Last year, I was serving as a pastor at Bethany Lutheran Church in Dallas, Texas. The church is in a neighborhood where there were few “Black Lives Matter” signs. You remember last summer, after the brutal death of George Floyd in Minneapolis, when there were protests all over the world. There were protests in Dallas too, even a protest in a park in the same neighborhood of the church.
During the summer, the congregation wasn’t ready to put a “Black Lives Matter” sign in the church yard. But an opportunity came up: a neighborhood group dedicated to anti-racism had created a picture memorial with just the faces and names of people who had died because of racism. It was a temporary memorial, titled “Say Their Names,” and it was meant to travel around the area, to keep people remembering the many who have died. My family visited the memorial when the photos were posted on a fence outside the local high school football stadium.
So I’d seen it: dozens of photos, all people of African descent, most of them young—all of them died much too soon. Some photos were recent, like George Floyd. Some were local to the Dallas area, like Botham Jean, Jordan Edwards, and Atatiana Jefferson. There were photos of people whose stories were well-known around the nation: Michael Brown, Trayvon Martin, Freddie Gray, and the martyrs of Mother Emanuel: Clementa Pinckney, Cynthia Hurd, Depayne Middleton-Doctor, Sharonda Coleman-Singleton, Susie Jackson, Myra Thompson, Tywanza Sanders, Ethel Lance, Daniel Simmons.
Some died long ago, like Martin Luther King, Jr., Medgar Evers, and the four little girls who died in their Alabama church: Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson, and Carol Denise McNair. Not all of those people pictured were from the United States; Steve Biko, a South African, also died fighting against racism.
These faces and names needed to continue to tell their story. The “Say Their Names” memorial was meant to travel, and during the sweltering heat of August, the leaders of the church welcomed the memorial, installed on a chain-link fence outside an empty playground in the month before preschool would start again.
We were glad to provide hospitality, even though there was concern about “what people would think,” but people in the neighborhood seemed supportive. Parents took their children to the memorial. At the end of August, the organizers of the anti-racism group found another home for the memorial and it traveled on to another location, exactly as it had been planned.
A few days later, I got a phone call in the church office: a man had some questions about the “Say Their Names” memorial. His voice was friendly, he asked, Why was it taken down? I explained the group organizing the memorial intended to move it around every month so that more people could see it; I told him where I thought the new location would be.
Then he said he wanted to look at the names again and find their dirty little rap sheets because these people weren’t victims, they’re criminals. And immediately he hung up the phone.
Criminals? What a strange word for people who had died for no reason other than the color of their skin. Criminal is a strange word for a dead child.
Criminal is also a strange word for the savior of the world. But that’s exactly the way Jesus died—executed unjustly as a criminal, brutally so that everyone watching would know who has the power to decide between life and death. Brutal enough to make the bystanders wonder, maybe he did something to deserve this?
God isn’t sitting back and letting this happen; God is the one hanging on the cross, experiencing the pain. God knows the pain of an unjust death. God knows the pain of someone gone too soon. God knows the pain of losing a child. God knows the helplessness of “you can’t win.” God knows what it feels like to be unable to breathe.
In all the ways that human beings can suffer, God suffers too. In his book, The Cross and the Lynching Tree, James Cone writes, “the real scandal of the Gospel is this: humanity’s salvation is revealed in the cross of the condemned criminal Jesus, and humanity’s salvation is available only through our solidarity with the crucified people in our midst.”