The image of Mike Brown’s dishonored body lying lifeless in the sun that August day shattered any illusions that we are living in a post-racial society. For over four hours, his body lay smoldering under the heat of the midday sun, uncovered and exposed. His blood splattered on an altar of pavement bearing public witness to a hushed truth that black folks have always known.
It was a Kairos moment. Chronological time was suspended and Americans were forced to reckon with one of our country’s original sins: the insidious legacy of anti-black violence in the name of “public safety.”
It was in the name of public safety, too, that Americans watched as tanks, tear gas, and terror were used as weapons against their fellow citizens protesting the injustice of Michael Brown’s death in Ferguson.
In America, black bodies have never been considered fully human but reduced to captive flesh. So it was during the framing of the Constitution, when black lives lives were rendered worth three-fifths of a white life. So it is today, when reports of a black death at the hands of a non-black killer reduce a victim’s full personhood to a single epithet: “thug.”
The circumstances of Michael Brown’s death were not unique. As author Ta-Nehisi Coates notes in his new book Between the World and Me, “There is nothing uniquely evil in these destroyers or even in this moment. The destroyers are merely men enforcing the whims of our country.” Like Emmett Till, John Crawford, Eric Garner, Sean Bell, Oscar Grant, Trayvon Martin, Jordan Davis, and countless unnamed women before him, Mike Brown was strange fruit of a different name. His body hung limp from the twisted tree of white supremacy whose roots betray the history of racial violence in his community from the popular slave markets in St. Louis’ urban core that traded in black flesh through the 1860s to the East St. Louis race riots of 1917.
Sitting on my living room floor as images from Ferguson streamed across my social media feeds, I found myself asking an old question my people have asked for centuries in this country in the midst of suffocating violence, oppression, and misery: Where is God in this?
I spent three years in seminary contemplating countless texts of great theologians on questions of theodicy — the problem of the existence of evil in a universe governed by an all-powerful God. Yet as the images from Ferguson continued to pierce my consciousness, it became clear that the answers to these questions I had written for my professors were no longer satisfying. This moment required a new theology and ethic that no amount of intellectual effort seemed capable of summoning. I felt stymied and frustrated, lost in an arid desert of pain and stuck in my own thoughts.
God did answer. But God’s answer did not surface in the books or lectures in which I had been immersed for the previous three years.
It was on a Tuesday last December that I laid dead for the first time side-by-side with thirty others on the floor of a Walgreens in Nashville, Tenn. My “death” was part of a die-in, a direct action strategy that has become a signature of the #blacklivesmatter movement. The cool linoleum tile became sacred ground. This particular Walgreens stands as one of the last remaining sites of the Nashville sit-in campaign of 1960. This movement was notable both for its early emphasis on disciplined nonviolence and for its marked success in desegregating six of the city’s lunch counters in just over three months. As I lay on the tile, I looked around the room at the peers who surrounded me. Many were old friends and colleagues from my seminary days. My eyes were opened to see God’s presence in our sustained struggle against injustice.
The die-in was my first direct action in the #blacklivesmatter movement. During the months that followed, I gained more and more inspiration from a new generation of leaders. Each unapologetically declared that black life, in all its forms, has value and worth. It is a decidedly counter-cultural declaration in a society pervaded by systemic violence against black bodies. Under the banner of #blacklivesmatter, these leaders rejected the respectability politics of the generations that preceded them. They stridently and powerfully demand justice for black victims of state violence, regardless of who might be offended or inconvenienced by their actions. Today, mothers, daughters, aunties, nephews, and young folk shut down highways, interrupt presidential candidates, and even disturb that most sacred of weekend traditions — brunch. Their message was singular: The most urgent issue of our day is the structural violence and systemic racism that is oppressing and killing black women, men, and children.
Over the past year, #blacklivesmatter has taught me that the work of theology is not limited to the hallowed halls of academic institutions or sermonic reflections from prestigious pulpits on Sunday mornings. At community meetings and rallies, I learned new hymns in the form of movement chants. I learned that protest can be a form of prayer. #Blacklivesmatter is more than a hashtag. It is a call for repentance. It is an invitation into a state of prophetic grief and collective lament that does not anesthetize us from our pain but allows us to reconnect to the depths of our humanity by feeling, together, the torment our silence on issues of racial injustice has sown. It is only together that we will be able to actualize the transformation God is calling us to effect in this world.