What do we know about the cross, about suffering, about a God who chose to side with the oppressed and was executed for it? What do we choose to un-know about suffering, about the oppression of black American men, rounded up, imprisoned for petty crimes, denied opportunity, released, denied opportunity, rounded up again? What do we know of women trapped in domestic violence situations and encouraged to stay there by economic, social, and physical forces? What do we know of homosexual, bisexual, or trans runaway teens, violently not welcomed at home, violently not welcomed not at home. What do we know about and yet un-know about how people with learning or cognitive disabilities are scorned, mistreated, abused, robbed?
What do we know of hungry children in a land of plenty, or hungry communities that we extract resources from? For here, we debate over how much food they can eat and in others we talk about our generosity in sponsoring little black and brown individual children, as if we are being magnanimous in either approach when we should talk about restoring to the communities what we have robbed them of, both domestically and abroad.
How can Christians contend to understand the suffering of Jesus and yet tell sufferers – either through silence, policies, or through rhetoric and guilt – of all stripes that they need to be content where they are. That their lives are not as important as our comfort.
The claim that we really know where all the black men have gone may inspire considerable doubt. If we know, why do we feign ignorance ? Could it be that most people really don’t know? Is it possible that the roundup, lockdown, and exclusion of black men en masse from the body politic has occurred largely unnoticed? The answer is yes and no.
Much has been written about the ways in which people manage to deny, even to themselves, that extraordinary atrocities, racial oppression, and other forms of human suffering have occurred or are occurring. Criminologist Stanley Cohen wrote perhaps the most important book on the subject, States of Denial. The book examines how individuals and institutions—victims, perpetrators, and bystanders—know about yet deny the occurrence of oppressive acts. They see only what they want to see and wear blinders to avoid seeing the rest. This has been true about slavery, genocide , torture, and every form of systemic oppression.
Cohen emphasizes that denial, though deplorable, is complicated. It is not simply a matter of refusing to acknowledge an obvious, though uncomfortable, truth. Many people “know” and “not-know” the truth about human suffering at the same time. In his words, “Denial may be neither a matter of telling the truth nor intentionally telling a lie. There seem to be states of mind, or even whole cultures, in which we know and don’t know at the same time.”
Today, most Americans know and don’t know the truth about mass incarceration. For more than three decades, images of black men in handcuffs have been a regular staple of the evening news. We know that large numbers of black men have been locked in cages. In fact, it is precisely because we know that black and brown people are far more likely to be imprisoned that we, as a nation, have not cared too much about it. We tell ourselves they “deserve” their fate, even though we know— and don’t know— that whites are just as likely to commit many crimes, especially drug crimes. We know that people released from prison face a lifetime of discrimination, scorn, and exclusion, and yet we claim not to know that an undercaste exists . We know and we don’t know at the same time.
~ Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow, pp. 181-182*
Today we remember a man who rendered unto the poor and marginalized what belongs to the poor and marginalized, one who chose to side with the oppressed against the oppressors. Today, Christians, we dip our bread in the bitter herbs and remember – we know.
*This quote lifted whole from the comments section on Corey Robin’s blog on Clarence Thomas and Lacanian Silence