When will we hear the cries for justice for people of all colors?

by Alex Mikulich

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A clear mark of Christian solidarity is the practice of hearing the cry of the poor and making their cries for dignity, love, justice and freedom our own.

Catholics proclaim through liturgical music and singing how the "Lord hears the cry of the poor" (Psalm 34) because Scriptures and our faith teach that God is close to the brokenhearted and that those who mourn will be comforted.

In reflecting upon the police shooting of unarmed Michael Brown, I wonder whether and how white Christians hear Brown's mother, Lesley McSpadden, when she cried for her son as he lay dead in the street for over four hours. The message of that indignity was clear: Black lives do not matter.

Similarly, do we hear the echoes of Emmett Till's mother in her call for justice when she opened her son's casket on Sept. 3, 1955, for everyone to see the grotesque face of violence committed by white supremacists? Mamie Till Mobley disregarded advice to keep the casket closed because she wanted the whole world to see the violence done to her 14-year-old son. At her son's funeral, she proclaimed: "I don't have a minute to hate. I will pursue justice for the rest of my life."

Perhaps you object with others that Michael Brown was "no angel," as The New York Times opined, as if a post-mortem character assassination justified his shooting death. "Human dignity for all in community," as "Economic Justice for All" proclaims, means nothing if it only respects those whom society deems worthy.

Some object to the rioting after the shooting and the crimes against property, as opposed to the fact that a life was unjustly taken. Speaking to Grosse Pointe (Mich.) High School just three weeks before his death, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. said, "It is not enough for me to stand before you tonight and condemn riots." He continued that he must simultaneously condemn "the contingent, intolerable conditions that exist in our society. These conditions are the things that cause individuals to feel that they have no other alternative than to engage in violent rebellions to get attention. And I must say tonight that a riot is the language of the unheard."

Perhaps white Americans do not hear the cry of Michael Brown's mother or of the protestors because we are not attuned to the lives of the unheard. Our failure is in no small measure due to where and how white churches and communities form the foundation of white superiority in America.

"About twice a week, or every three or four days, an African American has been killed by a white police officer," Isabel Wilkerson explains, citing data from the Federal Bureau of Investigation. The banality of this reality, she observes, obscures the fact that this is nearly the same rate at which African-Americans were lynched in the early 20th century.

In her call to Americans to own up to our violence, Wilkerson details the uncanny similarities between lynching and the police shooting of Brown, not the least significant of which is the fact that "the lynched body was sometimes left hanging for days or weeks as a lesson to people not to step outside the caste into which they had been born."

The wound that is racism in America has bled for over 250 years of slavery, 90 years of Jim Crow segregation and lynching, over 65 years of separate but equal and racist housing policy, and over 30 years of disproportionate arrests, sentencing, prosecution and incarceration of people of color.

Fifty years ago, Trappist monk Thomas Merton lamented how seeds of destruction thrived in the hearts, minds and souls of Christians who maintain white superiority and material self-interest over and against African-American demands for freedom, dignity and justice.

We have sowed these seeds over the past 50 years by abandoning cities, segregating schools, and creating the cradle-to-prison pipeline that rips apart African-American families as the United States incarcerates at a rate higher than that of apartheid South Africa.

As author Cornel West gently reflects in his poetic "9/11," terrorism is nothing new to African-Americans. West recognizes post-9/11 that all Americans feel "unsafe, unprotected, and subject to random violence, and hated." Yet, West continues, "we also know that in the midst of the American past and present as black people we have always felt unsafe, unprotected, subject to random violence, and hated."

Sybrina Fulton, Trayvon Martin's mother, wrote in an open letter to McSpadden: "If they refuse to hear us, we will make them feel us."

When will we hear and feel Fulton's words? When will we hear and feel McSpadden's cry for justice? When will we attune our lives and churches to the unheard?

We should heed West's advice to "listen to Emmett Till's mother. Listen to the wisdom of a blues people."

When whites follow the wisdom of African-Americans and risk our lives for their flourishing, then we may yet find our true and shared identity as Christians planted in the seeds of contemplation and love.

[Alex Mikulich is co-author of The Scandal of White Complicity in U.S. Hyper-incarceration: A Nonviolent Spirituality of White Resistance.]

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