Everything must change.
Injustices around the world and here at home are coming to light despite a long, willful blindness. Half a world away, the long-muted voices of the victims of American military policy were allowed to break through the wall of propaganda and infotainment used to keep them hushed. A recent New York Times report reveals one of the worst-kept (actually un-kept, but vastly underreported) secrets of our government: that we often do not know who we are killing with drones.
And at home, in Baltimore, the death of Freddie Gray in police custody has caused long-simmering tensions – born of institutionalized segregation, nearly inescapable poverty, and a scourge of police brutality – to erupt in an uprising of passionate resistance, with destruction punctuating otherwise peaceful marches. Media coverage has given far more attention to the “riots” than to the systemic violence that has kept so many African Americans, not only in Baltimore but throughout the country, living in poverty and insecurity.
So much devastating reality has been thrust to the attention of a population that can usually afford to remain ignorant (or feign ignorance), and it is that population, with myself included, that I primarily address. Many of us privileged not to suffer the long-term consequences of living in a war zone or under racial injustice have already turned away, back to our busy lives. And while I pray that I can remain focused and compassionate enough to keep the millions of people directly suffering these injustices in my heart and on my mind, my survival does not depend on my constant awareness of the devastating cruelty – manifest in so many ways – driving the machinery of our world and running over so many lives. But for a moment, the New York Times and the restless streets of Baltimore called that cruelty to our attention. The administration sought to pacify us on drones with claims of “near certainty” that no strike would involve civilian casualties. In its coverage of Baltimore, the media sought to distract us with the myth of Empire, spinning the onus of the violence onto those throwing rocks and destroying property rather than a system of oppression. But for a moment at least, some of us saw through the deception and distraction to the deep pain of the people.
That deep pain is constantly calling out to our true nature, demanding we live up to the image of God at the core of our being, hidden under selfishness and fear and a culture of violence burned into our social DNA. It is the prophetic voice of those at and beyond the margins of Empire. It is Christ ever crucified, calling to us not only collectively but also deeply personally, by name. “Lindsey, Lindsey,” it calls to me, in millions of voices bleeding into one, “Why do you persecute me?” Do you hear the call? Is your heart crying out too?
When this call pierces through our daily routines, when our ears awaken to the cries of victims of social, economic, and military violence at home and abroad, indicting our complacency with the status quo as we go about our lives, we usually try to silence it. We drown it out with our national and religious mythology, which goes something like this: “We are not persecutors; we are good people. We do not target innocents. We are the land of the free, where those who work hard enough can achieve the American Dream. The causes we fight for are just. We are humanitarians. Civilian casualties abroad are unfortunate collateral damage, and more innocents would die if we didn’t kill the bad guys. The poor at home have fallen through the few cracks of a system built on liberty and justice for all – or they have sabotaged themselves.”
These lies permeate the air we breathe, so deeply ingrained are they in our psyches that we usually don’t even have to tell them to ourselves consciously. They run deeper than culture, though our specific cultural mythology reinforces them. They come from our primal need to identify ourselves as good, which goes hand-in-hand with a need to contrast ourselves with others who are bad. Thus fear and mistrust of the “other” is the other side of the pride of our cultural mythology.
Our policies, foreign and domestic, reflect this unconscious or willful self-deception. We deny the worst within ourselves, but mercilessly assume the worst in others.
That is how we can look past the suffering of the people exploited and killed abroad. That is how we manage to ignore or justify an official policy that claims all military-aged males killed in conflict zones are automatically militants unless posthumously proven otherwise. It is by our mythical narrative of exceptionalism that we convince ourselves that we have the godly power of judging human hearts from thousands of miles away based on patterns of behavior we can only observe on a tiny computer screen – and take it upon ourselves to extinguish those we deem enemies before we even know their names.
And here at home, it is how we exonerate ourselves from ongoing racial injustice. It is how we brush past a damning history of racial oppression – from slavery to segregation to lynch mobs – believing ourselves good enough to be “beyond that sort of thing.” Yet ingrained prejudices belie the myth that racism is over, and come to light most harshly in the killings of African Americans deemed “dangerous.” While we deceive ourselves into thinking we are incapable of the crimes of our ancestors, we simultaneously justify brutality in punishments that far exceed crimes – real or imagined – when we fail to indict law enforcement officers who murder black victims, turning the few cases that go to trial into victim blaming. And we do this while ignoring the long-term effects of segregation and racial discrepancies in education and employment opportunities. While we try to claim that institutional racism is a thing of the past and scapegoat those who let slip a racial slur, as if we no longer harbor deeply embedded prejudice, Glen Ford of Black Agenda Report compellingly calls the 1.5 million black men missing to murder by law enforcement or the social death of prison a genocide.
“Lindsey, Lindsey,” I hear the voice call my name again. Do you hear it calling yours? Listen: we are being called to repentance.
Our self-glorifying pride and harsh judgment of others must give way to humility and compassion. We are capable of the worst of atrocities, and those we kill with impunity — or allow to die while convincing ourselves that we have no part in their deaths (though we are all connected, and our silence is our consent) – are capable of the most beautiful acts of love.
This is the message of Easter. Only in the light of the resurrection is the horror of the cross exposed. We were still blind in our deceptive self-righteousness when we murdered Jesus on the cross; in his resurrection we see the living God in our victim and realize that God has suffered with every victim of our lying, murderous violence by which we judge others. Such a devastating revelation would be completely unbearable were it not accompanied by forgiveness and a love that leads us out of our condemning judgment and into life-giving at-one-ment with the Author of Life and Love. In meeting our violence with forgiveness, Jesus heals us from our deadly lies and brings out our infinite capacity to love. When the truth of Easter penetrates our hearts, we can finally see our blindness by the light of Love leading us into true sight.
If today you hear the cries of the children fearing to go outside their houses as the drones circle overhead; if today you see the pain in the eyes of someone holding a sign that says “Hands up, don’t shoot;” if today you start to wonder if mothers were meant to fear for the lives of their children playing outside in their own neighborhoods, or how many fathers won’t return home today because they have been killed for behavior deemed suspicious; if today you begin to wonder how you benefit from military and social policies that trample on others … then the cross of Christ has pierced your heart through the self-deceptive myth built in murderous ignorance since the foundation of the world.
We must not silence those cries! Let the walls of deception come tumbling down! They do not protect; they imprison! When we can look upon the depths of our sins against our brothers and sisters and see our guilt, it is like looking into the wounds of the resurrected Christ and recognizing our own handiwork. It is a daunting prospect, but the same message of the risen Christ applies to us: “Do not be afraid.”
The cries of the people on the streets in Baltimore, Ferguson, and all around the country and indeed around the world, convict us, but they do not condemn us. We are already forgiven through the boundless mercy of God manifest in Christ, and through that forgiveness we can find the will, the courage, and the power to change. It starts with recognizing the image of God in those crying out to us and listening to their voices. Then begins the long, hard work of reparations and dismantling systems of oppression, exploitation, and violence in all of their social, cultural, economic, and militant manifestations. We see our brothers and sisters anew, and we are a new creation. We cannot continue in our old systems, but must rebuild our relations with love, not fear, as our motive and service, not personal gain, as our goal. The wine of our new humanity cannot be contained in the old wineskins of racism and violence.
The Easter season is upon us, and Easter always begins in fear, as the old world collapses around us. But as Love pierces through pride and hostility, it casts out fear and opens us to joy and a true peace that far surpasses the sacrificial pseudo-peace that the world now gives. The world’s “peace” is the violence of silence in the face of oppression, but that silence has been broken! We must heed the call. Everything is changing. Hallelujah!
Lindsey Paris-Lopez is editor-in-chief at the Raven Foundation, where she uses mimetic theory to provide social commentary on religion, politics, and pop culture.
Image: Tunnel, Annette Shaff / Shutterstock.com