As a Christian, I often contemplate what is expected of me as a believer.
How should I treat my neighbor? How should I respond to life’s events? How should I treat the people who mistreat me?
When this question crosses my mind, I usually return to Micah’s mandate in Micah 6:8.
Micah asked and answered his own question: “What does the Lord require? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.”
Despite the circumstances, God’s expectation is the same: to act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly before our creator.
But how do we walk justly in the presence of grave injustice.
This is a question many of us are grappling with following the death of Atatiana Jefferson.
Jefferson was in her own home, playing video games with her nephew when she was killed. Her nephew, who is eight years old, is too young to drive a car, yet he’s already witnessed grotesque violence.
There is no scenario that makes Jefferson’s passing okay. But the fact that she was killed at home is almost too much to bear.
I am clear that the world is not always a safe and welcoming space.
When we leave our homes, we forego control.
However, we have a right to seek comfort in a place that we pay for and maintain.
Notwithstanding victims of domestic and intimate partner violence, who are routinely terrorized in their own homes, one’s home is supposed to be a sanctuary.
Once you lock the doors, install a security system, you believe you are relatively safe. Further, if you control the flow of traffic of who comes and goes at your residence, you take comfort in knowing that your precautions may pay off.
We are learning, rather tragically, that for black people, there are fewer and fewer safe spaces.
It’s not just the bad guys we have to worry about; it’s the people sworn to protect and serve. Unfortunately, in the same way that water can seep through crevices, police forces that are unaccountable to the people, can wreack unimaginable violence.
We should remind readers of the history of policing to prove our point.
The modern police force was an outgrowth of night patrols and slave watches. These early police departments were deputized with finding slaves and returning them to their masters or punishing them, up to and including death, when slaves attempted to escape. Later, police were created to protect white people and protect them from black people. Police were never created to make black people feel safe or prioritize their well-being.
While there are certainly individual police officers who do not want to cause harm, the institution of policing was created to benefit white lives at the expense of black lives.
When you add in the complication that many police officers do not look like the communities where they serve, you introduce another cause for concern. When police live in a community, theoretically, they can get to know the community and see people less by their race and more by their humanity. This is difficult when police are taken out of the communities where they live and their only interaction with said community is to enforce a criminal code.
Further, if you factor in the problematic portrayals of black people reported in the media and pop culture, there is a pathology of policing that is deeply fearful and distrustful of black people. This mistrust and fear is killing us.
It is reasonable then to ask, “How long, Lord? How long?”
Black people experience a conundrum. Whom do we call when we need help? Equally important, where are our safe spaces?
It is not hyperbole that black people can be, and many have been, criminalized and killed for walking, driving, eating and just living. What is clear is that one call to police could end in death — or trauma and criminalization if a person survives the encounter.
The question becomes, “Is our faith big enough to respond to this situation?” Is our faith big enough to demand justice and extend mercy, and what does mercy even look like in a situation like this?
We know all too well that racism goes deeper than any individual “bad apple” officer and that Jefferson’s killing was not the first police-involved fatal shooting of a black woman. Christian scripture teaches us clearly that “our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh,” we are, instead, wrestling with “powers and principalities” (Ephesians 6:12) themselves, which, in our days, means that we’re wrestling with systemic racism and the ongoing criminalization of communities of color — including women and children.
Jefferson’s death provides several reminders.
First, the safety that white people presume in their own bedrooms is not something afforded to black people equally. This is a structural and institutional problem that deserves a structural and institutional response. As Dr. Robin DiAngelo said in her book White Fragility, “White people in North America live in a society that is deeply separate and unequal by race, and white people are the beneficiaries of that separation and inequality.” The question becomes how are white sisters and white sisters of faith using that privilege?
Next, when God told us to put on the whole armor of God, that direction was spoken for times such as this: “Therefore take up the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to withstand on that evil day, and having done everything, to stand firm” (Ephesians 6:13). In reference to systemic racism, we are called to continued, sustained action.
Third, we must challenge ourselves to tell the truth. Efforts to challenge police violence and fatal police shootings that do not include the experiences of black women are missing the point. While black men are often victims of police violence, black women and girls are increasingly brutalized and killed as well. Sandra Bland, Rekia Boyd, Koryn Gaines, Natasha McKenna, Darnisha Harris, Malissa Williams, and Shantel Davis were all killed by police, and they are a small fraction of the many other black women and girls who have lost their lives at the hands of police. Dr. Kimberle Crenshaw and Andrea J. Ritchie’s #SayHerName campaign was initiated for a reason — to prevent the erasure of black women and girls.
Finally, United Methodist Women are committed to faith, hope, and love in action. This mission is increasingly imperative for black women. Our organization must see and center black women. The notion of sisterhood must extend to black women and all women of color. Until all our homes are our sanctuaries, none of our homes are safe.
Our faith instructs us to mourn with those who mourn, and we cannot allow black women to bear this pain alone; this is a cross we must collectively carry. While our roles may look different, white women and other non-black people of color must see the offenses against black women and black people as offenses against their own bodies.
We are called to be enactors of change, and change starts at our sister’s doors.