Michael Brown, Worship this Sunday, and Confusing Unity with Comfort

By Sandhya Jha

I am tired of my church breaking my family’s heart. I wasn’t going to write about Michael Brown. Many others have already done so, reflectively and powerfully, including writing about the role of the White church in the midst of this moment of pain. I wasn’t going to write about it because I’ve written on it before. And I’ve preached on it. And I’ve posted and I’ve tweeted and I’ve shouted at rallies for Alan Blueford and Trayvon Martin and Oscar Grant. I wasn’t going to write about it because I wrote about it when the church didn’t acknowledge Jordan Davis’s murderbecause…I don’t know; Stand Your Ground fatigue? Lack of information? Complexity? Lack of relevance? I wasn’t going to write because if I wrote about Michael Brown, what would I do with the stories of John Crawford (killed last week in Walmart in southern Ohio for being seen in the toy aisle with a toy gun the store was selling) orEzell Ford (shot today by the LAPD while lying down), also pressing in on me? But I am tired of the church breaking my family’s heart. And we have a chance to do something different this Sunday, if we don’t sacrifice the lives of children on the altar of unity yet again. One of my best friends goes to a multi-racial church. She’s African American. She’s raising an African American son and daughter. And she believes in a Christ who unites us. So at some cost to her culturally and for the sake of her children having worship that moves them, she worships at a church that has excellent worship and children’s programming and both Black and White men in leadership. (Yeah—that’s another issue…) During prayer time on February 16 of this year, my friend didn’t hear people lifting up the name of Jordan Davis. There was no ritual to acknowledge the continued failure of the criminal justice system in America. The fact was not grieved that Jordan Davis’s murderer is now leading a movement telling White people to Stand Their Ground whenever they see a Black man because Black men are always threatening. My friend intentionally worships at a church focused on unity. And my friend’s church broke her heart because unity is almost always unconsciously driven by the dominant culture’s lived experience and very rarely by an awareness that acts of injustice against some communities do not happen in isolation but as part of a pattern. I am tired of the church breaking my family’s heart. 

I am tired of the church unconsciously and unintentionally choosing unity but really choosing comfort. I am tired of the church unconsciously choosing comfort in the face of tragedy that should be breaking all of our hearts.   Every twenty-eight hours a Black man is killed by police in the United States. Black men who are our sons and brothers and nephews, because we chose to be a part of a faith that says we are one in the Spirit, that we are one family.   We worship a God whose son was killed unjustly by the authorities for no justifiable reason, and we denigrate the religious leaders of the time for making up disgusting justifications for why he needed to die.   And I hear people saying that this is complicated. And I hear them saying that we need more facts. And I hear them saying that the protests in response are unacceptable and so we should not look like we are condoning violence by agreeing with what drove people to violence. And I hear that law enforcement has a hard job. I definitely hear that when we talk about this, we ignore Black-on-Black violence. And I even occasionally hear that his appearance made him a target.   And I think of the crucifixion. And I think about religious leaders desiring unity. And I think about how many members of the body of Christ are an acceptable loss so that we don’t have to speak out.   I’ve been told that this prophetic ministry comes more easily to me because I’m political and have only shared this type of message in churches that are open to political messages. But a prophetic message isn’t political. A prophetic message is a message saying “God is grieving because this world is out of alignment with God’s will.” A prophetic message is a message saturated in tears and grief because real people are being harmed and God’s community is ignoring that fact. Jeremiah and Amos and Micah were not politicians. They were professional mourners.

And our desire to avoid grief – God’s grief, our family’s grief – is placing us in a dangerous position of also avoiding God’s call.

We are not being asked to be political. We are being asked to be faithful. When our family members’ hearts are breaking, our job is to mourn with them, to understand why they are mourning, to find paths of healing and reconciliation and – yes – justice.   All we are being asked to do this Sunday is to grieve. All we are being asked to do beyond this Sunday is to explore why this happens repeatedly (#every28hours) instead of explaining away every single instance. There are lots of reasons not to know about this. We don’t have conversation partners. We don’t have lived experience. We don’t know about microaggressions and disparate sentencing based on race and how race actually shapes fear responses in dangerous ways and the fact that four-year-old Black boys are learning to fear the police instead of trusting them.   Another friend texted me that he was watching CNN with his mixed race son, who said, “There’s no way that Missouri cop will get away with shooting that Black teen,” and then, “that just looks like a protest. Why are they calling it a riot?” My friend and his son will mourn, and they will discuss the pattern of injustice that devastates people from one race far more than another. That conversation will be uncomfortable but it is necessary to create the kind of unity my friend dreams of, that involves justice and equality as well as diversity. They are not religious, but I wish I knew that if they went to church, they would be able to do the same thing in a loving and supportive community.   I do not have to raise a son who has to be trained in how to reduce police officers’ anxiety, and I do not have to figure out how to explain to him that this still will not guarantee his safety. But I am part of the body of Christ with people who do. And if I don’t try to understand that experience, I’m not actually being part of the family. If I don’t mourn this loss with the rest of my family, I’m not being part of the family. If I claim that it is disruptive or trouble-making or undermining of church unity, then I am participating in breaking my family’s heart. Because grieving the untimely death of an innocent young man and thousands more like him over the years is not disuniting. It is discomforting. And we can no longer choose comfort built on the dead bodies of the innocent.

[This article first appeared at Sandhya's blog.]

Sandhya Jha serves as Director of the Oakland Peace Center (a collective of nonprofits working to create access, opportunity and dignity as the means of creating peace and justice) and as Director of Interfaith Programs at East Bay Housing Organizations (an organization that advocates for affordable housing in the San Francisco Bay Area). An ordained minister in the Disciples of Christ, Sandhya is also a pro-reconciliation/anti-oppression trainer and consultant with Hope Partnership for the denomination.