In a CNN interview, Valerie Castile, Philando’s mother, said she told her son that if he was ever stopped by the police he should “comply, comply.” She instructed him, she said, on what to do to keep himself safe when confronted by police. Far too many black parents are forced to have these kinds of conversations with their children. An African American colleague told me today that when she heard about the death of Alton Sterling, the first thing she did was call her son to remind him of how to behave during a police stop. When I heard the same news, the safety of my two sons never crossed my mind.
What is happening across our country is about more than bad policing. It is about more than a traffic stop gone wrong. It is even about more than guns. (One wonders what the response would have been to Mr. Sterling and Mr. Castile if they were white men.) It is about the injustice that is white racism. And as liberation theologian Gustavo Gutiérrez reminds us, “All injustice is a breach with God,” and hence nothing less than sin.
We must be clear, white racism is sin. It violates the sacred dignity of black lives. In the face of sin of any kind the church must respond. And so, what must our response be? It must begin with a call for God’s justice. We as a church cannot be silent in the face of the unjust systems and structures that continue to trap black men, women and children disproportionately in the cycle of poverty. We cannot explain away the fact that black men account for roughly six percent of our nation’s population and almost half of its homicide victims. We cannot ignore the existence of the school-to-prison pipeline or an unjust system that sentences black Americans to die in a prison-industrial complex.
Yes, we must pray for the family and friends of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile as they grieve and try to understand the loss of their loved ones. But we must do more than that. We must commit ourselves to joining God in making God’s justice real in our land. This means doing all that we can within our communities, our churches and our homes to free ourselves from the sin of racism that every day threatens the lives and wellbeing of our black brothers and sisters. For us to do anything less is to be complicit in that very sin.
And so to God we must pray: “Direct my footsteps according to your word; let no sin rule over me” (Psalm 119).