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The resurrected Jesus would not support lynching and killing black people

By the Rev. Amiri B. Hooker

The solution to revive the social justice teachings of Jesus is not the all-out 2020 lynching of black men and women. Has society gotten better or worse? Have race relations improved or regressed?

As a child growing up in South Carolina, I was often told not to wear a mask during Halloween that covered my whole head (someone might mistake me as a “hood” or robber). I was also told not to wear my dashiki, a colorful garment for men and women worn mostly in Africa (someone might consider me a militant black). For both of the actions the penalty was clear: Someone could kill me.

I grew up in a different mindset from a lot of the people I work with and pastor. There where periods in my life where I didn’t see myself making it to 21, graduating from high school was a fantasy and college, well, what was that? So many times, I was arrested, suspended and punished for rebelling against the system when I wasn’t even sure what revolting or reformation entailed.

So I am going to publicly admit that at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic I was very hesitant wearing a face mask in public. As a 6-foot, 4-inch black male, I understand that race is still America’s No. 1 issue. For the past four years I have been actively engaged in fighting the reality of poverty and the American poverty narrative that the poor are poor because of their actions and work ethics. The coronavirus pandemic is amplifying structural inequality and bringing to greater light the fact that racism along with its bedfellow—deep poverty—has left black people with underlying health conditions (diabetes, hypertension, kidney disease and more) that are risk factors for the disease.

African Americans are targets in the eyes of many law enforcement and community crime watch groups. At the root of the disparity is the longstanding belief that blacks are America’s crime problem. From slave patrols to Jim Crow to present-day policing, racism has motivated the country’s interpretation of crime, leading America to value punishment (incarceration) over prevention (working with the community). And law enforcement culture continues to act on these beliefs, whether covertly or overtly.

The most recent video of Ahmaud Arbery is difficult to watch and handle during the “stay at home and wear a mask when out” orders of medical officials and government. It points out clearly there is still a very present danger of being shot while black. The graphic footage, recorded Feb. 23 by one of three white men in pursuit of Arbery, shows the moment when the 25-year-old black man, who was out for a routine jog near his Georgia home, was gunned down by an armed father and son, one of whom is a former police officer.

In a pandemic, fears of being profiled and stopped may force many black men and women to forgo key safeguards like wearing a face mask or calling on police for help, or even going outside to exercise. Plus, wearing a face mask may lead to more stress that comes with being a perpetual victim of racism. In turn, stress exacerbates the aforesaid COVID-19 risk factors; then comes death.

Also, as one of the few practices that could potentially save more black lives, wearing masks could create the opposite effect. In early April, when the CDC first recommended that all Americans wear face coverings in public, black men were quick to express hesitation: wearing face coverings would intensify racist perceptions of criminality, especially to police. In essence, black men have to pick their poison—risk their lives (and the lives of others) to COVID-19 by not wearing a mask, risk their lives to police officers who see them as suspicious while wearing a mask, or some tragic amalgamation of both.

However, I have come to realize during the COVID-19 pandemic, the focus on Black Lives Matter and other similar movements calling communities and churches to action in response to state-sanctioned violence and anti-black racism is as real as the Son and sun.

The police targeting of black men is a longstanding American tradition, one that has naturally incited antagonism and black distrust of law enforcement. This relationship, molded by decades of unequal treatment—as seen through traffic stops, wrongful arrests, officer-involved shootings, surveillance, stop-and-frisk, incarceration and much more—could prove even deadlier for black people at a time of widespread societal fragility.

While many in the larger community still see value in blaming poverty on the poor because of their lifestyle and education levels, there cannot be any reason for blaming being born with black or brown skin on blacks. I see no clear way of explaining why the lynching of men and women occurs—for simply being black while driving or jogging. Major crises raise people’s concern for personal safety and heighten anxiety. One effect of this heightened anxiety is that it can intensify bias and discrimination as we start focusing our attention on our own well-being. Throughout the COVID-19 crisis many individuals, particularly those of from African American backgrounds, are reporting more experiences of racism and xenophobia.

In a video that went viral earlier last month, an officer in Miami stepped out of his squad car to arrest a black man with a face mask moving items near a van filled with equipment. It took the unmasked officer just over 60 seconds to put the man in handcuffs and detain him. It’s now known that the man, Armen Henderson, was a doctor who has volunteered to test homeless people for COVID-19.

In Wood River, Illinois, last month, two black men wearing surgical masks recorded themselves being trailed by a cop, who was occasionally gripping his gun, in a Walmart store. One of the men said that when the officer approached them, he wrongly told them that there was a national and state order banning the wearing of face masks. The local police department has opened an investigation into the incident and told the Washington Post that the officer followed the men because he believed they were “acting suspiciously.” In the video, the men expressed dismay: “We’re being asked to leave for being safe.”

Not wearing a protective face covering has gotten a black man into trouble, too. A video out of Philadelphia earlier this month shows a black man being forcibly removed from a public bus by at least four officers just a day after the city’s transportation authority required that all riders wear face coverings while on public buses, trolleys and trains. The video, which shows the police first swarm the man then yank him from the bus, is especially jarring during an already tense public atmosphere. Following the incident, the transit authority announced that face coverings were no longer mandatory.

These alarming reports highlight the fact that racial biases implicit or otherwise don’t cease and in some ways are heightened during a national crisis. The truth is, black sisters and brothers in this country are unfortunately all too familiar with racial profiling by law enforcement. It is especially important during these difficult times that these harsh truths continue to be exposed and revealed so that the church can continue to work to eradicate bias in policing.

As we head from Easter toward Pentecost, however, let us remember that in the ancient world, a challenge rose up. A low-wage, homeless, brown-skinned, Palestinian Jew built a social, political, economic and moral movement of the people, by the people and for the people that challenged Caesar and the entire structure of the Roman Empire. As pastors and church leaders, we remember Caesar adorned Roman coinage with his image in Jesus’ day. Caesar claimed the titles “savior of the world,” “benevolent benefactor,” “God” and “ultimate authority” while ruling over one of the most unequal societies in history. He militarized and divided the known world and imposed taxes on the poor while giving tax breaks to the rich. Caesar built towers with his name on them and gave the people bread and circuses. It may be 2,000 years later, but we see similar fundamental problems in the American empire today.

I don’t know about you, but these daily press briefings without daily calls to prayer resemble the kind of public idolatry that ancient Caesars engaged in. Our modern-day Caesars, both in the White House and the church houses, seem more narcissistic … in putting a name on checks, PPP loans and church grants as though he is doling out their own money and expects homage in return. It doesn’t stop there; it’s part of a larger unjust and unequal system.

Amid the coronavirus pandemic we, therefore, cannot rely on the Caesars of our day to craft a moral response to this political, economic, social and public health crisis. We need those who follow Jesus, those who claim to represent the blood of Jesus to lift up the serpents of today’s violence and racial bias and cure the sickness in the land.

This is the hope of today that those who have little or nothing to lose can come together in power, with demands, to transform an unjust system that has racism’s name all over it. The hope is also that the church founded by Jesus the Resurrected Christ can come together in remembering the cries of the prophets and denounce the trickle-down agenda of corporate church and for corporate government.

Racism is an issue we must all address, not just individuals engaging in racist acts and the victims of racism. Thus, those of us who aren’t being targeted can support those facing discrimination by:

  • Calling out racist comments and acts when you see them; and
  • Interrupting racism, such as by creating distance between the person making racist comments or actions and the victim.

I write to highlight ways to respond if you are experiencing bias and discrimination or if you are an ally who wants to support them. I also write with urgency, spurred by recent reports from black men who say they were racially profiled for wearing protective face masks, a measure the CDC recommends to prevent COVID-19.

Hooker is a pastor in the South Carolina Conference of The United Methodist Church.

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