Above all else, our politics initially sprang from the shared belief that Black women are inherently valuable, that our liberation is a necessity not as an adjunct to somebody else's but because of our need as human persons for autonomy.
-The Combahee River Collective, “A Black Feminist Statement”
God’s image is not monochromatic nor is God’s voice monotone. God is a colorful God who loves equally the many colors she creates. God speaks in tunes and tones that resonate with the oppressed and marginalized, particularly with the lived experiences of black women and other women of color.
- Mitzi J. Smith, I Found God in Me: A Womanist Biblical Hermeneutics Reader
On March 13, 2020, officers Jonathan Mattingly, Brett Hankison, and Myles Cosgrove of the Louisville Metro Police Department entered the home of 26-year-old Breonna Taylor and shot her to death. Yesterday, September 23, 2020, in a court of law, none of the officers were indicted for the killing. One officer, Brett Hankison, was charged with wanton endangerment in the first degree. This is to say, that an officer was charged with the lowest ranking, class D felony, for potentially harming someone for shooting recklessly, not for the actual death of Breonna Taylor brought about by all three officers’ actions. In the wake of the decision, protests rose across the country and continue today. Once again the law sides with white supremacy and wantonly cruel police officers and against justice. Against the right to live. Against the principle that Black Lives Matter.
For any United Student who has taken a Biblical Studies course with Professor Emerita Carolyn Pressler, we learn of a particular insight for reading The Book of Judges. The Book of Judges recounts cycles of violence in the Land of Israel. These cycles begin when, amidst each new era of suffering “the Israelites cried out to the Lord.” This is followed by the rising of a judge in the land to enact this justice, followed by a quieter era until the cycle continues to a new era of violence, crying out, and justice.
As Dr. Pressler has demonstrated in her classes, we can look to the treatment of women in the narrative to indicate how prosperous the land of Israel is. The Book of Judges begins with stories of Israelite tribes settling in the land and relays the story of Achsah, daughter of Caleb, being gifted a bounty of rivers and land. The Book of Judges continues with the story of the wise prophetess and judge Deborah and the actions of the heroic Jael. But as the narrative progresses we also find the stories of Jepthah murdering his daughter, and later of the womanizing Samson. Finally, the book ends with the horrible story of the Levite’s concubine who is raped, murdered and mutilated. In the beginning of Judges there is the promise of land and nation and prosperity. By the end, we are presented with a wilderness of war and iniquity. And the society’s sinfulness is measured by its treatment of women.
We find ourselves today, like in the Book of Judges, amidst cycles of violence and prophetic response. The sins of white supremacy, patriarchy, heterosexism, and economic inequality rupture in the murders of Black lives and in the violent suppression of protest in the murders’ wakes. The lives of Black women in particular, dually assaulted by racist and patriarchal attacks, are pushed to the periphery of our society, under the boot of our oppressive courts of law.
To understand what the state of our country is, we cannot simply ask “what is the state of women in our country?” because in America it is not the same for white women and Black women. The (non) indictment of Ms. Taylor’s killers echoes another story of racial horror in our country’s history. Exactly sixty-five years ago, on September 23, 1955, the men who lynched 14-year-old Emmett Till were found innocent by an all white jury. But the actions that predicated Till’s murder centered around an accusation from a white woman, Carolyn Bryant, who used her whiteness in congress with her femininity to play into the lethal myth of white innocence and Black guilt. In accusing the child of sexually looking at her, Bryant put a mark on Till. Her actions knowingly instigated the murderous actions of white men. White femininity, employed by white patriarchy, speaks to a level of privilege not afforded to the lives of Black women.
The courts of our country, among many other institutions, deny Black women their humanity and ignore their pain. America denies the value of Black lives in general and, we are reminded once again, of Black women’s lives. And yet it is the propheticism of Black women--from the abolition of Angela Davis, to the LGBT activism of Marsha P. Johnson, to the call of justice from the women leaders of the BLM movement--that is both crying for justice and is the ascension of our judges. Black women have always measured the state of our country. And what is the state of our country? Look to Breonna Taylor.
The Attorney General on the case called Breonna's death a "tragedy.” “Tragedy” is the passive voice of the public commentary on racist violence. It removes the subjects who enact the “tragedy.” “Tragedy” erases the people who hold the guns, who make the decrees, and who militarize our police. Breonna’s killing is not a “tragedy.” It is the result of humans deciding, doing, acting, and then refusing to take responsibility.
As people of faith, we cannot settle for unjust laws and the unjust distribution of our laws. We cannot idolize peace and order if that order is predicated on the dehumanization of Black people. We cannot rely on the state disciplining our bodies and our homes but particularly Black bodies and Black homes. We cannot claim to believe in God’s presence if we do not see the divinity inherent to Black women. Our religions are a sham if we do not fight from a place of spiritual repentance and prophetic impulse for systemic, communal, and religious change. If we do not challenge the judicial authority, system of incarceration, legislation, and law enforcement of our country, then a cry will continue, again and again, to rise up in the land.