A few weeks ago, I arrived at the airport a little early to pick up a friend and decided to pull over in the emergency lane to wait. I knew it wasn’t the right thing to do, but there were 20 cars already there, so I figured my decision wasn’t too bad.
Moments later, however, I heard a siren and saw police car lights in my rearview mirror.
Without warning, my hands began to tremble, my breathing quickened, and my legs started to shake. I called my husband and told him what was happening. My body was going into full-fledged panic mode.
As the officer approached, I could barely catch my breath. Images of Black men and women shot for minor offenses raced through my mind. Would I be labeled as a criminal who broke the law, or as a mother, wife, and minister who served the Lord? Would I be lumped into the countless names of Black people who have died for misdemeanors, or would I be among the privileged few who escaped alive?
By the time the officer came near to my car, I could barely see. He stood at a short distance, asked me to breathe, and helped me to calm down. With my husband still on speaker phone, I finally found the words to say, “I’m sorry.”
What followed in my mind was, “Please don’t hurt me.” In that moment of panic, I could not distinguish the kind officer in front of me from everything I had seen on the news.
My traffic citation gave the other offending cars an opportunity to drive off and, when he finally left, I began to cry. I cried for all of the Black men and women who begged for their lives and still died. I cried for Manuel Ellis, Philando Castile, George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Alton Sterling, and so many more.
The list grows by the day. During a recent traffic stop near Circleville, Ohio, an unarmed man named Jadarrius Rose was pulled over for a missing mud flap and then attacked by a police dog. As I watched the horrific video, I wept again.
This time, the tears triggered pictures of Walter Gadsden being attacked by a police dog during a civil rights protest on May 3, 1963, in downtown Birmingham. A black-and-white photo shows a police officer holding a young Black high school student by his clothes as a dog rips at his flesh. This image is in my bones, in books on my coffee tables, and accessible to my children online. This story and others are in my head and in my body, passed down from generations of traumatized ancestors who’ve gone before me.
I’m left to ask: How can we understand things that simply don’t make sense? How can we find healing from generations of embodied pain? Most importantly, how do we change the system so that Black people don’t get choked during an arrest, shot for misinformation, suffocated for small crimes, or mauled over a missing mud flap?
The answer is neither in defending so-called “Blue Lives” nor in defunding the police. The answer is now and has always been in Jesus Christ.
By drawing on faith, I am not minimizing the deep social and political disfunctions that allow racism to persist, or the Jim Crow tendencies that continue long after laws are gone. Instead, I am tapping into the strength that empowered civil rights leaders to march while being blasted by fire truck hoses. I am calling on the power that drove my great-great-grandparents to transition from slavery to freedom for the sake of their children’s children. I am trusting in the presence of Christ and the great cloud of witnesses who believe in his name.
Standing up for justice is the calling of the church in times like these—and always. Those of us who are Black Christians are responsible for naming and tending to the pain that’s triggered every time we see racist tragedies in the news. Ignoring this moment in history only exacerbates the mental health problems that often plague our communities.
When communal trauma goes unaddressed, it hides in the recesses of our minds and turns into fears we knowingly and unknowingly pass on to our children. Instead, we need to speak God’s Word of healing over Black bodies and minds in ways that inspire action and revive hope.
“Statistics are unnecessary for those of us who carry in our hearts the experience of being black in this country,” writes Esau McCaulley in his CT cover story on Paul and police ethics. He continues:
The United States, historically and in the present, has failed to protect us. It has used the sword to instill a fear that has been passed down from generation to generation in black homes and churches. That dread, however, has never had the final word. Instead, black Christians have reminded themselves not to fear those who can only kill the body. At our best and most Christian moments, we have demanded our birthrights as children of God.
The same message of hope needs to be proclaimed in other churches as well, not just Black ones. They too will be suffering because of this news. They too are called to lament the brokenness of this world, tend to the pain of brothers and sisters who suffer directly, and demand accountability and change in our systems.
Sometimes it’s easy to overlook Black trauma as something that happens to “them” and not “us.” When this happens, Christians miss an opportunity to exercise the biblical language of communal lament. It draws us closer to others and most importantly to the suffering of our Lord.
As the church, we are called to stay in solidarity with those who grieve and carry the burdens of those who suffer. That means refusing to be desensitized by incidents of police brutality in Black communities and being willing to do something—anything—about it.
Nicole Massie Martin is the Chief Impact Officer at Christianity Today.