A series of run-on images gallop through my brain: Alton Sterling’s body twitching, as his eyes roll back. The bright red stain spreads underneath Philando Castille’s white t-shirt. A wide-eyed little girl in the back seat. A black protestor poses with two cops, one white, one black — innocent grins stretched over each of them — before the shooting of five police officers in Dallas. A broad-shouldered black cop, tears streaming, hugging a light-skinned woman, after. The reel flickers: I see a cross; the swollen eyes of God looking down at me. I cannot un-see any of these things. I do not understand the things that are tensing up inside me, like a coiled snake.
I want to detach myself from all of it, as if at least one “they” is not somehow “us,” as if I share no complicity in the world I helped create. I share the inclinations of a people still, to think I am an ahistorical man, a practitioner of an ahistorical religion, a follower of an apolitical Jesus. Yet the cross is not just where God once appeared, it is the place God is always appearing: the face of Jesus contorted by human violence performed on him— God’s own body, twitching. I stand in the crowd as guilty as anyone else, beholding my sin, and perhaps my salvation, in the murder of God.
To behold the lamb at all, is to enter into judgment. The shadow of the cross is the dark that illumines everything. The image of the crucified ones stirs some to defensiveness, to denial, to white-hot shame; some to repentance, humility and trust. The horror turns some to the modern-day Baal worship of the gun, the cult of the metal phallus — a god of our own making that cannot protect nor save. Some turn their eyes to look away. But God appears to us again, through mangled black bodies. We see the fruit of our sin in the bruises. Will we be saved or condemned, based on what we do with what we see?
The night obscures our vision, so we can see everything more clearly. We enter into the ambiguity of blindness, where every broken body is God’s. With blurred eyes we see the stranger, the other, lying naked by the side of the road, and some of us come to bring the oil and wine to nurse his wounds — only to find that God himself is the One we are attending to. Suddenly then, we see ourselves as the one beaten and battered, and we see God in the face of the stranger who comes to attend to us. The eternal One gazes at us from all sides.
Through the mirror, my glass darkly, I see both my own wounds and the wounds I have inflicted, and my sight becomes a summons. What am I going to do with what I have seen? It is not just our safety that is on the line, but our souls that are at stake. Heaven and hell started before we got here, and neither delight nor torment await on our consent to begin. Judgment, like sight, is a summons.
The bodies tell the same truth, on the wood of every lynching tree, but the faces are always changing. Business goes on as usual on the hill of the skull, and yet nothing is the same. The sellers are still selling, the gamblers are still gambling; Pontius Pilate squeezes another dollop of hand sanitizer into his palms, nervously. The cock crows. Disillusioned from it all, the disciples go back to their day jobs, staring blankly at their smart phones. A man — is it a soldier, a cop, a terrorist, an assassin? — lowers an assault rifle, singed by hot tears, and looks up into hallowed, tender eyes. The only thing clear about the man standing under the cross, is that his face is lit up with salvation. Lightning flashes in the distance. The veil is rent. Spirit hovers over the graveyard in the old city. All our hidden ghosts and buried bodies are visible now, walking around in the light of day. The time of our visitation has come.
The jury comes back from deliberating our history, and we await our sentence — while we, ourselves, debate over sentences: “black lives matter…all lives matter!” As if nothing apocalyptic has happened to us. As if we could learn to love everyone, until we’ve learned to love anyone in particular. As if it were just competing ideologies or dueling candidates, and not gods we are trying to decide between. Father forgive us, we do not know what we do.
Until black lives matter to us, God will never matter to us, either.