The question asked by Jesus during the horrific process of his crucifixion is not one that Christians should gloss over in their quest to easy resolution. “My God, why have you forsaken me” is a cry that should haunt our faith journey. It is a cry of abandonment, of separation, of longing, and of pain. If we believe in the power of the cross and in the saving grace of crucifixion, we must also confront the reality of asking the most difficult of questions to God, even when those questions confront the possibility of God’s silence and absence.
I need to wrap my mind around the question of “forsakenness” because that is the only way I can begin to process the death of Natasha McKenna, the African American woman who was killed while being detained at the Fairfax County Adult Detention Center in Virginia. McKenna, who suffered from mental illness, was stunned four times and subdued by six officers until she eventually lost consciousness and subsequently dies in a hospital days later. Her final words, caught on a 48-minute video of her detention and death: “you promised me you wouldn't kill me.”
The final days of Natasha McKenna’s life were an unending cycle of pain and torture. She was suffering from devastating mental episodes, exacerbated by the fact that she was being detained in a jail and not undergoing much needed treatment in a mental health treatment facility. She was handcuffed, tasered, restrained, and called “demonically possessed.” She was naked and vulnerable while being restrained. By the time she arrived at the hospital, she was in a coma and covered in bruises, marks, and cuts. Her eyes were swollen shut. McKenna leaves behind one young daughter.
“You promised me you wouldn't kill me.” These are the words of a woman who knew that her life was coming to an end. She knew that she was on the verge of death; a death that was absolutely and completely preventable. But more than that, McKenna’s final words are the cry of the forsaken, the abandoned, the forgotten, and the discarded. In jails and prisons throughout America, the mentally ill are held captive with little or no access to the treatment they so desperately need. In detention centers and street corners across the nation, those in need of help are called “demons” and mocked in their nakedness and vulnerability.
“You promised me you wouldn't kill me.” These are the cries of victims of police violence everywhere, as they face those sworn to uphold the peace but who instead terrorize and brutalize. McKenna’s slight 5’3” and 130 lb. body was stripped, shackled, masked, wrestled to the ground, her panic worsened by the sight of 6 men standing above her in gas masks and biohazard suits. These men and their lethal weapons may have been McKenna’s last sight before slipping into a coma. Maybe someone promised her that she wasn’t going to be hurt if she cooperated; maybe someone promised her that she would survive this encounter if she didn’t resist. But in the end, McKenna dies knowing that her life was being taken violently away from her against her will.
“You promised me you wouldn't kill me.” Slowly and painfully, black American women are being killed by agents of the state. We are dying mysteriously in jails and prisons. We are dying after encounters with law enforcement. We are dying of because of lack of health care or unequal access to health care. Our babies are facing infant mortality rates that rival many developing nations. In a nation that prides itself on offering all its citizens a chance at life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, black women are being killed. And it feels like no one cares.
Natasha McKenna bore the weight of her mental illness and the stigma that accompanies it. She also bore the weight of this nation’s racist and sexist history; her humanity was stripped from her while her body was treated as some unbreakable object of violence. At the time of her greatest need, she was forsaken by those who promised not to kill her. And in the recent decision which found the men who tasered and battered her not responsible for her death, McKenna has been forsaken by the scales of justice.
Theologians have weighed in for centuries in response to Jesus’ question of being forsaken. I often remind my own students that his question provides us with a precedent for asking God the tough questions of life. I am left with nothing but tough questions about Natasha McKenna’s death: questions about our legal system; questions about incarceration procedures; questions about our nation’s history of killing the black body. But I also know that it is okay for me to ask the toughest question of all: do the lives of black women matter to God? Before we rush to the “yes” of affirmation, before we hurry to insist that every person in precious in God’s sight, perhaps we can sit with the weight of the slow and painful death of a woman whose last words were an echo of broken promises. Before we rush to God’s “yes,” maybe we need to repent of all the ways we consistently demonstrate that some lives truly don’t matter.
© Yolanda Pierce