A Theology for a Grieving People
My tears started while I was sitting in a coffee shop, and they refused to stop. I gathered my laptop and purse, hurried back to the car, and sat quietly, expecting the flow to cease. And yet, tears were in my eyes on the way back home and tears stayed with me throughout the day. I have been grieving for a well over a year; grieving for Sanford, Fla;. for Ferguson, Mo.; for Charleston, S.C.; for Cleveland, Ohio; and for countless other cities. I am grieving for a world that I know, irrefutably, does not value black lives — a world that does not value my life.
The Christian is promised that although weeping may endure for a night, joy will eventually come in the morning. But we are never told how long that night will be or how long our season of grief may last. Your theology and your faith are shaped as much by those seasons of grief as they are by glimpses of a joyful morning.
There is a heavy weight of being black in a world that hates black existence. And my tears came from no longer being able to contain my anger, rage, or grief in a series of polite conversations and academic panels. I no longer have the means for polite discourse when trying to describe how police leaving the dead body of Michael Brown uncovered on the street for over four hours paralleled the worst of the American tradition of lynching. I can no longer form the right words to describe living in a world where an Oklahoma police officer accused of raping and assaulting several black women violates the terms of his bail, and yet has the courts determine that he poses "no significant threat" while he awaits trial. I do not have the right language to express my horror at watching Tamir Rice, a 12-year-old black child, being gunned down by police in less than two seconds while playing in the park. I have no language to process how nine black men and women were massacred in a church in Charleston, S.C., even after their killer sat with them during Bible study.
My words fail because my words are no longer adequate. Living with terror requires more than just words. Dealing with the realities of the terrorized black body in America requires my entire soul … and my entire soul weeps.
The horrors have simply surpassed the ability of my pen to write, and so my tears took up where my pen left off. On that particular morning, my tears were triggered by a rendition of "There is Room at the Cross," playing on my headphones.
I thought about all the various meanings of the cross for Christians: a place of atonement and redemption; a place of suffering and shame; a place of lynching and execution; even a place of promise and resurrection. But it is important to note that the cross was a site of grief. Tears were shed at the death of Jesus, who was a beloved child, a cherished teacher, a dear friend, and a valued leader.
And when we consider both the wonders and the despair of the cross, it can give us a theology for a grieving people — a theology that reminds us that black lives matter.
A theology for grieving people must make room for tears, weeping, wailing, pain, and anger.
Spaces are necessary where one can grieve without shame or interference. African Americans are often rushed — by cultural, political, and theological forces — to quickly forgive those who trespass against us. We are rushed to the space of forgiveness and healing before we can even bury the dead or evaluate the scope of our loss. But the cross reminds us that we cannot quickly race to Resurrection Sunday; we must sit with the pain of Friday’s crucifixion and with Saturday’s silence. There must be room for rage and anger and despair. There must be room to ask about being forsaken and abandoned. There must be room to question if black lives really matter to God.
A theology for grieving people mourns the loss of those too often considered unworthy of grief, those who are the “least of these.”
Criminals, murderers, thieves, and enemies of the state were among those crucified — those who were outcasts and outsiders of the larger society. Our nation is cruelly indifferent to those who are not “perfect” victims. Even when black men and women are not victims of state-sanctioned executions, they are killed again and again through character assassination. We shame and diminish victims, combing their school records, medical reports, and personal backgrounds to damage their characters, hoping that if we diminish them enough, their lives will not matter. But black lives, imperfect as they may be, are still made in the image and likeness of God. We must mourn when they are lost.
A theology for grieving people offers a safe space where stories can be told and believed, so that healing may eventually be possible.
The story of the cross is unbelievable except to those who choose to believe and place their faith in its veracity. The stories of black lives in America must be told and believed, so that we understand the consequences of living with contemporary lynchings, state executions, murders, and injustice. We must tell the stories of black women whose claims of rape are not taken seriously because they are sex workers. We must tell the stories of those whose only crime is walking while black or driving while black. We must tell the stories of mothers and fathers burying their children much too soon. We must tell the stories of those triggered by the sight of blue lights in their rearview windows. We must tell the stories of black women whose murdered bodies barely rate a mention during the evening news. These stories, however painful, must be told so that the healing can begin and so that we can affirm that black lives matter, again and again.
A theology for grieving people demands justice, even when the work for justice is inconvenient, painstaking, and long.
Even as the disciples of Jesus grieved at the foot of the cross, they understood there was work to be done. The work of justice is deeply political and requires an engagement in this present world. With tears in our eyes, we are called to march, rally, petition, sing, dance, create art, and use whatever gifts and talents we possess for the work of justice. The work of justice is deeply theological. Our church communities must foster a faith that gives people room to grow, to stretch, and to ask the tough questions. A grieving people need a theology for such a time as this, a theology that speaks to this present age. White churches, in particular, must end their silence and address the pain of grieving black lives, because the work of justice is collective. Even if you cannot possible understand all the reasons for our pain, you can come alongside a grieving people in love, humility, and solidarity.
In August 2015, we mark one year since the execution of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo. We mark 10 years since the devastation of the city of New Orleans due to Hurricane Katrina. We mark 50 years since the Watts Uprising in Los Angeles, Calif. And we mark 50 years since the 1965 Voting Rights Act. These watershed events reveal how far we have come and have far we have left to go concerning racial justice in our nation.
The question the church must ask itself: Is our theology expansive enough to address the world in which we actually live, or are we one year, 10 years, or even 50 years behind the times?
Our willingness within our churches to declare, emphatically and categorically, that “black lives matter,” is just one necessary step in healing the wounds of a grieving people.
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