Dear Church: You Would Rather Hang Me from a Tree. A Reflection on the Execution of #PhilandoCastile – Vicar Lenny Duncan, St. Mark’s Lutheran Church; Conshohoken, PA

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St. Anthony, Minnesota Police Officer Geronimo Yanez was acquitted of all charges in the shooting death of Philado Castile last week. And since everything from the shooting to the trial took place in Ramsey County, Minnesota – in the heart of US Lutheranism – “We Talk. We Listen.” knew we had to get the conversation going, and powerfully. Vicar Lenny Duncan, currently entering his second year of internship at St. Mark’s Lutheran Church in Conshohoken, PA, gets us started. Read, comment, and share.

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

 


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Freeze.

Don’t move.

Let me see your ID.

Don’t move.

Freeze.

What are you doing around here?

Anything in the car I should know about?

Freeze.

Don’t move.

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This is how death is pronounced over hundreds of black bodies every day. This may or may not result in death. This interaction I’m describing to you is haunting when heard by black bodies. This may very well cost a black person their life. These may be the last words I ever hear. I was asked to write this piece about #PhilandoCastile on Saturday night, before I preached yesterday. I agreed. I always agree, because what am I to do? How else am I supposed to relate to my church at times like this?

I’m tired y’all.

I’m tired of pleading with you for my life, ELCA.

There I said it.

If you valued my life even a little bit this would stop. Philando was executed in the Land of the Lutheran. The Twin Cities. One of the most segregated areas of “My Country ‘Tis of Thee.”

But I understand. It’s not you.

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The Charleston 9, top/bottom, left-to-right: Susie Jackson, Sharonda Coleman-Singleton, DePayne Doctor, Ethel Lance; Tywanza Sanders, Cynthia Hurd, Clementa Pickney, Daniel Simmons Sr. Their killer, Dylann Roof, was baptized and confirmed in the ELCA and the senior pastoral staff of Mother Emanuel had studied at the ELCA seminary in Columbia, South Carolina.

This acquittal happened the same week that we remember the second anniversary of Charleston and the first anniversary of Pulse. I hear the same words that are like a clarion call to all of Black America. It is the sound of the seal being broken.

The final trumpet blows.

It is like ashes on my tongue.

Not. Guilty.

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Link to this summer’s tributes to the #Pulse victims.

How hard was it for you to feign surprise and shock? That you thought things would be different this time? What evidence did you have that it would be?

I knew from the first day of the trial the officer would be acquitted.  I knew from the day I saw the Facebook live video. I watched within the first hour it was posted. I knew as I watched the life drain from Philando’s eyes, as I heard the cry of his child, as I watched the anger of his girlfriend rise, this officer wouldn’t see any consequences.

If you are honest with yourself, you knew too.

We watched the lynching of a black man by law enforcement in almost real time.

It changed nothing.

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If you are Lutheran and reading this, or have read me before, you are probably waiting for me to dig deep and find the grace. To offer the hope and resurrection.  If you are ordained clergy you might even feel justified to tell me it’s my duty as an emerging leader in this church.

I offer you none.

The law in this country offers me death. Why should the law be any different for you?

I am obligated by God to tell you the truth.

The truth is there is no grace in this anymore.

We are watching as the moral fiber of this country is being shredded. We are casting our souls into the pit. We have made a conscious decision to walk with the enemy of all life. In the name of law and order, safety and prosperity we have become everything we tell the rest of the world we are not.

The truth that is self-evident is that Black bodies will continue to be the sacrifice on the altar of America.

Since my ancestors were thrown into a hold of a ship.

Since our leaders were murdered one by one a generation ago.

We are to be the lamb you sacrifice, for your original sin.

How can I sing a song in a strange land? 

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Church we are doubly as guilty. We are supposed to be better. We have in turn become white washed tombs.

The silence is deafening. Your inaction telling.

My heart is bled dry, perhaps yours is too.

Perhaps the grace is the fact that Black people still love this church. That people like me are willing to throw themselves into the breach. That I will not leave until I die. That I will stay in the church I love until the very end.

But you won’t experience me as grace. You will experience me as the thing that makes you uncomfortable.

Many of you would rather see me hung from a tree, with my side pierced.

You did it to Philando.

Well in this country, you just might get your wish.


16195868_10206838983808083_6435496150445692170_nLenny Duncan is the vicar at St. Mark’s Lutheran Church in Conshoshoken, PA and Candidate for Ordination to the office of Word and Sacrament in the ELCA. He is also the Evangelist for the #decolonizelutheranism movement, as well as a frequent voice on the intersection of the Church and the cries of the oppressed. He pays special attention to the #blacklivesmovement in his work, but lifts up the frequent intersection with other marginalized peoples.  He believes that the reason the ELCA has remained so white, is a theological problem, not sociological one. He is currently an M.Div Coop student at the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia and holds a Bachelors of Biblical Studies from Lancaster Bible College, with an emphasis in New Testament Theology and Ministry.

There Is Trouble in Our Land! – Prof. Kelly Brown Douglas, Goucher College

ThomasLinda sittingIn the wake of the killing police officers in Dallas and Baton Rouge, as well as our country’s on-going discussion on Philandro Castile and Alton Sterling, not to mention the end of one of the most xenophobic and frightening political conventions in history, “We Talk. We Listen.” is now teaming with its authors to point a way forward out of the tragedies of the from the beginning of this month. Pulling from the wisdom of African American thinkers, Prof. Kelly Brown Douglas of Goucher College reminds us all that there is indeed a way forward, and that we needn’t despair even when facing the most intractable evils of our country’s history. Please 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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Yesterday morning I sent my son the following text as I was unnerved by videos of yet two more black men, Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, being killed by police officers for no readily apparent reason…

“Just saw the video of police killing yet another black man.  As always be careful, stay safe and remember what to do if you are stopped for whatever reason by the police: hands on the steering wheel, do nothing and say nothing, stay alive.”

This morning I received this text from my son: What do you think about what is going on in this country? He was apparently unnerved—as am I—about the slayings of five Dallas police officers and the wounding of seven others.

There is trouble in our land.  The deadly tragedies of the last few weeks are only symptomatic of the trouble. For it is about more than the apparent suspicious mistrust and broken relationship between police and the black community.  The trouble in our land is about a divide which we have yet to have the courage to face in this country: it is the divide of race.

As Pulitzer and Nobel Prize winning novelist Toni Morrison once pointed out, “Deep within the word ‘America’ is its association with race.” There is no getting around it, “racism” is endemic to America’s very identity. Though sometimes unspoken, throughout America’s history—in  both explicit and implicit ways—a   racialized narrative has circumscribed  the meaning of citizenship for certain groups of people. It has determined who is and who is not “entitled” to the rights of “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”   And, it has created a violently racialized society that compromises and endangers all life in this country.

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Rally outside the Minnesota governor’s mansion, protesting the shooting death of Philando Castile. (photo credit: Isaac Hale, Minnesota Star Tribune)

And so, “where do we go from here?”

Fifty years ago, in response to President Kennedy’s assassination, Martin Luther King Jr, wrote, “Our nation should do a great deal of soul searching . . . while the question ‘Who killed President Kennedy?’ is important, the question ‘What killed him?’ is more important.” King’s words are instructive. For, if there is to be an end to the epidemic of  “racialized” violence in this country, if there is to be justice, then at the same time that we seek arrests, indictments, and guilty verdicts, we must demand that this nation  engage in hard soul-searching regarding the  question of race.  It must confront the ideology that sustains systemic, structural and cultural forms of racism.  We must be clear that   systemic, structural and cultural racism is violent—left unchecked and unaddressed it is deadly.

Borrowing from the words of W.E.B. Du Bois, America is a nation defined by “two warring thoughts, two un-reconciled strivings, two warring ideas.” This country must decide if it is going to be a nation torn asunder by race or a nation unified by a commitment to freedom and justice for all.  

It must determine if it is to be a nation divided by lines of color or a nation dedicated to the declaration that all persons, regardless of race, gender identity, sexual identity or any other human attribute, are created equal and deserving of all that is necessary to flourish into the sacred beings they were created to be.

22822425977_d92d35a592_b.jpgWhat happened to Alton, to Philandro, to the five dead and seven wounded Dallas police officers was not just about events that unfolded on any particular night. They are about the insidious and unexamined racialized history and identity that is America.

Poet and scholar Audre Lorde once said, “Our silence will not protect us.”  We must break the deadly silence in this country about the matter of race if ever we are to stop the senseless brutal and fatal attacks upon innocent lives.

Resources

An  interview with the Dr. Douglas talking about her book Stand Your Ground.

Timeline, details of the shooting of Alton Sterling.

Timeline, details of the shooting of Philando Castile.

Timeline, details of the Dallas shootings.


headshot_kelly-1-700x430Kelly Brown Douglas, MDiv, PhD, is Professor and Director of the Religion Department at Goucher College in Baltimore, Maryland. She is a leading voice in womanist theology and has served as an Episcopal priest for over 20 years. Widely published in national and international journals, her groundbreaking book Sexuality and the Black Church was the first to address the issue of homophobia within the black church community. Her most recent publication is Stand Your Ground, where she writes, “There has been no story in the news that has troubled me more than that of Trayvon Martin’s slaying. President Obama said that if he had a son his son would look like Trayvon. I do have a son and he does look like Trayvon.” Other publications include, The Black Christ, Black Bodies and the Black Church, and What’s Faith Got to Do with It? She has also received the Goucher College Caroline Doebler Bruckerl Award for outstanding faculty achievement, and was honored as “Womanist Legend” by the Black Religious Scholars Group.

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.