In a violent and fragmented society, sometimes the grief is so deep that I cannot help responding as a father as well as a Christian pastor and a political leader. All of the children are our children, whether it is a baby shot amid a senseless crime in Chapel Hill or a child shot in two seconds by a trigger-happy cop in Cleveland.
There is a time for prophetic grief. As I heard the news about the Ohio prosecutor’s decision to not bring charges against the police officers who shot 12-year-old Tamir Rice, I got a call from a friend asking for a comment on the death of Maleah Williams, a 1-year-old killed on Christmas Day by a drive-by shooting in a North Carolina housing project. I told him I could not comment. My rage and lamentation went beyond any words I could offer.
Though I had plenty to say, I could hear the Bible’s admonition against speaking out of wrath. I know, too, that grieving precedes but does not preclude moral action. As I hung up the phone, I let the tears flow and sat still as the reality of black death washed over me.
I picked up Dr. Cornel West’s Prophesy Deliverance and read that opening line in the third chapter which seared its truth upon my memory the first time I read it because the reality was already imprinted upon my soul: “The notion that black people are human beings is a relatively new discovery in the modern West.”
Black people’s humanity is still at question in the stories so many of us hear and tell in America. For many with a badge, a gun, and the legal shield of the state, black men and women—even black children—are not humans. Instead, black bodies are threats and targets for rage, fear and racially justified execution. When an officer of the law exterminates on the spot, we must ask ourselves what he was shooting. In his mind, Tamir could not have been a boy. He could not have been human. What did he see? And who bewitched him (and us) to “see things” when we are entirely sober?
One of my friends, a prophetic journalist from Missouri, Rev. Carl Kenny, sent me this after a reader of his column told him the grand jury worked properly:
My reader is affirming this opinion in a way that challenges us to move beyond these incidents as individual cases. These deaths are not about the guilt of the victims or the innocence of the police. Tamir’s death may not be about his age or the fact the gun was a toy. These cases may involve the common sentiment among those chosen to rule on these cases.
Black people deserve to die.
Black people deserve to be punished for being black. The evidence doesn’t matter. The background of the person is insignificant. The experience and training of police officers fails to change the conclusion. What is the conclusion? In the minds of some who are called to serve and protect, it is a crime to be black. In the minds of some who serve on grand juries, when police kill a black person, they are simply doing their job.
Those who have not sat in tears might read Rev. Kenny’s words as a cry of despair. I do not. In light of Dr. West’s insight, I read them as damnation towards the injustice of racially driven death. The preacher is cursing as the preacher should—damning that which is damnable in our sin-sick society.
The refusal to indict is itself an indictment. It is a perverse admission that, when it comes to race and racism, far too many in America cannot handle the truth. We would rather look away and let it pass. Our false prophets cry, “Peace, peace,” where there is no peace, while power brokers continue to be enslaved by false notions of justice and pacified by illusions of fairness so we might exist in a state of denial and the counterfeit worship of American exceptionalism.
Prophetic mourning demands that we be neither comfortable nor cynical in the face of violent death. We must mourn over it and we must stand against it. Pope Francis challenges us in Laudato Si’ “to become painfully aware, to dare to turn what is happening in the world into our own personal suffering, and thus to discover what each of us can do about it.” And so today we mourn and tomorrow we work to transform crucifixion into resurrection and become what the prophet Isaiah calls “the repairers of the breach, the restorer of streets to live in.”
The first act of a free people must be to lament the painful reality of our world. This is the only path to liberation. We must mourn our collective refusal to even seek the truth before a jury with cross examination as a horrendous hypocrisy that will haunt the American soul until we repent and change our wicked ways.
We must grieve the two seconds in which a child was accused, tried, convicted, and sentenced to death by a system that, upon appeal, upheld the “lower court’s” decision.
We must curse the mockery of equal justice which proclaims that black death does not matter.
But we cannot stop there. Because Tamir is not the only child we have lost. Maleah, a precious black baby girl, is also dead. And she was killed by young black men. I must confess, this is the other side of my righteous anger and grief. If state-sanctioned police are killing our babies, why in the hell are some of us helping them? (Again, it is the preacher’s responsibility to curse that which is damnable.) What kind of demon causes you to participate in your own genocide?
“America never was America to me / and yet I swear this oath, / America will be!” —Langston Hughes
I know some will say that these young men are so consumed by society’s hatred that they even hate themselves. But my grief refuses to hear what society did and how it is to blame. Our people made it through slavery without killing one another. Don’t tell me poverty makes you kill a baby. “Upbringing” doesn’t make you kill a baby. Evil kills babies.
A prophetic, moral voice must cry out against this evil, too. The problem is not just “they.” It is us—all of us—and nothing short of a moral revolution of values will save us from the destruction that is to come.
More guns will not save us. Neither will better gun laws and criminal-justice reform. What America needs is a revival to heal our soul and bring together a new vision of beloved community. We need spaces where we sit down together in our neighborhoods, young and old, black, white and brown, rich and poor, Republican, Democrat and Independent to talk about who we’ve been and who we want to be. We need transformational coalitions where we listen to other people’s pain and internalize their hopes to the point that their issues become our issues.
And after we’ve sat down to mourn and dream together, we need to stand together before school boards and city councils. We need to assemble on our statehouse lawns and shout aloud with Langston Hughes, “America never was America to me / and yet I swear this oath, / America will be!” We will become the nation we’ve not yet been only by recovering the Movement mentality that gave rise to America’s First and Second Reconstructions. The hope we can believe in will not be on the ballot in 2016. But that does not mean we can’t work together toward it. If we give ourselves to prophetic lament, it can lead us to the movement building that will give rise to a Third Reconstruction.
This moral revolution of values is what I’m devoting myself to in 2016. But I am a father as well as a pastor and political leader. I have to talk to my five children, who keep asking me, “Dad, do they want to kill us all?” These are the precious lives I have to protect from thugs among the police and bangers in the hood, even as I continue to get threats from racists who would rather see me dead than challenge lies and speak the truth in love. Only a new society can make us all safe. Together we have to build that society, because all children are our children.
The Rev. Dr. William J. Barber II is the architect of the Forward Together Moral Monday Movement, president of the North Carolina NAACP and pastor of the Greenleaf Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in Goldsboro. This essay appeared originally on the website of The Nation magazine.