Images can affect us profoundly, leaving indelible marks on us, on the inside of us. When I saw on video the images and sounds of George Floyd’s murder, I knew that I would never forget what I saw on that day of terror, May 25, 2020. When even the date is indelibly marked in my mind, I know that what happened disturbed me to the core.
This is true of most, if not all, of us. When images flash before our eyes — shocking images — they register immediately in us. We usually hold those events in our mind’s eye and in our spirits for a long time, perhaps forever if the shock hits us hard enough. But when some time has separated us from the initial shock, we begin the welcomed process of forgetting. Passing time melts the shocking vision away, and it gradually becomes unnoticed, leaving the seat of our emotions with fewer harsh and weighty memories.
I read their names today, these eight names and hundreds more. The names represented persons whose stories touched my soul when they were killed. Yet, I had forgotten so many of them, could not remember exactly how they died or what led to their murders. No wonder the demonstrators and marchers for justice bear signs that read, “#Say their names!”
So that we will not forget!
So that we will not forget our unspeakable history and thus risk repeating it!
The history of murder on the streets of American cities, large and small, is long and distressing. The moans of mourning can be heard still if we listen carefully, yes the moaning of today’s atrocities, but also moans echoing across the tragic history of slavery. Through history, through time, they moan and mourn.
It is worth remembering, as Black liberation theologian James Cone (1938–2018) points out, that the lynchings of African Americans and the crucifixion of Jesus share much in common: “Both the cross and the lynching tree were symbols of terror, instruments of torture and execution, reserved primarily for slaves, criminals, and insurrectionists — the lowest of the low in society.”
Yet, somehow in the midst of the horrific, there is God — perhaps seen in the unshakable voices of demonstrators, perhaps seen in people of all colors marching together, perhaps seen in the messages of the brilliant art created on old buildings, bridges and underpasses, perhaps seen in the hope-filled eyes of a child creating a protest sign. God is present in these images.
In an article entitled, “Human Cargo,” Fr. Richard Rohr points to the writing of Barbara Holmes, who suggests that “crisis contemplation” actually arose out of necessity during slavery, beginning in the Middle Passage when people were transported across the ocean as human cargo. In difficult times, contemplation becomes the soul’s strategy of survival.
The poignant words of Barbara Holmes:
The only sound that would carry Africans over the bitter waters was the moan. Moans flowed through each wracked body and drew each soul toward the center of contemplation. On the slave ships, the moan became the language of stolen strangers, the sound of unspeakable fears . . . The moan is the birthing sound The first movement toward a creative response to, the entry into the heart of contemplation through the crucible of crisis.Barbara Holmes
Holmes explains how the stolen slaves often formed a community. “Yet, more often than not, these Africans were strangers to each other by virtue of language, culture, and tribe,” she says. “Their journey was a rite of passage of sorts that stripped captives of their personal control over the situation and forced them to turn to the spirit realm for relief and guidance.”
The reality is that contemplative moments can be found at the very center of these kinds of crises — in the holds of slave ships, on the auction blocks and in the brush arbors where slaves worshipped in secret.
In the words of Howard Thurman, “when all hope for release in this world seems unrealistic and groundless, the heart turns to a way of escape beyond the present order.” For captured Africans, there was no hope except in common cause and through the development of spiritual fortitude.
The stark and inconvenient truth is that we are hearing the echoing moan of black and brown communities today, crying out “How long, O Lord, must our people suffer?”
Poet Felicia Murrell has written words of poetry that combine a deep awareness of God’s presence while clearly naming the collective trauma of police brutality and lynchings. We must set our wills to remember. Of her poem, “Silence,” Richard Rohr says, “There is something about poetry that gives us permission to sit with the paradoxes of our pain, perhaps especially when addressing traumatic suffering.”
He is right, so I invite you to read Felicia Murrell’s challenging poem, reading her words slowly and contemplatively, “allowing your heart to break open to God’s love amidst the suffering of the world.”
If you’re silent,
you can hear the forest breathe,
the holy hush of the tree’s limb.
“Silence,” said Thomas Merton, “is God’s first language”:
the way it soaks into your skin,
blanketing you like the forest’s breath.
The cadence of the land at rest,
the body asleep,
the heart awake.
The deep rhythmic breathing of a mind slowed down,
an ocean still,
wet dew clinging to grass blade.
The sacred song trapped in a bird’s breast before its first
the still of night across a desert landscape
wrapped in a bone-aching chill
before the sun rises to scorch its parched earth.
The lusty gaze of onlookers staring at the negro on the
back and forth,
back and forth.
Hands up, don’t shoot!
Body thrumming with a heady sense of power.
Hands in pocket,
resting pose, knees embedded into a man’s neck.
I. Can’t. Breathe.
I challenge you to remember the names,
to listen for the moans of mourning echoing across centuries,
to hear the moans of present suffering and count the tears of those who mourn,
to hear the voice of God who longs for justice. As it is written in the Book of Isaiah . . .
Therefore the Lord waits to be gracious to you, and therefore he exalts himself to show mercy to you. For the Lord is a God of justice; blessed are all those who wait for him . . . you shall weep no more. He will surely be gracious to you at the sound of your cry. As soon as he hears it, he answers you.Isaiah 13: 18-19 ESV
I invite you to listen to “The Moan” sung by Marion Williams.