A paradoxical faith: Amid deaths without reason, black people see God as Liberator

Travon Martin’s mother, Sybrina Fulton (second from right), and his brother, Jahvaris Fulton (right), join a march around the Baltimore Central Booking and Intake Center May 1. (Newscom/Reuters/Sait Serkan Gurbuz)

By Kelly Brown Douglas
Published by Orbis Books, $24

I am the proud aunt of five nephews (between the ages of 19 and 49), two great-nephews (23 and 30) and three handsome, lively great-grandnephews (3, 4 and 7). In light of the horrific stories that have flooded the news on a daily basis concerning the unwarranted and all too frequent killings of unarmed black men and women by the police and other armed individuals in the streets of our cities, I truly fear for their future in the United States. The publication of Stand Your Ground: Black Bodies and the Justice of God was particularly timely for me.

Kelly Brown Douglas, a black mother herself, raises relevant questions about our country, our values and our faith when and where young black men, in particular, are concerned.

As of this writing, 24 unarmed black men have been shot and killed by police this year. That's one every nine days. Today, statistics reveal that black men are seven times more likely than white men to die by police gunfire while unarmed.

What is our response to these statistics? They are not just numbers, but human lives cut short too often on the flimsiest of excuses: They "posed" a danger simply by their existence.

Like Douglas and many other black mothers and fathers, grandparents, aunts and uncles, we have made sure that our sons, grandsons and nephews were given the "talk" as they moved from childhood to manhood in our homes. They were taught how to conduct themselves if ever confronted by a police officer for any reason.

Yet, every day, we worry when they leave our homes for perfectly innocent and necessary reasons -- to go to school, to go to work, to visit friends, to go to the mall or a movie. The "talk" is meant to help them conduct themselves properly in front of any police officer regardless of race or gender.

As Douglas writes, "Home is a 'safe space' ... where a person is able to live and grow into the fullness of his or her created identity. Home is a free space. It is a space where people are free to love and be loved, and to be whoever it is that God has created them to be. The purpose of stand-your-ground culture is to deprive black bodies of homes."

Making reference to Psalm 121 -- "My help cometh from the Lord" -- Douglas asks, "What is the meaning of God's help in the context of a stand-your-ground culture that would deprive the black body of a home?"

Persons of African descent have been denied a home since this nation's earliest beginnings. They were treated as chattel; stripped of their histories, traditions and religions; and forced to exist at the whim of those who claimed to own them. Home was a place they longed for, but were denied.

Even after slavery's end, black efforts to establish a home for themselves were too often thwarted by those who believed black people had no rights. (Remember the Dred Scott case?) Their homes were burned down, as were their churches and schools, and all too often they themselves were killed as well.

Stand Your Ground is divided into two parts. In the first section, Douglas traces the origins of what in many states are legally called "stand-your-ground" laws and the pervasive mindset that accompanies them. They are an extension of English common law, as well as German and other European philosophies that "gives a person the right to protect his or her 'castle' " by broadening the understanding of castle to include one's body.

"It permits certain individuals to protect their embodied castle whenever and wherever they feel threatened," Douglas writes.

She explains that stand-your-ground law "signals a social-cultural climate that makes the destruction and death of black bodies inevitable and even permissible." It is the foundation of what can be called "American exceptionalism," an ideology that privileges Anglo-Saxon heritage over against all others.

This "culture alienates people from the very goodness of their creation [and] turns people in on themselves as it sets people against one another. This culture promotes the notion that one life has more value than another life. ... A stand-your-ground culture does not value dialogue, mutuality, respect, or compassion." Historically, black bodies have not had the right to invoke the stand-your-ground law for the benefit or protection of themselves, their property or their families.

The myth of exceptionalism serves as the foundation for ideologies that promote "the 'hypervaluation' of whiteness and the denigration of blackness." It has fostered the misunderstanding of the United States as a "city on a hill" whose light of faith and morality would shine on all with whom it came into contact.

As we know today, this ideology fostered the racism, sexism, heterosexism and classism so prevalent to this very day in the United States by legitimating the superiority of the white "race" and dehumanizing all others, resulting in the near extermination of the indigenous peoples of this land and the enslavement of blacks.

In the aftermath of the killing of Trayvon Martin by a neighborhood vigilante (who was then acquitted of all charges), black persons of faith found themselves once more confronted with the inexplicable. They asked themselves, "What does this mean for the future of our children? Where is God in all of this?"

As the killings seemed to multiply, as black child after black child was gunned down for no apparent reason, they stood firm in their faith but still wondered: What was God saying in the midst of all of this?

Some answers arise in Part 2 of Stand Your Ground, where Douglas discusses the importance of black faith and the meaning of God for African-descended persons in the United States. In her narrative of the lives of so many who have died, and her meditation on the spirituals, she highlights the paradoxical faith of black men and women, who developed a spirituality of grace, action and resistance.

Black faith is prophetic, and it sees God as a Liberator, a just and righteous God who opposes oppression and dehumanization in any form. Black faith has been expressed in the many movements that have emerged in the aftermath of even more black deaths, most recently in Black Lives Matter.

The slaughter of the Mother Emanuel Nine, who were killed in their church by one to whom they had offered the hand of friendship and hospitality, occurred after the publication of this book. But Douglas' scholarship offers deep insight into this shattering incident. By contrasting black faith with American exceptionalism, she provides us with a rich, complex and devastating understanding of why issues of race and gender still serve as "hotspots" for this country more than 150 years after slavery's end.

The result of this alleged exceptionalism is the engrained belief that blacks and blackness are an offense to white America; blackness is a sin against God. As Douglas has thoroughly investigated and revealed in her earlier works, the black body is seen as a threat to "cherished white property" because of its alleged hypersexuality and violent disposition.

In her conclusion, Douglas envisions Trayvon on the cross, crucified by a stand-your-ground culture, yet raised to new life by the justice of God. In so doing, she calls us to acknowledge that this is a time of kairos, God's own time, in which our world is changing and being changed by forces of which we are sometimes unaware.

In such a time, we are called to live up to our creation as children of a God of justice and righteousness and work to overcome forces of oppression wherever they are located. Stand-your-ground culture is neither a viable nor legitimate stance in today's global, multicultural and religiously pluralistic world.

Douglas' book is a clarion call to all in the United States, regardless of race, gender, class or faith, to acknowledge our sordid and painful past and to work together to transform the American dream of equality and opportunity into a reality for all.

[Diana L. Hayes is professor emerita of systematic theology at Georgetown University.]

This story appeared in the Oct 9-22, 2015 print issue under the headline: A paradoxical faith; amid deaths without reason, black people see God as Liberator .

Just $5 a month supports NCR's independent Catholic journalism.

We are committed to keeping our online journalism open and available to as many readers as possible. To do that, we need your help. Join NCR Forward, our new membership program.


Looking for comments?

We've suspended comments on NCRonline.org for a while. If you missed that announcement, learn more about our decision here.