O Lord, how long shall I cry for help,
and you will not listen?
Or cry to you “Violence!”
and you will not save?
Why do you make me see wrongdoing
and look at trouble?
Destruction and violence are before me;
strife and contention arise.
So the law becomes slack
and justice never prevails.
The wicked surround the righteous–
therefore judgment comes forth perverted.
What are we to make of the world more than a year after the killing of Mike Brown? I struggle as a Black man of faith to reconcile my belief with the cruel reality of injustice and televised murder. I struggle with a church that proclaims the Gospel message and yet often refuses to lay her body on the line for truth. My journey to the United Church of Christ was through pain and doubt and the knowledge that my life was forfeit to systemic violence. Now I look to the UCC to stand with the oppressed in the face of state-sanctioned murder in the service of white supremacy.
What made Mike Brown’s death so catalyzing was the violence perpetrated not only against his body by a militarized police force and a derelict, and complicit, “justice” system, but also the violence against his very humanity. His corpse, left rotting in the sun for four hours, is symbolic of the violence of concentrated poverty and broken social systems. The community of Ferguson, MO was witness to this expansive violence as they watched a young man’s blood soak into their streets.
One of the focuses of the Black Lives Matter movement is to restructure our understanding of what violence is and how it operates to murder and enslave, both physically and mentally, the dispossessed. What we must understand as a faith community is that this is also the project of Jesus as the Christ and his followers. The Way attempted to free its early adherents from the fear of death and the poverty of soul inherent in sublimating the self to empire.
Violence is not simply the attempt to end existence; it is also the attempt to quell the innate human desire for imagination and agency.
The violence of oppression is deep, so our commitment to justice must be deeper.
Coretta Scott King (we often forget that she possessed her own life as an activist and intellectual) stated: “I must remind you that starving a child is violence. Neglecting school children is violence. Punishing a mother and her family is violence. Discrimination against a workingman is violence. Ghetto housing is violence. Ignoring medical need is violence. Contempt for poverty is violence.”
Violence is the ultimate tool of white supremacy.
It has grown and developed into a system of oppression and hatred that works to destroy resistance and, ultimately, the promise of God’s will on earth. Mike Brown continues to be a symbol of this resistance – just as those like Dylan Roof can be used to distract from the true nature of systemic violence.
It is my fear that Roof will become the symbol of an overt and simple-to-digest form of racialized violence. Those in position of privilege can point to Roof and the catastrophe of Charleston and say, “Whatever I am, I am not that.”
We cannot allow a single event to distort the reality of violence in the United States.
Roof was raised in a maelstrom of white supremacy – not merely overtly racist speech and action, but also the culturally ingrained belief that people of color are taking rights and power that rightfully belong to him by virtue of his skin. This belief is supported by those who sue over affirmative action (“Those people are taking my place!”), those who fear immigration and the loss of their land, those who worship in segregated churches within segregated denominations within segregated communities, and those who tolerate symbols of vile hatred and treason.
Race is a form of violence – it is one of the founding arbiters of power in this country and is still used to divide and prevent the revolutionary impulse of unity and morality.
In the quote found at the beginning of this post, Habakkuk is lamenting that his calling as a prophet to the Lord prevents him from ignoring the disparity between the promise of faith and the pain of reality. Violence is penetrating every level of his society and Habakkuk can only bear witness and speak to the truth of the prophetic imagination. Later he writes, “Dread and fearsome are they; their justice and dignity proceed from themselves” (Hb 1:7). What a startling definition of white supremacy and flawed theology! We are called by our faith and our humanity to live into the will of God and resist the violence which permeates our existence.
For all lives to matter, we must first affirm that black lives matter.
Foster J. Pinkney is a writer, student, and organizer from Columbus, Ohio. He is a recent graduate from Union Theological Seminary in the City of New York and started attending the University of Chicago Divinity School in September 2015, to study for a PhD in Religious Ethics.