July 4. #AltonSterling was simply parked in a handicapped spot — while selling CDs. Now Alton is dead.
It had been a while since the hashtag of a black man, woman, or child killed by a cop had burned across social media like wildfire. It had seemed the nation had transitioned into a new phase of the struggle — the trial phase.
December 2015. Little more than one year after the police shooting of 12-year-old #TamirRice, the prosecutor recommended to the jury that the officer not be indicted for the slaying of the child. The jury followed his recommendation.
January 2016. The former officer who arrested #SandraBland was indicted for perjury in connection to the report he filed after his arrest. Bland died in jail days later, on July 13, 2015. A grand jury declined to indict anyone in connection with Bland’s actual death.
March 2016. Authorities announced that the two officers who shot and killed 24-year-old #JamarClark in Minneapolis, Minn., will not be indicted.
In each case, the life of a man, woman, or child of African descent was transformed into a movement hashtag. Those tagged lives have been testing the criminal justice system in courts across the country.
Then, on July 5 — weary from two years of marching, dying-in, sitting-in, task-forcing, educating, speaking, writing, organizing, explaining, defending, enduring, and waiting — America was yanked out of its criminal justice reform waiting room and submerged back in the mayhem of triage, and a new life was tagged.
And on July 6, the girlfriend of #PhilandoCastile recorded her boyfriend’s death on Facebook live after an officer shot him four times during a traffic stop.
And on July 7, we watched 5 police officers die in the line of duty — cut down by sniper fire in Dallas while partnering with peaceful citizens protesting the deaths from the days before.
I’ve heard people refer to this past week as America’s lowest point in race relations. Two years ago many thought the lowest point was the day Michael Brown lay dead in the street for four hours.
Others point to the day tear gas was tossed into peacefully protesting crowds and tanks rolled through the suburban neighborhood of Ferguson, Mo.
Others consider it the day when New York officers were targeted for retaliation. Or when police and protestors were pitted against each other that time.
Many thought the nadir was the massacre of Charleston’s Emmanuel Nine.
Still others look to The Guardian’s report on 569 police-related deaths in the first six months of 2016, and the fact that black men represent 28 percent of unarmed victims but only 6 percent of the total population, and declare the year 2016 our nation’s nadir.
Or maybe the nation’s rock bottom was actually the moment in 1776 when Thomas Jefferson reduced indigenous peoples to “savages” in the Declaration of Independence, the day in 1787 when people of African descent were declared by Congress to be 3/5ths of a human being and chattel (things), or the day in 1790 when Congress reserved naturalization for whites only. That was a pretty bad run.
Perhaps what makes the past week feel so low is not what happened, as tragic as it was, but rather our cap-sized capacity to deal with it because of all the layers of foundation that brought us to this moment.
I agree with Hillary Clinton, who said in her speech at the African Methodist Episcopal National Convention on Friday: “There is something wrong with our country.”
Something is wrong.
And as we get “woke” to this reality it is tempting to sink into collective despair.
Why, then, should we have hope?
While researching my book, The Very Good Gospel: How Everything Wrong Can Be Made Right, I learned that Genesis chapter 1 was written by a company of Hebrew priests who had been oppressed for 70 years during the Babylonian exile. These priests were exiting Babylon, returning to their homeland, and were about to assume power again in the temple. In this context, they penned Genesis chapter 1.
In the Babylonian creation story, Enuma Elish, the Babylonian gods, live and war for supremacy in the waters. And they create humans to serve them as slaves.
The Hebrew creation story begins with God: “In the beginning, God…” God is the context of life.
The earth is without form — an indistinguishable ruin. Darkness (also translated: destruction, misery, death, and sorrow) covers the face of a surging mass of waste — the deep.
And where is God? The Hebrew priests position God over the deep — over the place where the Babylonian gods were created and lived — over the source of the Hebrew’s oppression — over the source of their despair.
God exhales and the breath moves over this surging mass of misery. And the Hebrew word for “move” literally means to brood, as a hen broods over her eggs. It is as if God’s spirit (ruwach, a feminine noun) positions herself to confront the misery and destruction, to confront the sorrow and wickedness. She broods over it as if she is about to do battle with the darkness. And her strategy for engagement … is birth — new life.
Elohim, the supreme God speaks: “Let there be light!” (Gen 1:3) And light is born. “And Elohim saw that the light was good.” The voice and command of God cuts the darkness. There is clarity. There is happiness. God speaks and goodness is birthed from a cesspool of despair.
This is our context. Over the past week our nation has felt like a surging mass of misery.
God cuts the darkness…with light.
The darkness does not overcome.
Consider American chattel slavery. Consider Jim Crow. Consider women’s subjugation. Consider the Cold War. Consider Apartheid. Consider the Shoah. In the middle of the darkest moments in human history, the oppression felt like it would never end. Change seemed like a fool’s dream. But change came.
The priests who penned Genesis 1 did not promise a world without pain. When God created paradise in their retelling, God did not obliterate the darkness or the deep. God intervened and placed boundaries on it.
Because God intervenes, I hope.