In the past 48 hours graphic videos captured police officers shooting and killing two black men, Alton Sterling and Philando Castile. Their deaths have sparked nationwide mourning, outrage, and protest.
Sterling, a father of five, was pinned to the ground by two officers when one shot him point blank. Castile was shot after being pulled over for a broken taillight with his girlfriend and 4-year-old daughter in the car. In both cases officers feared their suspect would wield a firearm.
As the Department of Justice begins an investigation into the police killing of Sterling, and the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension Assistance begins one in Castile's case, communities across the country continue their journey of lament, prayer, anger, and protest.
Sojourners reached out to black Christian leaders via email for comment. Below, read some of their responses:
Lisa Sharon Harper, Chief Church Engagement Officer, Sojourners
I watched Alton Sterling struggle — arms clamped to his side and twisted behind him and in an instant my mind's eye flashed through all the hashtags of the past three years, through the millions of prison cells that have controlled and confined us, across rolling southern highways where we disappeared after police pulled us over, to a field and a road where overseers cracked whips and patrollers checked the travel passes of enslaved images of God moving between plantations. Sterling hit the ground, the modern-day patrollers mounted him, checked him for weapons. They found a gun — in an open-carry state. Sterling dared to affirm the image of God within himself. The patrollers did the job they were created to do. With each shot they snatched back white dominion over black bodies. What remains to be seen is whether America has the collective will to change the patrollers' role in our society. I hope.
Dr. David Anderson, Founder and President of the BridgeLeader Network
The assault on black men by the police has a heritage that must be unearthed, uprooted, and prosecuted. Otherwise, bridge builders like me will not be able to console, yet again, another family or justify another unindicted police officer, whether in St. Louis, Baltimore, New York, Charleston, or Baton Rouge. Let's speak out together and stop the madness through a unified and multicultural outcry against this epidemic.
To my dearest non-black friends and family, please remember that one's silence can often be misunderstood by blacks, yes, even the ones you know and love, as consent. So join together in lifting your voices on social media and to those around you. Let people know that your heart is as broken as theirs and that you indeed stand with the brokenhearted and heavy-laden, and together let's pray that God will give us rest.
Leroy Barber, Executive Director, The Voices Project
There seems to be a continued disregard for black life that over time keeps waging war against the image of God within black people. Alton Sterling's murder right in front of our eyes is like an alarm going off in my soul to continue to fight against the darkness. We must break our silence to say nothing denies the presence of the Creator within each of us.
Rev. Dr. William Barber II, Founder, Moral Mondays Movement
Two lives, two souls of black men dead. Two father's, two sons, two brothers just trying to make it were killed by those who are supposed to protect and serve.
How Long? How Long America? Killing of Black bodies by those behind badges is a form of terrorism. Let us refuse to allow Alton and Philando's memory to die or for their lives to be dismissed, distorted, or denounced. Blood is crying from the ground and let it trouble the very soul of America until justice is a clear reality.
Rev. Dr. Traci Blackmon, Executive Minister, Justice & Witness Ministries, United Church of Christ
Exodus 1:22: "Finally the king issued a command to all his people: “Take every newborn Hebrew boy and throw him into the Nile..."
The King feared the Hebrew male child. An irrational fear rooted in the known resistance and unknown rage of oppression. Such fear is a formidable weapon when armed with the power of the State.
The murder of Alton Sterling, and now Philando Castile, reminds me the State is still armed, and murder remains a justifiable response to stop whiteness from trembling.
So how might we disarm white fear?
Iva Carruthers, General Secretary, Samuel DeWitt Proctor Conference
The shooting of Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge is another example of the psycho- cultural ethos of the inhumane systemic racism which continues to grip America’s soul. I am unwavering in my pronouncement that this was an unmerited execution at the hands of those sworn to uphold the law. It is past time for all those who believe in the promises and principles of American democracy to wake up and rise up against those forces that make mockery of the petition, “God Bless America.” May the God of righteousness shower Divine love and peace upon the family of Mr. Sterling.
Christena Cleveland, Associate Professor of the Practice of Reconciliation, Duke Divinity School
Alton Sterling's execution is the ongoing evidence that the social construct of whiteness continues to try relentlessly to extinguish the image of God in black people. It’s a time for lament, but also a time to look inwards, particularly for those of us who are people of Christian faith, and think critically about the way the church contributes to this ongoing problem of whiteness.
It’s really easy for people of faith to look at what happened with Sterling and say “that’s terrible, that’s evil, that’s racist.” But the same evil and whiteness and racism that drove Alton’s Sterling execution is the same evil and whiteness and racism that drives the Christology of a white Jesus, that maintains the centrality of whiteness and white supremacy within the church, where white voices, white perspectives, white theology are preferred over others. It’s important for the church to look deeply at why we haven’t influenced the public arena of justice: What’s our theology? What’s the practice of our theology?
Nicole Baker Fulgham, President & Founder, The Expectations Project
Alton Sterling’s heartbreaking and senseless death presents another moment for our nation to decide who we want to be. Through our grief, we can collectively choose to acknowledge and dismantle the racism and injustice that permeate our society.
And people of faith cannot look away. As painful and shocking as the video is … we cannot look away.
So rise up, Church…all of us. We can and should lament. But sorrow alone is insufficient. Now is the time to demand the justice described in the book of Amos: “Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.”
Rev. Dr. Alex Gee, President and Founder, Nehemiah Center for Urban Leadership Development
To me the death of #AltonSterling means many things: 1. The continued devaluing of African American men; 2. An increased sense of apprehension of White law enforcement officers; 3. A loss of my belief in the American Dream; 4. Genocide; 5. Continued pushback from the advancement of African American people; 6. Lack of accountability for the loss of African American lives. 7. The attempted annihilation of the African American family: 8. The continued silence of White Christians.
Charles Gilmer, Past and Founding President, The Impact Movement, Inc.
My people are still not full citizens of this republic. This realization should not surprise us when the U.S. was founded on an assumption of entitlement to the lands of the native population and a mixed opinion on the right to forcibly extract the labor of my ancestors. Empires and Christ’s Kingdom really share no common ground, despite the church’s persistent pursuit of the perquisites of imperial power. This modern day “empire of whiteness” grants some of us people of color provisional citizenship. Alton Sterling’s American citizenship did not provide as much protection as did Paul’s Roman citizenship, as in Acts 22:22-30.
Michelle Higgins, Director of Worship and Outreach, South City Church
Where does our help come from? The apparent police lynchings of two men in two days mean avoidable tragedy — because lack of empathy leads to loss of life. These killings are a reminder — because this tragedy has come upon us before and it strikes Black communities far too often. Those who survive the slain are a living testimony that our struggle is far from over. We must see them, hear them, and answer them in embodied solidarity. Challenge the corruption of police and political authorities who engage in dehumanizing practices. Resist unjust laws. Dismantle white-centeredness and demand equity so that all of God’s children have the right to survive, the opportunity to thrive.
Rev. Dr. Jacqui Lewis, Senior Minister, Middle Collegiate Church
Alton Sterling’s demise was a lynching. The hatred of Black flesh, condoned by Biblical myths like the “mark of Cain” and “the curse of Ham,” is deeply embedded in our culture. It must be addressed for the sickness and sin it is. There must be repentance. There must be a love revolution that acknowledges that each body is awesomely and wonderfully made in the image of God, who delights in all flesh, in Black flesh. We must wake up! Faith leaders of every religion and ethnicity must declare that when Black Lives Matter, we will all be finally free.
Rev. Michael-Ray Mathews, Director of Clergy Organizing, PICO National Network
The death of Alton Sterling — and now Philando Castile — mean that once again…
I must preach and teach that this work is intrapersonal — addressing deep, deadly, and implicit biases.
I must preach and teach that this work is interpersonal — weaving and reweaving people into real relationships.
I must preach and teach that this work is systems work — changing laws and practices that favor death over life.
I must preach and teach that this work is cultural work — transforming hearts, minds, and centuries-old narratives.
I must practice a faith reflecting the dignity of those “whose backs are against the wall.”
Jimmy McGee, CEO/President, The Impact Movement
I have a dream to live. The quieting appeal for Dr. King’s dream is reduced to one word, “Live.” It seems such a trite appeal, when life is made up of so many occasions that we hope to celebrate. Alton Sterling’s son’s appeal was for his dad to be with him on his journey of life. Is the single aim of sharing the Gospel with the Black community to live in heaven, because we have abandoned the notion that we can’t live on earth? The answer is no! Have we reconfigured segregation, so the demarcation line is life and death instead of a restroom or fountain? Unacceptable! I will mourn and grieve. I will pray, resist, advocate and plea for the right of Black people to enjoy the privilege of life entitled to all human beings.
Rev. Dr. Brenda Salter McNeil, Author, Speaker and National Reconciliation Leader
My heart grieves and I’m outraged over the brutal death of Alton Sterling! In a country that is based on laws and due process, we see another tragic example of execution style street justice. I concur with actor/activist Jesse Williams who said, “We know that police officers “manage to de-escalate, disarm, and not kill white people every day.” Why then must Black people be tried on the streets in what looks like a public lynching?! This must stop! I pray for comfort and healing and also call for justice that holds those who commit these horrific crimes accountable for their assault on all humanity.
Efrem Smith, President/CEO, World Impact
Once again an African American life has been lost during a conflict with police officers. This tragedy grieves my heart as both a Christian and an African American male. As an evangelical I realize that we live in a broken, sinful, and fallen reality. We live in an upside down world. To that degree race, class, and systemic oppression are real issues. They are also sin issues where transformation, reconciliation, justice, and revolutionary love must come to bear. The church must see this recent tragedy as an opportunity to participate more deeply in the biblical mandate of The Great Commission of discipleship and The Great Commitment to the empowerment of the least of these.
Harold Dean Trulear, Associate Professor of Applied Theology, Howard University School of Divinity
I grieve living in a land where life is cheap. I mourn the senseless death of a family man, a father, a son. Many will call Alton Sterling other things. Life has always been cheap in communities outside our nation’s mainstream. And to hug the illusion that all is well, we will find ways to criminalize Alton Sterling, dehumanize his biography to justify his execution and soothe our nation’s soul. Yet even should he be blamed for his own demise, God told Ezekiel that he takes “no pleasure in the death of anyone.” America must repent.