Oppression is systemic. Injustice is systemic. It pervades the whole – it seeps into everyday actions and becomes habits and patterns that function as default. As a result, the actions that fall within these patterns hardly need justifying. If anything, the questioning of them is what is put on the defensive. And those who stand against injustice must usually do so in the face of militarized policing, before vast forces that serve to preserve the status quo.
I can’t help but see the similarities between the everyday existence of young black men, of boys in this country, and that of women. The lack of safety in public places; the need to always be aware of one’s surroundings; the lack of trust in the intentions of another; living with the knowledge that people like you experience violence at much higher rates than others. It is a racist, violent, patriarchal world we live in. And, yes, it is also other things, good and beautiful things, but sometimes the hard reality of everyday life blocks out that light.
In my first semester of theology school, in my Hebrew Bible class, our professor was discussing the Book of Psalms. This biblical book includes many different kinds of poetry, but I was particularly distressed by the violent character of some of the psalms, ones that wished violence and revenge against their enemies. There are aggressively worded psalms that call for the demise of another. I remember asking my professor why this was ok. Why would there be psalms which so often function as prayers that include such language and content? He took his time in responding – I remember the moment well – and he said that the best reason he can think of is that there are times when people are in such overwhelming grief, are experiencing such crippling injustice and pain, that all they can do is cry out in anger. That the words that come forth are necessarily uncensored, they are deep groans from within the soul. It must be ok to express that – it is necessary to yell out our truths to god, to cry out to the heavens with our grief in all its rawness. He said it is a vital aspect of one’s turn toward justice and the desire for a different world.
I see the pictures of the protesters in St. Louis and my heart cries out with theirs. I see the anger of the fires burning and I recognize the rage of their pain. For how many times have I not cried out in such overwhelming pain and anger because one more of my sisters was violated? How many times? So it is not hard for me to hear their cries, the cries of so many black sisters and brothers whose black sons cannot safely walk down the street.
I cannot see another act of systemic violence as an occasion for remembering the victim with “reflection and understanding.” Instead my heart cries out in lament, it recognizes that this violence is systemic and it affects us all, and the experience of it is overwhelming. So it is right to be angry, to cry out, to go to the streets.
Anger is part of the work of love. Beverly Harrison tells us that “Anger is – and it always is – a sign of some resistance in ourselves to the moral quality of the social relations in which we are immersed.” It tells us that things are not well. And, indeed, things are not well. There is a lot to be angry about. May we use our anger and direct its energy toward the work of justice and love and the social change that they call forth.
Xochitl Alvizo is a feminist Christian-identified woman and a Ph.D. candidate in Practical Theology at Boston University School of Theology. She loves all things feminist. She often finds herself on the boundary of different social and cultural contexts, and works hard to develop her voice and to hear and encourage the voice of others. Her work is inspired by the conviction that all people are inextricably connected and what we do, down to the smallest thing, matters; it makes a difference for good or for ill.
18 thoughts on “Systemic Violence and the Killing of Michael Brown by Xochitl Alvizo”
Crime shows (which I watch) give us a distorted view of the justice system in the US–for the most part presenting well-meaning “good” cops we are meant to identify with. The cops who use their guns on unarmed youth are not portrayed. The cops who do not follow up on rapes and domestic violence are also not shown regularly. The increasing militarization of police forces in the US is shown however. Swat teams regularly are shown apprehending suspects in their homes in front of innocent children and spouses. However, the overuse of force and violence is not commented upon. I also watch British shows and was astounded to recognize that in Britain detectives are not armed as a matter of course as they go about their everyday duties. We are a violent society and the overuse of violence is unlikely to “protect the innocent.”
Thank you for this. I had been wondering how to connect the outrage and uprising I see from Ferguson residents with biblical expressions of anger. I had forgotten about the frequent outcries in the psalms. Black rage doesn’t need biblical justification, but I appreciate this nonetheless.
Thank you for this essay that makes a connection between women’s bodies and black, male bodies. Both live in a world of systemic injustice. Sometimes, “…it is necessary to yell out our truths to god.” “Demonstrating” is a way to get our voices heard.
Reblogged this on CATHOLIC, Non-Roman Western Style and commented:
HOW TO PRAY THE VIOLENCE OUT OF OUR BODIES AND SOULS
Thank you for this post, which is indeed in the tradition of the psalms–powerful, heartrending, angry, beautiful, necessary.
Beverly Harrison tells us that “Anger is – and it always is – a sign of some resistance in ourselves to the moral quality of the social relations in which we are immersed.”
This is a dangerous generalization that could be invoked by the man who beats his wife or children because they made him angry.
A much safer formulation is the one I was taught: Anger is a sign that our wants or needs are not being met. The moral quality of our wants or felt needs (because we can deceive ourselves about whether or not we actually need something) is part of the moral quality of the social relations in which we are immersed, and requires discernment.
Good point! Thanks!
Thank you all for your comments. And thank you, gaudetetheology, for calling attention to the complexity of anger. Beverly Harrison also says “To be sure, anger – no more than any other set of feelings – does not lead automarically to wise or humane action.” So I think her point still stands that anger is a sign of some resistance in ourselves…and also that it does not necessarily lead to right action for transformed relations. *How* we use our anger is definitely a deeper ethical work. I agree with you.
I agree that we must attend to and not repress anger. Rita Gross moved me to another stage when she said that after acknowledging it, we must transform anger. Meeting violence with more violence is no answer to anything. And for my part, I think your prof. should not have justified the desire for violent destruction of one’s enemies in the psalms, but rather should have encouraged you to criticize the text even if it was allegedly revealed.
Excellent work here, Xochitl Alvizo! So real and clear! Thank you for sharing your insights and questioning with us.
YES, we need psalms that help us pray the violence out of our bodies and souls. We also need some transvaluation of those psalms to help us move out of anger to compassion and work for justice for all, especially those most oppressed.
You are helping in this much-needed work!
Xochitl, thank you for this important and poignant piece.
“I cannot see another act of systemic violence as an occasion for remembering the victim with “reflection and understanding.” Instead my heart cries out in lament, it recognizes that this violence is systemic and it affects us all, and the experience of it is overwhelming. So it is right to be angry, to cry out, to go to the streets.”
Here’s a bit of historical perspective. What’s going on there isn’t really happening in Ferguson, Missouri, but in the Village of Dellwood–maybe a mile from the house my family lived in. One of the reporters on TV said there’s been a lot of racial tension in north St. Louis County. That’s true. When I was a kid, Dellwood and Ferguson–and nearly all of North St. Louis Co.–were white working and middle-class people. There was a ghetto called Kinloch on the other side of Ferguson from Dellwood. As I went through school, nearly everyone was white and Protestant and Republican. I knew one Jew and there might have been five black kids (we called them “colored”) at Ferguson High School.
The black migration from the South got stronger in the 1950s and 60s. People were trying to get away from Jim Crow laws. Like, in the southeast Missouri town where I taught high school, there were “sundown laws.” If a black person was caught in town after sundown……. But the people coming up from the South ran into a lot of racial prejudice. By the 1970s and 80s, St. Louis and the suburbs had changed into a largely black working and middle-class population. That’s how it is now, and there’s still–obviously–a lot of racial prejudice. So what happened there isn’t very surprising.
Especially with a police force that’s made up of 50 white guys and 3 African-Americans. Systemic, for sure.
Reblogged this on Wild Women Wisdom and commented:
Anger is part of the work of love. Beverly Harrison tells us that “Anger is – and it always is – a sign of some resistance in ourselves to the moral quality of the social relations in which we are immersed.” It tells us that things are not well. And, indeed, things are not well. There is a lot to be angry about. May we use our anger and direct its energy toward the work of justice and love and the social change that they call forth…..
So grateful today for this 🙏💓
Thank you, Xochitl, for this powerful post. It hit a chord with many of us, who are sighing and shouting and crying about what happened AGAIN, this time in Ferguson. Thinking about systemic oppression and how it works and then acting to change it is ultimately what we need to do. You first paragraph succinctly describes the many insidious and blatant ways that oppression infiltrates our lives. Thanks!
The discussion about anger that you post has engendered is important for us, especially for us women on this list, since many of us have been socialized to believe that we should never become angry. I agree with Beverly Harris that anger is resistance to something in our lives. For years now I’ve said that fear and anger are messengers that something has to change. But as both Beverly Harris and gaudetetheology add, we must spend time discerning what it is that has to change and how best to bring that change about. Thanks again!
Yes, as said by many here – thank you so much for this heartfelt post. Injustice, racism and sexism are all too alive and well in the hearts of some, especially some who have way too much power. Another related issue to consider is the militarization of our police. As the wars wind down in the Middle East (or are they?) weapons dealers need a new market and our local police seem to be it.
Also I really appreciate the discussion on anger. Anger is an important and powerful emotion that we as women are often taught to ignore or repress. I was recently in a situation in which I was told that I was not allowed to be angry. The difficulty with anger is that it can lead one in the direction of taking actions similar to those who made us angry. So as so aptly said by others, discernment is important. Thanks to you and to all here.
Thank you for the hard hitting attention to frustrations that overwhelm and systemic oppressions that leaves one to nothing more sometimes than that frustration.
I would not reduce yours or Beverly Harrison’s discussion about anger to ONLY that on aspect. But you are correct that Black anger is often placated as unjustified ignoring the pernicious nature of racism in this country.
So the parallels you make about women and systemic injustice I hope do not fall on deaf ears. Are not sidestepped because they just might ignite.
Still I am heartened by the nation-wide protests. So I repeat, “Don’t shoot me”.