Slager was charged with murder after the video surfaced on Tuesday.
Shortly before news of the murder charge broke, I was on a Christian radio program responding to questions regarding An Open Letter to Franklin Graham that I co-wrote in response to incendiary remarks that Graham had posted on Facebook one month before. In his post, he told “Blacks, Whites, Latinos, and everybody else” to “Listen up.” Then, in one paragraph, the son of Billy Graham, who serves as president and CEO of Samaritan’s Purse and the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, presumed to understand the issue better than everyone else. Graham said the reason so many police killings are happening is “simple.” It can be reduced to two key factors: 1) people need to learn to “OBEY” authority and 2) bad parenting.
Our Open Letter responded: “It is not that simple.”
Context clarifies the most offensive aspect of Graham’s first Facebook post: He “simplified” the problem of police killings by erasing the two most significant factors in the relationship between police and people of color — power and race, and the two are inextricably linked in our American context.
Simple is what you get when you proof-text an experience; lifting it out of its historical, social, psychological, cultural and economic contexts. Simple is what you get when you examine that event as if it is an isolated, two-dimensional specimen, rather than a multi-dimensional, recurring pattern. Simple is what you get when you take race and power out of the equation in America.
Simple logic says blacks are more dangerous, because more of them are in prison. Simple logic says people of color are cursed or deficient or lack character, because more of them are poor. And simple logic says the reason so many blacks are getting killed by the police is because they don’t obey authority. But, simple logic is just that — simple; not smart.
Thankfully, in a new Facebook post on Wednesday, Graham wrote with a more conciliatory tone.
“This death was unnecessary and avoidable,” he wrote. “Unfortunately many in our society are faced with racial injustice, hatred, and bigotry from those who are in authority, and this needs to be addressed.”
As followers of Jesus we are called to seek the flourishing of all humanity.
Genesis 1:26-27 declares that all humanity is created in the image of God and called to exercise dominion — agency, stewardship, leadership. The declaration outlines what it looks like for humans to flourish.
But, the arc of the American story reveals that people of color have struggled to flourish on this soil. And at the heart of the arc is a theological lie: Black people and other people of color are simply less human than white people, and, as a result, they have less character, capacity, and calling to steward and lead. On the flip side of the same theological coin, is the other lie that white people are more like God than others — uniquely equipped and called to exercise dominion on American soil.
We are seeing steps in religious communities — including a recent Southern Baptist conference on race — toward promoting human flourishing.
The story of African-American struggle includes an estimated 313 killings of black men, women and children by police, vigilantes and security guards, according a 2013 report by the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement. And the story includes the New York Daily News report that of 179 police killings in New York City within a 15-year period only three were indicted, one was convicted, and no one did jail time.
The law has been used to confine and control bodies of color. Race was created for one purpose: to determine who would have the legal right to exercise dominion (power) on American soil.
While colonial courts and legislatures laid the legal foundations for the racialization of America from 1640 through 1662, the founders erected its pillars with the 1787 3/5th Compromise and The Naturalization Act of 1790, which declared that only white men of good character could become citizens of the United States. Thus, the legal right to power on this land required whiteness.
Then in response to the 13th, 14th and 15th Constitutional Amendments, Southern white Americans reclaimed their natural right to exercise dominion through constricting Jim Crow laws. And who enforced those laws? Police officers, sheriffs, commissioners, mayors, governors and vigilantes.
Jump forward 50 years. Since the 1980s, federal penalties for crack were 100 times harsher than those for powder cocaine, with African Americans disproportionately sentenced to much lengthier terms, according to the Drug Policy Alliance. The Sentencing Project estimates that 1 out of every 3 black men and 1 out of every 6 Latino men will be ensnared by America’s penal system in his lifetime, while only one in 17 white men will ever see the inside of a jail.
Meanwhile, the National Urban League’s 2015 report on “The State of Black America” found that the black median household income is only 60 percent that of whites and the median base of wealth for black families is only $6,341 vs. $110,500 for white families.
These racial disparities are why people marched on West Florissant in the wake of the shooting death of Michael Brown and the Ferguson police department’s militarized response. And these disparities are why masses have moved through city streets across the country when grand juries refused to indict the officers that killed Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, John Crawford III and so, so, so many more.
Many in the African-American community were not surprised to find the corruption of justice made manifest by Slager’s tampering with the crime scene. We, like Scott’s family, stand awe-struck that the act was actually caught on video. Family members thanked God at a news conference on Tuesday for the miracle of the bystander who recorded the slaying of their beloved.
Our laws have spoken lies. Our “justice” system has reinforced them. Our history reveals them. Now, as people of faith we must renounce them.
Ultimately, the lies are what this moment is about: the marching in the streets, the protests, the organizing, even the stern rebuke of an Open Letter. It’s not about guilt, nor shame. It is a call to recognize the times we are living in. It is time to accept our shared humanity.
Lisa Sharon Harper is chief church engagement officer for Sojourners and co-author of “Forgive Us: Confessions of a Compromised Faith.”