Josiah Ulysses Young III is a professor of systematic theology at Wesley Theological Seminary. He is the author of James Baldwin's Understanding of God: Overwhelming Desire and Joy (2014) and Dogged Strength within the Veil: Africana Spirituality and the Mysterious Love of God (2003).
Imagine an ancestor, whip-scarred and enslaved, who sings a line from this old song: “No more auction block for me/Many thousands gone.” Her sorrow song is for people like George Floyd. His unwarranted murder—the ugliness of it, the fact that he pleaded for his life and was choked to death anyway—has moved thousands of Americans to protest the blatant way police departments work in sync with the criminal justice system to criminalize black bodies.
Thousands of people—brown, black, and white; some with masks, most without—threw social distancing to the wind and, holding Black Lives Matter signs, called for justice for Mr. Floyd. They have realized, consciously or unconsciously, that police brutality is linked to other systemic ramifications of the “auction block.” COVID-19, for instance, has reaped a disproportionately high number of black bodies due to poor health care in African-American communities. We are not talking about sickle cell anemia here. This coronavirus has no special hankering for black blood. Most African Americans just have had no firewall against this virus. Living in high-density areas, stacked on top of one another, and forced to work in service industries, unable to work remotely, African Americans have had more than our share of the pandemic. And not just because we are black. The reason rests with white people, some of whom seem to see now, for the first time really, how unfairly Africa’s children have been treated in the United States.
As a seminary professor and scholar of religion, I am interested in some of the theological connections one draws between Floyd’s murder and COVID-19. Consider the notion that the human race’s intelligence identifies us as God’s image. For Martin Luther King, Jr., Jesus of Nazareth personifies that image as he both actualized God’s will within his context and is a role model for ours. His “God-consciousness” holds that all persons, even lepers, have the right to breathe. It seems correct to conclude, therefore, that any system built upon the bones of those denied that simple birthright is both inhumane and ungodly. If the United States were from its inception an atheistic or even non-theistic republic, there would be no problem here. But this nation is founded on biblically influenced notions such as “all men are created equal” and “are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights” such as “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” Where the rubber meets the road, however, all men has meant white males. Creator has signified the theologies that they have invented. And unbridled white privilege is what Happiness has been all about. In effect, appeals to the Declaration of Independence have come up short because it was crafted by those who were unsure of the worth of black lives.
Consequently, such lofty language only gave lip service to “inalienable rights.” It was a different story on the ground. The catalogue of white America’s brutal treatment of black bodies—the bit, the merciless whippings, the punitive amputations, lynching, castrations, fire hoses, police dogs, cattle prods—is horrific. And when the public saw the white policeman jam his knee into Floyd’s neck, for eight minutes, even though Floyd had passed out, the people—white, black, and brown—said, no more! COVID-19 seems to have leveled the field just enough for people to get down to basics, like health care and opportunity, and uplift. The maws of the system are being exposed to such an extent that people are finally realizing that if black lives do not matter, no human being is safe. Given the scope of the outcry, more people than ever before seem to realize that white supremacy is more of a threat to tomorrow than this virus for which there is as of yet no cure. Is there a cure for America’s “original sin”?
People of faith might also gaze critically upon biblical passages that ostensibly suggest that God created all persons to be equal. Deeper scrutiny of the texts unveils, however, that the Hebrew Bible’s YHWH favors men over women and Shem’s sons over Ham’s. In precisely what way, then, are “all men created equal,” and when did we lose this equality, why, and according to whom? Perhaps those questions might move us to shelve the ethnocentric myths we have devised to empower ourselves against others. Americans should never forget that upholders of slavery legitimized their avarice biblically and thus saw themselves as YHWH’s New World elect.
The basic insight of the Book of Genesis is true nonetheless: The human race is one species, Homo sapiens. This pandemic reminds us that this pathogen, which shreds the lungs and shuts down other organs, menaces everyone without respect to skin color. We don’t need theology to make that point, but we do need theologians to widen our perception of God’s image. Theologians, after all, are the ones who speak in God’s name, and it is becoming increasingly apparent that God’s word and what human beings value are hard to pull apart. That is precisely why white Christians have not given much thought to why black lives matter, despite the realities of the system that has abused us for four hundred years.
I think that religionists should insist that the struggle for racial justice be placed at the very center of all matters that concern “God,” humankind, and the future of planet earth. A critical question here is, to what extent are contemporary systematic theologians, biblical scholars, and ethicists equipped to move the people forward, toward a more just society? How can we move beyond a theological tradition in which black suffering is silenced and invisible? Why have theologians, especially white ones, been reluctant to probe the deep extent to which a theology mirrors one’s cultural and aesthetic sensibilities more so that “than which nothing greater can be conceived”? It’s shameful that it has taken a vicious pandemic and the haunting murder of George Floyd for us to hear the ancestor’s sorrow song. Many thousands gone. No more.