Eric Garner, an unarmed African-American man, was choked to death by white police officers in New York City on July 17th. Yesterday a grand jury decided that no criminal charges would be brought against Daniel Pantaleo, the police officer who choked Garner to death. Garner was suspected of selling untaxed cigarettes. What is so unique about this case is that the entire scene was captured on a cell phone camera. The New York Times reports: An autopsy by the city’s medical examiner found that Mr. Garner’s death was a homicide resulting from the chokehold — a maneuver banned by the Police Department in 1993 — and the compression of his chest by police officers. Viewer discretion is advised as you are literally watching a real man be killed:
Eric Garner’s death was captured on video.
The officer used an illegal choke hold to take him down and kill him.
And our court system says this is a-ok.
Everyone can see Garner was not being violent or aggressive to anyone, including the cops. Yes he was raising his voice, yes he didn’t want to be cuffed, but deserving death? There were at least 5 trained police officers on site and there was one Eric Garner. And this guy gets killed?
For selling cigarettes?
A homeless friend of mine sells hand-rolled cigarettes for 25 cents each in Lansing.
Should he be cuffed? Should he be expected to go quietly if he was cuffed? Should he be killed if he didn’t go quietly?
What the white Church* needs to understand about the death of Eric Garner (and of Michael Brown) is that there is a long and ugly history in our nation that has preceded this. Black men being openly murdered by white men, including white police and white pastors, has been going on in this country much longer than baseball has been played or apple pie has been cooked. Lynchings didn’t end when slavery ended.
A Man Was Lynched Yesterday.
Flag flying above Fifth Avenue, New York City, ca. 1938. Copyprint.
NAACP Collection, Prints and Photographs Division.
The Tuskegee Institute records lynchings through the year 1968, when “Hey Jude” by the Beatles was a #1 hit and red Ford Mustangs were all the rage–this was not that long ago.
Michael McDonald was lynched in 1981.
Frederick Jermaine Carter was found hanging from a noose on an oak tree in a white neighborhood in Greenwood, Mississippi in 2011. Authorities say it was a suicide. Was it?
But it’s not just lynchings. My faith hero Dr. John Perkins was beaten within a millimeter of his life in the Brandon, MS jail in 1970. He had been arrested for peacefully protesting along with a group of children and teenagers and was never charged with a crime.
The list could go on and on.
In an article by Greg Howard following the Michael Brown story entitled “America Is Not For Black People,” one of the very helpful things Howard does is list out several of the very recent cases of unarmed black men being gunned down and killed in public by white police. These all happened within the last year:
On August 5 in Beavercreek, Ohio, 22-year-old John Crawford was killed in a Walmart when a toy gun he had picked up from inside the store was apparently mistaken for a real gun. LeeCee Johnson, who had two children with Crawford, said that she was on the phone with him, and that his last words before she heard gunshots from police officers were, “It’s not real.”
On July 17 in Staten Island, New York, 43-year-old Eric Garner, a well-known presence in the neighborhood who sold illicit cigarettes and kept an eye on the block, was killed after breaking up a fight when NYPD officer Daniel Pantaleo used an illegal chokehold on the asthmatic man. “I can’t breathe,” he said, before he died. “I can’t breathe.”
On the night of September 14, 2013 in Charlotte, N.C., 24-year-old Jonathan Ferrell was killed after getting into a car accident. He climbed out of the rear window of the car, stumbled to the nearest house, and banged on the door for help. The homeowner notified the police, who showed up to the house. Ferrell was tased, and then an officer named Randall Kerrick shot and struck Ferrell 10 times.
There was Trayvon Martin in Sanford, Fla., and Oscar Grant in Oakland, Calif., and so many more. Michael Brown’s death wasn’t shocking at all. All over the country, unarmed black men are being killed by the very people who have sworn to protect them, as has been going on for a very long time now.
The point is: anytime an unarmed black citizen gets killed by a white police officer, it’s going to bring with it a flood of painful memories to the black community. It’s going to be the next dot in a timeline that seems like it will never end.
What happens if the white Church does not do or say anything about the death of Eric Garner? And about the long history of injustice in ours nation’s gaze is currently fixed on?
Black people identify themselves as a community much more so than white people do. White people see ourselves more as individuals. If something happens to a white person, I don’t see or feel it as if it’s happening to me. This is because I’m the majority race with majority power and privilege. There are a lot of white people, we come from very different backgrounds, and most of our family’s have never been legislatively oppressed. African American people are an oppressed minority. Their entire identity as a people is birthed out of oppression. They were brought here from Africa and stripped of their African identity. They cannot trace their roots back to where they came from in Africa due to how slave owners intentionally divided up families and tribes on the slave boats. They can only trace their roots back to slavery. Their culture, their stories, their songs, their identity are all birthed in oppression. And in overcoming oppression. So when a black person sees the oppression of another black person, they personally feel it. When they see injustice in New York City or in Ferguson, they feel it as if it’s happening in their hometown, in their very home itself. They know their children could be the next Trayvon Martin or Eric Garner.
So what happens if the white Church doesn’t do or say anything?
What happens if the white Church just says we should all be “color blind” and get saved and love each other?
What does it communicate white Christians think about black people? What does it communicate that the Bible thinks about black people?
What it does is completely invalidates black people. Which is one of the most unloving things you can do to someone. It completely invalidates their history as well as their contemporary experience. If we don’t talk about it, then it didn’t happen. Though it shaped who you are, we don’t care about who you are. It says, “Just act like you’re white and you’ll fit right in.” It calls them liars. It accused them of playing the race card. It creates separate silos: us against them. And this all in the Church! In the Church where Jesus passionately prays in John 17:20-21, “I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me.” Or in the Church where the tone for racial reconciliation is set in Ephesians 2:14-16, referring to the 1st century Jewish race and Gentile race, boldly declaring Jesus …is our peace, who has made the two groups one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility…His purpose was to create in himself one new humanity out of the two, thus making peace, and in one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility.
Has Jesus’ purpose been fulfilled in the American Church?
Hell no it hasn’t.
And why not?
Because when white Christians like myself weren’t busy forcibly removing black people from white worship services using white police officers, like what Dr. John Perkins describes happened to a black friend of his in 1970 (Let Justice Roll Down, p.164) –his friend was literally in the middle of singing the Doxology, Praise Him, all creatures here below… when a white police officer came up to him and stated, “You weren’t invited here. The congregation, the minister and I don’t want you here. Get out!” –When we weren’t busy doing things such as this and as the decades rolled on, we were busy being color blind, moving our houses away from black people, telling black people they were welcome in our churches as long as they acted white, and never talking about any injustices in society, the very things the teachings of Jesus rail against, because we were so worried white people might not come and get saved if we did.
Just like Billy Graham did when he held segregated revival services rather than confronting the hate and injustice of blatant racism.
We watered down the message of Jesus to make him more palatable for white people.
We gave an incomplete gospel so white people could handle it.
Shame on us.
A new friend of mine, Joseph Harris, a.k.a. Logic, is a very talented poet. He recently posted the first draft of a poem he wrote entitled “Boiling Points.” You might listen to it and think he is advocating violence. He’s not. Listen closer. He’s saying the destruction is already upon us. He’s saying there is such a thing as righteous anger. That there are things that ought to burn us up on the inside. And that these injustices are going to burn down our society if we don’t deal with them. It’s an anger that Jesus displayed. It’s an anger that Christians are to have toward injustice. But the sad, sober and subtle message of the poem is that eventually whatever boils simply disappears into vapor, like hope…
The media will eventually stop focusing on Eric Garner and Ferguson, MO and go back to talking about football and Katy Perry and the Academy Awards and all the other opiates presented to us as Americans. The media’s boiling point will disappear.
My question is, does the Church have a boiling point? Specifically: does the white Church, do white Christians, have a boiling point on these issues?
And no, being white is not a sin and people aren’t blaming you for slavery. And no, black people aren’t saying they don’t need to take personal responsibility for their lives because of their history. Stop dodging the issue by coming up with made-up accusations like that. But not empathizing with, listening to and loving our black brothers and sisters most definitely is a sin. And it’s a sin we need to repent of.
If you believe in John 17:20-21 and Ephesians 2:14-16 and Amos 5:21-24, then you’d better be starting to boil about Eric Garner and all that the case represents about our society. And if you’re not, I sincerely challenge you to go to these Scriptures and ask the Holy Spirit to convict you, to open your eyes, and to change your heart.
I know I’ve hit my boiling point. I know I’m tired of calling people to a spineless and actionless Jesus and a spineless and actionless gospel. The gospel is about redemption, reconciliation, repentance, forgiveness and overcoming injustice. In our individual lives, yes, but also in the lives of our brothers and sisters and our world as a whole.
Jesus, shine your light.
Jesus, crash your Kingdom into this world. May things happen here the way they happen in Heaven. (Matthew 6:10)
Raise up your Church.
21 “I hate, I despise your religious festivals;
your assemblies are a stench to me.
22 Even though you bring me burnt offerings and grain offerings,
I will not accept them.
Though you bring choice fellowship offerings,
I will have no regard for them.
23 Away with the noise of your songs!
I will not listen to the music of your harps.
24 But let justice roll on like a river,
righteousness like a never-failing stream!
*I realize there is no “white Church” denomination or official group and that ideally, there wouldn’t be a white Church and black Church or even white churches and black churches, but there are. And these groups function in unique ways. So I am addressing them as what they are in reality. You could swap out “white Church” for “white Christians” and you’d get a similar meaning.