Friday, November 6, 2015

The Good Samaritan I: Battered, Broken, Bruised

The parable of the Good Samaritan is a biblical narrative that we love to deploy as evidence of our self-righteousness. The story is simple: a traveler is stripped, beaten, and left half dead on the side of the road. Two men come upon the man but refuse to help him. A third man, the “good Samaritan,” helps the injured traveler, despite the animosity that existed between the ethnic group of the Samaritan and that of the injured traveler. The moral of the story is that we must be like the Samaritan, willing to help others in their time of need, willing to see the “stranger” or the despised person as our neighbor.

But the Good Samaritan story deeply troubles me as I interpret it for our own time and context. Because too many of us imagine that we are the Good Samaritan and not enough of us imagine that we are the battered, bruised, and broken traveler on the side of the road.

There are 13 African American women in Oklahoma City who were sexually assaulted, raped, and abused by someone in authority, someone in whom the public places its trust. These women were specifically targeted because they were among the most vulnerable of our society: they were poor black women. Some had a history of drug addiction; some were former sex workers; one was only a teenage girl. They were specifically targeted because they were among the untouchable: who would care if these women were left battered on the side of the road? Who would care if these “outcasts” and sex workers and drug addicts were broken and bruised? After all, our society has proven again and again that black women and girls are among the despised and disposable people of our nation – their lives and the crimes committed against them often don’t warrant a mere mention on the evening news.

The trial of the Oklahoma City police officer charged with these horrendous crimes began on Monday, November 2nd. The accused has benefited from tremendous privilege since August 2014, when he was officially charged with these crimes. Once arrested, he was released on bail and was able to enjoy the comfort of his home while awaiting trial  despite being charged with 36 crimes including first-degree rape, sexual assault, indecent exposure, stalking, and burglary. He violated the terms of his house arrest once, but was still able to return home instead of occupying a jail cell. He subsequently violated the terms of his house arrest a second time. Now, over a year later, he is finally facing a jury for his crimes against 13 Black women. The jury consists of 8 white men and 4 white women.

I wonder if these 12 men and women can imagine what it feels like to be among the despised of the nation? I wonder if these 12 men and women have ever experienced life on the side of the road, among the marginalized and the dispossessed? Because if we are to take the Good Samaritan story seriously for our times, instead of a stranger coming to the rescue of an injured traveler, he’d more likely interrogate and demonize the traveler about the brutal injuries she sustained…

What were doing walking down the street by yourself? Because good women don’t travel by themselves.
Why were you wearing that outfit while traveling on this road? Because good women know that the clothes they wear make a difference in whether they are raped.
Did you smoke any weed or drink any alcohol before getting on the road? Because good women know that anyone who drinks or smokes deserves to be assaulted.
I heard you were a sex worker, is that why you were by yourself on this road? Because good women know that sex workers can’t actually ever say no.
Why didn’t you immediately call for help or report your injuries if someone actually did assault you on the side of the road? Because good women wouldn’t fear being arrested or going to jail even if her batterer is a police officer.

We live in a world that fails to help the battered and the bruised, because we are too busy blaming them for being battered and bruised. We live in a world that fails to help the most vulnerable, because we are too busy blaming them for being on the margins. We live in the world in that fails to prosecute the crimes of the privileged and rich and powerful, because we assume that they are telling the truth and that their victims are liars.

Imagine that you are the broken one on the side of the road and instead of being helped, you are being interrogated about what you must have done for someone else to harm you, assault you, rape you, and break you. Imagine that instead of lending a hand to help you up from your pain, a legal system puts you on trial for your injuries and allows the assailant to enjoy the comforts of home. Because for far too many Black women, this is the reality of the story of the Good Samaritan: encountering “neighbors” who blame and demonize instead of neighbors who help you to your feet.

For the next month, as we hear the painful stories these Black women have to tell about their assaults, I pray that they will be treated as real neighbors: that we will listen to them; love them; believe them; and help to heal their wounds.

© Yolanda Pierce

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Not A Ragdoll

I collect black rag dolls. Some of them have been generous gifts from students who know I love them. Most have been finds at yard sales or flea markets from the United States to Ghana. My most precious one is the ragdoll my grandmother made when I was just a child. I remember still my wonder and awe that a few scraps of fabric could become an actual doll. Just like the ones at the store, Grandma? Just wait and see, little one….

Over the years I have sewn my fair share of black rag dolls. And I have gifted quite a few to small visitors to my home, whose chubby little hands close possessively around a new precious friend they don’t want to let go. None of these dolls, I assure their mothers, are valuable. They are just cherished by someone who remembers with love those brown hands that stitched together both the pieces of my life as well as my very first doll.

This week, when I watched the brutal assault of a young black girl in her Spring Valley High School classroom by a South Carolina police officer, I was left stunned and speechless. The girl is placed in a chokehold; flipped over while still in her chair; and then flung across the room, slamming into a wall. It is not only the escalating violence of the scene which makes it horrific to watch, but the physical ease at which this man, who can allegedly squat a whopping 940 pounds and bench press at least 600 pounds, throws this young girl across her classroom. Yes, he flings her like a ragdoll.

I thought about my collection of dolls that have been loved and cherished; dolls that have been handled with care by two generations of black girls. Ragdolls are not rigid; they made with stuffing and are pliable, flexible, and can withstand the “enthusiastic” love of children. But a teenage girl is not a ragdoll. She does not deserve to be brutalized, tossed, and flung as if she is an inanimate object without a spine. She does not deserve to be treated as if her precious internal organs and bones can easily withstand the force of a chokehold and a chair flip. She does not deserve to be assaulted, humiliated, battered, and broken…for any reason, by anyone.

Immediately after the video of this terrible crime went viral, people responded by asking: “what did she do?” The first questions I heard asked about the incident included: “what happened before the video of the assault started,” or “what did she do to bring this on herself,” or “what trouble was she in that brought the police to the classroom?” If your first response to this video is about what this young girl did, rather than the brutality and violence of the white police officer who harmed her, you have been steeped in white supremacist thinking.  If you are more concerned with whether she “obeyed” or “complied,” than you are with an almost 300lb. man tossing a child across the room, you have been steeped in white supremacist thinking.

White supremacy assumes that if you are being beaten and abused, you must have done something to warrant the punishment…just wait until we find out about her past and that will prove the police officer was right to assault her. White supremacy finds this child immediately guilty of some unknown crime simply because of the presence of a brutalizing authority…the police would not be there if she hadn’t wasn’t a problem case. White supremacy assumes that authority is always rightful, always to be obeyed, always to be heeded…if she had just done what he asked, he wouldn’t have to hurt her.

But when you are courageous enough to cast aside the shackles of white supremacist thinking, you discover that the punishment does not always fit the “crime,” and that far too many communities at the margins are overpoliced and still left underprotected. When you abandon white supremacist thinking, you learn that black girls face disproportionately more punishment in schools not because they commit more violations, but because blackness is automatically seen and labeled as a threat. And if you are willing to free your mind of white supremacist thinking, you learn that obedience to “authority” may not only fail to protect you, but it may make you even more subject to abuse, brutality, and violence.

I have no way to reach out to the child in this video. And what is even more disturbing are all those other black and brown girls whose abuse is never recorded and remains unknown; those whose violent confrontations with “authority” never go viral. But I want to wrap all of them in warm and loving hands and let me know that there is nothing they could have done to warrant being treated like this. I want our nation to care enough about black and brown girls that we find it absolutely unacceptable and unconscionable for them to be treated worse than animals. I want all the people who claim to be pro-life to care about the lives of black and brown girls who are catching hell right now, right here. I want us to cast aside white supremacist thinking so that instead of asking, “what did she do wrong,” we ask each other “how can we prevent this from ever happening again?” May God humble us enough to ask how can we stitch together the pieces of lives we have so painfully wronged.

©Yolanda Pierce

Saturday, September 26, 2015

Our Neighbor's Faith

Traffic notwithstanding, it has been fascinating to live in the area where Pope Francis is visiting. There is a palpable excitement about this particular pope and the simple, but timely, message he brings wherever he travels: love and serve the “least of these.” The love and respect for Pope Francis emanates not just from Catholics and Protestants, but from those of many other faith traditions. Even those who disagree with him have been blessed by his humility and adherence to his understanding of the gospel.

Like many others, I had my “wish list” of things I wanted to hear from Pope Francis during his visit to the United States. I long for more discussion about the ordination of women; I wanted to hear his affirmation that “black lives matter.” I wanted to hear an explicit repudiation of the Doctrine of Discovery by its name. Everyone, it seems, wants to hear something in particular from Pope Francis. But I think that most of us stand in solidarity with our Catholic brothers and sisters, delighted by a pope who so profoundly connects with people across generations, abilities, ethnicities, races, and every other difference.

For those of us who are Christians, this papal visit should cause us to reflect on the tremendous privilege we have as the dominant voice in this country. For days, we've had nonstop cover of the Christian faith. There have been discussions of Jesus and Christian theology on every major news network and it is being covered with seriousness and respect. Since Pope Francis has been in the United States, his papal masses have been televised live. If you have turned on a television, opened an internet browser, or read a newspaper during this past week, Pope Francis has been the major story. And you don’t have to turn to a particular religious channel to see this coverage - Christianity is being discussed from CNN to MTV.

But it leads me to wonder if we, the dominant religious voice, are willing to extend this same courtesy to our neighbors of other faith traditions? Or to those who are not believers? Would we televise the entirety of Friday night prayers from an American mosque on CBS?  Would CNN cover the worship practices of Santería with the same respect and seriousness it has given to Catholicism?

And while Pope Francis’ visit has dominated the news cycle, 769 pilgrims died in a stampede during Hajj outside the city of Mecca this week, along with 934 others who were wounded. The death toll may continue to rise as the situation evolves. The Hajj is the largest religious gathering in the world and an obligation for all Muslims who are able.

Will we grieve with the Muslim community for this tragedy as deeply as we celebrate with the Catholic world the visit of Pope Francis to the United States? Will our hearts break for the thousands of our Muslim brothers and sisters mourning the deaths of those fulfilling one of their highest and most sacred of religious obligations? Will we seek to respect and understand the "Stoning of the Devil" ritual that takes place in the city of Mina during the Hajj, with the same care we give to the intricacies of various Christian worship practices when they are being discussed in the media?

At the core of the Christian faith Pope Francis embraces is the command to love one's neighbor as oneself...not just the neighbor who looks, acts, or worships like us. And our neighbors are every human being on this planet, theists and non-theists alike. We are called to care, love, and honor the humanity of all people. So loving our neighbors means that we can rejoice during the papal visit, but we must also make time to mourn when our other neighbors are experiencing such great loss. 

To my fellow Christians, perhaps we need to learn to lower the volume of our dominant voices so that the stories of our neighbors can be heard.

©Yolanda Pierce