In his celebrated and controversial Between the World and Me (Spiegel & Grau, 2015), Ta-Nehisi Coates, a journalist and writer for the Atlantic and probably the most forceful and eloquent person writing on the issue of race in the U.S. – gives a brutally honest and even harrowing account, written using the literary device (as he explains here) of a letter to his fifteen-year-old son, of what it’s like to be a black man in America. Though I don’t agree entirely with his portrayal of America’s history (I think this is partly informed by his atheistic, materialist view of the world, where religion is “magic” and “myth” and all we have is our bodies, but not souls), I believe Coates is a voice that we must listen to, and listen with care and empathy. We should listen to him for at least two reasons. First, because in some ways he speaks for the many whose God-given dignity has been violated by the terrible sin of racism, and it’s important that we try to at least begin to understand this experience. And second, because, though an atheist, Coates describes racism and the evil it unleashes with all the moral clarity of one who knows that there is a God who hates this sin with all his being and who is totally committed to justice. In short, I highly recommend this book, especially for Christians, who must not look away as their brothers and sisters are sinned against in this most grievous way.
Some passages that struck me with the kind of force that Coates is known for bringing to the written word:
Racism is “the need to ascribe bone-deep features to people and then humiliate, reduce, and destroy them.” (7)
He tells his son that “all our phrasing – race relations, racial chasm, racial justice, racial profiling, white privilege, even white supremacy – serves to obscure that racism is a visceral experience, that it dislodges brains, blocks airways, rips muscle, extracts organs, cracks bones, breaks teeth. You must never look away from this.” (10)
“America understands itself as God’s handiwork, but the black body is the clearest evidence that America is the work of men.” (12)
“To be black in the Baltimore of my youth was to be naked before all the elements of the world, before all the guns, fists, knives, crack, rape, and disease. The nakedness is not an error, nor pathology. The nakedness is the correct and intended result of policy, the predictable upshot of people forced for centuries to live under fear.” (17)
He has told you, O man, what is good;
and what does the Lord require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness,
and to walk humbly with your God?
– Micah 6:8
Before the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Gardner and the national controversy that ensued, I neither gave much thought to nor was I concerned about the state of our criminal justice system, much less about how the color of one’s skin makes it more likely that a person will fall into this system and be wronged by it. Then Thabiti Anywabwile, one of the pastors at my church, wrote a poignant blog post on his greatest fear about coming back to the States after pastoring a church in the Cayman Islands: That this country would “destroy” his young black son. This post and others he wrote stirred many in our mostly white church to think about how as Christians we should respond to issues of race and injustice, and to seek to understand the fears and struggles borne by many of our black brothers and sisters in the faith. These conversations suggested I give more serious thought to these issues, and then, as we were driving one day, my wife and I had a conversation about statistics she’d read showing how blacks and other minorities disproportionately fall victim to the uneven enforcement of harsh laws that have the power to ruin lives. As we talked, I decided that we should read a book to understand these issues better. Because I had heard of it recently, I first thought of Michelle Alexander’s well-reviewed The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, but before I settled on this choice I came across (on Twitter, so you see, it can be useful!) Bryan Stevenson’s Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption (Spiegel & Grau, 2014), a deeply personal and richly told story by a young lawyer who champions the cause of the condemned. I’m only forty pages into it, and already it’s a terrific read that has educated, challenged, and unsettled me about an issue that deserves more attention, especially from those of us who know a just and merciful God who commands us to fight for the rights of the poor and the oppressed.
Below is a brief but powerful and challenging excerpt:
“My work with the poor and the incarcerated has persuaded me that the opposite of poverty is not wealth; the opposite of poverty is justice…I’ve come to believe that the true measure of our commitment to justice, the character of our society, our commitment to the rule of law, fairness, and equality cannot be measured by how we treat the rich, the powerful, the privileged, and the respected among us. The true measure of our character is how we treat the poor, the disfavored, the accused, the incarcerated, and the condemned.
“We are all implicated when we allow other people to be mistreated. An absence of compassion can corrupt the decency of a community, a state, a nation. Fear and anger can make us vindictive and abusive, unjust and unfair, until we all suffer from the absence of mercy and we condemn ourselves as much as we victimize others. The closer I get to mass incarceration and extreme levels of punishment, the more I believe it’s necessary to recognize that we all need mercy, we all need justice, and – perhaps – we all need some measure of unmerited grace” (18).