Guest contributor Willie Jennings (Yale) offers a response to the death of George Floyd and the black experience of racism and police brutality. In order to practice the discipline of hope, he suggests that we must take hold of a shared anger, hate what God hates, reshape communities with attention to the violence of segregation, and rethink the formation of police officers and our understanding of criminality.
Evan Rosa: For the Life of the World is a production of the Yale Center for Faith & Culture. For more information, visit faith.yale.edu.
Willie Jennings: "Hope is a discipline; it is not a sentiment. But what I have also learned is that living the discipline of hope in this racial world, in this white supremacist-infested country called the United States of America, requires anger. I am angry."
Evan Rosa: A week ago, four police officers were involved in the brutal suffocation and death of George Floyd in Minneapolis—this week, two autopsies by different medical examiners, both found his death to be a homicide.
In March, police used a battering ram with a no-knock warrant and forcefully entered the home of Breonna Taylor in Louisville, KY, shooting her multiple times and killing her.
In February, Ahmaud Arbery was chased by armed white residents of a South Georgia neighborhood and was shot multiple times while trying to defend himself. His known killers weren’t indicted until May.
We need to amplify the voices of people of color. We need to listen. Miroslav Volf has shared very brief responses in recent episodes to support and stand in solidarity with our African American friends, colleagues, neighbors.
And in this episode, in the wake of a week of nation- and even world-wide anger, mourning, protest, riots, and exhaustion (all on top of this pandemic), we asked our friend and colleague, Willie Jennings, to contribute his thoughts.
Willie Jennings is Associate Professor of Systematic Theology, Africana Studies, and Religious Studies at Yale; he’s an ordained Baptist minister, and is author of The Christian Imagination: Theology and the Origins of Race, as well as a commentary on the book of Acts. You can listen to Willie discuss the impact of COVID-19 on the black community in a past episode from May 2.
I urge you to listen and open yourself to his thoughts and experience recounted here, entitled “My Anger, God’s Righteous Indignation." Thank you for listening.
Willie Jennings: I remember my first time. You never forget your first time. The first time a white police officer pulls you over. I was 14 and riding a brand new bicycle that my eldest brother had bought for me on my birthday. I had outgrown the old Stingray bike I rode all over town and this extraordinary gift from my brother marked a step into young adulthood.
It also marked, unfortunately, a step into the sickening ordinary that would be part of my life. The police officer yelled from his car, "Get off the bike." I quickly obeyed, remembering the words of my father and my brothers: "Stay out of trouble. Do what they tell you."
"Whose bike is this?" he asked. "Mine," I said. "Sit on the curb and don't move," the officer instructed me as he took my bike back to the patrol car. Sitting on the curb now, I watched as people drove by, watching me sitting near flashing lights, and I wished someone, anyone who knew me and knew the good church boy that I was, who knew that, would drive by, stop, and help me. The only person who came by who knew me was another kid from school riding his bike. Keeping his distance, smart kid that he was, he yelled, "I knew he was going to pull you over because you were riding a nice bike."
This was the first time I felt that helplessness. I did not feel helpless because there was nothing I could do. I felt helpless because there was nothing that this police officer could do to me that I could stop in any way. After what seemed like hours to check the serial number on my bike, he told me, "You can take it and go." That was it. No apology, no words of advice or wisdom. He just drove off.
I have had such encounters with police officers multiple times in every decade of my life. 14, 24, 34, 44, 54. Not exactly on the fours, but exactly with the same dynamic. I was pulled over or stopped on the street or stopped in a store. I had done nothing. They were looking. I sat or stood, waiting, and then they left. Each encounter returned that feeling of helplessness that said to me, if I make one wrong statement or gesture or sudden movement, I would be jailed or killed. This kind of helplessness forms you for a lifelong fight against a menacing hopelessness.
I felt that helplessness again, as I watched the life drain out of George Floyd. And I sensed even more deeply, once again, the struggle against that hopelessness, which today I have to say feels like it's winning. I repeated many times the lesson that my parents and my people taught me about hope. Hope is a discipline; it is not a sentiment.
But what I have also learned is that living the discipline of hope in this racial world, in this white supremacist-infested country called the United States of America, requires anger. I am angry. As long as I can remember, I have sensed this anger in me like a constant low humming sound, sounding from my very being.
In truth, there is something quite noble in being the proverbial angry black person. Of course, it is not a proverb. This anger is the result of a history that will not relent. A history that constantly seeks to bind black people to death itself. But I've also come to realize that this anger, my anger, is connected to the righteous indignation of God.
Now, as a theologian, I know that it is very dangerous to suggest the connection between human anger and God's righteous indignation. All kind of mischief can happen with such a connection. There is great danger and great power in saying what I am angry about, God is angry about. That connection can only be made if it has two abiding characteristics.
First, it must be about the destruction of life. Quick or slow, it does not matter. The point is that life is being taken away, being drained away. There is no doubt that this first characteristic is in place because black life is constantly stolen life. Only God gives life and only God can take back life.
There's always been the height of hubris and idolatry to think that we can, like God, take life, especially when the taking of that life is to protect property or a particular economic and social order.
There is a second characteristic that is necessary, if that connection is real. It must be shareable. In fact, it must be shared. I don't think enough people, especially enough Christians, understand that the righteous indignation of God is to be shared. I have had so many dear friends, really dear friends, well-meaning all of them, call me or text me or email me this week with their condolences, each in their own way saying to me, I can't imagine what you are feeling right now.
Yes, you can. My anger is shareable. Indeed, one of the most stubborn barriers to overcoming this racial world is the refusal of so many people to take hold of black anger. It is a particular sickness of whiteness that invites people to imagine themselves as spectators of racial suffering and observers of black pain who are allowed to feel only assorted forms of white guilt.
Those of us who are Christian, we should know better. God wants us to hate what God hates. God invites us into a shared fury, but only the kind that we creatures can handle. You all know that anger is frightening because it is not easily controllable. Anger can easily touch hatred, and if anger enters into hatred, then we will be drawn into violence, and way too many people in this world have been drawn deeply into violence. What Christian faith knows is that the way to keep anger from hatred is not to deny anger, to pretend that it is not real. No, we can't do that. What keeps anger from touching hatred is not the cunning of reason or the power of will. It is simply Jesus.
For the Christian, Jesus stands between anger and hatred, prohibiting the reach, blocking the touch and saying to us, "Don't go there. There is nothing there but death." Anger, bound to God's righteous indignation has a different purpose for us. It points us to the change that must happen, that is the overturning of an unjust world order, this racial order.
I know that many people right now are once again fixated on the burning of buildings and the loss of businesses, which no one should be happy about. But we are all held captive in a calculus that constantly pits people against property, that pits human life and relationship against economic activity. And in that fight, that fight, we always lose and black life always suffers.
This pandemic has revealed not only the power of a virus, but the power of mammon as well. It demands our service even unto death. It demands that we send women and men out into the street to work in hopes of making money and in deep fear that they will die. Maybe what the burning of buildings and the destruction of property ought to say to us is that things cannot stay the same. Things cannot be built back again to follow the same order where police are told implicitly and sometimes explicitly that you are here to protect property first, people second, and black people, not at all.
I am saddened to see anything that someone has given their blood, sweat, and tears to build, torn down in a matter of moments. But here is the truth, my friends. Everything built in this country is built on the sinking sand of race and class and greed, and is now under the control of a merciless financial capitalism. No amount of rhetoric around the virtue and glory of small businesses can hide us from the precariousness of economic life or the need to change an entire structure built to enhance profit at the cost of a healthy common life.
So what must be done? Well, first, take hold of the anger. Take hold of the anger. Respecting the differences between people, different cultures, different contexts, does not mean denying what must be shared. Do not confuse the black experience with what so many of us are experiencing right now. Step into it and into God's own righteous indignation, knowing that God will also invite you to turn away from hatred even as you enter the anger.
In fact, hope. If you have hope, if you wish to be disciplined by hope right now, you need anger. Anger is the engine that drives hope because this anger, this God-bound anger, turns us toward the urgency of the moment, as Martin Luther King, Jr. said so eloquently, and the deep desire for a changed world.
Secondly, we have to address the shape of communities. We have to see that geography is a racial matter. So many injustices, so much violence, so much death and despair is built into the very shape of neighborhoods, of communities, of cities. Almost every black life that was taken, taken by police acting as though they were at war, was taken because black people or people of color were in places where they should not have been according to the social and economic order of things, or where they were imagined as threat from the police imagining themselves as an invading force. We have to take seriously the way communities are shaped that already predispose them toward death and violence. We have to take seriously the deep ways segregation shapes how we see each other and live and our expectations for how we ought to live. A segregated society is already a violent society. Segregated neighborhoods are already primed for death.
Thirdly, we have to rethink the formation of police officers, the shape of policing and the processes of criminalization as we rethink the reshaping of communities. I was on a panel once with a police chief and representatives from a local police force, and they talked about diversity training for their officers, and they were very proud of the diversity training that they had their officers take. And I asked the police chief, "Well, how much diversity training, as you call it, do you do?" And the police chief proudly said to me, "They have one full week of diversity training." Then I said to the police chief, "So how often, how often, um, do police officers have to, uh, be tested with their weapons and how much training do they get for their weapons, use of their weapons? And he said to me, "Oh, um, they're, they are trained extensively, almost from the very beginning of their time in the police academy and then there are constant tests. There is constant, um, practice that they have to make sure that they are absolutely expert with the use of firearms." And then I said to him, "So let's, let's think about this. One week training to deal with the diversity of the public and constant training to use a weapon. Does that seem like a good balance to you?"
The police chief looked at me quite irritated. He understood the point I was trying to make. But I was actually trying to make a larger point that there was a formation, an ongoing formation that was necessary for a police officer to be the kind of person to use this deadly force. And there needs to be an ongoing formation for a police officer to simply function as a human being with that power.
But not only the formation of a police officer, but the selection process of who winds up being police officers. And not only that, but also the shape of policing, when police are called, what police are called to do, who should be involved in any encounter with the police.
But not only that. Also, what constitutes a crime. What demands police involvement and what can be done in other ways. All of this needs to be rethought in relationship to, as I said, rethinking what communities should look like. I'm not a person who, at this point, has given over to hopelessness. I yet remember my parents constant word to me, "Hope in God and live in that hope."
But at this point in my life, the most important question for me, especially right now, is how might my hope be shared. How might my hope be shared through the sharing not of prayers or the sharing of thoughts, but the sharing of anger, which I hope is always bound to the right god. Thank you very much.
Evan Rosa: For the Life of the World is a production of the Yale Center for Faith & Culture at Yale Divinity School. This episode featured theologian Willie James Jennings.
I’m Evan Rosa, and I edited and produced the show.
For more information, visit us online at faith.yale.edu, and subscribe to the show wherever you listen to podcasts. New shows drop at least every Saturday, with the occasional midweek episode, like today’s. We want to hear your perspective too. Leave us a review on our show page on Apple Podcasts to let us know how we’re doing, your thoughts about an episode, or what living a life worthy of our humanity means to you. Thanks for listening, friends, we’ll be back with more this week, so stay tuned.