I saw a heartbreaking story recently about a man from India who had come to Alabama to help his son care for his newborn child. The elderly man went out for a walk and woke up paralyzed from a police beating. The person who posted the article included the hashtag #ohalabama. I don’t think the hashtagger was commenting on police brutality. He was mourning the racial nature of the incident.
According to the article, the man was trying to express that he could not speak English and to point to his son’s house. But the police saw him as a threat and one of the officers present proceeded to break the man’s back. The man’s skin is brown and this is Alabama, hence the hashtag.
The image of a vulnerable, desperate man unable to communicate his innocence is beyond sad to me. It is one of those I-can’t-look images. You know the kind; you have to look away because the brokenness is too sharp, the flesh too exposed and close to home. My skin is not brown, nor is it exactly white for that matter, but the man could have been my father or brother or son. What agony to think of someone I love enduring this. #ohhumanity!
But the hashtag really bothered me. Is it naïve of me to say, “Wait. I didn’t do that!”? I am an Alabamian and I hope that I would have had the courage to intervene even if it meant I could have been arrested myself. I am Alabama. Why “ohalabama”?
Is it because of our history? I acknowledge our history. I’ve seen the pictures of fire hoses in Birmingham. I’ve read the literature like Beloved and Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass. I’ve heard and dismissed those who try to minimize what it is to enslave another people, to say that many slaves had it good and were worse off after they were freed. Nonsense.
I have been stupefied unto silence that someone, one day, said, “Hey, I have an idea. Let’s go chain up those people over there who look different from us, and let’s beat them and sell them and starve them and separate them from their families and then we’ll be rich and happy.” And then someone else said, “Good idea. I’m in.” I’ve been horrified by that, and simultaneously convicted that due to many subtle factors I might have been one of those people. I hope not, but there’s no way to know, is there? We all have it in us. Yes, you do too. And to those who have argued that it wasn’t an Alabamian who originally floated the slavery idea, but ancient cultures and economies were built on it the world over, I say, how does that excuse the practice here on American soil?
So should I just accept that because of the great wrongs committed, the descendents for many generations will pay the price, will rightly be referred to as “ohalabama”? Should I sit still and say, “This is right. We – white Alabama, anyway – had it coming.”?
I could. Except I don’t think that is intellectually or theologically honest. Or helpful. Of course there is a price to pay for wrongs, consequences that follow. Ultimately, those wrongs were paid for at the cross of Jesus Christ. I cannot do penance for our white ancestors; neither am I called to. That price, along with the price of every sin, was extracted from the body and blood of Jesus, and then was declared sufficient payment at the resurrection. I cannot add to a payment that was paid in full.
Though many scream against a God of justice, I am thankful for One. Without Him the slaves of old and the paralyzed man in Madison, Alabama would never be vindicated. Their blood cries out and has been heard and answered with the just blood of a spotless Lamb.
That doesn’t mean consequences, like distrust and strife between the races, just go away. They don’t. But it does mean that in Christ we have hope for reconciliation. We have a common ground, a place of peace and forgiveness, a place where the barrier is removed. Without the cross, there is no place of cleansing and forgiveness, no place where the atrocious wrong was righted. But on this common ground we can report not that a white man beat a brown man, but that a man made in God’s image beat another man made in God’s image, and that a just God noticed. We can stop keeping tabs on how many white on black crimes stack up against black on white crimes. Let’s say they are equal because from a bird’s eye view of this earth, humanly speaking, they are.
At the cross, #ohalabama! and #ohearth! received the promise that one day the oh! will be one of wonder and awe, not sorrow and shame.
This earth cries out for our reconciling Savior to be acknowledged and worshipped by people of every nation, tribe, and tongue. The noise of strife is loud and painful.