“Black Bodies Matter” has been the rallying cry across the U.S. and beyond in reaction to the recent court decisions regarding the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner at the hands of police officers. This rallying cry is an effort to re-construct the historically-held narrative devaluing black people in America.
Truth is, the narrative which set these deaths and court rulings in place is catawampus (or catywampus, as I heard growing up in Baltimore). Catawampus means askew, awry, out-of-whack, or out-of-balance. Catawampus is a perfect word to describe the arrests, incarcerations, and senseless deaths of countless numbers of black and brown men in this country every year.
“Manifest destiny” was one of the major guiding principles upon which the U.S.A. was founded and sets the stage for overall race politics in the U.S. since its founding. Manifest destiny is the belief that human progress is interconnected with American expansionism, and that this expansionism is a part of America’s destiny on behalf of humankind. From the beginning, the collective theologically-based belief has been that humankind is better when this specific group/nation impresses its will and its way upon others.
This narrative of divine calling led Europeans settlers to regard the bodies of Native Americans, and anyone else who did not look like them, did not matter relative to them and their calling. This catawampus, theologically-based narrative has run strongly throughout the U.S. story with regard to which bodies matter, nationally and globally. It is the narrative that supported the genocide of millions of Native Americans, the interment of thousands of Japanese Americans, the annexation of Mexican peoples and their land, the enslavement of Africans, and so on.
Because a theologically-based, catawampus narrative put into motion the race and color-based ways of perceiving and devaluing bodies of color (and other bodies including women, children, elders, poor people, disabled persons, and more), a theologically-based narrative is critical to setting a system right-side-up.
Jesus offers a theologically-based narrative that I believe can transform the systems that devalue certain bodies. Forgiveness.
After being betrayed, tried based on trumped up charges, and being sentenced disproportionate to his alleged crime, Jesus says, “Forgive them for they know not what they do.” In my words, that means, their thinking is catawampus. Jesus extends forgiveness to both the religious and political leaders of his day because he recognizes that their actions are guided by their catawampus narratives.
Forgiveness is not a denial of wrong-doing, acting as if no harm was done. Nor does it require the silence of those who have been violated. Forgiveness is not asking the ones who have been harmed to go off into the sunset, “holding hands” with those who harmed them. It is not “letting people off the hook” of accountability for their actions.
Forgiveness is breaking the connective chord with catawampus thinking. When a harm has been done, especially when repeated again and again, as in the case of the treatment of black bodies in this country, a chain reaction of catawampus-ness occurs. This chain reaction show ups in three ways: internalized oppression, violence and destruction, and distrust and hatred of all those who look like the initial perpetrator. All three of these reactions ultimately injure and re-injure those who have already been harmed.
Without forgiveness, the catawampus narrative that set the stage for the harms continues to have full sway, guiding actions and reactions. Forgiveness is the critical strategy to break the chains of those narratives and transform ways of thinking. Forgiveness enables us to:
(1) Recognize that catawampus reactions to the catawampus action of others does not put things in right order to foster justice, but escalates the degree of catawampus-ness.
(2) Recognize what was driving the harmful action and to think more strategically about how to respond, rather than merely react in knee-jerk action.
(3) Implement guiding principles that hold individuals/groups accountable for their actions in ways that are not merely punitive or retaliatory, but up-building for everyone.
(4) Develop strategies and decisions guided by the truth that all human beings are connected and mutually affected for generations by our individual and collection actions.
As we move forward in response to the needless deaths of Michael Brown, Eric Garner and so many others, may we engage forgiveness for others and ourselves in order to break the chains of catawampus thinking. The strategies we have used thus far have shown us they can’t heal, repair and transform our nation. God forgive America for we know not what we do. Help us, God, to forgive one another.
When you read my blog posts, please send your comments and I will be glad to respond. Peace, CJ