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Were You There?

Were you there when a Starbucks manager called the police on Rashon Nelson and Donte Robinson less than two minutes after they arrived for a routine meeting with a business partner? Were you there when Chikesia Clemons was thrown to the floor of a Waffle House, her body exposed, a hand pressed against her throat? Were you there when they shot yet another unarmed black man?

I was not there.

But I was.

If I am being honest with myself, I was there, saying nothing as another person of color had their dignity taken away on my behalf. Or I was there in the background, making feeble attempts to say something, hoping my rhetorical questions counted as resistance, hoping my willingness to say anything would be recorded as having said something brave.

As the Heidelberg Catechism says, “I have a natural tendency to hate God and my neighbor.”

If I am being brutally honest, I was there as the police officers. If I strip away my self-righteous anger at them, I recognize the oppressive white rage that insists that none of this would have to happen if the rules were followed, the law observed, if people would just listen when we (white people) told them (people of color) what to do. As the Heidelberg Catechism says, “I have a natural tendency to hate God and my neighbor.”

If we are being honest as Americans, we recognize this sort of senseless, unpredictable, completely disproportionate response, this utter disregard for the dignity of the black body. There is a logic to it. It is the logic of lynching. God willing, we will never again witness the horrors of widespread white terrorism that severe, but I am convinced that until we look at incidents like these and see the ripples of that world, there will be no real chance to move towards right relationships.

Were you there when they crucified my Lord?

In December of 2015, I had the solemn privilege of helping to collect soil from the site of a lynching for one of the exhibits at Bryan Stevenson’s Equal Justice Initiative, with a group from Sojourners. Bryan took us to pray over what was then an empty hilltop. That hilltop is now The National Memorial for Peace and Justice, which opened last week in Montgomery, Alabama.

The memorial reckons with some of the more than 4,400 victims who were lynched between the end of Reconstruction and the Civil Rights Movement. This is one of the most important historical monuments our nation has ever built, because it reckons honestly with how our nation was built. It is also more than a historical monument. For Christians, this monument helps us understand the cross. As the theologian James Cone has argued: "Every time a white mob lynched a black person, they lynched Jesus. The lynching tree is the cross in America.”

Were you there when they nailed him to the cross?

If as white Americans we can acknowledge that we were there, at the cross and at the lynching tree, in the Starbucks and the backyard in Sacramento, as Christians we must acknowledge that God is there. To return to James Cone: “When American Christians realize that they can meet Jesus only in the crucified bodies in our midst, they will encounter the real scandal of the cross."

What does it mean to realize that as white Americans we are perpetuating the logic of lynching, to acknowledge that these incidents of oppression help maintain our position of power, to acknowledge that we “are crucifying again the Son of God and are holding him up to contempt” (Hebrews 6:6)? Were you there? We are there. This is the profound truth of the hymn. The hymn starts and finishes with the crucifixion. We would perhaps prefer that the last verse was a triumphant statement of the resurrection, but it is not. We live in the tension of the already and the not yet.

Were you there when the sun refused to shine?

One of the temptations for white Americans encountering racial injustice is to seek to alleviate our feelings of guilt with a rush to solutions. We want to “Do Justice”. Rightly so. But can we truly repent, can we radically turn away from, that which we do not fully understand? Can we throw ourselves in the arms of Jesus while crucifying him in our midst? As my colleague Dr. Christina Edmondson and I wrote in The Banner, “Resist rushing past or suppressing the deep sadness of this idolatry. It is so easy to medicate with avoidance, delusion, and quick tears. Repentance requires real sorrow and grief. It is a sorrow that acknowledges that we have missed the mark, that we have fallen so very short.”

Were you there?

O sometimes it causes me to tremble! tremble! tremble!

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