taking the words of Jesus seriously

It has been a rough few days for those processing the police killing of 16-year-old foster child Ma’Khia Bryant. Multiplying the pain are the many people who have taken to the media to write and speak at length on their belief in the importance of everyone understanding that Bryant’s death was justified, that the Black Lives Matter “narrative” doesn’t apply in all cases, and that a hero cop saved the life of Bryant’s potential stabbing victim. Some of these people are Christians. I am not going to link to them or engage in that conversation because it is a fruitless one when there are mourners to whom God needs us to attend.

“Mourn with those who mourn” is, evidently, an optional extra in some people’s faith. Their priorities bely a greater care for the stability of America and its police than the instructions of God. And that idol has its own law, a law that justifies death.

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The criminal justice system neatly divides the world into victims and perpetrators. There are practical reasons for this. But those reasons apply to very little beyond the parameters of court cases. Outside the body camera’s frame is a world in which victims and perpetrators are often the same people. Trauma reproduces itself, and metastasizes throughout systems of oppression. There is maybe no better picture of this than foster care, where the obviously real need to protect children is often a facade hiding nightmarish denigration. I worked as a public defender of parents in that system for a few years and cannot possibly convey the breadth of the problems with foster care in the space I have here. But these are some relevant points. 

Foster care is, in theory, designed to protect children from abuse in the home and provide them with rehabilitation services. But physical and sexual abuse of children in care occurs at alarming rates. Moreover, the system is and always has been filled with racial prejudice. And it mostly prosecutes parents for difficulties they have due to poverty, with only a small minority of cases having anything to do with physical or sexual abuse. The child welfare system (or as parent advocates often call it, the family policing system) produces disproportionately negative outcomes for Black families at every step of the bureaucratic process, including how often agencies suspect neglect and remove children, how frequently they fail to find adoptive homes for children, and how long it takes to reunite families. 

Agencies also place Black children in congregate care settings, like where Ma’Khia was, at higher rates. These settings are considerably more dangerous than foster homes, and lead to worse outcomes in areas like education, employment, and incarceration. Older teenagers in care, like Ma’Khia, have almost all experienced serious trauma and are much more likely to have post-traumatic stress disorder. My own teenage clients who lived in congregate care settings with other teenagers constantly complained of violence, and the outnumbered and untrained staff’s inability or unwillingness to do anything beyond calling the police.

The sense these clients had that they were alone, that they couldn’t trust anyone, that they had to defend themselves by being tougher than the next kid was always clear as day. The likelihood of getting in a confrontation, the confrontation escalating, and someone getting hurt was just so high. And why did I, a defense attorney for parents, have clients who were foster children? Because when foster children become parents, their status in the eyes of the law often changes from victim to perpetrator in an instant. The state brings neglect cases against them, even while their own parents’ cases are ongoing. 

I of course do not know all of Ma’Khia’s story. I know a few things though. Her mother reports Ma’Khia had recently made honor roll, a remarkable feat for kids in her position. She liked making TikTok videos of herself doing her hair, which now have over a million views. Her family described her as a “beautiful” and “sweet girl,” and I have known too many traumatized sweet, Black foster kids who almost any cop or anyone in a family court would describe as a threat to everyone around them. The ways the system has crushed you, the ways you are still succeeding and finding joy, just don’t matter when there are only two types of people, and you’re the one with the knife.

For many Black people mourning, the grief compounds because Ma’Khia could have been their child or any number of kids they know. They also know that most white people are accurately certain that she couldn’t have been their child; so certain that the thought doesn’t even occur. Separation breeds apathy, and both are conditions that make it easy for white people to ask “what else could the cop do?” instead of “how do we stop this?” or even just “why, God?” 

Fortunately, the law regulating the use of deadly force does not govern Christian orthopraxy. We do not give it our allegiance or praise its righteousness. Only syncretized faiths value the supremacy of human laws. We value truth. The truth is that the state took another Black girl from her family under the pretense of safety, and then it killed her. The truth is that she bore the image of God and her death is a tragedy regardless of any circumstance. But the circumstances also hurt. Her death, and the systems in which her life existed, grieve God, and so does the pain of anyone mourning. God will stop and sit with the mourners for as long as it takes them to stand back up and continue together on their journey to God’s Kingdom. Those who rush to justify death are on a different path. Until they are ready to repent, God will let them go on their way.

About The Author

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Sy Hoekstra is a Partner at KTF Press, a new blog and media company dedicated to helping us leave colonized faith for the Kingdom of God. He is also the producer and co-host of Shake the Dust, KTF Press’s new podcast which premieres this Friday, April 30. He previously worked as a Staff Attorney for the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, and as a public defender in Manhattan Family Court.

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