I love a good story. The best ones are filled with action, suspense, drama, and a dash of romance. We love stories. TV Shows, movies, novels, comic books, reminiscing on old times with friends…we love good stories, both to hear them and to tell them. However, most of the stories we hear have a happy ending. The hero saves the day, the guy gets the girl, good triumphs over evil, but the real world is often not like that. There are far too many places where there is injustice rather than justice. Far too many places where schools are pipelines to prison rather than environments for higher learning and critical thinking—primarily because of a lack of resources. There are far too many cities where people are afraid of the police rather than grateful they are there to serve and protect. Far too many places where stories are often told, but they are only one part of the story.
The story of Black people in America is rarely told. My story is rarely told. The theme at Urbana15 this year is, “What story will you tell?” I’d like to ask, “Which story have you heard?”
At Urbana 15, Michelle Higgins told my story.
We got an invitation to step into a Black church December 28th. Michelle Higgins, an educated black woman in an interracial marriage with bi-racial children, stood in front of 16,000 people and many more watching at home and told the painful story of what it is like to live at the margins in America as Black people. She shared about the implications of colonialization from the West, from Eurocentric explorers to Christian missionaries. She confronted the evils of white supremacy and their far reaching implications from history into our present society. She shared about our tendency to spend money on the things that matter to us in different parts of the world—even if that means ignoring hungry, poor, and ill in the cities in which we live. (There is nothing wrong with caring for places overseas, but not if it comes at the expense of people across the street.) In short, she summed up the confluence of events that led to #BlackLivesMatter being birthed.
Imagine watching the news and hearing about an armed gunman with criminal history robbing a bank and is killed by law enforcement. Imagine hearing an unarmed man is also mistaken for that gunman, and he too, is killed. Imagine your nephew, your brother, your husband, your son is mistaken for that gunman and they are killed by law enforcement. If someone you know and love was wrongly convicted, condemned, or killed, it would produce a different type of fire in us to see justice done. If the law is broken, there are consequences. If innocent people haven’t broken the law, but are still being killed, we should—and hopefully would—find that offensive, yet we do not. There is no fire, no call for justice, but silence and acceptance. The debates rage if the punishment fits the crime, but no one is commenting when there’s punishment without crime.
Yet, it happens every day. From the Charleston Nine to John Crawford, there have been too many instances in the last year, and even more over the last few decades, where unarmed Black men and women have been killed without provocation or consequence. #BlackLivesMatter is not a “Get Out of Jail Free Card” for criminal activity. It is a desire to see justice be lived out in our society.
I remember a 16 year-old Ethan Couch, the son of a wealthy white family in Texas, got drunk, lost control of his vehicle, and plowed into a group of people. He killed four and injured nine.
He was sentenced to therapy.
Tamir Rice, a 12 year-old boy, was playing with an air gun in a park.
He was sentenced to death.
No one said a word to him. No one offered this 12-year old boy first aid after he was fired upon.
I remember that when I have been stopped by a police officer, I have been asked for my license, proof of insurance, if I have any drugs or weapons in the car, and if they have permission to search my vehicle. The last time I was stopped was because I had a “delayed turn signal.” (I was waiting at a red light, and did not put on my turn signal until the light turned green, which is not illegal.) Most of my white friends don’t get stopped by police because of non-illegal activity. I doubt if they have been asked if they have weapons or drugs in the car. It happens regularly to me, to my people. It’s a part of my story.
Winston Churchill said it best, “The history books will be kind to me for I intend to write them.” The story being told in America is only one part of the story. We often only hear the story of the survivor, and the survivor is often the person from the dominant culture. The deceased can’t tell their story, and the story we tell about the deceased is sometimes even more offensive.
In Genesis 22, God calls for Abraham to sacrifice his son, Isaac. It’s a story of tremendous faith. Abraham waited one hundred years for a son and that son was the key to God’s promise. Isaac had to have to faith that despite the circumstances he saw and experienced, his father would protect him. (It’s also a story that’s a bit frightening if you are a son—who wants to be killed by their dad?!?) God stops Abraham at the last moment as the call was really a test of his faith. There is a ram that is randomly stuck in a bush that is sacrificed in Isaac’s place. When this story is taught in churches and ministry contexts around the country, it is taught from vantage point of Abraham and/or Isaac. It is never taught from the perspective of the ram.
Not theologically but culturally speaking, Black people in America are the ram. We are killed while others live. We are killed while others forget. We are killed while others ignore. We are killed while others are unaware. We are killed while others learn but do not change. The ram is trivial in the text. It is a means to an end, an expendable commodity.
I am not an expendable commodity. My people are not expendable commodities. We have been made in the image of God and are worthy of that dignity being bestowed upon us—yet, it is not.
If you think I am making it up, google another Isaac. His name was Isaac Woodard. He was an African-American World War II veteran, who was returning from the war, and while he was still in uniform was arrested the police for no reason, was beaten so badly it left him permanently blinded, and like John Crawford some 70 years later, there were no consequences.
His story has been told, but most haven’t heard it.
I know there will be pushback from Michelle Higgins message. Some people loved it (I am in that camp), others have questions. Some heard hot button topics like “abortion” and blacked out, preparing a defense for their stance on the issues.
I would like to invite us to hear a story we may not be used to. It’s a story with similar dates and times, but the viewpoint is different. We may be surprised to hear what is happening at the margins in our society, mostly because we haven’t heard stories from the margins, because we have not been taught to listen to those stories.
So, again, I ask, “What story have you heard?” Listen to my story, our story. The cup of endurance and silence from marginalized people in society has ended.
There is another story. It’s a good story, often told, but rarely understood. The gospel of Jesus is the greatest story ever told. It is the story of our Lord undoing the curse of sin and evil in our world, reconciling people to himself and each other. The gospel of Jesus does not omit the past or avoid. If the gospel did do that, we wouldn’t even refer to the gospel or the bible, as both tell the story of past events. We recognize the gospel story shapes our present and impacts our future. If we truly believe the gospel, if we truly believe Jesus came to set the oppressed free, then our response cannot merely be avoidance or silence. We must respond as believers. We must listen to the marginalized, the oppressed, the overlooked, and the unheard. In the Scriptures, when someone screamed for help, the crowd ignored them and told them to be quiet. Jesus saw the disruption, the disturbance. He changed the perspective of the crowd, and he healed the person. If we follow Jesus, we must listen to the cries of the people who chant “Black Lives Matter.”
They are asking for our help.
I am asking for your help.
Making It Practical
- Apply Christena Cleveland’s message to us at Urbana. “When someone says, ‘My life matters,’ our response should be, ‘Tell me more.’” Have listening, rather than rejecting posture, when hearing people’s stories.
- Awareness, Action, Advocacy. Many of you may need to raise your awareness of what is happening in society today. Tons of information is available to us. Learn your history, my history, our history. Learn the whole story. Discover what action steps you want to take (authors like Brenda Salter-McNeil, Christina Cleveland, Tom Skinner, Carl Ellis, Howard Thurman) have wrestled with data and given actionable steps. Please, please, advocate for us. Urbana 15 Worship Leader Erna Hackett said it best, “Black people don’t need to tell each other their lives matter. They need non-black people to say each other black lives matter.”
I implore you, when you see that phrase or hear someone chant, “Black Lives Matter,” don’t merely pictured a troubled ghetto youth, a caricature from Law and Order, or a slanted depiction from Fox News.
The cry for Black Lives Matter is a cry for my life to matter.
It isn’t just any story.
It’s my story.
Sean M. Watkins