Blow after blow, it comes. The violence all around.
In Ferguson, Michael Brown’s body bleeds on the ground for hours. Hands up. Don’t shoot. Eric Garner is choked to the death by the very police force sworn to protect us. I can’t breathe. Tamir Rice, a 12-year old boy, is shot to death by the police in Cleveland. So many black bodies, brutalized and victimized.
Yesterday, another blow. No surprise to many of us, but still… no less raw, no less vile. The Senate releases a 500-page report of the CIA “interrogation and detention” program. Call it what it is: torture.
My government, your government. My tax dollars, your tax dollars breaking bones, raping men, putting guns to people’s heads, talking to prisoners about raping their mothers and killing their children. So many brown bodies, brutalized and victimized.
Whether the uniform-wearing agent is domestic police or CIA, whether it’s inner-city urban America or one of 50 countries around the world cooperating with the U.S., brutality, violence, torture are now (as they have always been) part of the state apparatus. And as they have been from the very beginning, they are most frequently unleashed against minority community members, black and brown (and red) bodies.
When you see the names of dozens of African Americans killed by the police, when you see hundreds of brown Muslims held indefinitely in Guantanamo and elsewhere, we are not dealing with a few rogue agents. This is systematic, structural, and institutional. It starts at the bottom and goes to the very top. We now know that Condoleezza Rice knew and supervised the programs, even as George W. Bush and the CIA director George Tenet assured us that the United States does not torture. So we were told.
There is so much that has been said and deserves to be said about the politics of these issues, and more that will be forthcoming in the next few months. There is starting to be greater awareness of how America’s militaristic reality as an empire around the world is now shaping the life of our urban communities by having hundreds of millions of dollars of warzone military hardware show up as “anti-riot” gear in our inner cities.
The investigations about the official and systematic nature of police brutality, and the new calls for holding members of the Bush and Obama administrations responsible and accountable continue.
So what do we as religious communities, as people devoted to the pursuit of beauty and love have to say?
There’s no sugarcoating this, nor a desire to retreat from the brutality and violence into an imaginary realm of the spirit. On the contrary, we are called to seek God among the broken and violated, among the hurt and the wounded and the bleeding. The blood of Christ, the blood of Hussein, may be found less in a sacramental cup and more on the pavements of our inner cities and our hidden torture dungeons.
Today’s prophetic voices proclaim: That which you do to the least of God’s children, you do unto Me. And the least of God’s children (Matthew 25) is not merely the abstract poor and orphans and widows and needy, it’s the black and brown bodies of our inner cities; it’s the children of Gaza and Syria; it’s those locked away in torture chambers with no recourse to appeal or representation.
What do we have to say in the face of such brutality and violence? Where do we stand? How do we give voice to our suffering?
Do we have a God that compels us to cry, to weep, to mourn, to resist, to rise up, to love, to redeem? If not, what’s the point of having a God? A God who does not call for addressing suffering is a worthless, unreal god that we cannot afford and will not pray to.
There are real and lingering issues of empire, of violence, of racism, of structural and systematic inequality that are at work, and we should not seek to minimize or distract from them. Until and unless those systems that produce violence are dealt with, we are always going to be mourning this victim and that victim. This is exactly what Dr. King told us about the Vietnam war in Riverside Church:
“The war in Vietnam is but a symptom of a far deeper malady within the American spirit, and if we ignore this sobering reality we will find ourselves organizing clergy- and laymen-concerned committees for the next generation. They will be concerned about Guatemala and Peru. They will be concerned about Thailand and Cambodia. They will be concerned about Mozambique and South Africa. We will be marching for these and a dozen other names and attending rallies without end unless there is a significant and profound change in American life and policy.”
Let us sit and reflect on that:
“Unless there is a significant and profound change in American life.”
Yes, our lives, our societies, our policies, our politics are all in need of redemption and transformation. It’s not merely a sin-sick soul that is in need of profound redemption, it is also our society and structural institutions that call out for being redeemed and transformed.
This is the lesson we know from Dr. King, who in offering the eulogy for the four innocent girls killed in the 16th Street Baptist Church, stated:
“They [the martyred children] say to us that we must be concerned not merely about who murdered them, but about the system, the way of life, the philosophy which produced the murderers.”
Yes, we have to address the system that produces violence. But as people of faith, people who seek the Spirit, people who recognize that the love of God unleashes upon this world — starting with the broken and cracked places — let us also speak from that voice here and now.
Racism, violence, torture, brutality, these are also a spiritual disease. Yes, they are implemented through structural inequalities and hierarchies. But they are rooted in a fundamental spiritual disease, one so basic that it is surprising to even have to name it: We err when we fail to see the full presence of God in each and every single human being.
God dwells not merely in Christ, but in each and every single human being. No exceptions.
The light of God shines not merely in Prophet Muhammad, and in all the named and unnamed prophets, but in each and every single child who is born. Every child, every momma’s precious baby is a child born of a divine spark manifested in this world.
The Qur’an puts it beautifully. When God created Adam and Eve and presented this masterpiece that was to represent the will of God on Earth to the angels and demons, they all bowed down except for a certain Iblis (later re-named as Satan).
Iblis refuses to bow down because he’s haughty, and he asserts that he’s better than Adam and Eve since he is made out of fire, and he sees the human creatures made of soil.
We are still like Satan. We are still displaying Satanic qualities and tendencies. As so many of the great Muslim sages have recognized over the centuries, these parables speak to us today and in every age. When we look at a fellow human being, or a group of human beings, and our initial response is to assert our own superiority over them, we are following in the footsteps of Satan.
It is this Satanic tendency inside each and every single one of us that whispers:
I am better than you.
I am not black like you.
I am not brown like you.
I am not poor like you.
I am not Muslim like you.
I am better than you because of my race,
Because of my religion
Because of my gender
Because of my wealth
Because of my nationality…
These are all the Satanic qualities that manifest in each and every single one of us. The inability to see the fullness of humanity in each and every single one of us is a spiritual shortcoming, indeed a disease that has to be addressed and cured. That shortcoming gets amplified through systems, structures, and institutions. That spiritual limitation gets attached to a system of violence that reinforces a hierarchy in whatever brutal way necessary.
We should never shy away from shining a light on the dark places of injustice, on the structures of violence and brutality, whether in our impoverished inner cities or the faraway hidden dungeons and torture chambers. And as people of faith, people committed to life of the spirit, we should always remember that the tendency to assert the superiority of some over others based on what we think are made out of (rather than how we act) is a quality first manifested by Satan, in a rebellion against God.
Let’s lay siege against the structures and institutions that produce violence. And let us never forget about the spiritual disease at the heart of violence, torture, and racism. Let us never pause until the spirit of the Lord is unleashed fully on this world washing over all the cracked and broken spaces, washing over the spilled blood in our inner cities and the torture chambers, uplifting the wounded and the mourning, redeeming the structures and institutions that produce that violence.
Until we make of this whole world a new world.
We as God’s children are not bound to live the way we live today. Another world is possible. And the spirit of God compels us to be participants in creating that world. May it be. May it be soon. May we be participants in making it so.