Black Christian Leaders React to the Deaths of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile

Mourners placed candles and flowers in the parking lot of the Triple S Food Mart on Wednesday. (Credit: William Widmer for The New York Times)
Mourners placed candles and flowers in the parking lot of the Triple S Food Mart on Wednesday. (Credit: William Widmer for The New York Times)

In the past 48 hours graphic videos captured police officers shooting and killing two black men, Alton Sterling and Philando Castile. Their deaths have sparked nationwide mourning, outrage, and protest.

Sterling, a father of five, was pinned to the ground by two officers when one shot him point blank. Castile was shot after being pulled over for a broken taillight with his girlfriend and 4-year-old daughter in the car. In both cases officers feared their suspect would wield a firearm.

As the Department of Justice begins an investigation into the police killing of Sterling, and the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension Assistance begins one in Castile’s case, communities across the country continue their journey of lament, prayer, anger, and protest.

Sojourners reached out to black Christian leaders via email for comment. Below, read some of their responses:

Lisa Sharon Harper, Chief Church Engagement Officer, Sojourners

I watched Alton Sterling struggle — arms clamped to his side and twisted behind him and in an instant my mind’s eye flashed through all the hashtags of the past three years, through the millions of prison cells that have controlled and confined us, across rolling southern highways where we disappeared after police pulled us over, to a field and a road where overseers cracked whips and patrollers checked the travel passes of enslaved images of God moving between plantations. Sterling hit the ground, the modern-day patrollers mounted him, checked him for weapons. They found a gun — in an open-carry state. Sterling dared to affirm the image of God within himself. The patrollers did the job they were created to do. With each shot they snatched back white dominion over black bodies. What remains to be seen is whether America has the collective will to change the patrollers’ role in our society. I hope.

Dr. David Anderson, Founder and President of the BridgeLeader Network

The assault on black men by the police has a heritage that must be unearthed, uprooted, and prosecuted. Otherwise, bridge builders like me will not be able to console, yet again, another family or justify another unindicted police officer, whether in St. Louis, Baltimore, New York, Charleston, or Baton Rouge. Let’s speak out together and stop the madness through a unified and multicultural outcry against this epidemic.

To my dearest non-black friends and family, please remember that one’s silence can often be misunderstood by blacks, yes, even the ones you know and love, as consent. So join together in lifting your voices on social media and to those around you. Let people know that your heart is as broken as theirs and that you indeed stand with the brokenhearted and heavy-laden, and together let’s pray that God will give us rest.

Leroy Barber, Executive Director, The Voices Project

There seems to be a continued disregard for black life that over time keeps waging war against the image of God within black people. Alton Sterling’s murder right in front of our eyes is like an alarm going off in my soul to continue to fight against the darkness. We must break our silence to say nothing denies the presence of the Creator within each of us.

Rev. Dr. William Barber II, Founder, Moral Mondays Movement

Two lives, two souls of black men dead. Two father’s, two sons, two brothers just trying to make it were killed by those who are supposed to protect and serve.

How Long? How Long America? Killing of Black bodies by those behind badges is a form of terrorism. Let us refuse to allow Alton and Philando’s memory to die or for their lives to be dismissed, distorted, or denounced. Blood is crying from the ground and let it trouble the very soul of America until justice is a clear reality.

Rev. Dr. Traci Blackmon, Executive Minister, Justice & Witness Ministries, United Church of Christ

Exodus 1:22: “Finally the king issued a command to all his people: “Take every newborn Hebrew boy and throw him into the Nile…”

The King feared the Hebrew male child. An irrational fear rooted in the known resistance and unknown rage of oppression. Such fear is a formidable weapon when armed with the power of the State.

The murder of Alton Sterling, and now Philando Castile, reminds me the State is still armed, and murder remains a justifiable response to stop whiteness from trembling.

So how might we disarm white fear?

Iva Carruthers, General Secretary, Samuel DeWitt Proctor Conference

The shooting of Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge is another example of the psycho- cultural ethos of the inhumane systemic racism which continues to grip America’s soul. I am unwavering in my pronouncement that this was an unmerited execution at the hands of those sworn to uphold the law. It is past time for all those who believe in the promises and principles of American democracy to wake up and rise up against those forces that make mockery of the petition, “God Bless America.” May the God of righteousness shower Divine love and peace upon the family of Mr. Sterling.

Christena Cleveland, Associate Professor of the Practice of Reconciliation, Duke Divinity School

Alton Sterling’s execution is the ongoing evidence that the social construct of whiteness continues to try relentlessly to extinguish the image of God in black people. It’s a time for lament, but also a time to look inwards, particularly for those of us who are people of Christian faith, and think critically about the way the church contributes to this ongoing problem of whiteness.

It’s really easy for people of faith to look at what happened with Sterling and say “that’s terrible, that’s evil, that’s racist.” But the same evil and whiteness and racism that drove Alton’s Sterling execution is the same evil and whiteness and racism that drives the Christology of a white Jesus, that maintains the centrality of whiteness and white supremacy within the church, where white voices, white perspectives, white theology are preferred over others. It’s important for the church to look deeply at why we haven’t influenced the public arena of justice: What’s our theology? What’s the practice of our theology?

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SOURCE: Sojourners

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