Were You There? | Sojourners

Were You There?

How art can help us wrestle with race and brokenness

THE GRAINY, STUTTERING surveillance footage shows police milling about, offering no medical assistance to the 12-year-old boy, Tamir Rice, one of them has just shot. They only spring into action when the boy’s older sister runs into the frame toward her brother. An officer tackles the girl, knocking her back in the snow, then cuffs her and puts her in the patrol car, only a few feet from her dead or dying brother.

This extended footage, released in January, and bystander cell phone footage from a few minutes later with audio of the sister wailing over and over “they killed my brother,” brought into my head the Good Friday spiritual “Were You There?” It was another moment, in months of unrest over police killings of black adults and children, when the question pressed in on me as a white person. “Were you there? Were you there when they choked my father dead? Were you there when they shot my son? Were you there when they killed my brother? Were you there?”

While books and other cultural works are no substitute or shortcut to the spiritual work of true repentance and detoxifying from cheap grace, they can be means of deepening understanding and finding the resolve to take action. Along with the film Selma, following are some of the artistic resources I’m turning to this Lent.

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