And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself. –John 12:32 Long before Freddie Gray lingered between life and death in a Baltimore hospital, with an as yet unexplained broken back, I knew America to be the same, broken and inexplicable. I understood as much when, as an eight-year-old, a call to a wrong number earned a slur that would be my constant companion in the years to come. Did my voice already betray me as different and somehow inferior? I had perceived a certain disdain for my complexion, but my voice too? Reminders of this inexplicable brokenness would recur at the unearned frisks and traffic stops that peppered my teenage years. We were not fools; we knew the difference between our school books and those on the other side of town. We visited their laboratories and cafeterias. Even at a young age, we noticed the nouns and adjectives that clustered around the descriptions of our neighborhood: animal, thug, jungle, lazy, criminal.
But it was my own people who shot up my house. The long–term effects of slavery and Jim Crow are not lost on me, but unless we are to embrace a full–blown determinism, in which case we might as well abandon all hope, we must acknowledge that all our problems are not external. Of course the question of how African–Americans should be treated by police officers can and should be pursued separately from the issues that plague our community. But I did not experience them separately; they were a part of a unified experience. This is not about “the politics of respectability.” It is simply to acknowledge that I sat at the lunch tables while black men bragged about their mistreatment of black women. I saw the girls we played hide and seek with as children hide their baby bumps while the rumors grew. I saw us abandon those women. I saw myself in those babies and mourned. I saw us beat each other half to death to maintain arbitrary definitions of respect while we waded through an atmosphere of hopelessness that was, at times, almost palpable, only to get in a car, drive two miles, and be pulled over for driving while black.
I was no mere detached observer. Yes, I was stereotyped and harassed. Yes, my community had problems of its own, but I participated in those problems. I did not float above the struggle like some sociologist commenting on the things that stalked us. I sought them out. I sat in silence afraid to plead with friends and neighbors when they engaged in activities that I knew would only end in disaster. After the marches and speeches have concluded, we are left with our consciences. In the light of the cross, I stood convicted.
So Jesus became my protest. Why? Because love sought me, and even when my soul drew back, his pursuit never flagged. Centuries before they were killing innocent African-Americans, an innocent Jewish man died with words of forgiveness on his lips. The Messiah was well acquainted with institutional sin; he still bears its marks in his flesh. Nonetheless, he chose love, and his father calling him forth from the dead shows the rightness of his path and manifests his divine nature. His death displays a concern for the transformation of peoples and nations that trumps my own. It also gives me the tools to speak truthfully about injustice without falling prey to despair or hatred. The word of the cross speaks its healing power to racists, drugs dealers, and PhD students. It says to governments that the valuation of human life does not reside with you, but the creator. Jesus, not twitter hashtags, has determined that black lives matter, a value written in blood.
The kingdom, then, is coming and the church’s advocacy for its values now has the aroma of new creation about it. Our work on behalf of black lives is not an addendum to the Gospel, it is a witness to it. Our peaceful methods are rooted in gospel values, nothing more, nothing less. Call it weak if you must, but first ask the gods and empires that precede the current ones about what Jesus can do through such weakness.
He spoke the truth; after being lifted up, he has drawn all people to himself, including those who lowered their balled fists to raise high his cross in its stead.