On Violence and Living in a “Racialized” Society: Silence Sends a Clear Message When We Have an Opportunity to Act

The casket was not empty. It carried the body of a 14-year-old, African American boy by the name of Emmett Till, son of Mamie. He was from Chicago visiting his family in Mississippi when the prankster took a dare and flirted with a white woman. Four days later he was dead, murdered by the woman’s husband and brother. They beat young Emmett beyond recognition, shot him in the head, and threw his lifeless body in the Tallahatchie River. The two men walked away from the circus court scot free and his mother – that grieving, respectable, Christian woman – required an open casket funeral so “the world can see what they did to my baby.” His name was Emmett. He had people who loved him. His life mattered!

During that time, people named racism but nobody did anything about the evil in their midst. Today, the violence of racism is ever present with us but many in the church refuse to acknowledge it. There is little doubt that blacks and whites identify racism or racist acts differently, and that distinction is the very barrier that paralyzes people from acting rightly. After all, no one wants to be known as racist or considered prejudiced. Christian sociologists and authors Michael O. Emerson and Christian Smith believe it is best to refer to our current society as a “racialized” one “wherein race matters profoundly for differences in life experiences, life opportunities, and social relationships. A racialized society can also be said to be ‘a society that allocates differential economic, political, social, and even psychological rewards to groups along racial lines; lines that are socially constructed.”  

In a racialized society, it is socially acceptable by some for a white, young man with a police record to receive a gun as a birthday present. In a racialized society, a grown, white man with the authority of his police badge can abuse his power and threaten a black child while pulling her hair, focusing her to the ground, and then sitting on her back in broad day light as other adults and black children stand by paralyzed in fear. This is the black experience of domestic terrorism. This is violence and I need some white male Christian leaders who are bold enough to name this sin, denounce it, and then act.  

Last week our nation became aware of another racially charged hate crime. The twenty one year old white supremacist, Dylann Roof, walked into Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, SC. He received the hospitality of black folks and remained with them in prayer for an hour before opening fire to murder six women and three men. Their names are Cynthia Hurd, Susie Jackson, Ethel Lance, DePayne Middleton, U.S. Senator and Reverend Clementa Pickney, Tywanza Sanders, Daniel Simmons, Sharonda Coleman, and Myra Thompson. Their lives mattered too.   

We need to take time to acknowledge these lives and this American history. We need to consider what is the proper response and leadership of the united church in this hour. Members of black churches are in mourning, and we are also grieving the silence of churches and leaders who minister in predominately white congregations. I thank God that the pastor in the multi-ethnic church where I worship named the sin of racism and proclaimed the kingdom of God on Sunday. 

I cried the entire service understanding that if he is indeed for Christ and for his united church which consists of people from all ethnic groups, I needed to hear this public confession and acknowledgement of sin and grief from him, a white pastor. I needed to know that the people who belong to God can preach a prophetic Word that acknowledges His power to overcome the evil spirits and demonic powers at work in the world. I need some acknowledgement of righteous anger, of the ability to lament and cry out with people of color who are in mourning. I needed a reminder that Christ is still on the throne, and that although the Enemy of our souls has limited power on this earth, Christ has already won the violent war between ultimate good and evil. I needed to hear powerful prayers that rattle the cages of hell. Satan loses. 

Right now, I need to hear old spirituals that give me hope and remind me to persevere in the midst of these troubles. Other than a contemplative prayer or a practice of spiritual discipline, I need there not to be silence from my white sisters and brothers.

There is a growing concern among people of color regarding the racially charged violent crimes against Black people. For every person of color who raises a plea by naming the violence against black bodies, there is a white counterpart that dehumanizes the victim by placing blame (“The victim was not that innocent”), validating the injustice (“The police officer was just doing his job.”), or is silent (because the issue is not of concern to them). White perpetrators in the most recent events like the #CharlestonShooting and #McKinney pool party are presented in the media as “rogue” or their behavior is presented as an “isolated” incident without the consideration that these personal choices were cultivated in communities and are all a part of a history of domestic terrorism against people of color. These systemic injustices have been designed and perpetrated to keep black people—and any other minority, oppressed, vulnerable, or unwanted people group—in fear with no sense of human value or dignity, and certainly no equality of life for them or their children. For those of us who are racial and ethnic minorities in the church, we are suffering injustice upon injustice. 

We bear the weight of the child who is murdered or disrespected. We bear the weight of crying in fear for the lives of all those who are at risk simply because they are black and outside—and now it seems there is no safety inside, not even in the church. We bear the weight of powerlessness, of not being able to help, of standing by idly, of keeping our hands visible at all times. When violence is imposed upon us, we bear the weight of silence from our white sisters and brothers. After all, those are the voices that remind us that, “Everything is not about race. We need to wait until we have all the facts.” Some want us to get over it already—to be silent. Their silence and the unconscious demand of our silence is violence against us.

This ugly, vicious, and sinful violence is:

Knowing the history of rejection, punishment, abuse, rapes, child labor, murder, and yes, slavery. We will not ignore the blood of our ancestors which cry out to us from the ground. 

Oh the violence of denial… Bang. Bang. 

It is all the times when Black people cry foul and are traumatized again for “race baiting” or “pulling the race card” and when we are chastised with the lies that, “our families are broken…that we are a threat…that we are too loud…that we like to cause trouble and our children don’t know how to respect authorities.” 

Oh the violence of wrong assumptions… Bang. Bang. 

It is the everyday reminder that there is no “us” or “we the people” only “them” and “those people,” while white folks accept the Black “middle class” on the assumption that they are somehow different from “the rest of them.”

Oh the violence of the silent fears of Black folks…Bang. Bang. 

It is the fear of knowing that your body is not holy and your children are not safe, not in the classroom, not in the car, not on the playground, not at the pool, and not even in the Black Church.

The violent reality that we are now standing face-to-face with our own history…Bang. Bang.

This violence happens again and again.

Media outlets moved on quickly just weeks ago as I watched and contemplated yet another injustice by white people of power against unarmed black children. For black folks, these are not isolated incidents. Violence is knowing the narrative too well and not having compassion for these injustices. I have not stopped grieving. That time it was #McKinney, Texas. That time it was in a diverse middle class environment – a pool party where there are no “thugs” on the street. That time the cop was not “in fear for his life.” That time the black children were definitely not carrying real or toy guns because they were garbed in bikinis, towels, and swim trunks. 

That time, I was comforting myself with the same words from Scripture, the same ole songs, and snatching small bits of encouragement from the same brothers and sisters who are committed to the hard work of reconciliation. This consolation included my white sisters who have continued to reach out and pray for me during these difficult times. I appreciate their checking in, their gentle acknowledgement, their listening ears, and their prayers. 

Yet I believe this time Charleston and my home state of South Carolina has given our white sisters and brothers the opportunity to lead well, to name sin, to speak truth, to lament, and to take action. This historic time calls for a collective voice of white Christian leaders to join forces with reconcilers and those standing against injustice to publicly denounce the violence against black bodies. They are not silent on other issues where they have counted the cost and considered the breaches in the fabric of our nation and in the walls of the church. Therefore, I am asking them to consider the fact that the very presence of racism, however subtle, is something we have all grown too comfortable with in our society and that itself is a violent act. 

A loving act would be rejecting the lie that we live in a post-racial America. A loving act would be weeping and mourning and not rushing to a false sense of acceptance or offering responses of cheap grace. A loving act would be rejecting half-truths and silencing the voices in our own communities who perpetrate them. Violence demands that we ignore racism but love compels us to act. Only unconcerned people can look at this history trial and continuously have the privilege of looking away.

We live in a country that is tainted by racism – where blacks have conditioned themselves to swallow their suffering, and where whites have conditioned themselves to ignore it. I shudder in horror when considering the lies we all tell ourselves so we feel more comfortable in this dark land where we continue to cry for peace and there is no peace. Today, we each have a choice as to whether we will continue in the violent act of silence or whether we will take the risk of acknowledgement and act in love. 

Living as a Christian in a racialized society means understanding our present reality and stating this is not God’s intended plan or purpose for His human creation. Living as a Christian in a racialized society requires that we stand up to fight and speak out against injustice until there is true peace. Not acknowledging racism with all its residual effects as sins against humanity is a spiritual problem. Spiritual strongholds need spiritual takedowns. Therefore, I believe God calls us to a sacred response that is intentional and active in our prayer, praise, and engagement of the Holy Spirit. At this time, we need to hear troubling sermons from the pulpit and have relevant Bible studies. We need prominent Christian leaders to write open letters and articles, to make podcasts and videos. We need not let this dire need get swept away with the next news story or celebrity gossip. We need local community leaders to have focused discussions with objectives and follow through on collective action items. We need to lobby our state and federal leaders to do what is right. This is a collective and loving response of a united body of Christ that can expose the enemy, break down strongholds, and allow us to lead as a credible witness of the gospel of Jesus Christ.

For the glory of God, we must not be silent! 

[Photo: Elvert Barnes, candlelight vigil for Emmanuel AME, CC via Flickr]

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