(AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)
Alton B. Sterling is the latest casualty of America’s original sin.
For a thorough and profound examination of this original sin, I recommend the book Stand Your Ground: Black Bodies and the Justice of God written by Episcopal priest Kelly Brown Douglas.
Douglas’s book is prophetic, unsparing and sobering. It unflinchingly traces the history of white bodies in the United States of America claiming a divine right to identify any space as its own and subsequently drive out black and brown bodies in that space as a threat that must be eliminated.
Douglas suggests this understanding is deeply rooted in the DNA of the United States and is expressed as “Manifest Destiny” that privileges white skinned European descendants as superior to any other race. This understanding made it possible to enshrine African slaves as 3/5ths of a person in the U.S. Constitution and provided the theological underpinning for pushing dark skinned natives out of land they lived on for centuries as the young United States pushed its borders west.
Ultimately, this “Manifest Destiny” is expressed today in the form of a “Stand Your Ground” culture in which white bodies defend their space against black and brown bodies. It makes the claim that black bodies cannot occupy the same space as white bodies and must be pushed back into spaces designated for black bodies. In the past, those black spaces were plantations and colored-only sections of public facilities. Now, at best, they are spaces undesired by white bodies. At worst, they are prison cells provided by a prison-industrial complex that incarcerates black people at rates stratospherically higher than demographics would suggest.
Douglas’s book identifies the problem as far deeper than how white bodies treat black bodies. Obviously, in the case of Alton Sterling and other black people killed by white police officers, treatment of black bodies is literally a matter of life and death.
The problem is that these actions stem from the deeply held perception that white bodies have of themselves and of black bodies. Douglas’s point is that Alton Sterling and other black people are killed because white bodies fear free black bodies and fundamentally view them as trespassing into white space. In a “Stand Your Ground” culture, these black trespassers are a threat and must be removed or eliminated.
In order to stop the killings, we need serious and urgent conversations that forge new understandings about how black, brown, and white bodies share the same space in 21st century America.
The conversations must address the following points:
- What is a new paradigm that can guide our understanding of how black, brown, and white bodies can share the same space?
- What are the ways black and brown bodies can share the space of leadership and decision making in Washington and in State Houses, Court Houses, City Halls, School Board and Housing Zoning Committee meetings, and Boardrooms across the country?
- What are the obstacles and barriers that must be identified by black, brown and white bodies that prevent the fair and just distribution of the wealth and resources of this country? Only when all bodies can share in the wealth of the United States is the promise of the United States fulfilled.
As Christians, we enter these conversations through the death and resurrection of Christ. Through confession and repentance, we must nail to the cross of Christ any notion that one group of people is superior to another, the complicity of Christian pastors and congregations which either propagate a vision of superiority, or stand by silently and say nothing while others do so, and our own apathy and indifference to black bodies crying out for justice and an end to the slaughter.
Joined to Christ’s resurrection by grace through faith, we are joined to the vision of John who looked up into heaven and saw “a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb” (Revelation 7:9 – NRSV). We embody that vision as we determinedly work towards a time when an observer might look into the United States of America and see a great multitude of descendants from every nation, a multitude containing black bodies, brown bodies, and white bodies, gathered around the principles of freedom and equality, clothed in peace and prosperity, and singing songs of justice.
Until then, the killings will continue. The blood spilled will be on our hands.