In his 2015 book Between the World and Me, Ta-Nehisi Coates writes to his son, “In America it is tradition to destroy the black body. It is heritage.” Ever since I read, re-read and re-read again those words, I have been trying my hardest to prove Coates wrong.
I have been digging deep through books on American history, examining the practices of my denomination, and listening closely to the anecdotes we tell in the hopes that a different narrative might come to life — a narrative where the black body is valued, respected and even loved. Sadly, I have not been able to refute Coates words, and each day I live longer in my black body, I get more discouraged that this tradition may never end.
On July 5 my discouragement turned to despair. In my hometown of Baton Rouge, La., 37-year-old Alton Sterling was shot to death six times by Baton Rouge police officers Blaine Salomoni and Howie Lake.
The video of Mr. Sterling’s death has been seen all over the world by this point and many of us will never forget where we were when we first saw this video and witnessed this murder. But before we were able to fully process Sterling’s death and advocate for justice on his behalf, a young black man, allegedly seeking revenge, shot and killed several Baton Rouge police officers, sending our city into chaos, fear and panic, leading many to believe the worst about ourselves and accuse The Movement for the Dignity of Black Lives as the reason for these other tragedies.
Many politicians and even Christian leaders said that if it wasn’t for Black Lives Matter protesting, these officers would have never been attacked and would be alive and safe with their families today. They tell those of us still mourning Alton Sterling, Philando Castille, Mike Brown and Tamir Rice, that our mourning, our crying, our weeping for our fallen brothers and sisters have caused more death, more pain and more evil. Simply put, they tell us calling for black life to matter necessarily means no other life, especially police life, can matter as well.
While that line may find support in a particular political convention, the church is called to “know the truth for the truth will set us free.” And the truth is this — Black Lives Matter is a moral principle, rooted in the teachings of Jesus Christ in which we all obviously believe that every life is sacred, including the lives of those officers who we mourn today. But the teachings of Jesus Christ do not stop with the obvious; instead, Jesus pushes us beyond what we are supposed to do and creates a new world of what we must to do be his distinct people. In this new world, this kingdom of God, Jesus reminds us that all lives cannot be sacred if one life is negligible and vulnerable to death. Jesus reminds us that we cannot be his follower and stone the woman at the well, ostracize Zaccheus, and pass the “certain” man wounded on the road from Jericho to Jerusalem.
Jesus teaches us that he cares very little about what we profess to believe about him, and is instead much more interested in how we act because of him. Jesus challenges us to journey beyond our borders and local identities to see the meek as blessed, the criminal as beloved, and the Samaritan as an example of what is good.
I believe that the same Jesus who showed us the “Way” of his kingdom in the parables of Scripture is showing us the way in the very real parables of the black life today. Jesus’ modern “Way” takes us through Ferguson by Mike Brown’s bloodied body lying three hours in the August heat, down to Florida next to wet, dying, hoodied Trayvon with Skittles in hand and cell phone still clutched, up to New York as we seek to breathe with Eric, back down to Texas with Sandra as she attempts to make sense of her traffic stop, and ultimately finding ourselves in Baton Rouge on the corner of North Foster and Fairfield Drive helpless with Alton as we fall to the ground and feel the bullets entering our back, knowing for certain that the tradition has not ended. But the parable of this way doesn’t end here; instead, our savior tells these stories, looks up at us, and says the Kingdom of God is when Black Lives Matter.