Black Suffering and White Silence
by Christopher C. Thompson
This month marks fifteen years since that fateful day when airplanes struck the World Trade Center Towers in New York City. I along with countless other Americans can recall almost to the moment where we were and what we were doing when the news story broke. I was a sophomore theology major at Oakwood College at the time (now University). I was sitting in Greek class waiting to be dismissed when the first plane hit. One of my classmates who had served in the military bursted in the back door of the classroom and screamed, “Someone just crashed a plane into the World Trade Center!”
Suddenly everyone froze. Everything froze. Time seemed to stand still as the rescue teams searched for survivors and the rest of us searched the depths of our souls for answers. It was a deeply distressing time. We learned to view almost everything in the light of that terror, and to this day we travel differently, we think about security differently. Everything has changed.
Interestingly enough, several years later, I was sitting in class again on yet another tragic occasion. This time I was a graduate student at Oakwood. The class was about to take a break when one of my classmates called out from the back of the class, “Did you see this?” He shifted the laptop screen so that I could see the video streaming on the internet. It was the cell phone video that a bystander took of the BART police officer when he shot an unarmed and detained Oscar Grant. Once again, everything stopped. I was stunned. I couldn’t believe, much less understand how a cop could possibly do such a thing.
This changed everything. Not because this was the first time that such a thing had happened, but because the gravity of this event simply seemed so much more intense. Rodney King’s beating by LA police was caught on tape too, but at least Rodney King survived. Oscar Grant was shot in his back at point blank range and killed, all while the cop was holding him down. This one was different. This one hurt. This thing hurt bad. It was one of the first of its kind where a police officer murdered an unarmed man on camera.
And although we’re sick of seeing it, we’re even more sick of explaining it, contending that it really does exist and defending people of color from the typical arguments that are employed to perpetuate the dehumanization and devaluation of black bodies and the denial of black suffering. Nevertheless, we do it anyway.
It is only a special brand of privilege that could allow one to consistently deny the reality of systematic subjugation and injustices of an entire people group. Meanwhile our anxieties have become increasingly overwhelming; especially when these happenings are seeming to come closer and closer to home. It might be helpful to note that Mother Emanuel, the historic black church in Charleston, SC where last year a young white racist murdered nine parishioners, is only about seven miles away from the historic Shiloh SDA Church.
Although, Jared Wright of Spectrum magazine called for an end to white Adventist silence, it appears that many white Adventists want peace and quiet more than they want justice and equality. It’s not necessary to start campaigning for reparations, but at least acknowledge that this is a problem. I heard one lecturer put it this way last week: “It’s not your fault, but it is your fight.” But then, in the best kind of irony possible, in the midst of all of this tragedy and turmoil one of the church’s most prominent leaders had the temerity to call for the dissolution of regional conferences. We cannot rewrite history. Lucy Byard was a real person. Adventist Universities have a history of rejecting black applicants, and just this year racism reared its ugly head again on one of those very campuses. Faithful supporters of the idea would argue that Nelson’s call was simply for unity, but when has unity in this country meant anything more than assimilation and submission to the dictates of the dominant group?
Nevertheless, for those who hold fast to the idealism of supposed unity and diversity, I would submit to them the words of Deotis Roberts:
“As we reflect on this givenness of value of life, we are led directly to diversity. Black theology has always placed a proper emphasis on diversity. However, we must be aware that diversity builds on the fact that all life is of equal value. We are also reminded that diversity does not replace dignity. In fact, diversity is rooted in the awareness that all humans have been created equal.”
In other words, unity never necessitates devaluing one group or its cultural mores for that of another. Furthermore, Roberts contends that discussions of diversity presuppose equality. Yet our persistent struggle for racial equality within and without the church is evidence that we have not yet progressed to the point where we can experience true diversity. In other words, there can be no true commitment to diversity without significant prior investment towards equality. Furthermore, where is there tangible evidence of consistent equitable investment in minority ministry initiatives and institutions? Or for celebration of the various cultures in the church that goes beyond flag waving at General Conference sessions?
One might ask, what is the way forward? I have written about solutions to this issue in the recent past, so I’m not going to repeat them here. But here’s the first step: White Adventists have to stop pretending that this isn’t a problem in order for us to have substantive dialogue and change. We have seen white guilt, but there has never been pervasive white grief over black suffering. Whether or not you think it’s your fault, it’s your fight, too. Whether one recognizes it or not, there is a real need for white Adventists to distinguish themselves from those who intend to “Make America great again.” People of color readily recognize such sentiments as Jim Crow reloaded, complete with structural and institutional wall-building that seeks to maintain and revitalize oppressive systems.
Some think we ought to just stop trying to convince white people that this is a real problem. For my part, I’d like to think that Adventist Christians of all colors care about injustices and inequality. I’d hope that we can at least agree that there is a crisis that needs to be addressed. And so with that, right now, as we mourn the loss of yet another black child, all I have is one simple request. Please stop saying, “All lives matter!” It makes the pain so much more excruciating. And if you want to work towards real long-term change, you can at least lock arms with me and the rest of your fellow brothers and sisters of color and say it with us. Black lives matter!
Christopher C. Thompson is the pastor of the Hillcrest Church in Pittsburgh, PA. He and his wife Tracy have one son, Christopher II. The three of them live in Pittsburgh’s historic Hill District. He is currently training for the 140-mile Ironman Triathlon.