Writer, activist, theologian, biochemist, middle school science teacher shares her excerpt, essay and poem.
When the Church Sins: The Violence of Silence
For Christians, the church is the holiest dwelling, a place that represents a spiritual connection to God, where we go to praise and worship the one who was crucified for our sins, the one who was both human and divine, the one who provides eternal salvation to us all, Jesus the Christ. According to our Christian theology, Jesus is the earthly manifestation of God, whom we worship as our Lord and Savior. He stands for love, peace, mercy, and justice. He is a man who knew no sin. The church, also referred to as the body of Christ, understands itself to be representative of everything that Christ is, everything that Jesus stood for. However, upon closer examination of the church, we will unfortunately find that it is replete with sin, and one of its greatest sins is silence in the face of certain injustices, especially as it pertains to police brutality.
One of the most horrendous transgressions committed against black men, women, and children is the incessant violence perpetrated against us by a racist, sadistic society. It is even more egregious when it is committed by those who have sworn an oath to protect and serve. As America has deemed it permissible to demonize, criminalize, and brutalize black people simply because of the color of our skin, countless numbers of innocent unarmed black people are being massacred in the streets because of the vicious, racist hatred that runs rampant in the law enforcement system, and is later protected by the justice system and the doctrine of qualified immunity. And while we are being relentlessly pursued because our lives have been determined to be expendable, the Christian church has not only been complacent, but many have also been complicit with these atrocities.
Numerous white churches have been guilty of not only espousing racist rhetoric, but also of preaching a theology that urges Christian silence when it comes to standing against authority, no matter how abhorrent their actions may be, which allows those in authority to continue to act with impunity. And many black churches have accepted, adopted, and perpetuated this racist theology as well. White and black churches alike have remained silent in the face of tragedies committed by the police against the black community, with their so-called Christian piety being nothing more than Christian apathy. Yet they are always preaching to their congregants from James 2:17 that “faith without works is dead.” Some have even gone so far as to preach to African Americans about all the ways in which to properly conduct ourselves during a police encounter so as not to get killed. They reinforce society’s impropriety of placing the onus for staying alive on the potential victim, as opposed to holding a corrupt and racist system, maintained by corrupt and racist officers, accountable for their hate-filled actions. This is like telling women how to conduct themselves so as not to get raped, as opposed to holding rapists accountable for their heinous violence against women.
Churches are expected to be the prophetic voice that stands against the iniquities and inequities of society, and for Christians, the two most significant theological implications that surround social justice issues are found in Matthew 22:37–39 (to love God and one’s neighbor) and Matthew 25:34–40 (caring for the least of these). However, as a country that practices religious freedom, these scriptures do not hold authority for everyone. America must therefore rely on its own moral compass, its own beliefs about humanity and justice. But for the church, these scriptures are not only to be upheld with the utmost reverence and authority, they are also to help Christians understand exactly what is required of us as people of God. Loving one’s neighbor means loving all of God’s people, and caring for the least of these does not simply stop with feeding the poor, it means standing up in the face of injustice as well.
All throughout the Gospels we see Jesus standing against oppression, standing up for those who were marginalized politically, economically, religiously, and socially. Why do countless numbers of churches not do the same? Yet they will not hesitate to speak out when the purpose is to further promulgate the oppression of already marginalized groups. We have seen this during and after the reformation, as Protestant Christians became the greatest proponents in the implementation of chattel slavery in this country.1 We see this with numerous Protestant and Catholic churches that still will not allow women to be pastors or priests. We saw it during the fight for the legalization of gay marriage, and we continually see it in black people’s fight against racially motivated police violence. These and other issues reveal the darker side of Christianity in terms of the church’s ability to hate.
The Christian church clearly has its own difficulty in following God’s greatest commandments. It always has. It cannot abide by its own theological teachings and has even gone so far as to keenly develop ways in which to justify its sin. As the body of Christ, this is unacceptable. It is the church’s silence in the face of injustice that continues to render violence against black bodies. It is for this reason that the church has a moral and sacred obligation to preach the entirety of what Jesus stood for—not simply that he died for our sins in order to provide us with eternal salvation, but that he was a man of color crucified like a common criminal and marred beyond human recognition. He died because he went against the authority of the Pharisees and Sadducees. He was tortured because he stood against the tyranny and abuse of the ancient Hebrews at the hands of the Roman Empire. Simply put, Jesus died because he stood up for justice.
The church cannot remain silent any longer. The blood that has been shed at the hands of racial injustice is permeating the streets. The silent cries of Philando Castile, Sandra Bland, Freddie Gray, Rekia Boyd, Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, Eric Garner, George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and countless others echo the unheard screams of an entire culture of people. Screams that have persisted for 400 years. When we proclaim, “Black Lives Matter,” it is our rallying cry. It is a cry for justice. It is a cry to the world to bring an end to the senseless murders of innocent people. It is a cry to affirm our humanity in a country that has dehumanized us while it hypocritically declares, “liberty and justice for all.” It is a cry that the church must assert to the world to make the world understand that black lives matter to Jesus and to the church as well. The time has come for more churches to take a stance. The time has come for the church to preach freedom of the body as well as freedom of the soul; earthly liberation as well as heavenly salvation. The time has come for the church to recognize and repent of its own sin, the sin of silence. Amen!!
Excerpt adapted from author’s chapter published in Critical Black Studies Reader edited by Rochelle Brock, et al., 189-196. New York, NY: Peter Lang Publishing, 2017.
1Carruthers, Iva. “Blood on the Hands: The Role of the Church in the Transatlantic Slave Trade System.” Illinois Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Commission 2009 Report (2009): 1–24.
We Also Face a Pandemic of Racism
The onslaught of the global pandemic COVID-19 has brought out the best in many of us and the worst in others. It has also exposed the ugly truths of racism, white privilege and white supremacy.
As our nation’s leader continues to espouse divisive rhetoric that emboldens people to act out in aggressive ways, some Americans have sunk to a new low. Xenophobia against Asian Americans is on the rise. Health care disparities among African Americans have worsened during the pandemic due to systemic racism. Black and brown people are being disproportionately arrested for not properly following social distancing guidelines.
On May 1, when hundreds of white protesters, many of them armed with assault rifles, descended on Michigan’s state capitol to oppose stay-at-home rules, President Donald Trump referred to them as “very good people”— reminiscent of his comments when violent white supremacists marched in Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2017.
Yet when unarmed Black Lives Matter protesters marched in response to police brutality back in 2014 with the killings of Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, Eric Garner and others, we were called thugs. We were told black people would not be killed if they would just comply with police orders. We were told that the victims were suspects in crimes, and this justified their murders, without being afforded a Constitutional right to a fair trial. We were told that armed officers feared for their lives while pursuing their unarmed victims.
Since the COVID-19 pandemic began, more cases of racial terrorism and police brutality against black men, women and children have been caught on camera. Police are seen in gut-wrenching videos punching unarmed women and children in the face. In February, a father and son duo in Georgia were captured on video murdering Ahmaud Arbery, an unarmed man who was simply out for a jog. On March 13, Breonna Taylor was shot eight times in her home by police who entered her apartment with a battering ram executing a “no-knock” search warrant for someone who lived blocks away from her.
In early May, Indianapolis police were recorded killing a young black man named Sean Reed (who appeared to be unarmed), and then laughing about it. A transgender woman was killed in Missouri on May 3 in what the Human Rights Campaign has called “a toxic mix of transphobia, racism and misogyny.” On May 25, George Floyd was brutally murdered by officers caught on camera holding him down while another choked him to death with his knee for 8 minutes, 46 seconds, setting off another wave of nationwide Black Lives Matter protests that are still ongoing as of today.
Since Mr. Floyd’s murder, Rayshard Brooks was shot in the back on June 12 by officers who were called because Brooks fell asleep in a Wendy’s parking lot. After he was shot, one officer kicked him and the other stood on Brooks’ shoulders while he was struggling for his life. Four black men have also been found hanging from trees, and although police are calling these deaths suicides, family members, protesters, activists and some scholars do not believe this to be the case. They are widely believed to be lynchings.
My heart is heavy from watching my people murdered in cold blood. I cannot bring myself to watch some of the videos. Sometimes I cannot even bring myself to cry because it happens so often that I am starting to become numb to the pain.
The list of unarmed black men, women and children senselessly killed for no other reason than pure hatred for the color of their skin goes on and on: George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, Sean Reed, Nina Pop, Botham Jean, Philando Castile, Sandra Bland, Freddie Gray, Rekia Boyd, Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, Oscar Grant, Renisha McBride, Jordan Davis, Eric Garner, Trayvon Martin, the Charleston Nine and countless others.
I have marched, I have cried, I have protested. I have been angry, raised my voice, held a candlelight vigil, organized a community forum, hosted radio talk shows and written articles, essays and papers.
And I am tired. Tired of the criminalization of brown skin. Tired of dirty looks because we wear our hair a certain way. Tired of being followed around in stores. Tired of people claiming that being against police brutality means being anti-police. Tired of people pretending that personal and systemic racism do not exist. Tired of white “victimhood.”
I am tired, too, of the black community being economically and politically disenfranchised. Tired of people being complacent and complicit with racism. Tired of this country claiming “liberty and justice for all” in words rather than in actions. Tired of hearing the word ni**er. And I am tired of black lives not mattering.
The modern-day lynching of African Americans will not be endured without a fight. So long as injustice exists, the fight for justice will ensue. We will not give up until the systematic destruction of black lives is eradicated.
Jesus and the Black Body
Arms and legs of burnished bronze
Carried our sorrows
Saved us from sin
Oppressed and afflicted
Despised and rejected
Betrayed by one
Tortured by all
“Crucify him” they yelled
Thorns in his head
Welts on his back
Mocked and beaten
Marred and disfigured
No longer human
Lamb to the slaughter
Nailed to the cross
Took up our infirmities
Pierced for our iniquities
Water and blood
By whose stripes we are healed
Died like a criminal
Committed no crime
Cried out in pain
Poured out his life
Gave up his spirit
Body goes silent
He can’t breathe
Beautiful black bodies
Drowning in sorrow
From America’s sin
Oppressed and afflicted
Despised and rejected
Betrayed by the system
Tortured by the badge
“Get down” they yell
Bullets in our back
Knees on our necks
Mocked and beaten
Marred and disfigured
We are still human
Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, George Floyd
Lambs to the slaughter
Nailed in a coffin
America’s racist infirmities
Killed for its inequities
Water and blood
By whose stripes are we healed?
Dying like criminals
“Hands up, don’t shoot”
Black bodies tormented
Crying out in pain
Life pouring out
Diminishing our spirit
Bodies go silent
We can’t breathe