find ourselves frustrated over the lack of investigation or just plain apathy towards the communities in which these deaths have taken place. It leads many of us to believe that these are not coincidences, not suicides, but a resurgence of the terror and abomination that is lynching.

For many of us, labeling the recent murders of Black people as lynching strikes a chord within us. We refrain from saying it at our own tables at home, let alone mentioning it in the pulpit. We feel haunted and repulsed at the word as images of the intentional, brutal execution of Emmet Till and others come to mind. However, our deterrence to name these cases as lynching by police or incensed white people only enables the distorted narratives of these events to continue. Dr. George Yancy, a Professor of Philosophy at Emory University, believes the term to be appropriate since “lynching as a form of anti-black violence continues, but all of the multiple ways in which the lynching takes place have shifted.”[viii] If we do not apply the term when it matters most, then the seriousness and weight of the term easily becomes misappropriated by those in power who have never experientially felt the weight, injustice, and sorrow that comes with it. President Donald Trump has used the term “lynching” to describe the uncomfortable position of an impeachment process so that his followers could see him as a victim. In general, Conservative reliance on this language establishes them as an “embattled, ignored, and abject minority,”[ix] when in reality we know is not the case since they are the ones in the highest positions of power, oftentimes controlling the freedoms of the most disenfranchised Americans.

You do not have to look far to see what checking the freedom of Black people in America looks like; we need only observe the way we use our language. It looks like people drowning out the cries of “Black Lives Matter” with chants of “All Lives Matter.” It looks like predominantly white non-profit and corporate boards looking alike with their discriminatory policies. It looks like Black history untold and unheard of in academic spaces. As our Black brothers and sisters slowly find ways to have a presence in the same spaces that whites have traditionally held positions of power, lynching resurges as those that feel threatened literally try to snuff out this progressive, inclusive movement. To name a murder specifically as a lynching becomes important because the word points to the horrors of white supremacy when it is backed by seemingly legal and overt ways of justifying it, while also sending a message to our Black siblings that they are not valuable, that they should “stay in their place,” and that there is no justice waiting for them. The manner of lynching also matters. It points to the insidiousness and covertness of white supremacy; that the deaths of Harsch and Fuller, which could have happened under the concealment of night, are only discovered when daylight comes, revealing extinguished Black humanity with no witnesses. However, many white people read these headlines quickly, passing by the words “no foul play” and “ruled a suicide.” When they scroll through these articles on their phones over coffee, they are also subconsciously internalizing this cruelty to be so much a part of the American landscape that it is not noticed, not felt, and not recognized as a lynching on any conscious level. It is not a sin to them, but one of many tragic circumstances that they see as having nothing to do with them.

In his book, The Cross and the Lynching Tree, James Cone says, “Whites today cannot separate themselves from the culture that lynched blacks, unless they confront their history and expose the sin of white supremacy…What happened to blacks also happened to whites. When whites lynched blacks, they were literally and symbolically lynching themselves—their sons, daughters, cousins, mothers and fathers, and a host of other relatives.”[x] The history of Blacks and whites in his country are entwined for good. Yet for white people, our inability to recognize that Black people are being lynched (and not just murdered) is the same as walking right past themboth literally in a park, hanging, and figuratively through the headlines. We pass by them and don’t recognize them as our siblings because we have been taught along the way that this is a “Black” problem, a dark problem of the past not to be discussed any longer, or that somehow this is one isolated case caused by a few “bad apples” that must be so tragic for their family. But as Christians, we live into the conviction that there is only ONE family, that we are ALL children of God, and therefore, inseparable and responsible for each other.

In John 15:13, Jesus says, “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.” What would it mean if white Christians truly believed this? Would “Black Lives Matter” really sound so harsh on the ears? Would we really be so worried about offending our congregations? Would we continue to be apprehensive about holding our bishops, pastors, directors and boards accountable for their own inaction and participation in white supremacist systems? What about our city councils and local governments? This is not a call for white people to become “saviors,” which supposes that Black communities need us to rescue them. This is also not a call to be martyrs for martyrdom’s sake, which only seeks self-glorification and changes nothing. Rather, this is a call for white people, but especially white Christians, collectively and individually, to start making anti-racist changes wherever we are. We start by naming sins of white supremacy when we see them and rebuking the individuals that continue to deny its present-day existence while they continuously benefit from it. This includes naming the systemic murder of our Black siblings as lynching everywhere that this might come up, but especially, in the pulpit.

In this same chapter of the Gospel of John, Jesus tells his disciples to love each other as he has loved them. He calls them friends and warns them that they will be hated and persecuted for following him. The love that God calls us to have is a love that is so radical and inclusive it makes many uncomfortable. To be truly anti-racist means that when we look at our Black siblings being lynched in the streets and in their homes that we do not see it as a “Black problem,” but we see it as OUR problem. We acknowledge we are so deeply grafted to each other through Jesus, our vine, that we need to love and protect each other at ALL costs. We face the truth that this will not get better until we sacrifice our own comfort to eradicate racism in our own families, faith communities, and areas of employment. If we believe that we are followers of “The Way,” it means we must name the systemic murders of Black people as modern-day lynching. White Christians especially have looked too comfortably upon the cross for so long that we have failed to recognize that Jesus was also lynched; suffering an unwarranted punishment and death meant to instill fear in others. It is time for white Christians to look upon it and repent and for church and community leaders, to show them what that looks like in our words and actions. ‌

[i] Fausset, R. (2020, May 11). What We Know About the Shooting Death of Ahmaud Arbery. The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/article/ahmaud-arbery-shooting-georgia.html

[ii] Collins, S. (2020, May 21). Why Ahmaud Arbery’s killing was a lynching. Vox. https://www.vox.com/21263899/ahmaud-arbery-lynched-video-mcmichael-glynn-county-georgia

[iii] The Times Editorial Board. (2020, June 17). Two Black men hanging from trees? Of course police need to investigate. Los Angeles Times. https://www.latimes.com/opinion/story/2020-06-17/palmdale-hanging-black-men

[iv] Yakas, B. (2020, June 17). NYPD Investigating Suicide Of Black Man Found Hanging From Tree In Manhattan Park. Gothamist. https://gothamist.com/news/nypd-investigating-suicide-black-man-found-hanging-tree-manhattan-park

[v] Ibid.

[vi] Rahman, K. (2020, June 17). Black teen found dead by hanging in Texas. Newsweek. https://www.newsweek.com/black-teen-found-dead-hanging-texas-1511342

[vii] Patton, S. (2020, July 22). Perspective | Police say deaths of black people by hanging are suicides. Many black people aren’t so sure. Washington Post. https://www.washingtonpost.com/outlook/2020/06/22/black-victims-hanging-suicide/

[viii] McLaughlin, E. C. (2020, June 3). America’s legacy of lynching isn’t all history. Many say it’s still happening today. CNN. https://www.cnn.com/2020/06/03/us/lynching-america-george-floyd-ahmaud-arbery-breonna-taylor/index.html

[ix] Glickman, L. B. (2019, October 23). Perspective | Why President Trump used lynching as a metaphor. Washington Post. https://www.washingtonpost.com/outlook/2019/10/23/why-trump-used-lynching-metaphor/

[x] Cone, J. H. (2013). The cross and the lynching tree. Orbis Books.

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