Darius is a priest in the Croydon Area, and when he called me to say what was happening for him, I asked him if he would share more widely – what he says is painful, challenging and powerful, and just what we need to hear (“we” being anyone who doesn’t have to worry about calling the police). Darius clearly and passionately links up events which in my mind all too easily slip into separate categories. I need to hear the way in which they are all part of one whole, and to recognise that reality as genuine and powerful. I don’t think I’m the only one.
“See, calling the police on Black people ain’t nothin’ to play [games] with!” These were the words of ‘Pops’ to his grandson in the US series ‘Blackish’. If, like me, you’re a fan of Black TV shows, you already know that this theme of our fear of law-enforcement keeps coming up. So last week in Central Park when Amy Cooper told bird watcher Christian Cooper (no relation) she would call the police and “… tell them that there’s an African American man threatening my life!” we all knew the narrative she was citing. Days later, someone called the police on George Floyd, and the white Officer who swore to protect him, suffocated him to death by kneeling on his neck.
“But that’s the U.S” I hear you say, “It’s not really our business is it?” Well, as the author, A.D.A France-Williams said in his blog yesterday, ‘The death of George Floyd is the death of every black human’. When we saw the lifeless body of George Floyd, White knee on Black neck, we saw ourselves. We saw our brothers Stephen Lawrence, Michael Brown, Philando Castille and Eric Garner. We saw Colin Kaepernick Black-balled as the Black Sheep of the NFL, as he prophetically knee-led in protest of our suffering. In our peripheral vision we noticed Raheem Sterling and Meghan Markle being Black-listed by the British media. Then we took a step back, and we saw our ancestors, chained, whipped and shipped in boxes like cheap tat. We saw our great cousins, re-cast as “Strange Fruit” as their Black bodies swung from Southern trees. And in the same gaze, we saw Christ, hanging from a Roman cross, uttering over and over, “I can’t breathe!”
There is no Black suffering, that is not also the suffering of Christ. Therefore, there is no Black suffering that is not all of our suffering. Yet sadly, my experience has been, within the majority White church, that Black suffering is considered as something peripheral to the gospel of Christ. As James Cone wrote:
‘The conspicuous absence of the lynching tree in American theological discourse…is profoundly revealing, especially since the crucifixion was clearly a first-century lynching.’
Eurocentric American theology failed to join the dots between Jesus’ lynching, and that of 5000 Black men and women. Therefore countless well-meaning theologians have had nothing to offer in response to that episode of Black suffering, but silence. Even though St. Paul wrote that ‘If one part suffers, every part suffers with it’ we continue to suffer alone. Maybe we need to take the metaphor of the Church as ‘One Body’ more to heart. Maybe we need to learn afresh what it means to share in each other’s suffering. Maybe it’s time for all of us – black and white together – to heed the prophetic voices of Black British theologians like Robert Beckford, Anthony Reddie and writers like Reni Eddo-Lodge and Robin DiAngelo that have been calling out – for many years – from the desert, “prepare the way for the LORD’. As we do, we’ll see that the painful experiences of Black and Brown people in the UK (including that of an absence of mainstream theological response to our plight) aren’t as different to the USA as we would like to believe.
Two days ago my cousin, Dwaine, in response to George Floyd’s death, wrote a post on his Facebook, asking his friends to share stories of their run-ins with law enforcement in London. The responses flooded in. Then Dwaine himself wrote:
‘… one of the worst was when someone called the police on me because I had a foam dart gun, 3 armed vehicles, undercover feds and a helicopter turned up… I was 14 with 5 armed officers aimed at me…’
What often connects Black experience, both globally and historically, is the pain and trauma of suffering myriad forms of racism. Every story of police brutality against a Black body triggers that trauma. Black people know all too well that the systems we depend on are broken. Until we dismantle and rebuild these oppressive, sinful systems together; Systems that enable one person to kneel on the neck of another; Where Black people in Britain are 40 times more likely to be stopped and searched, and 3 times more likely to be arrested than our White counterparts; Where in 2020 we’re still talking about the Church of England system as “deeply institutionally racist”. Black people continue to struggle to breathe.
That’s why I, and others like me, are hurting so much right now. It’s why I relate so deeply to the rage that is consuming protesters both in the USA and here in England. For now, ‘Pops’ words still speak to all Black people everywhere. It doesn’t seem to matter whether you’re in Croydon or California, “calling the police on Black people ain’t nothin’ to play with!”