On Black Life and Death: The Fear of American Police Forces, and the Decline of American Democracy and American Evangelical White Christianity
Foremost, I’m a human being. Second, I’m a black male. Third, I’m a Christian. Fourth, I’m also a Professor and educator; I’m also a scholar, writer, and Christian minister. Correspondingly, I’m a father, husband, American citizen, and a holder of three Master degrees and a PhD. I have published five academic books and 18 scholarly articles in my short academic career—in a period of four years. I have a good job as English Professor, and make a reasonable salary to support and provide for my family. Hence, I can afford one or two family vacations a year. Despite of my academic achievements, I’m still a black person, to many people. I’m still perceived as a “threat” to society, and a “problem” in the American society.
However, I would argue that the sacredness of my life and human dignity is not dependent upon my academic credentials and success; rather, it is based on the fact that I, like everyone else–White, Black, Latino, Asian, Native Americans, Mixed people, what have you?– , am created in the image and likeness of God. In other words, my life is sacred in the same manner the life of other individuals is also sacred simply because we are humans who are loved by God and called into relationship with him. From a theological perspective, to be human and created in the image of God primarily means to be able to govern, to rule, and to have dominion over all things created by God, as well as to be able to relate and love God in an intimate way; to be human also means the possibility to relate, serve, protect, and love our human neighbors. To be in solidarity with God and to be in solidarity with one’s neighbor is the thrust of human existence and the meaning of life this world. On the other hand, the failure and consequence of human sin results in a culture of fear and more precisely, the fear to relate, serve, protect, love, and defend our neighbors. For example, in the context of American society and history, the institution of slavery, the lynching of black bodies, the long history of racial segregation and discrimination, and the mistreatment of black and brown people in this country have engendered a culture of fear and distrust between American citizens; in other words, American racism defers the great promises of the American democracy and equally challenges the democratic ideals articulated in the American Constitution and Bill of Rights. The word of democracy & the work of democracy are not inseparable. The democratic life becomes meaningful and attainable whenever the rhetoric of democracy contributes to social change and pushes humanity forward together to explore and actualize future hope and emancipative possibilities.
Moreover, this attitude of fear, based on the long history of racism and racial violence and death, has particularly defined the ambivalent interactions between Black and White American citizens, and Black people and Police Officers. As a result, many black people in the United States live in a constant state of survival, fear, and intimidation. It is not a satisfying human existence. The life of the black person in America could be depicted as a narrative of existential risks, which not only threaten the future of black humanity in America; they also challenge the merit, value, and the presence of black existence in the American democracy. Black existential risks provide a new way of thinking and perceiving about what it means to be human, to be black in America, and to live as black citizens in America. It is an ethic of the daily strive of black people to “stay alive” and fight toward “collective freedom,” and “self-preservation.” Black existential risks are best trapped in the human sentiment of (black) fear, and the puzzling relationship of black people and trauma (“Black trauma”) in the American life that has shaped the black condition.
For example, in the long history of American democracy and the incessant struggles of black people for racial justice, total emancipation, and equal civil and human rights, black people have always had to confront both internal (their own cynicism and predicament) and external forces—another form of human cynicism and conundrum. One of the most dreadful and devastating existential forces that has been used to police the black body, regulate black behavior, define and transform black life, and stop black existence is arguably White Police Officers or the institution of Police Forces. For many black people, the Police Forces do not mean the protection and safety of black people and black children. The black experience in the United States is a history of black trauma and intimidating confrontation with Police presence that signifies dehumanization, humiliation, alienation, trauma, violence, and even death. To get more practical on this issue, allow me to share my own fear and traumatic experience.
First of all, I do not own a gun, and I do not need one although I have a wife and four children whom I dearly love. However, if I have to risk my own life in order to protect and save them, I will do so unhesitatingly. (I do not understand this reasoning or “American logic”):
- It is a constitutional right for “ALL” American citizens to bear arms in order to protect themselves and their family.
The Second Amendment reads as follows: “A well-regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed.”
- It is okay for “White people” to bear arms in this country; white people are never seen as a threat to the Police when they carry their weapons.
- Correspondingly, it is okay for “Black people” to bear arms in this country; black people, however, are seen as a threat to the Police when they carry their weapons.
- When a black person is seen with a gun, for example, the Police Officer would always justify that his/her is in danger, which gives the Office the “legal right” to “kill” the Black American.
What is wrong with this reasoning?
What does it mean to be “perceived” as a problem?
What does it mean to be a “problem” in the American society?)
Secondly, I live in a gated community in the Treasure Coast area in Florida, and at least, five to six Police Officers live in my moderate community. In fact, one of my neighbors is a Young Female Police Officer. She seems to be a very nice individual and a person to get to know a little bit better–although we never had any good or constructive conversations. Occasionally, we greet each other with a “distant good morning” or a “distant good afternoon,” while she, standing in front of her porch, I, browsing in front of my house. We smile when we see each; but, it is always from a distance. (This same Police Officer lives in the house with her mother. I remember when I introduced myself to the mother for the first time, perhaps two days after I moved in the community, she quickly informed me that “My daughter is a Police Office.” Was that a warning to me as a black man who could potentially intimidate a white woman, in fact, a police officer with a gun? I do not know, and perhaps, I will never know why she felt that it was necessary to present her daughter to me in this manner.) Correspondingly, in the Christian Church, my family attends in the Treasure Coast, there are three to four Police Officers who are there to provide “safety” to the Christian community. Rarely, have I had a conversation with them; once again, we waive and smile at a distance. The thrust of this matter is this: I fear Police Officers, and “Police Presence” to me does not necessarily mean safety or the assurance of protection, or I will be safe. More often, unfortunately, it is the other way around. (As a professor, I’ve had two dreadful encounters with Police Officers in my life, in which I was humiliated, disvalued, and dehumanized. I will never forget those experiences in which I was feared for my life, and was equally concerned about the future of my wife and my children if I were to die on those two occasions. I do not have any history of criminality, and have never been to jail before. I certainly did not commit any crime, violated the law, nor have I been disrespectful to the Police Officers who violently tackled me on the ground while I was holding my 1 year-old daughter in my hands (my other daughter who was then two years old was sleeping in the house), while attempting to open the door of my own vehicle, in front of my house. They handcuffed me in front of her. She cried incessantly. I was humiliated and dishonored on that day—even I told him that I was a professor. I did not resist arrest! )
I fear the Police not because I believe that all Police Officers are criminals or enjoy killing black people. I fear the Police because of the painful narrative between American Polices and Black American Citizens; it is a relationship of distrust and fear. It is also a culture of terrible intimidation, isolation, and self-protection. Also, I fear the Polices because of the long history of violence and Black Death in this country, and Police officers are and have always been used as agents of violence and aggression to humiliate black people, dehumanize them, and annihilate black lives. As a result, for me, the presence of the Police does not always mean “public safety”–as it is the case for my “white friends”—or “my safety”; rather, Police presence could mean fear, a great level of discomfort, and sometimes impending death–my own death, in some cases. (I remember the day my own friend, who is a Black Police officer, came to visit me and my family. He and I grew up together in the same church in Fort Lauderdale. He has become a Police Officer, and I, have chosen the academia as a career. I tried not to fear him, his physical presence in my house, his loaded gun and green uniforms, as we were talking, became a little discomfort to me. He is a great Police Officer, and in fact, has been honored for his great work in various communities in the St. Lucie country; nonetheless, as we were talking in my house, he reminded me of other Police Officers who have terrorized black and brown people in our society, and those who have victims of Police brutality and even death at the Police gun.) Furthermore, every day, I go out to work and return home safely, I’m thankful that I’m not dead because some of us black males and females are not that lucky to come back home safely to our family and children. It is the same experience for black youths. Black life in America is like a vapor that vanishes without any warning. The words contingency and urgency best characterize black existence and dignity in America. The predicament of black life in America forces me to ask these critical questions:
- Where shall we go, O Lord our God, for safety and shelter?
- To whom shall we turn for comfort in the moment of despair and cultural violence?
- To whom shall we turn for justice?
The justice system has miserably failed Black and Brown people in America. In a recent article, “Something Much Greater at Stake,” the prominent American lawyer and activist Michelle Alexander is absolutely correct when she stated, “I was not raised in a church. And I have generally found more questions than answers in my own religious or spiritual pursuits. But I also know there is something much greater at stake in justice work than we often acknowledge. Solving the crises we face isn’t simply a matter of having the right facts, graphs, policy analyses, or funding. And I no longer believe we can “win” justice simply by filing lawsuits, flexing our political muscles or boosting voter turnout. Yes, we absolutely must do that work, but none of it — not even working for some form of political revolution — will ever be enough on its own. Without a moral or spiritual awakening, we will remain forever trapped in political games fueled by fear, greed and the hunger for power.” Consequently, I’m compelled to inquire and even interrogate in this way: how shall White Christians and White churches in America respond to this culture of violence and collective fear, and the impending death of black people in the American society?
This “spiritual awakening,” and if I could would add another phrase, this “moral revolution” must come from all Americans, and especially American Evangelical White Christians and American Evangelical White Churches. The Law Enforcement and Police Officers are also in desperate need of this “moral or spiritual awakening,” Michelle Alexander talked about in her interview. On one hand, I’m very optimistic about the future of this country; on the other hand, I hope and pray that that Evangelical White Churches in America would be equally zealous about racial justice, the promotion of the humanity and dignity of black people, and the defense of the right of black people to exist in America, as they are so passionate about protesting against abortion, that is the sanctity of the life in the womb. Does the (black) life outside of the womb also matter and equally worth preserving? Isn’t this a moral thing to do?
We need to be consistent in our theology. Our democracy must also be consistent and extend to all Americans, regardless of their race, gender, and religion. We need to construct a theology of life and death, and a revolutionary theology of peace and political ethic of care that champion all human’s life. We need to inquire about how a theological discourse of human solidarity and sustainability might help us to confront our culture of fear, alienation, violence, and death. Democracy in black means equal treatment for America’s black folk, and the defense of their right to exist and succeed in this country.
What puzzles me the most is the “intentional silence” of most White Christians and White Evangelical Churches!
1. In the time of slavery and slave trades, most white churches and white Christians in America were silent.
2. In the era of black lynching, most white churches and white Christians in America were silent.
3. In the period of racial segregation, most white churches and white Christians in America were again silent.
4. In contemporary times of Police brutality and black death, American Evangelical White Christians and White Churches still maintain their silence.
When will White Evangelical Churches and White Christians call evil evil?
When will White Evangelical Churches and White Christians call injustice injustice?
When will White Evangelical Churches and White Christians call wrong wrong?
What good are White Evangelical Christianity and White churches in America in this time of national crisis and black death!
“Woe to those who draw iniquity with cords of falsehood,
who draw sin as with cart ropes,
who say: “Let him be quick,
let him speed his work
that we may see it;
…Woe to those who call evil good
and good evil,
who put darkness for light
and light for darkness,
who put bitter for sweet
and sweet for bitter!
Woe to those who are wise in their own eyes,
and shrewd in their own sight!
Woe to those who acquit the guilty for a bribe,
and deprive the innocent of his right!”—Isaiah 5:18-23
If the Evangelical theology or Evangelical (Christian) faith does not provoke White Evangelical Christians to anger at the incessant killing of black people in America and move them swiftly to the road of protest and racial justice, American Evangelicals belittle the majesty and love of God. The Evangelical faith is not worth sharing and living. Evangelical Christianity is a dead faith and meaningless (to bring hope) to those who are suffering, mourning, and dying. The Evangelical White Churches in American need to launch an anti-black death and anti-police brutality movement the same way they have done it for the pro-life movement, and any other major sociopolitical, and ethical issues in which we have invested our resources and energy . This is a moral issue and a serious ethical matter that do not contradict the hope, message, and promise of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. It is simply the right and most Christian thing to do!