One thousand, three hundred and forty-one unarmed Black men have been killed either by white police or white men who took the law into their own hands from 2017 to 2022. We remember the names of George Floyd, Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, Trayvon Martin, Amadou Diallo, Sean Bell, Amani Gray. Additionally, since 2017 there have been 50 Black women killed by white police or white men who took the law into their own hands. Women such as Renisha McBride, Breona Taylor, Saundra Bland, Yvette Smith, Atatiana Jefferson, and Kendra James. We as a people carry the trauma of their untimely, brutal deaths in our psyche. And now at the start of this new year and the beginning of Black History Month, we have been re-traumatized by black and brown death at the hands of police.
On January 2nd. Takar Smith died during a confrontation with LAPD as he was having a mental health crisis. On January 3rd. Keenan Anderson an English teacher was involved in a car accident, stopped at the side of the rode, LAPD arrived, he began to run away from police for fear of his life. He died of cardiac arrest as a result of being shot with a stun gun six times. Hours later Oscar Sanchez was shot and killed by LAPD while having a mental health crisis. On February 1st Anthony Lowe a double amputee who allegedly stabbed another man, was tased six times and shot ten times throughout his upper body as he attempted to scramble along the street away from police in Huntington Park, California. But the most horrific murder that has re-traumatized us, was that of a 29-year-old black man, Tyree Nicols murdered at the hands of five Black police. A young man who was a son, a brother, a father and a friend. A young man that was viciously, unmercifully and insanely beaten until his injuries brought about his death on January 10th. We must stand up and call out for justice.
As we look at our society today, we find ourselves once again repeating history. The protests of the Civil Rights movement, the Rodney King incident, the Eric Garner protest, the Black Lives Matter movement and now more protests and more marches. History repeats itself over and over and over again. And because this is Black History month, we need to remember that the history of the police force in this country was established along two streams. In the north, it was a system of volunteers whose primary goal was to warn the community of danger. In the south the genesis of the modern police organization was the “Slave Patrol”, first created in the Carolina colonies in 1704. Slave patrols had three primary functions: (1) to chase down, apprehend, and return to their owners, runaway enslaved men and women (2) to provide a form of organized terror to deter revolts; and (3) to maintain a form of discipline for enslaved-workers who were subject to summary justice, outside of the law, if they violated any plantation rules. Following the Civil War, these vigilante style organizations evolved into modern day Southern police departments. They were used primarily as a means of controlling freed formerly enslaved persons who were now laborers working in an agricultural caste system, and enforcing “Jim Crow” segregation laws, designed to deny formerly enslaved men and women equal rights and access to the political system.
Four Hundred and four (404) years of enslavement, captivity, and oppression of people of African descent in this land – from slavery to Jim Crow to the Black Codes to segregation to mass incarceration to modern day lynching in the streets. It is too much, just too much to hold. Tyree Nichols died on my birthday, January 10th; three days after he was brutally beaten for allegedly reckless driving. So often in the past 20 days, I have cried out to the Lord, “how long O Lord, how long; how much O Lord, how much more can your people take? It is too much, the repetitive trauma is too much, too much to think about, too much to hold; and so, it spills over from my eyes and runs down my cheeks because I can’t hold the anger, I can’t hold the pain, I can’t hold the trauma any longer. When O Lord, when will justice come? As we step into this month that we celebrate as Black History Month, how does the church deal with such issues? At a time when we celebrate the achievements of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Rev. Dr. Raphael Warnock, Congressman Hakim Jeffries – the first Black minority leader in the House of Representatives and 21 Black Congresswomen; we are still plagued with the divisiveness and hatred of racism. What does God have to say to the 21st century Church about such issues? There is much confusion in the world of Christendom regarding the clarity of Scripture on certain issues; but I believe this is not one of them – God has repeatedly told us what he requires of us in terms of just action and mercy.
The prophet Zechariah (7:1-14) was charged with speaking the oracles of God. He spoke what God gave him to speak; not what he decided he should speak or what the people might want to hear. The mark of a true prophet is that he/she speaks the oracles of God no matter who likes it or who doesn’t like it. The mark of a true prophet is that he/she speaks from an understanding of the righteousness of God and the fallenness of mankind. The mark of a true prophet is speaking truth to power and knowing that God is with us. The Church, is called to speak with a prophetic voice; to speak out for justice for all peoples; but more so to speak out for justice for those who are the oppressed and the lost. We are called to give voice to the injustices we see and know that is being perpetuated against all people. Through the prophet, God rebuked and rejected the fasts the people had performed for seventy years. God essentially told the people that the fasts they kept were not acceptable to Him because they were not fasting for Him; their fasts were not undertaken for the glory of God, they were undertaken for their own sorrows and grief. Their fasting was mere formality and void of any real hunger and thirst for the LORD and his righteousness. Just as God was displeased with the ritualistic fasting of the people of Israel; I believe He is displeased with the dormancy of the Church today.
There were no miracles, signs and wonders being performed when the Israelites prayed and fasted. There will be no justice for Black men and women who lose their lives at the hands of a racist society that perpetuates the thinking that the life of a black man or woman is of no value; until the White Evangelical Church stands in solidarity with its Black sisters and brothers in Christ. Until this faction of the Church becomes active, persistent in calling for justice, pushes hard for policy change and use their white privilege to bring about real transformation; there will be no justice for Black men and women. I believe that our just God is not pleased with such complacency. Until the Black Church once again kneels down in prayer and stands up in the strength of the Lord to speak truth to power, organize, and take needed action; there will be no justice for black men and women. I believe that our just God is not pleased with such complacency.
After God spoke to the people of Jerusalem about their faulty rituals, He spoke again through Zechariah and told them exactly what he required of them as people of God. And these are the things that God continues to require of His Church today in the 21st century. God says we are to execute or administer true justice, and show mercy and compassion every man to his brother (Zechariah 7:9). This requires action on the part of the preacher, action on the part of lay leaders and action on the part of every believer. We can no longer sit still and talk about how terrible things are and how awful are the pictures we see flashed across the television screens. Our land is in crisis, and this is a clarion call to the Church. Justice is rooted in the very nature of who God is. God is impartial. God rewards good and does not allow sin to go unpunished. God does not take bribes and He does not pervert justice in any manner. Justice is the quality of being fair, unbiased, righteous, equitable, and morally right. Justice is the principle of making sure that like cases are treated the same way; that the distribution of benefits and burdens are equal among the people. The Church Universal, has a long history dating back to the times of the prophets, of being those who spoke justice and truth to the powers. But the
Church today seems to have lost its prophetic voice to issue a call to action and to demand justice with force and diligence in matters that target the lives of oppressed and marginalized persons; and for families and communities of those whose lives have been snuffed out unjustly. If we are to be true disciples of Jesus Christ and if we are to follow Him radically in mission, we cannot be afraid to speak out against the tough issues that might offend certain people groups, at the expense of other groups of people who are being decimated and harmed. Zechariah spoke to the people that they were to show mercy and compassion to everyone.
Mercy is also rooted in the very nature of who God is. Mercy has to do with the loving-kindness of God. This God doesn’t give us what we deserve; He gives us what we need – that’s mercy. In the wake of the long history of police brutality perpetrated against Black folks in America; I would propose that it might be difficult for those of us affected by these murders and incidents of brutality to be merciful. In some communities, no one had to pay attention to the murder of Eric Garner, Michael Brown or Johnathan Ferrell. Their deaths did not resonate with significance. In those communities, no one would confront the preacher and ask why she did not respond to the death of these young men. And yet in other communities, the deaths of Eric, Michael, Johnathan, Breona, George, Tamir, Sandra and Renisha’ s were a touchstone, a cause for prayer and lament and righteous anger and yet faithful expectation. These distinct reactions are a raw reminder that our communities of faith remain largely segregated. Although we worship the same God, the contexts within which we seek God’s face are radically different. With such division, what does it look like to show mercy to your neighbor? What does it look like to be “one” church even as we are profoundly divided? It might look like seeking the face of the just God, who is more than able to deliver us from our transgressions.
Because God is the just Judge, we can turn to him for mercy for our shortcomings and we can count on him to deliver a sound verdict that is wrapped in His loving kindness toward us. The greatest demonstration of His mercy towards us was the death of His Son on the cross for our sin. He used His discretionary power as Judge to pardon our sin and hang them all upon His Son Jesus Christ, who knew no sin. Understanding how God views justice and mercy, opens the way for the people of God to be compassionate. It is the perfect work of God, that we should enter in with deep feelings of suffering and sorrow for one another at this time. Yes, we should even lament and cry with one another over the senseless loss of lives in such a horrific and unthinkable manner. It is the perfect work of Christ that allows us to enter into those deep feelings and pain with a desire to help to alleviate the burdens of our brothers and sisters. That is what God calls compassion. That is the way of Jesus. Jesus calls His disciples, you and I to love in spite of, to demonstrate Jesus in spite of and to show loving kindness in the face of travesty. How do we take our understandings of justice, mercy and compassion and make them practical?
The Bible says, “And oppresses not the widow, nor the fatherless, the stranger, nor the poor and let none of you imagine evil against his brother in your heart” (7:10). So, while we are called to do justice, show mercy and compassion; we are also called to abstain from oppressing those who are the marginalized of society. We are also called to abstain from oppressing our enemy. Our people live in fear for their lives, because we the Church have forgotten our heritage steeped in the days of the Civil Rights movement where the Church prayed, marched fiercely across the Pettus Bridge into Selma locked arm in arm, Black and White, Christian and Jew. We have not rallied on the steps of City Hall nor the streets of Memphis, Tennessee. We have not joined forces with our ecumenical partners to say enough is enough! The Church is guilty of the injustices against our communities and against young African American and Latino men because we have been quiet as one by one, they were shot down like meat for the slaughter. The Church is guilty because we have not used our collective power to call for a full investigation of these murders.
The cry for justice for all persons is part of the witness of our Christian faith. The gospel calls us to directly confront racial and ethnic prejudice in all of its various forms. Our Christian faith and our human morality implore us to see the world through the eyes of the broken and battered on the side of the road. Will we bury our heads in the sand and fail to be our brother’s keeper? Will we continue along the road of not understanding and not really caring about our sisters and brothers in Christ who are the oppressed, the imprisoned, the captive the broken hearted and those whose eyes of love have been blinded by the sin of racism? Zechariah brought the Word of the Lord that says we are to show mercy and compassion every man to his brother and sister and we are to execute true justice. When we, the Church begin to show true mercy and compassion every man to his brother and sister, therein lies hope. The hope of the Kingdom yet to come. The hope of forgiveness, reconciliation, and restoration. Therein lies the hope of the peace of Christ that passes all understanding. Therein lies the hope of the day when people will be united by the Spirit within instead of the color outside. The hope of a resurrection of a new day for the people of God everywhere created in His image and likeness. My challenge to you is to think long and pray hard for God to reveal to you what it is that you must do in your own little world and what we as a Church must do to fulfill this mandate, this call to justice and mercy. For it is not until we execute justice, show mercy and compassion by loving our neighbors as we love ourselves, speaking truth to power and standing with the powerless; it is only then that we can truly celebrate Black History to the fullest extent, lifting the legacy of our ancestors with pride and dignity.
Rev. Dr. Patricia A. Sealy is the Pastor of the Mott Haven Reformed Church Located in the South Bronx, NY