When I was a little boy, I had two answers to “What do you want to be when you grow up?” A preacher, I said, or a police officer. Sometimes I said I would be both. Both aspirations lasted for perhaps as much as a decade of my life.
Neither occupation runs in my family, nor did I have specific childhood idols to entice me toward such seemingly disparate careers. If I had to guess why they both appealed, it was probably my abiding sense of justice. A pastor might offer insight on managing your temper, but a preacher rails against social sins, and a cop, well, a cop catches bad guys.
Growing up an American Evangelical, from time to time I took those “spiritual gifts” inventory tests, strange mixtures of pop psychology and biblical exegesis inspired by Saint Paul’s letter to the church in Corinth. The results tended to be consistent: they said I have the gift of prophecy. As a kid, I thought prophecy was about predicting the future, or standing against the Antichrist in the End Times.
But the Old Testament prophets didn’t really do a lot of predicting. Instead, they spoke out against social sins, political sins, the sins of empire, the evils of a regime that turns its back on God and exploits and oppresses the poor and marginalized, a state that perpetuates injustice. The more I read the Old Testament, the more my perspective shifted. A prophetic preacher advocates for the innocent with burning indignation, and a cop, well, a cop catches bad guys.
By my mid-teens, those aspirations had faded. Now I wanted to be a filmmaker; I was in love with the idea of transforming the culture through storytelling that would rival the best of Hollywood’s. Anyway, the whole idea of a career in law enforcement had run up against my own interiority, especially the persistent sense that I could never pursue a career that required me to carry a gun. Sometimes a cop has to kill the bad guy, I reasoned. I knew I could never do it.
Ferguson was the moment when all my tidy narratives about justice unraveled. In 2014, Officer Darren Wilson shot and killed Michael Brown, age eighteen, and then city officials left his body in the street for four hours. Ferguson was the moment when I could not turn from what I had only just begun to understand, that so many cops across this nation look at Black bodies like my own and describe them as demons. I would later read the Justice Department report that painstakingly documented how Ferguson used aggressive policing and civil forfeiture law as an explicit profit-maximizing scheme for the city government. And I would do a deep dive into the history of police brutality and the rise of the carceral state as a new Jim Crow regime. My freshman year of college, I would work with Dr. Anthony Bradley on his book on ending overcriminalization and mass incarceration. But before all that studying, before I had positioned my intuitions within a conceptual framework, it was the lifeless body of Michael Brown, discarded in the middle of a public street, that pierced me.
Peacemaking is intrinsically tied to solidarity with whomever one’s regime is presently nailing to a cross.
In the aftermath of Ferguson, my relationship with Evangelicalism unraveled too, and with it any last vestiges of wanting to be a preacher. The discourse surrounding policing in America marked a line in the sand, dividing those who celebrate what they call the vindication of rule of law from those who understand the suffering of my people. Jesus didn’t die to protect your house in the suburbs, I argued again and again with White Evangelicals who quoted the Book of Romans to justify state violence. And so I revised my mental categories again: a pastor proclaims “a year of plenty” for God’s favorite White middle-class Christians; a prophet is just another “angry black man” and made to feel unwelcome in his hometown; and a cop, well, a cop is someone employed by the state to kill with impunity.
Between the World and Me
In 2015, Ta-Nehisi Coates’s book Between the World and Me hit my heart with the force of a hurricane. In its pages I found political anger: not the usual faux outrage of performative populism but concentrated rage, undiluted and unapologetic. And here I found a testament to the body as the place where the forces of the world and every aspiration we could ever have intersect. Between the World and Me is written as a letter from a father to his son, a letter about what it means to live in a world where your very body is perceived as a threat, where the physical appearance of your skin, your eyes, your hair invites violence.
Coates’s words seared me: “But all our phrasing – race relations, racial chasm, racial justice, racial profiling, white privilege, even white supremacy – serves to obscure that racism is a visceral experience, that it dislodges brains, blocks airways, rips muscle, extracts organs, cracks bones, breaks teeth.” Coates charges his son, and all his readers, never to “look away from this.”
Coates has no room in his worldview for religion, in particular none for an Old Man in the Sky who is forever assuring a justice that is always deferred. Promised peace in a picturesque afterlife is not much of a balm for those suffering unjust miseries now. Your body is all you have, Coates tells his son, so make sure you guard it well. The follow-up to his debut is a book called We Were Eight Years in Power; for Coates, power, especially Black power, is all that separates bodies – his, his son’s, mine – from the skull-crushing force of a social world that is hostile to people like us.
Coates is not the first Black person to reject religion and its metaphysics of hope as an inadequate response to White violence. This tradition fueled some of the most important work in civil rights, such as the way that the Black Panthers were able to feed, clothe, and educate their own in self-determining communities.
But Coates is wrong about religion. What he misses is the profound solidarity at the heart of the gospel, the world-altering reality that when we say “body, broken for you,” we mean a literal broken body, and that this literal broken body is given for him, and you, and me. Jesus has placed his body between our bodies and the world. It is the nexus where suffering meets grace, where oppression gives way to radical self-emptying. The table at which he offers us his body is a place of egalitarianism where one’s race and social station have no weight or meaning. It is also a place of inescapable solidarity, for it is here that we are united to Christ’s cross, here that we are empowered to bear our crosses and so fill up in our own flesh the redemptive suffering of Christ, as Paul writes to the Colossians.
Peace, but Not Quiet
“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God.”
What does it mean that Christ, the Prince of Peace who “bears the weight of the government on his shoulder,” invites us into the work of peacemaking? What does it mean that Christ, the only-begotten Son of God, connects peacemaking to sharing in sonship?
I believe we cannot fully understand these teachings without understanding that Christ crucified is Christ executed unjustly by an oppressive political regime. When we confess in the creed that he was crucified “under Pontius Pilate,” it is important that we say “under” and not “by.” It is not simply that Christ is killed by unjust men; he is killed under the sanction of political authority as the direct outcome of an explicitly political process which includes a procedural trial and a judicial sentencing.
This is to say that whatever the work of peacemaking is, it cannot be thought of as simply maintaining the “rule of law” of whatever regime holds political power. The path of peacemaking is altogether different than the one that leads to mere good citizenship or the preservation of a polity. Indeed, if peacemaking involves emulating the Prince of Peace who bears the government on his shoulder as whip scars and a wooden cross, it’s clear that peacemaking is intrinsically tied to solidarity with whomever one’s regime is presently nailing to a cross. The justice of Christ’s cross is a justice of reconciliation, a pathway to peace for those who have been denied it.
There are those who preach that to focus on ending wrongs in the here and now betrays the integrity of Christ’s message. But that confuses the genuine insight that Christ’s kingdom is not worldly – that it is attached to no earthly regime – with the idea that God is indifferent to the injustices of our present moment. God was not indifferent to the blood of Abel that cried out to him from the ground; God was not indifferent to the husbands denounced by Malachi, who forsook their marriage vows; and Jesus was certainly not indifferent to the moneychangers in the temple who exploited the common people.
The fundamental purpose of God’s prophets, then, is to make peace by calling us to the repentance that leads to reconciliation and by simultaneously advocating for the material and social conditions that make peace possible. And I think that the reason prophets run up against civil authorities so consistently is precisely because the work of creating peace requires confrontation with the forces that undermine peace through exploitation and violence. Peace is not the same thing as quiet.
The great Black humanist James Baldwin foreshadows some of the themes of Coates’s book; he even couches some of them in a letter to a relative. Published in 1962, Baldwin’s heartbreaking “A Letter to My Nephew” is situated against the backdrop of profound racial injustice that assailed him and led to his expatriation as a young man.
Baldwin’s letter begins by describing the kind of intimate relationship he had with his brother, the father of his nephew. “I don’t know if you have known anybody from that far back, if you have loved anybody that long, first as an infant, then as a child, then as a man,” writes Baldwin, but in doing so “you gain a strange perspective on time and human pain and effort.” This context is important because it bolsters Baldwin’s authority to speak into the life of his nephew – as he says, “I know the conditions under which you were born for I was there.”
Baldwin and Coates both understand that loving people who suffer from the cruelty of others shapes your perspective on the world and your relationship to others. Baldwin writes, “I know what the world has done to my brother and how narrowly he has survived it and I know, which is much worse, and this is the crime of which I accuse my country and my countrymen and for which neither I nor time nor history will ever forgive them, that they have destroyed and are destroying hundreds of thousands of lives and do not know it and do not want to know it.”
This is the great obstacle to all peacemaking: the subtle defense mechanisms we use to preserve not knowing. So the work of peacemaking is always prophetic; it requires us to see in order to act. Throughout scripture the prophetic word calls God’s people toward recognition of, and repentance for, collective and individual wrongdoing. This is the prerequisite for the concrete action required to establish a right relationship with God and neighbor, between ruler and ruled, and within the family – to begin to create social justice.
But how do we get there? How do we adopt a right posture toward a world that hurts us, toward people who demean and devalue us, toward the kind of visceral violence that leads to a lifeless body lying on asphalt in a public street for four August hours? Here Baldwin’s letter challenges us again. First, he charges his nephew with the task of accepting those who oppress him in willful ignorance and false innocence. He writes: “You must accept them and accept them with love, for these innocent people have no other hope. They are in effect still trapped in a history which they do not understand and until they understand it, they cannot be released from it.”This is the great obstacle to all peacemaking: the subtle defense mechanisms we use to preserve not knowing.
Nevertheless, it is not enough simply to accept. For everyone’s sake, oppressor and oppressed, it is not nearly enough. Baldwin adds an even weightier task. He writes that “we with love shall force our brothers to see themselves as they are, to cease fleeing from reality and begin to change it.” This is a defiance every bit as strong as Coates’s, but it is rooted in a much more expansive love. The love of the peacemaker is a love that has force, that will not accept the injustices of the status quo, that will not allow the willful ignorance of those who oppress to drown out the prophetic word and the reconciliation and peace that is offered to all of us through Christ’s cross.
I am still trying to learn about love from Baldwin, still trying to figure out how to reconcile deep hurt with acceptance, still trying to figure out how to bear the cross of solidarity in such a way as to enable peace. I don’t think that most people are racist, I don’t think that most cops are killers, and I don’t think that the miscarriages of justice in our nation are a sign that it is beyond all hope. I respect power, and I believe in its efficacy, but I don’t believe that power is all we have or that it is a greater force in the world than love.
I’m in graduate school now, studying public policy. I still dream of helping to make the world a better place. Maybe that was the underlying thread of my childhood aspirations, of which justice is one vital piece. Maybe in a roundabout way, it has always been about love. I’ll let Baldwin have the last word: “We have not stopped trembling yet, but if we had not loved each other, none of us would have survived, and now you must survive because we love you and for the sake of your children and your children’s children.”