A time to save lives and do justice

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It was January 2006 when a delegation of United Methodist general secretaries, bishops and Connectional Table members traveled to the Philippines to witness to the government of then-President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo. Our mission was to call for an end to the extrajudicial killing of clergy, laity, journalists and human rights workers.

For much of our visit, we simply listened as Filipinos told their stories of how pastors and other activists had been killed because of their advocacy for human rights and the challenge they posed to the political order. They spoke about leaders, fathers, mothers, sons and daughters who had been taken by the omnipresent arm of the Philippine military.

These spiritual workers and advocates, representing their churches, worked to provide health care, education and training to poor people. Their work — to improve the lives of the marginalized and the “other” — was considered subversive and drew the full force of government-sanctioned violence, with its aim to assert control over the bodies and will of poor people and their advocates.

We also confronted authority with the stories we heard. We talked to military and representatives from the president’s administration to register our concerns about the continuing atrocities. It is hard to determine what impact our witness made, but it is clear to me that when the world is watching and speaking out, injustice cannot hide in the dark crevices of indifference and wanton violence.

Fast-forward to 2016 and the United States, where black men are being murdered in “routine” traffic stops, for selling loose cigarettes or for running away from a policeman.

Ta-Nehisi Coates, in a letter to his son titled “Between the World and Me,” writes that, historically, our nation has sought to wield control over black bodies, with the threat of the black body to the nation-state being so great as to require that it be controlled through enslavement and Jim Crow. Control is still levied upon poor people as police assert their authority while publicly humiliating black and brown men. There is a desire to control the marginalized.

In such a reality, it is easier to destroy the “other” because he or she does not meet the prevailing understanding of normative. When white people consider their heritage as normative, it frames the basis for marginalization, which is at the root of the desire to destroy or discriminate against those who are not “normative.”

The violence of shootings in Baton Rouge and near Minneapolis-St. Paul underscore the critical need for cities and their leaders to address racial disparities. There is a disturbing trend of police applying deadly force disproportionately against people of color — particularly black men. There is a constant drumbeat of distorted thinking that makes some police officers react with lethal force toward people of color. We saw this in the tragic and unnecessary deaths of two black men, Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, symbolizing once more our nation’s inability to confront the insidious structures of racism that create deadly fear and foment paralyzing discrimination.

Recently, a friend asked me why Black Lives Matter, and not All Lives Matter. This is an important question.

In answering her, I used a parallel example. Before the creation of sophisticated ventilation systems in coal mines, canaries were used to detect poisonous gas. As the canary had smaller lungs, its death was an early warning signal that the air quality was toxic and the miners should vacate. The canary was the most vulnerable and its death marked something even more ominous for those working in the mine.

This is how I think of the present situation for black men, for black bodies. Our vulnerability and violent deaths point to something more ominous and dangerous in the body politic. Black Lives Matter because they signal to all of us the need to stop the machinery of oppression and begin the process of humanizing love.

All lives do matter, but there are times when we must focus on those who are most vulnerable and ask why their presence conjures up so much fear and violence. Black Lives Matter because if we don’t get their lives right, none of our lives will be right. No justice, no peace.

It is an important time in our history. Too many people in our nation find themselves marginalized because of the color of their skin or their economic status. United Methodists have an opportunity to raise our concerns in Congress, state houses and local government bodies. Our police and citizens need to talk to each other about our common stake in community building. We need to converse about de-escalating violence. We need to work to make certain that young African Americans do not get entangled in the criminal justice system. Addressing the issues of mass incarceration and the gulf that exists between many of our communities represents a critical agenda item for our nation’s policymakers. It is time for our voices to be heard as we give substance to our outrage toward racism and the marginalization of God’s people.

Theologian Michael Eric Dyson is spot-on when he says, “We don’t want police to be executed at a peaceful protest. We also don’t want police to kill people of color without fear that they will ever face a jury, much less go to jail, even as the world watches their death on a homemade video recording.”

It is through our common human experiences that we begin to break down walls. When we see the image of God in our brother or sister, there is hope for our society. When we begin talking to each other, rather than at each other, we can change the world. When we learn to value one another’s life experiences, there is room for encounter and community.

*Pickens is ecumenical director at The Lehigh Conference of Churches in Allentown, Pennsylvania.

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