Mom and I watched the movie “Just Mercy” last weekend. Gosh let me just say Michael B. Jordan is so attractive. Dang it. I wasn’t sure how he would be in this movie as an intellectual versus a high-octane professional athlete as in the Creed movies. The suit took a bit to get used to, but I thought he performed the role super well.
I honestly don’t even know what to write about it. And my skin is crawling because that tastes a cliché on my lips.
“Man, you must be so virtuous, Lauren, not knowing what to write about the horrific events in the very real lives of those men and black people as a whole. It just eats away at you, doesn’t it? The injustice and cruelty and literal shit black people suffered and still do suffer. Oh no, are you tearing up? Oh goodness, look at mom, she is crying too. How compassionate of you two. Y’all must truly care. Y’all are the real loving ones. It is those bloody southern white racists who are the bad ones. How can a person do such unspeakable things to another? And then get reelected as sheriff for however many more years? Shame on him and all those who voted to keep him in the position.”
I probably would have voted for him if I were there.
“No, no, of course you wouldn’t have. You would have been like Eva, helping Bryan to uncover the truth and saving the lives of Walter and Herb.”
Maybe in the beginning, only out of some sense of self-righteousness, not full genuine desire for the good of the men and their families. I know my people-pleasing self well enough to say I would have folded after the bomb threat.
“Don’t be absurd. You are much better than those scared and cowardly people.”
No. I’m white. Same as them. I carry in me the same bias and prejudice and fear. Bias that whiteness is innately superior. Prejudice that whiteness is rightly favored. Fear that truth loses me my convenience and moral stature. Sounds strangely familiar to another group of people I am woefully yet mercifully haunted by. The Jewish scribes, Pharisees and all the crowds shouting, “crucify, crucify.” They deemed Jesus guilty from birth. Nothing good comes from Galilee. Nothing good comes in non-white.
My only hope comes through repentance, the only difference by grace removing scales from my eyes.
How do I dare capture any sentiment of the stealing and destroying of black lives, human beings guilty from their birth, as Walter tells Bryan. How can I articulate the rage of Walter’s son in court or the regaining of Walter’s “truth,” of his value and identity as a person that had been cleaved from him as flesh from bone. It is a tangible rage and a physical disfiguring.
“Here is what I would like for you to know: In America, it is traditional to destroy the black body- it is heritage. Enslavement was not merely the antiseptic borrowing of labor- it is not so easy to get a human being to commit their body against its own elemental interest…the soul was the body that fed the tobacco, and the spirit was the blood that watered the cotton, and these created the first fruits of the American garden. And the fruits were secured through the bashing of children with stovewood, through hot iron peeling skin away like husk from corn.”[Ta-Nehisi Coates, Between the World and Me]
As Robin DiAngelo explains in her book White Fragility, my tears, the tears of a white woman, add salt to the womb. An agent of the rage and disfiguring. However, in the perceived accusation of being racist, I play the victim. My tears acquit me. I am the one wrongly sentenced.
“And we believe to preoccupy ourselves excessively with another in difficulty is justified, that it is a sign of the love we feel for the other person. But this is false. There is often in this attitude a great, hidden love for ourselves. We cannot bear the suffering of others because we are afraid of suffering ourselves. The reason is that we, too, lack confidence in God…In order for it to be a true Christian virtue, compassion for others must proceed from love (which consists in desiring the good of others, in the light of God and in accord with His designs) and not from fear (fear of suffering, fear of losing something). But, in fact, all too often our attitude toward those around us who are suffering is more conditioned by fear than love.”[Father Jacques Philippe, Searching for and Maintaining Peace]
Outside of my relationship to black people, I know there is truth to what Father Jacques expresses here. I knew it in our relationship, dad. I couldn’t bear your suffering with the disease because I was afraid of suffering it myself. I saw what it did to you and how your body withered away. This couldn’t happen to me. I was standoffish for fear of catching it from you as if contagious, as if I could escape my own DNA. I swelled with the pride of elite athleticism and health. I coveted it and dreaded the idea of losing it, of it being taken away. Still do, often times. This is why my compassion was so distant to you. It was false.
White women, myself included, cannot not bear the suffering of black people because we are fearful of the same type of suffering; being white in society, presently, there is no possibility of experiencing the specific suffering of black people. Unless, it is an underlying fear of being unappreciated, invisible, unwanted, unlovable. Or maybe a fear of losing these things, the appreciation, visibility, desirability, the great belovedness granted to human beings that we decided was our own to dictate and thus, rob of others.
For with the same judgment you pronounce, you will be judged; and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you. [Matthew 7:2]
If we decide the precepts of humanity are up to our own discretion to give and take away, how tirelessly we will defend the keeping of them for ourselves. We will rattle as a snake feeling threatened or growl as a dog warning to back off. Or we will cry as an infant feeling justified in not sharing the sandbox. Black people have lived in the reality of this fear of nothingness, while the white woman, in being confronted by it and never having the truth of her identity meddled with until it is disfigured and unrecognizable, recoils.
“Had I informed this woman that when she pushed my son, she was acting according to a tradition that held black bodies as lesser, her response would likely have been, ‘I am not a racist.’ Or maybe not. But my experience in this world has been that the people who believe themselves to be white are obsessed with the politics of personal exoneration. And the word racist, to them, conjures, if not a tobacco-spitting oaf, then something just as fantastic- an orc, troll, or gorgon…There are no racists in America, or at least none that the people who need to be white know personally.”[Ta-Nehisi Coates, Between the World and Me]
Hurt pride spills over in tears. My own eyes water as I roll them in disgust.
“We are guilty too, aren’t we?”
Yes, we are.
If we believe the precepts of humanity are endowed by a Creator imbuing all of His creation with His own goodness and crafting all of His creatures with His own likeness, how tirelessly we ought to defend the preserving of these precepts for each other, especially those we have stripped and let be stripped of them. My individuality does not excuse me from the events of history. It does not acquit me because I was not there. The same stain found in those yelling “crucify, crucify” is the same as those foaming “lynch, lynch” is the same as the whisper in my heart “you’re not like them.” I am found guilty by my individuality just as I am called beloved by it. And this is where my responsibility resides. My responsibility is not to my guilt. This may inspire me to some short-lived act of kindness or upheaval at the injustice experienced by a stranger. It may even call tears from my eyes. But as Father Philippe suggests, this is false. It is not from love but fear. Fear of what is or may be inside of me. This fear compels me to act in compassion or kindness out of selfishness to make up for the poverty I find within myself, out of desperation not to fall “below” from my position on the mountain, in the upper class. Not falling to the below comprised of the poor but of black people, “as the two great divisions of society are not the rich and poor, but white and black” [John C. Calhoun].
No, my responsibility is not to guilt. Not to tears searing the open and bleeding wounds of a people created beautiful and beloved. My responsibility is to my being beloved because it not only lines my individuality but, most importantly, it likens me to my Creator and to my fellow creatures. If I am beloved and created in His image, so is every other being I find sharing my nature. Out of the gratuitous love He imbued in all of us, my responsibility is to Him and to them. My responsibility is to know Him and know them. To see Him and see them, every moment until them becomes us. This is the tension I wrestle in my individuality. An immense need for mercy and an immense capacity for guilty tears.
Just mercy purifies with repentance and reconciliation. Just tears wound with nails.
PS- as the date suggests, this letter was written about a month ago. At the time, it did not seem we had ears to hear it. Now I believe, unfortunately and woefully we only turn our heads by tragedy, with the murder of Ahmaud Arbery, we might truly hear the cries of our black brothers and sisters in our own hearts.