We Who Believe in Freedom – Rev. Dr. Linda Thomas

 

ThomasLinda sittingThese are strange and sad days, friends. Between the police killings of two black men – Alton Sterling and Philando Castile – in barely 24 hours, and then a lone sniper in Dallas, Texas killing five police officers and wounding seven others, the racial tensions between people of color and the police are at their highest in decades. Yet as we all crave reconciliation, we first need repentance and acknowledgment – an acknowledgment that is stubborn in coming. But until we accept and deal with the hard truth that, in the United States, the killing of black people does not carry the same consequences as the killing of white people, we will not get very far. Here are my thoughts on the matter. Read, comment, and share.

Rev. Dr. Linda E. Thomas – Professor of Theology and Anthropology, Chair of the LSTC’s Diversity Committee, Editor – “We Talk. We Listen.”


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Black Lives Matter, Anti-Deportation, and Worker’s Day March in Minneapolis, MN – May 1, 2015.

“We who believe in freedom shall not rest. We who believe in freedom shall not rest until it comes.”

These are the words that describe how I feel about the recent deaths of two black men at the hands of police and now the murder of five law enforcement officers in Dallas.

I can’t breathe. I am suffocating.

Can someone breathe for me?

Can we breathe together?

My mind, body, spirit and soul are in an utter state of trauma today. The sickening volume and frequency with which acts of deadly violence are perpetrated upon black citizens by law enforcement has become incompatible with a healthy state of living.

The 14th anniversary of my nephew’s death after being “handled” by police has come and gone this past July 5th. The tsunami of emotions I experienced back then have come rushing back as though there was only a temporary reprieve in the deadly wave.

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Ferguson, MO – August 2014.

Please hear me from the core of my being.

This is the wakeup call for the United States of America.

Until whites in this country can even conceive of what it’s like to lose a loved one at the hands of those entrusted with our protection, then nothing will ever change. We will continue to have the tragic events of recent days play on a dreadful loop.

Until the lives of black people and brown people in this country are valued, this unsettled and agitated environment we are currently living in will not end. Will an compassioned response from lawmakers come only if their children fall victim to the violence that has plagued non-whites in this country? Or will shallow human empathy coupled with empty rhetoric continue.

That our country is divided on the issue of race is an understatement. African Americans live with this reality in our everyday lives. Whether it is a black mother worrying about her son; a daughter worried about her father; a sister worried about her sister.

We live with the ever-present knowledge that those who are supposed to protect us may in fact end up killing us when we are pulled over for a routine traffic stop. We know that we may be stopped for “driving while black” or verbally accosted as we “walk while black.”  This has happened right here on our campus. Now I and probably others live with the burden and fear that because police officers have now been shot and killed, that a worse situation will become even more dire for people with black and brown skin.

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This is what I know, “Until the children of black women, black women’s sons, are as important as the children of white women, white women’s sons.” These words are from Ella’s Song written by Bernice Johnson Reagan, one of the legendary vocalists in a black women’s a capella group, Sweet Honey in the Rock.  Unfortunately we can only infer what “until” means. In the meantime we continue to suffer “until” justice finally rests upon us.

Our problem as a nation goes back to slavery and the unresolved social inequality that is perpetually embedded in institutions—the criminal justice system is one of those institutions as is the church and the family. Theologian James Cone in The Cross and the Lynching Tree examines the sin of racism in America reinforced by the white churches’ silence rather than standing up against the structures the keep black people at risk.

Reinhold Niebuhr’s “America’s Ethicist” did not deal with the issue of race. When he did, his response was similar to that of other white pastors who claimed that the protests that Dr. King had been leading in Alabama were “unwise and untimely.”

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Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King and the Rev. Dr. Reinhold Niebuhr.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. responded with the Letter from the Birmingham Jail where he wrote, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” He reasoned that people have to take direct action rather then wait for the justice system to render justice.  So, it seems to me that of all people seeking justice based on morality it would be Christians. I hear regularly that “all people are children of God.” “I don’t see race.” “We are siblings.” I think that the unstated reality is that black Christians are treated as stepchildren by white Christians.

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Civil Rights Activist and Journalist, Ida B. Wells (1862-1931)

We are treated as children of a lesser God. Black lives really don’t matter to the majority of Christians. So, I don’t look for America to wake up because it did not when Ida B. Wells wrote “Lynch Law”

Our country’s national crime is lynching. It is not the creature of an hour, the sudden outburst of uncontrolled fury, or the unspeakable brutality of an insane mob. It represents the cool, calculating deliberation of intelligent people who openly avow that there is an “unwritten law” that justifies them in putting human beings to death without complaint under oath, without trial by jury, without opportunity to make defense, and without right of appeal.  

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Frederick Douglass (1818-1895)

This brutal and inhumane history is not taught to children; nor is Frederick Douglass’  timeless July 4th speech given in 1852. So, yes as Jennifer Harvey writes in her book, “Dear White Christians…” the first step is repentance.

We know that racism is a sin, but what still needs to be confessed is that despite the pain of black people from slavery forward, white police garner sympathy and the benefit of the doubt first.

We always have to investigate what happened when no similar investigation is needed as ISIS attacks Americans! Yes, I said it, the same fear that America has about ISIS is the same fear that black people have of the law enforcement system. The report written by a special commission stated very clearly that the Chicago Police Department’s issue was racism and what the African American community had been reporting regarding this matter was correct.

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Chicago Mayor Rahm Emmanuel and the police officer charged with the murder of 17-year-old Laquan McDonald, Jason Van Dyke.

Sadly, very little has changed in the city of Chicago. Black lives are lost in significant numbers every weekend, but there’s not a hue and cry from whites because it is black people. If we were siblings why would those with white skin privilege not leverage it to support black people who live in fear of black on black violence as well as white police violence against black and brown bodies.

We don’t hear much about black police killing white people; or black police killing black people for routine traffic stops. I have heard black female police officers say that they feared white police colleagues. That’s interesting.

One thing that is certain, our lawmakers have a serious task before them in uncoupling the NRA from its frighteningly cozy proximity to our elected officials. The profit that exists from the manufacture and sale of weapons in this country is untenable. The resulting violence and loss of life is also at a breaking point.

This cannot be the new normal.

Can we breathe together?


Resources:

“We Will Never Give Up!” – a special resource in response to the killings of Alton Sterling and Philandro Castile, produced by the Samuel Dewitt Proctor Conference.

The story of Elisha thwarting an attack of the Aramaens, “There are more with us than are with them…”


Linda Thomas at CTS eventDr. Linda E. Thomas has engaged students, scholars and communities as a scholar for almost twenty years. She studies, researches, writes, speaks and teaches about the intersection and mutual influence of culture and religion. Her work is rooted intransitively in a Womanist perspective. An ordained Methodist pastor for 35 years with a Ph.D. in Anthropology from The American University in Washington D.C. and a Master of Divinity from Union Theological Seminary in New York City, Dr. Thomas’s work has taken her to South Africa, Peru, Cuba and Russia. She has been recognized as an Association of Theological Schools Faculty Fellow as well as a Pew Charitable Trust Scholar.

 

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11 thoughts on “We Who Believe in Freedom – Rev. Dr. Linda Thomas

  1. I am at lost for words, we seem to be speedily going backwards in time for people of color. I have to interpret that is what is meant by the comment: “To make America great again”. In my perspective America has never been great for other’s, those of us who do not have white skin … It has at times been tolerable but, I hesitate to say, America the U. S. of A. has been founded on a lies and the disenfranchisement to the people who build this country with their blood, sweat and tears – their very lives, and we are still paying for the sins of the founding fathers of America.

    I am also ashamed I could have ever bought into the great White American dream – It has never been intended for (us) people of color. Who were unlawfully brought into this country intended to serve as unpaid workers – Is that really what will make America great again? It’s on you White America to repent for your sins or take all of us down with you, for we can never be great until we have admitted to our wrongs and faults and move forward correcting all of our misdoings. It is time to be real and truthful about what is really happening. Step up for our future generations. The past can never be the past or over until it has been dealt with truthfully.

    I wish I had some hopeful or encouraging word on today but the last few days have almost taken that away from and made me go into my prayer closet for renewal. The clarion call is for repentance, healing, restoration and renewal. It is my hope that America is ready to be activated, engaged, restored and renewed.

    Rev. Lorri E. Baldwin

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  2. Linda,
    After reading your blog, followed by receiving an email from President Nieman, both calling for repentance, honest and difficult conversation, and a willingness to then be agents of change, I’m both convicted and challenged to do just that. There will be pushback and consequences. There always is. What really captured my attention was the connection between the massive amount of money involved in the weapons’ industry and the bloody results in our homes, streets and communities. Thank you for being willing to engage all of us in conversation, Linda (and President Nieman). I plan to do that with my own synod staff in the coming weeks.
    One last comment. I’ve been reading a number of books recently, recommended by Gordon Straw relating to the treatment of Native Americans since Europeans invaded the Americas. The similarities are striking, and I look forward to our native American brothers and sisters joining this conversation from their perspective. We have so much to learn from one another. My ears are open.

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    1. Linda E. Thomas

      Dear Greg,
      Thank for making your commitment and stating it publicly. Thanks also for the intersectiionality with Native American/First Nation Peoples. Their stories and the stories of African descent people certainly overlap. Both groups have been in such peril from the historically dominant group that it has been difficult to cultivate an on-going and constructive conversation.
      Linda Thomas

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  3. Marvin Ellison

    When someone says she or he cannot breathe, you have to ask, who’s standing on their neck and throat preventing them. White racial supremacy is structured into US culture and is the stinking air we all breath. To regain our very souls, we who are white must realize we too will not be free until all of us are free. The solution? Acting on a deeply embodied passion for a comprehensive Justice that leaves no one out or behind. The Hebrew prophets had two tests for justice: first, ask how the least powerful and most marginalized are faring, and then second, ask if you’re willing to trade places. If you hesitate, then all is not rightly ordered.

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  4. Rev. Vicki Watkins

    Thank you Linda for your thoughts and your candid insights. Isn’t it ironic that back in 1954 we were talking and pleading about the same thing we are pleading about and talking about today and that is Black LivesMatter. And like most things in our world, to white Americans if it does not happen to you, if you have not had a son shot down for being white, or stopped in your vehicle for driving white or have your mother, sister, auntie, grandmother disrespected then it does not matter to you. Until you have felt that sting, you, white America will never “get it”. True all lives do matter, but why do we who are black have to continuously work to prove that our lives matter as much as any white life? To my white sisters and brothers, my life in the eyes of God is just as precious as yours. My life matters and I am so tired of having to prove it to you ! I grieve at the loss of all life, whether you are black or white, whether you wear a uniform of law enforcement or not. But I tell you, I am tired of the grief experienced by senseless acts of violence. Can we call for a halt to the violence. Can “death take a holiday?”

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  5. Pingback: We Who Believe in Freedom - KineticsLive.com

  6. Dear Rev. Dr. Thomas,

    All white people should read this powerful truthful blog post that you have offered. Thank you for it. I will indeed share it. As a mother, I have imagined with visceral terror how I would feel if my two sons were Black and in danger of their lives every day and night at the hands of police violence and other manifestations of institutionalized white supremacy. Today I have been working on an article on Jesus’ call to “love neighbor as self.” It seems that, at the least, that call for white people in the U.S. today means listening to Black articulations of reality, grappling with what it really means to have been shaped as a white person in a white supremacist society (including the vastness of white blindness), and figuring out how – collectively and individually – to be a part of reparations.

    With gratitude,

    Cynthia Moe-Lobeda

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    1. Dear Cynthia,
      Your words are profound. You are the first white mother I have heard say publicly and in writing what it would mean if your sons were black. I wish other non-black mothers and fathers would go there. That’s what it takes. My daughter was on a field trip with her school last Friday and felt fear when she saw a police car as she was the only African American person (children and teachers) on the trip. I wrote a letter and asked, “Which one of the teachers on the trip would have had my daughter back? Which one would have the foresight to consider that a black child might feel at risk?” None of them did because white privilege means not having to give thought to such matters! I get so disturbed about the lack of consciousness of people who say we are “siblings.” If we are then stand in my shoes; have my back as well as my daughter’s; inconvenience yourself and think about what it would mean if your children were black in America.
      Linda Thomas

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  7. James poling

    Brilliant thoughts. You make many important points. Among them the analogy between blac fear of police violence and white fear of Isis. It is not an exact analogy since the white fear of Isis is so exaggerated compared with the realidtce black fear of police violence. But I hope many whites will hear and respond. Thanks for your wise words. Jim

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