In his 1962 letter to his nephew, James Baldwin writes: “You were born where you were born and faced the future that you faced because you were black and for no other reason.” For Baldwin, the social, economic, and political realities Black people endured led him to conclude his white “countrymen” were trapped in a false history that cast Black people as inferior beings who deserved exploitation. Acording to this false history, any inequality Black people experienced was either the result of their own choices or an unfortunate feature of the neighborhoods they “chose” to live in. But Baldwin makes it plain that U.S. society is based on condemning and ruining Black people’s lives both financially and spiritually.
Today, the narrative has evolved into something like this: Black people have been manipulated, robbed, and murdered throughout U.S. history, and through their suffering, justice has become the bedrock of U.S. society. This is the myth of “redemptive justice” through anti-Black violence — a narrative that requires the suffering of those pushed to the margins. In Womanist Ethics and the Cultural Production of Evil, Christian ethicist Emilie M. Townes argues these truncated narratives support structural inequities and other forms of social oppression that reinforce evil. This myth continues to cast a shadow over conversations regarding race and justice in the United States.
After the Derek Chauvin verdict Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said: “So again thank you, George Floyd, for sacrificing your life for justice. For being there to call out to your mom … [Y]our name will always be synonymous with justice.” These words should make any person with a conscience cringe. Floyd's murder was a holy injustice, not a gift to the world. This is a perfect example of how people who are oppressed are expected to offer themselves as a sacrifice for justice. Black people’s suffering is used as a justification for redemptive narratives about how the United States is a nation of “progress.” But when we justify Black suffering for the sake of “justice” or “progress,” we justify an evil lie that should not be called justice. Constantly repeating that “the system works” is a grave mistake as it makes a mockery of the suffering of Black people and God’s desire for God’s children to live an abundant life.
But to understand more deeply what justice is, one must first value Black humanity without expecting Black people to be martyrs for a better society. Justice is not predicated on people suffering under the hand of oppression. Rather, justice is predicated on God’s shalom, which emphasizes peace and the flourishing of everyone. This is a world where Black people are flourishing and not merely coping with the consequences of false narratives and myths. To believe that the suffering of the oppressed can lead to justice causes humanity to become callous to worldwide atrocities, which can also cause us to be appalled by those who fight back against their oppressors.
Those of us who consistently deal with inequities are expected to suffer or die for the sake of making the world a more just place. This causes God’s heart to ache and humanity’s blood to scream out from every corner of the earth. When pain and suffering become the primary means to achieving human rights, many begin to believe Black people suffering and dying for these rights is either God-ordained or a natural part of history. This is a lie. It is what James Baldwin might call a “palatable” lie, as it is “more palatable than the truth” — the truth that would have us fight back against injustice.
The truth tells us that we must clearly call out evil narratives that insist Black people suffer for the “redemption” or “progress” of this nation.
This truth was not one my seminary was interested in exploring. I was among the majority Black student population at my seminary, but often, our syllabi were completely devoid of Black authors. There were some professors who routinely mentioned Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. (someone often portrayed to have suffered “redemptively” for justice) but never people like Fannie Lou Hamer, Ella Baker, or Emilie M. Townes, who confront the myth that the marginalized suffer redemptively. To settle for palatable lies over truth can lead to ideas, theologies, and laws that support the myth that the oppressed must suffer for the sake of justice.
Gov. Andy Beshear (D-Ky.) is embracing palatable lies. Breonna Taylor died in her sleep after being shot five times by plain-clothes police officers executing a “no-knock warrant” at her home. The narrative was that her death might lead to a ban on no-knock warrants in Kentucky. Yet, no-knock warrants are still permitted. The bill Beshear signed in April 2021 explained that no-knock warrants are permitted when executed by a specially trained response team equipped with cameras and “clearly identifying insignia.” It is tempting to see the minuscule changes to the no-knock procedures as a way to redeem Taylor’s death. But we know God doesn’t will for anyone to suffer and die — even if some modicum of “justice” could come out of it (2 Peter 3:9).
The myth of “redemptive justice” through anti-Black violence continues to be a prominent discourse in the United States. Politicians may insist that George Floyd's name will always be synonymous with justice, but he didn’t sign up to have his name taken in vain by legislators.
Commenting on the recent 100th anniversary of the Tulsa Race Massacre, historian Robin D.G. Kelley reminds us the “vast majority” of Black Tulsans who were beaten, killed, and displaced did not intend to be remembered as martyrs in the struggle for freedom. It appears this narrative shifts and mutates over time, all along reinforcing the myth of redemptive justice via anti-Black violence. This is not what God wills.
What God does will is for Black people to enjoy the fruits of the land and live into their power. God’s will is embodied in peace for those pressed on every side (2 Corinthians 4:8). God’s will pushes us to see and hear all human beings. God’s will helps us to experience joy in liberation. God’s will pushes us to reject anti-Black violence, and to embrace the value of every Black life every damn day. Black people having to suffer or die for the sake of “justice” is in fact evil, and not what God intended. Let us resist this lie while righteously destroying all myths that ignore our humanity.