Two hours east of where I live, the Queen City began smoking. Days after a black man was shot by police in Tulsa, another was shot in Charlotte. The outrage built up and exploded in fiery demonstrations, attacks on police, and destruction of property. A state of emergency was declared for Charlotte. The National Guard was called up. Anger bubbles against the police. Anger bubbles against the protestors. Round and round we’ll go, when we stop, nobody knows.
The narrative is getting as depressingly well-worn as that which springs up immediately after a mass shooting. Party A says X and Party B responds with Y. Every time. It’s so depressingly familiar. You can lay out a road map for almost exactly what will happen after yet another report (inevitably) comes out that another black man has been killed by police.
I can’t write as if I understand what it’s like to be black in America. So I won’t claim that I do. But I’m shocked by how often I hear not just confusion from white people but a complete lack of willingness to try to understand why something like Charlotte happens. “Why would you break things and burn things down? That’s just so stupid.” Those questions are the easiest to ask and they take the least effort. Perhaps we would all be better served asking “Can you imagine?”
Can you imagine what it’s like to be black in America and see/hear the hot take ridicule and vitriol poured out on Colin Kaepernick for daring to use the national anthem to protest? Black people are chided to protest silently and peacefully, and when just such a thing happens, this too is deemed unacceptable. Of course, there’s no recognition that protest is supposed to be unsettling and something that garners attention. Shut up, stand up, protest…. some other way.
Can you imagine what it’s like to be black in America in a time when Donald Trump laces his campaign with white supremacist dog whistling, such that he is regularly and vocally supported by “white nationalists?” And then you’re mocked when you point this out, as if you’re making up the racial angst that Trump plays on?
Can you imagine what it’s like to have “All Lives Matter” shouted down to silence “Black Lives Matter?” As if Black Lives aren’t part of “All”? If All Lives actually do Matter, doesn’t that officially endorse the claim that “Black Lives Matter?” Many people who aren’t part of the BLM organization just want to say that, hey, this stuff matters and we pay attention, but merely saying the truth about the worth of Black Lives provokes a reaction from many people such that you are never allowed to talk about an important portion of that “all”? How “all” is it, then? Can you imagine what that feels like?
Can you imagine what it’s like to see case after case of police violence (justified or unjustified) against black men that rarely results in charges, much less a conviction?
Can you imagine what it’s like to feel that, it doesn’t matter if you have a gun or you have nothing, you very well may end up dead in any interaction with officers of the law? And then to be regularly told that the solution is to shut up and obey, something that would never be tolerated as an instruction to a crowd that openly shouts “Don’t Tread On Me”?
Can we at least, for the sake of empathy, imagine what it might be to connect all of these dots in conjunction with the dots of our own stories? Because many black men and women have stories of being harassed or questioned or stopped or searched simply because they’re black in the wrong part of town. Imagine the emotional power of all that dot-collecting. Imagine feeling like nothing can make anyone care enough, that every recourse you have, legal or otherwise, is demeaned and derided and dismissed.
Imagine the helplessness that would cultivate. Imagine the rage that helplessness would cultivate. Imagine the fear that many black mothers (and many white mothers who have adopted black children who testify to this fear as well) have that their sons will end up dead for not responding quickly enough, submissively enough, demonstratively enough. Imagine the desperation that such fear cultivates.
Can we imagine?
I don’t think anyone should burn anyone’s property or destroy things and certainly should never attack a police officer (most of whom are good, decent, servant-hearted people who have very difficult jobs). But if I had all that fear and rage and helplessness… well… what would I do? I don’t know.
Perhaps most depressing to me is the great swathes of American Christian populations that refuse to hear that any of this might be real. So many people are so convinced that any racial tension is created out of thin air, vaporous nonsense, that they will not consider the stories of their black brothers and sisters. Our own family is telling us that something is not right and our only response is repeatedly to say, “Talking about race just creates racial division.” For example, the ChristianPost (an organization I know very little about, just that over half a million people “like” it on Facebook) posted a link to video regarding the opening of the African American history museum. The comments were almost entirely white people saying this was nonsense and they deserve a museum too or “this will divide us.” It was nauseating.
The Bible doesn’t prohibit us from talking about race. In fact, Paul says that every tribe and tongue will worship Jesus. He doesn’t say, “Hey guys, there will only be one tribe and tongue, so don’t even notice the ‘every’ part.” And what part of the Bible leads Christians to believe that talking about problems, talking about sin is a problem? Bring things into the light so the light can kill our sin. That’s our ethos! That’s our ethic! But Christians in America are shushing along with every other voice that’s uncomfortable with this.
Can the media inflame just about anything? Yes. Is every officer that shoots a black man guilty of a crime? No. But those two facts do not mean that racial injustice doesn’t exist or that no officer who shoots a black man is ever guilty.
I don’t know how to fix all of this. I don’t want to personally arbitrate every police shooting. I don’t think law enforcement as a whole is a corrupt institution. I don’t think black people are making up what they’re seeing. I don’t know how all of that shakes out.
But I want to listen. I want to learn. I want to weep with those who weep. I want our cities, our towns to flourish under a just rule and in communities that know that all people, regardless of color or creed, have support from the rest of the community.
I don’t want to dismiss or inflame. I want to listen. I want to be an agent of healing and reconciliation. And I’m ignorant on how to do that. I confess it. I take to heart the advice of Mike Moses, an amazing pastor in Charlotte who was one of my professors and a member of our denomination. The best thing I can do is make a friend. And I am shamefully bad at making friends. I don’t even know how to do that very well.
The very first thing I can do is stop dismissing. Start listening. I don’t want our cities to burn because no one will listen. I don’t want our communities to evaporate in the heat of rage and fear.
I want the Church to put out those fires with its tears and its prayers, so we might be present with the love of Jesus. We want our lives and our communities suffused with the loving rule of the God-King, who laid down his life for the life of us all. I rarely know what to do. I just want to follow him. Not the media. Not a politician or ideology. I want to follow Jesus.
Surely he can take us to better places.