I’ve not prayed since 2016. I’m still a Christian. I’ve not put my pain to paper in that same time. I’m still a writer. But praying and writing remind me of the days when I would beg. I’d beg people to see my pain; I’d beg God to do something about it.
As an adult, I’ve spent an inordinate amount of time respectfully trying to convince Christians and their institutions that my black life matters. I’ve taken that same approach when advocating for a more just society, a society in which policing and the carceral state are abolished. I’ve petitioned God to intercede toward that end but it seems we are stuck at verse 12 of Job 24: “The groans of the dying rise from the city, and the souls of the wounded cry out for help. But God charges no one with wrongdoing.”
Begging for one’s humanity to be recognized is painfully humiliating . Healing from that pain requires therapeutic outlets where that trauma can be expressed privately. Healing also requires publicly demanding the pain of black bodies be recognized by God, country, and the church. Demanding black people’s humanity be seen is liberating not only for black people, but humanity as a whole. But making demands is a right that black people have routinely been denied. And so, as Malcolm X predicted, the chickens are making their way home to roost.
Malcolm was not a popular figure at my liberal seminary with predominantly white faculty. Black people peacefully protesting were looked at with ire, so you can imagine what many of them thought about an “any means necessary” approach. I began seminary in 2013 as a pacifist of the Martin Luther King Jr. variety. I graduated as something else. I lived on Chicago’s West Side for the duration of my master’s program, from 2013-2016. My community was heavily invested in the Black Lives Matter movement and so was I. What I couldn’t understand was why my high-profile, white professors, who waxed poetically about “faithful presence” and “the radicality of Jesus,” were not also invested.
I’ll never forget when I barged into a professor’s office and begged him to stop criticizing Black Lives Matter protestors for being “too antagonistic” toward police. The conversation took a turn when he asked my opinion of his most recent book. It was a glorified screed against liberationist impulses within Christianity. Before I could answer him, he told me Drew Hart had recently tweeted a harsh (read “accurate”) review, challenging his interpretation of liberation theology. "He seems angry," he said. I stared in his eyes, sitting across from him and said, "He is. We are." Angry about what? That’s the question. My well-intentioned, tenured, white professors didn’t know. I made efforts to explain it to them in academic papers, during office hours, and in private one-on-ones where I’d play their anti-racist therapist. But the visceral nature of racism missed them.
I begged them though. I begged them because I wanted to make a good impression so I could expand my circle of influence. If I could get them to come along, maybe they’d see the worth of my work to the church and theology, the worth of my community, the worth of blackness. I think they wanted to hear and experience all of that, but in their preferred classical key, not a bluesy one. So, I watched as white friends examined black pain and used it to become teacher’s assistants, present conference papers, speak on panels or pursue PhDs with an emphasis in black studies. Turns out all the begging went unnoticed as I tried to assert my humanity. My diploma remains in the packaging in which it was sent to me.
I hated seminary. But I hated the cops in Chicago more. They imagined Chicago’s black neighborhoods on its South and West Sides to be the Wild West. And if they were the sheriffs in this scenario, the residents were the outlaws. I found this out the hard way. One of the first times they pulled me over, I was leaving a church parking lot, on my way home. Ironically, we were gathering to lament the black community’s treatment by the police. We made our petitions. I prayed back then. I saw the cops at the end of the block, so I made the full stop at the sign. Just as I was ready to turn right on Laramie, a white fist pounded on the back of my trunk.
Me and my Ford Taurus were a job for five cops apparently. One stood in front of my car, two kept watch on the corner, and the other two interrogated me from the driver and passenger side.
“You got any weapons in the car? Drugs?”
I told them the truth, “No.”
“You ever been arrested before? Criminal record?”
I told them the truth at the time, “No.”
They didn’t believe me. “Why are you over here?”
“This is my church, I work with the youth, I’m a seminarian,” I rambled.
“So, you’re a priest who likes kids?”
“No, no, nothing like that,” I assured them and attempted to explain, “One day, I’m going to get a PhD and write theology.”
“If you’re really a grad student show us your student ID.”
I obliged. I wanted them to believe me so, I begged them to believe me. Hard to say if they believed me and they never said why they stopped me, but they let me go. I got to go home.
It’s true that black people don’t always end up dead when encountering police. But we almost always end up wounded. It’s from that wound that we demand Christian institutions, Americans, and God to see us for what we are: humans. We are ugly. We are beautiful, too. We laugh, we cry. We demand to breathe. We demand to exist.
Begging does not provide a ticket for safe passage. And demanding we be seen as human is risky because it’s always met with the great American tradition of anti-black violence. But we are willing to embrace that risk. Because within our demands there is a catharsis and a holiness. It’s all captured perfectly in the symbol of the burning bush or, perhaps in our current time, a burning cop car.