watch your tone as you mourn the body

After my second time watching Black Panther, my friend and I (both black women in our 20s) could not stop texting each other, overwhelmed by the urgency to unpack the film in all its layers. While we dived into a number of topics (the brilliance of all the kickass black women being one of them), we kept circling around this: We could not forget Erik Killmonger, or N’Jadaka as he refers to himself later in the movie. This character’s presence weighed on both of us, though for different reasons:

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“So understandably weary,” my friend texted back, and we paused together. Images of black leaders old and recent materialized in the silence, and I realized that my first response wasn’t entirely correct. Yes, I resonate with T’Challa, his desire to see good in others, his patience and measured approach…but I hold the rage of Killmonger in a way I would not have several years ago.

I use the word rage intentionally. Rage is not a word used often in American circles, especially those which are predominately white and Christian. Instead it’s reserved for descriptions of the wrath of God or maybe an episode of particularly bad weather. And what is rage? The Webster dictionary frames it as “a fit of violent anger” or “angry fury.” But that clinical definition carries inherent judgement. It is incomplete. It tells me nothing about the circumstances that deserve rage as a response or whether rage can exist in diverse forms apart from uncontrollable violence.

Meeting N’Jadaka

I grew up relatively shielded from the kind of racial oppression that ignites riots and fuels the rage of the Killmongers of the world. In my fairly well-off suburb, I could count my black friends on one hand, residing in that strange limbo where you never blend into the white majority, but the lines are blurred enough that you could be considered exceptional (aka not one of “Those Black People”). I only saw glimpses of the black anger simmering beneath American soil during visits to Civil Rights museums, the documentaries my mom and aunt made us watch, the occasional news headline…until college.

In college I met my N’Jadakas. In the dorms, on the couches within our multicultural student hub, I interacted with black students fully conscious of how much racism had screwed up their lives and those of others–and they were angry about it. Not only that, but they demanded an overturning of the status quo that allowed Whiteness to be the norm at our school. They demanded those in power to listen.

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Whispers from the white students told me that these were the “militants.” Many were my friends, but their loudness, their upfrontness made me uncomfortable. When they went on about white supremacy, I squirmed inwardly, wishing their words were softer, more diplomatic. When they ranted in the student center hallways about how we only learned about the history and theology of old white men (the fact that I even used the word rant then is telling), my eyes darted every way, wary of being heard by other white students–or worse, offending them.

There are names for my reaction. The worse would be “Uncle Tom” or “Oreo.” Probably closer to the truth would be “colonized.”

In black circles, a colonized mindset implies that your way of thinking and moving through the world is dominated and shaped by the same harmful ideologies and practices used to oppress your people. Because the foundation of this mindset is the historical trauma of racism and the fear of upsetting the majority group (white people), it is a shade of internalized racism.  In my case, this incarceration of my mind and heart informed my dismissal of the depth of racial pain my black sisters and brothers were experiencing. Instead, I prioritized the comfort and stability of white people around me over their alienation–and my own.

This kind of posture leaves little room for intimacy with black rage and the suffering underlying it. It was only when I finally chose to shut up and actually sit with the stories my black friends were telling me that I realized how much I had sinned against them by telling them to lower their volume.

I had always been taught not to let the sun go down on my anger, not to sin in my anger, and I still believe in that value of that. Nevertheless, it was black women and men who showed me that there is not a dichotomy of anger and faith. They taught me what it meant to grieve over being black in America…and that I was allowed to be angry about it. Experiencing fury over the injustices black people face and loving my neighbors (black AND white) is not mutually exclusive. In fact, part of God’s character as an entity of justice is embodied in the rage of those positioned as inferior in their society.

Seeing the Body

Isaiah give us a narrative of a persecuted people far from home. The minor prophets of the Old Testament rail against those who deny justice to the poor, the immigrant, the widowed. The Bible is deeply conscious of people who have been wronged and demonstrates God’s compassion towards them–and his response to those who inflict harm upon his beloved ones or ignore them. Jesus defined his ministry by drawing near those of lesser status in his time (women, paralytics, the poor) and acknowledging their pain even as he called those same people to salvation.

It begins with that acknowledgement of pain, physical, emotional, and systemic: We need to “see the body,” as Soong-Chah Rah explains in his book Prophetic Lament. All too often I observe White Americans skipping this crucial step, quick to judge people of color for being too “harsh” or attacking them by “bringing up race too much.”

“Why can’t we just discuss this calmly?” 

“Why do you need to protest when it only makes things worse?” 

“Okay I see what you mean, but what if the officer was just afraid? You’re being emotional, not logical.” 

I have heard all of these responses and more every time a racial “controversy” happens. And I need my white sisters and brothers to hear me when I say that not only are these responses uncompassionate, they are patronizing. 

You (white people) are not the experts of a black person’s experience with racism. It is not loving nor helpful of you to police the tone of people of color when they are working through and responding to those experiences. It stings when I hear you using Scripture to justify your distance from the issue of racism when black people talk about it with more than a level tone. In those moments, the burden is consistently placed on the black person to refashion their legitimate anger and grief into something white people find palatable enough to discuss. If our presentation does not meet certain conditions, it is likely that our words won’t be taken into consideration by you at all.

Do not say you love justice if you are not willing to to commune with those who have been sinned against, and do not assume they need to be polite or restrained to spare your feelings if you are White.

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NYC protest after Alton Sterling and Philando Castile’s murders in 2016

We (black people) march in the streets and are called hateful. We bend the knee on the sports field and are called selfish. We make movies about race and are called controversial. We give Ted Talks on race and are called divisive. These are not just generalizations. I have seen these responses pervade Christian spaces, reminding me that no matter how many racial reconciliation conferences we have or multicultural dinners, the complexity and tension of black pain must somehow still find expression on the terms of white people. 

I propose an addendum to Mr. Webster’s definition: Rage is a suffering heart’s response to violent neglect. I choose to center my understanding of rage on the pain of people experiencing oppression in that situation rather than on the anxieties of those surrounding them.

A Lament for D’Jadaka

Erik Killmonger, D’Jadaka rejects the idea of accommodating solely to white people’s sensitivities, and that is why he strikes a chord within so many black people. An inheritor of a broken American Dream, he is not apologetic in speaking to the desperation and suffering of people in his hood. He has never seen the institutions of his country benefit people like him, and so he demands them to be torn down and rebuilt. He sees the dead body and is tired of it being ignored.

The expression of his rage contains problems (I don’t think arming all black people and killing “all our oppressors and their children” is the answer when racism is so embedded into our social, political and psychological frameworks); however, that does not absolve us of the responsibility to approach the sources of his pain with integrity and with love. We can seek the Eriks of the world like Jesus did. We can wrestle with what they share with us and receive them without trying to speak over them as if we know what they’re talking about better than they do (T’Challa learned this lesson by the end).

The discourse of Christian lament in America is relegated to the meditative and solemn, meant for candle vigils, quiet tears, and special services. It pleads for unity without any of the effort to see the depth of our (America’s) wounds. And so is there a place in the Church for black rage? Not much of it right now, but there should be. 

The Two Days Between

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The Funeral of Stephon Clark

When I heard Stephon Clark was shot, there was no Wakanda to retreat to. The tears were ugly, the weariness unbearable. And for many black people experiencing that loss, there is not always a church willing to receive them as they are: grieving. I know I hesitate to open up about it because previous examples suggest that the rage I feel about Stephon’s murder will be offensive to many White Christians. If they grappled with the pain alongside me, it would invite a whole host of other issues to deal with, including the devastating notion that their worldview may in error and their Whiteness is part of a bigger problem. Who would willingly go through that kind of suffering with me?

Someone who loves you. Someone like Jesus.

Yesterday we acknowledged Good Friday, the day another man was murdered and laid out for public view. A man who willingly died not because we were good, but because while we were sick, he loved us.We sit now in the two days in-between. As a Christian, I know we are guaranteed the Resurrection, and yet we are given two days to mourn the body. We are given two days to diagnose what killed the body, and the Gospel invites us to mourn the conditions of the human heart (sin) and the poisons in our society that contributed to that person’s death–Jesus’ death.

This is our story of redemption, and because the dawn of the Resurrection is guaranteed, we should be lavishing even more grace and patience upon those who suffer in the days between the Resurrection and the final coming of Christ. Since we don’t have a timeline charting the end of racism, the rage of marginalized peoples must matter to us. Their rage reminds all of us of the deeply-rooted evils still at work among us, that the world is still not as it should be. As truth-seekers we should demonstrate a compassionate curiosity to understand what fuels that rage rather than fixating on our discomfort with it. That is putting our neighbor before ourselves.

The fires of our neighbors’ rage illuminate the wrongs still to be righted, and it will not allow us the privilege of complacency when there are more bodies to mourn. As those seeking to love like Jesus, we are called to nothing less.

2 thoughts on “watch your tone as you mourn the body

  1. “…what fuels that rage rather than fixating on our discomfort with it.” Just one of many compelling quotes that illuminates the part of the heart in a dark shadowy cavern of knowing.

    Like

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