As we move into the sequence of Good Friday, Holy Saturday and Easter, Christians may be quick to skip ahead for the alleluias that await, however, some may prefer the fuller three days (i.e. Triduum). In the midst of the desolate gap between Cross and Empty Tomb, Christians can take this time to reflect on the heaviness of a broken world where death comes brutally and without much rationale for many people throughout history and in the headlines of the day, if said deaths are deemed newsworthy by mainstream media. (I am reminded, yet again, of how a terror attack in Europe can sometimes gain great attention, yet quickly, those who seek peace and justice for the greater world will highlight the news stories of other tragedies elsewhere in the world that do not necessarily make it into the 11 o'clock news or even on one's Facebook feed.)
Douglas, Kelly Brown. Stand Your Ground: Black Bodies and the Justice of God. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 2015.
In Kelly Brown Douglas’ new book, readers are plunged into the depths of today’s headlines immersed within the thick sediment of U.S. history and its European legal and cultural biases. She unravels the threads of today’s justifications for the “not guilty” verdicts too often issued in civil trials after an armed citizen shoots another, with few in power acknowledging the racial motivations or objectification fueling the snap judgments of one party (often an armed white male) at the ready to “stand their ground”, the humanity of the other person (often an unarmed black male) conveniently discarded.
Written by Episcopal priest and scholar Kelly Brown Douglas with the shooting of Treyvon Martin fresh in mind and read by this reviewer with the names of the many others to be likewise killed by incidents laden with a bias quick to be downplayed when scrutiny and outrage follow, Stand Your Ground: Black Bodies and the Justice of God is aptly titled. In US history, African Americans have been treated far longer as chattel property or inferior peoples to be systematically controlled or willfully disenfranchised. The result is an oppressive continuo of rhetoric, downplaying the inhumanity of cultural and legal values that have embedded and encoded a racial stratification in overt and covert ways. Such a history where black lives are treated as chattel, let alone lives that matter, Douglas observes, “continues to cheapen black life” (p. 88).
As a mother, Douglas shares her first-hand fears for her child’s upbringing in this context, becoming a young African American man and the various ways a mundane experience like driving down the street or walking in an unfamiliar neighborhood could rapidly escalate into a similar tragedy if a police officer or private citizen makes a snap judgement where the laws of the land enshrine and valorize violence based on gut feelings or culturally embedded political and racial privilege of one over against another.
The country’s history of Manifest Destiny, American exceptionalism, and racial bias is explored in Douglas’ book, drawing out history perhaps hidden or conveniently left unrepeated, where Supreme Court decisions of the past created an entrenching of racial and social superiority and political decisions by local, State and federal authorities ghettoized entire sections of American citizenry. Douglas links the Anglo-Saxon roots of our country’s legal tradition to a tradition where “land, life and race” become sacred, yet only for those with the most power and capacity to enforce such privilege.
In the recent decades, theologians have joined in the question of “otherness”, examining the ways in which some human beings justify the treatment of other human beings to meet a theological, economic or social set of values. Held sacred by some and profaning the human dignity innate in every person, such practices of keeping others “other” raise the question of complicity for the Church, especially as we tend to be more focused on regaining footholds within political establishments than working to dissect their corrupt biases in favor of building a more beloved community.
In the second part of the book, Brown reviews various ways the black church tradition provides theological grounding in the midst of marginalization and oppression. In her latter chapters, Brown recounts lyrics from the spirituals and biblical narratives as well as the testimony of persons who knew firsthand enslavement and emancipation. She engages theologians (black liberationist and womanist) who have appropriated this lived history into powerful critique of Church and society, linking the life, death and Resurrection of Jesus with the effort to dismantle subtle practices and outright violent acts of racism in an era too often blithely declared “post-racial”.
Brown calls for a greater moral framework to guide a future worth pursuing, where memory, identity, participation and imagination (pp. 220-26) can be tools that liberate from a history steeped in exceptionalism that undermines the very notion of a nation seeking liberty for all or the Church too often seduced by its need to be part of the Establishment that it forgets its true grounding.