Loving in Public

Why I Won't Stop Talking About Racial Justice

Originally published in Bearings January 2016 | On December 29, 2015, my 14th wedding anniversary, I spent most of the day researching and thinking about the death of Tamir Rice, the 12-year-old African-American boy gunned down by the police in Cleveland, Ohio. His murder had happened a little over a year earlier. Yet my shock, outrage, and grief over his death linger even as months pass by. When I see the picture of his smiling face on the news, it’s a punch to the gut. Tamir was playing, and then he was dead. The fact that such horrors have become common is too much to bear.

As my children enjoyed their Christmas presents and chased each other around our house, I scrolled through article after article trying to understand what had happened. My interest wasn’t random: like so many others, I was saddened and angered by the grand jury’s December 28th decision not to indict Officer Timothy Loehmann, who shot Rice, and his partner, Officer Frank Garmback. I could hear my children laughing, which made the decision pain me even more. Rice’s mother won’t hear him laugh ever again.

The lack of indictments made me angrier and angrier. Rice’s death was clearly a murder. How could the grand jury not see that? Why is there no justice?

Let’s review what happened. On November 22, 2014, someone called 9-1-1 to say that a black male was pointing a gun at people outside of a recreation center. The caller also noted that the gun was likely fake and the person probably a juvenile. But the emergency dispatcher failed to convey either of these observations to Officer Loehmann.

Outside the recreation center, Tamir Rice played with a toy pistol. While the officers claim that they arrived at the scene and warned Rice three times to raise his hands, none of the witnesses heard any of the supposed warnings. Perhaps that’s because there wasn’t enough time: less than two seconds after exiting his car, Loehmann shot Rice. He fired twice, hitting the boy in the abdomen at point-blank range. As Tamir lay on the grass and snow, bleeding but still alive, the officers never administered first aid. An FBI agent, on duty nearby, did…four minutes later. While Officer Garmback tackled and handcuffed Rice’s 14-year-old sister, Tamir bled to death. When Rice’s mother arrived, the police threatened to arrest her unless she calmed down.

Occasionally, as I reviewed media accounts of the shooting, my seven-year-old and two-year-old rushed into my office to give me a hug or to ask what I was doing. I gave hugs, but I had no real answers to my unrelenting questions.

Two seconds. Two gunshots. One child’s death. One year of waiting. Zero indictments. This is not justice. I can’t help but feel like blood is on our hands. America is awash in the blood of black people, and some can’t stop blaming the victim long enough to try.

In the Guardian, Steven W. Thrasher notes, “In our American imagination, the feared objects which might come out of the waistband of unarmed black male children like Mike Brown or Tamir Rice so frightened white men, they’re allowed to kill them.” White supremacy, fear, and policing are bound tightly. We shouldn’t live in a world like this. Yet we do. No one should have to live in a world so formed by white supremacy that blackness emerges as threatening and dangerous. Yet we do. No one should die because of racialized fears. Yet they do—day in and day out. This is why #BlackLivesMatter is such an important movement. If we are told, over and over again, that black lives matter, maybe more people will start to believe that. Maybe we’ll start to care about all those who die at the hands of the police. Maybe we’ll no longer be able to overlook the violence, harm, and death. Maybe we’ll decide to change the system we call law enforcement. Maybe we’ll find more compassionate and humane ways to protect communities.

I miss being a part of a faith community that cares deeply about the world around us, local, national and global. Profound moments of injustice make me yearn for a church that will do something.

As my anger fizzled out, I felt empty and aching. “I need a church,” I said aloud. In anger and in mourning, I miss being a part of a faith community that cares deeply about the world around us, local, national, and global. Profound moments of injustice make me yearn for a church that will do something.

Yet as much as I need a church, I don’t know that I want one. After all, I have loved and left plenty of churches because they didn’t care about social justice or the communities outside of their walls. Sermons were crafted to make congregation members feel better about themselves, with no push to direct us outward. High-level, theoretical commentary regarding universal humanity and the limits of community allowed us to avoid uncomfortable conversations about specific, real-world pains.

Over the years, I’ve sought a church that confronted discomfort by embracing hard questions about racism within our communities. After the murder of Tamir Rice, and again after the grand jury’s decision, I considered seeking a new church. Yet I cannot bear any more comfort and privilege in the cozy communities that would happily welcome my family and me.

I decided to search for religious responses to the Rice’s death online instead. What I found surprised me. In March, The United Church of Christ called for reform of Cleveland’s police department and better leadership from city officials. Then, after the disappointing grand jury decision, The Rev. Tracy Blackmon, acting executive minister of the UCC’s Justice and Witness Ministries, called for “a more thorough investigation” by the U.S. Department of Justice into Rice’s death. Meanwhile, The National Black Church Initiative suggested a five-year nationwide boycott of Ohio. A minister on Twitter explained to me that she expressed her grief and anger to her congregation. Another minister joined a peaceful protest. A friend’s church ran a series on policing, police brutality, and race.

It turns out some churches are calling for justice, which makes me hopeful. But it’s simply not enough.

At the Washington Post’s “On Faith” blog, Auburn Seminary Senior Fellows suggested that now is a time of prophetic grief. Rev. Dr. Otis Moss III, senior pastor of Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago, observed, “There is a strange comfortability with black death…Until all hearts begin to break and mothers of privilege join the funeral procession only then will sorrow cease to be our song.”

20160114_March2Justice_RallyAs long as America is comfortable with the deaths of black people, nothing will change. When people, and especially people of privilege, begin to mourn the loss of these lives, then we have a chance to make necessary changes to policing. Sikh activist Valarie Kaur noted, “[T]hat’s the point of #BlackLivesMatter. It asks you to look at a little boy bleeding in the park as your son, a man choked to death as your father, a body left to bleed in the open street as your brother…Because love in public looks like justice.”

Declines be damned, 70% of Americans remain affiliated with a Christian church. Yep, it’s sad that the portion of Mainline Protestants in the adult population has dropped below 15%. But, friends, 15% of the population is what we call a voting block if it’s sufficiently mobilized.

What I find myself hoping for is not just prophetic grief, but prophetic justice. Churches must be concerned with the death of Tamir Rice and the deaths of so many others because—even as we hear the constant drumbeat of religious decline—it remains the case that religious institutions can provoke and inspire change. How?

For one thing, churches can insist that those who gather for worship look at all this suffering and death—look hard—and think together about how they can do everything in their still-considerable social power to make it harder for this to happen. This is a power rooted in the fact that, declines be damned, 70% of Americans remain affiliated with a Christian church. Yep, it’s sad that the portion of Mainline Protestants in the adult population has dropped below 15%. But, friends, 15% of the population is what we call a voting block if it’s sufficiently mobilized.

As people of faith, what can we to do with that power? Plenty.

For instance, churches can meet with local police departments to discuss how communities are policed. They can speak to local officials about the concerns of justice-minded people regarding the patterns of violence against people of color that we’re all seeing across the country. Throughout the current election season, churches can advocate, intervene, and influence. They can be prophetic and relevant by taking unambiguous, public stands against the murder of black people by the police. Churches can be allies, advocates, and protesters. They can elevate conversations about racism to the level of spiritual practice. Churches can choose to be actively aware and to express prophetic care as a central element of living out the gospel.

And, perhaps most importantly, churches can resist the temptation we all feel to forsake conversation, protest, and action when the weight of continued violence threatens to overwhelm us into complacency.

Last week I received a message from a reader who suggested that I stop writing about racism. The reader explained that lots of people write about racism and never hit the mark, so I should stop “wasting” the reader’s time on this topic. I was shocked and annoyed. After all, much of my writerly life has involved writing about racism. But what I found particularly disturbing was the assumption that racism is so unimportant and so easily dismissed: Move on, folks. Nothing to see here.

But I won’t stop writing about racism any time soon, because this is how I confront my discomfort with the world. This is my love in public. This is my attempt at justice. And I’ll continue what often feels like a lonely campaign for a white woman with two cute kids and a husband who knows exactly how relentless she can be.

Still, I wish I were standing, speaking, and acting in the midst of a church community. I’d certainly love sharing in that kind of sustained witness. In the end, though, my desire to stand with a communion of saints calling out for justice doesn’t much matter. This isn’t about what I need from a congregation, or what I dream of from a Church of prophets who intervene in the sufferings of the world.

It’s about what Tamir Rice deserves.

It’s about what Christ’s call for justice and peace demands.

Kelly J. Baker

Kelly J. Baker is a freelance writer with a religious studies PhD who covers higher education, gender, labor, motherhood, American religions, and popular culture. She has regular columns at the Chronicle for Higher Education’s Vitae project, Women in Higher Education, Killing the Buddha, and Sacred Matters. She’s written for The Atlantic, The Rumpus, The Manifest-Station, The Washington Post’s “Faith Street”, and Brain, Child. She is the author of the award-winning book The Gospel According to the Klan: The KKK’s Appeal to Protestant America, 1915-1930 and The Zombies Are Coming!: The Realities of the Zombie Apocalypse in American Culture. When she’s not writing essays or wrangling two children, two dogs, and a seriously mean cat, she’s hacking away at a collection of essays on apocalypses in America tentatively titled The End of Us. You can find her on TwitterFacebook, or her blog.

Cover Photo: The All-Nite Images, “Millions March NYC,” (December 13, 2014). Via Flickr. Cc2.0 license.

Body Photo: Stephen Melkisethian, “#MARCH2JUSTICE DC RALLY 58,” (April 21, 2015). Via Flickr. Cc2.0 license.