The crowds trudged through the rain from the main square in order to block the street in front of Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department headquarters. “Whose streets? Our streets!” they shouted, in defiance of the long history of Charlotte. Here, streets and neighborhoods and the people who occupy them have regularly been bulldozed by all manner of polite policy proposals and “economic development” initiatives. In the 1960s, the white folks threw a party when they plowed down the black neighborhood Brooklyn. Since the ’80s, we’ve been locking folks up at world record pace. Now we have parades for healing before the disease gets diagnosed, much less treated. After all, what’s a history of gross injustice between friends?
Those gathered in the storm knew already that this moment would come. They knew since day one that the officer who killed Keith Scott back in September would not be prosecuted. But resistance remained necessary, less because of the specific circumstances than because the weight of the entire system is crushing many to privilege a few and the time for silence is over. Shouting down the stormfront felt all the more important given the near certainty of the decision, and the many others like it across the nation.
So, a remnant of the committed marched on this night, their moods dampened but resolute. The energy of the long September nights of marching and weeping and holding one another up could not be replicated on this evening. Its spirit was felt, but not fully realized.
Then, from nowhere, a moment of brilliant improvisation happened. One protester, standing next to the flagpole, simply grabbed the rope and began lowering the stars and stripes. Halfway down, she stopped and tied it back. This is a time for mourning, she declared without a word.
A white cop, young and angry, rushed to her in a rage: “You’re not gonna mess with my flag!”
And there it was, crystallized in a momentary riff for anyone with eyes to see and ears to hear. What we have been arguing about, what has been brutally imposed on some people’s bodies, what has led us to bury children who die unnatural deaths where no one is held responsible, is a question of grammar: Who gets to use which possessive pronouns?
The question of who constitutes “we the people” is one of the fundamental questions of American history. All the facts point to one answer. The makeup of “we” is determined by power, not by inalienable rights. The ones with the guns, with the money, with the land, with the weight of policy to control the bodies of others, those are the ones to whom the possessive pronouns of America are available. Such possession is determined in many ways, but we always return to melanin and the concentration of it as reason for dispossession. For years, I have heard my neighbors, who are black, call the criminal justice system the “Just-Us” system. They know the truth of the joke in their guts, and all the data show they are right. The history does, too.
Whether this fundamental flaw in our political systems can be corrected remains an open question. Now, all the way in the year of our Lord 2016, whether it will even be considered a flaw or a design feature is an open question. But there can be no question among those who claim to follow Jesus that the question of possessive pronouns has long been settled. The Psalmist says it this way: “The Earth is the Lord’s, and all that is in it.” This is a political ideology over against the totalizing narrative of Empire. It is an assertion in the face of brutality that neither Nebuchadnezzar nor Nero, nor their contemporary, democratically elected soulmates, will be able to fake news their way into authoring life or embodying liberation. The Psalmist settles the question of which bodies matter, or ought to anyways, once and for all.
This politics has guidelines around the pronouns that will set economic policy: “Blessed are the poor, for theirs is the Kin-dom of God.” This is not a neutral, laissez-faire policy. It is by no means fair or balanced, but instead is quite weighted in favor of the disinherited. Jesus uses that pronoun quite intentionally. Those who hold the power of the coming reign of God are the ones who are blocked from the power of the world, the ones who suffer under cruelty and indifference. Their stories will be at the center.
Imagine it this way: Mary is the new secretary of the treasury. She sets policy along the terms she outlines in her song of praise. “Rip the mighty from their thrones, send the rich away empty, and fill the hungry with good things.” This is not something that sits well with either liberals or conservatives.
Whether America can become the kind of society that honors the poor, undoes racism, and repairs injustice is unclear. One hopes so, though the current trajectory is not promising. However, it is clear that Christians can be the kind of people who honor the poor, who set the oppressed at the center, who perform acts of liberation. But simply because we can be does not mean that we will be. Especially among us white Christians, it can be awfully hard to hear Mary’s economic policy as Good News. In a day where 81 percent of white evangelicals aligned themselves with an incoming regime rushing headlong toward fascism, we seem to have rejected the good news altogether.
And yet, while we stumble into our darkest nights, we keep singing Mary’s song. We keep telling of these good tidings of great joy — the poor, the despised, and the excluded are at the center of God’s salvation story. No room in the inn. Born of low estate. A family made refugees. The abuse of power by the haughty. The slaughter of innocents. These remain familiar plot elements today. Our need for light remains as great as ever.
The gospel story makes demands on our lives. Our grammar cannot go unchanged, nor can our economics or our politics. Making room, welcoming refugees, stopping the slaughter of innocents, and singing Mary’s song in every space we occupy may not change America. Our national politics may still be dominated by death and chaos. But such practices will change us.