DMINLGP

DMin, Leadership and Global Perspectives: Crafting Ministry in an Interconnected World

A Lament for Breonna Taylor and the Ignorance that Killed Her

Written by: on September 23, 2020

Breonna Taylor is dead. She is one more soul in a large and ever-growing constellation of black lives that have been prematurely extinguished by white-made systems. Today, the lethal actions of her executioners, three Louisville police officers, were deemed “justified.” Just like that, another devastating, yet highly probable and predictable outcome has traumatized our black relatives.

Alongside my black friends and colleagues, I’m outraged. Yet the heaviness and hopelessness that I feel in the moment is nothing compared to the chasm of despair that they find themselves within. In multiple text threads, I’m learning of the impact on our black community when the impunity of another black murder-by-cop is flaunted in their direction. They feel this deeply as with each non-indictment the price of their blood grows cheaper. They understand the slave-patrol roots of our law enforcement and recognize that cops get away with murdering black folk because that is exactly what the system was designed to do.

Our black family is suffering as the awareness of the system that oppresses them became more acute today.

On the other hand, so many of my white relatives have been able to navigate our day completely unimpacted by what just transpired in Louisville. If we even knew her name, many of us reason that police were justified in their use of lethal force. With familiar justifications, we offered our not-guilty verdicts of the three Louisville cops months ago and moved on. As a matter of fact, many of us feel safer today because the authority of our policing system was upheld again by a legal system designed to do just that.

While our black family is suffering, our white family is…indifferent? Relieved? Many remain blissfully ignorant of the system that is traumatizing our black relatives and lived today unimpacted by the ruling in Louisville.

In Chapter five of D’Souza & Renner’s Not Knowing, the authors reflect on the initial critiques they received based on a misunderstanding of their concept of “Not Knowing.” Rather than “not knowing” being equated with ignorance, D’Souza and Renner are inviting us to consider the concept to be a portal into an awakening. Not knowing is an invitation to learn and “a choice to open up to new experiences.”[1]

I appreciate the authors’ distinction and recognize the transformative opportunities and expanded wonder connected to not knowing.

That said, one individual leveled the following critique that struck me today. The individual said, “I don’t see any benefit in ignorance.”[2]

While at face level, I agree. There is little to no benefit in ignorance.  Yet, based on my experience today of the despair of many of my black friends and the indifference of many of my white friends, I might argue that there are benefits to ignorance.  With ignorance comes permission not to feel…not to be undone (again)…not to suffer alongside cherished image-bearers. When I am ignorant, I do not have to bear a cost in order that the killing with impunity and the dying without justice ceases.

No. Never mind.

As I write this nonsense, I recognize that ignorance is void of any benefit. Instead, the great tragedy of ignorance is that it encourages me to be less human.

~~

[1] D’Souza & Renner, 139.

[2] Ibid., 138.

About the Author

mm

Jer Swigart

14 responses to “A Lament for Breonna Taylor and the Ignorance that Killed Her”

  1. mm Darcy Hansen says:

    Jer,
    I lament with you, and as I read your words, the words of Howard Thurman in ‘Jesus and the Disinherited’ surface in my mind. In his chapter on Fear, he notes, “Any slight conflict, any alleged insult, any vague whim, any unrelated frustration, may bringdown upon the head of the defenseless the full weight of naked physical violence. Even in such circumstances it is not the fear of death that is most often at work; it is the deep humiliation arising from dying without benefit of cause or purpose. The whole experience attacks the fundamental sense of self-respect and personal dignity, without which a (human) is no (human)” (pg, 27-28, edited for inclusivity).

    Thurman’s observations and lived reality continue to be realized through ongoing generations as systems run by un-humans treat others as un-human. To exist in ignorance is to willfully ignore or dismiss the language of truth that is being spoken by Blacks and their allies. To return an unjust verdict ensures the death that occurred has no greater purpose.

    As with other deaths in our cultures, to ignore the language means we do not have to admit that death has happened, and in doing so we strip people of their human dignity. I believe we do this because so many are incapable to being present in their own humanity. In many ways, Whites are walking dead, and thus want others to be walking dead, as well. Thurman continues by saying, “…this fear, which originally served as a safety device (in Blacks), a kind of protective mechanism for the weak finally becomes death for the self. The power that saves turns executioner” (35). I think that’s one of the underlying goals of these systems- to continue to sow fear so a whole people group are only walking dead. And if they are walking dead, then they aren’t a threat, and if they aren’t a threat, then they can’t harm us the way we have harmed them for centuries. That I think is our deepest fear as Whites- that retaliation will come, because why wouldn’t it? It’s what we have done for millennia; we expect nothing less from those we oppress.

    If racism is death, then anti-racism is life. This life is given through language and spoken truth. Keep speaking that truth. Keep speaking words of life for our Black brothers and sisters, and maybe those life giving words will also breathe life into Whites, awakening us to our shared humanity. Therein lies the hope for redemption. Thanks for reading my processing. I really am trying to understand and take a stand. Let me know if I’m far off in anyway.

    • mm Jer Swigart says:

      Woah! This is incredible work.

      Whites as Un-human. The Walking-dead who turn others into the walking dead in order to control them and with the hopes of hindering their retaliation. I think this is spot on and really helpful.

      It reminds me of a conversation with an indigenous elder. We were talking about reparations and wondering about what would happen if local churches deeded back to the tribes the land that the church’s buildings sat on. He figured that the reason we would never do this is because we fear/expect that the indigenous community would treat us the same way that we have treated them. That is, we fear that they would overpower and occupy with force because this is exactly what we’ve done to them.

      That’s an idictiment isn’t it? If we are working desperately to hold onto power because we’re afraid that those we’ve marginalized will retaliate like we’ve treated them, is this not an admonition that they way we’re treating them is violent, unjust, and diminshing of their value/worth/dignity?

      Rather than ignorant, I wonder if we are in fact aware of our violence and are admitting it with our ongoing use of violence and refusal to repent and particpate in change.

      Perhaps the use of force to protect what we’ve accumulated is twisted confession that we have been wrong.

      • mm Darcy Hansen says:

        I think we know the violence we inflict, but we are numb to the reality of it. It has been woven into our DNA as Americans. We don’t know how to live any other way. I agree that we are blind. But those who have eyes will see and those with ears will hear. I have to trust that.

        • mm Jer Swigart says:

          As I’ve considered this longer, I don’t know that we are aware of the violence that pours out of our ignorance. I want to believe that if we knew of ignorance’s violence, we’d choose a better route. That said, the past few years have diminished my optimisim that we would, in fact, choose a route that amplifies the humanity & worth of our relatives…especially if to do so would require that we give up power.

          If violence is the fruit of ignorance, perhaps true maturity (growth beyond ignorance) manifests itself most poignantly in the practice of self-sacrifice.

          • mm Darcy Hansen says:

            Jer,
            Have you begun How Fear Works, yet? It’s fascinating to see the evolution of how fear has been utilized as a tool for morality and control, and how it has become so very prevalent in our society. If simply overcoming ignorance were the answer, that would be easy. Sadly, the layers that fuel the violence are many, as you know. The first chapter is very interesting, especially in regard to death and fear. I have many notes in the margins regarding how generational paradigms have shaped how we view fear, life, and death. Those views definitely impact how we view people with colored skin. Society is like a terrified dog that shakes when the wind blows and lashes out with bark and bite when any perceived threat comes its way. We are scared of absolutely everything and that clouds our ability to see and hear clearly. I look forward to reading your thoughts this week on fear and peacemaking abilities. This conversation would be way more productive live than through asynchronous posts. Thank you for continuing to process with me.

  2. mm John McLarty says:

    I think it’s sad that some people now are able to express their objection to the phrase, “black lives matter,” because their personal opinion of the national “Black Lives Matter” organization is unfavorable. I can’t begin to image the pain (and rage) one must feel to have to endure a conversation in which whether or not their lives matter is even up for debate. Whether they ever admit it, I think they find comfort in not knowing how this impacts our black relatives. Either that, or they have decided that it’s the rest of us who have been manipulated and bought into the narrative of a corrupt media and they feel a smug superiority for knowing so much more. Where do we go from here, brother?

    • mm Jer Swigart says:

      I’m with you.

      To have to tolerate the quibbling about whether or not black lives truly matter only exacerbates the trauma that our black relatives experience.

      That said, we have demonstrated repeatedly that black blood is cheap and that their lives are dispensible. While they think their rationale justified, those who quibble about semantics on this issue actually don’t seem to believe that black lives matter. Rather than investing energy in delegitimizing a movement that is seeking to promote dignity of black image bearers, let’s invite these folks to take three actions:

      1. Self-analysis: In what ways have I knowingly and unknowlingly contributed to dignifying or diminishing black image bearers?
      2. Analysis of Context: What are the systems and institutions that contribute to my context? What is the difference between my exprience within these systems and my black neighbors’ experience wihtin these systems?
      3. Theological Analysis: How do I understand Jesus’ interactions with those marginalized by power? How have I been groomed to understand these teachings of Jesus?

      Sadly, power has lulled many of us white folk into intellectual & theological laziness. My sense is that we’ve been groomed into an imperial religion that reflects the values of the Empire (greed, violence, racism) rather than those of a dark-skinned Palestinian Jew named Jesus of Nazareth (generosity, peacemaking, belonging). We’ve been given a construction of Jesus that looks like us and promotes the value of greed and endorses the violence and racism required in order to accumulate & consume what we desire.

      It’s going to be costly, but we have to expose this Jesus and this faith as illegitamate. Neither are worth our lives. Simlutaneously, we have to be on a pilgrimage toward a more legitimate Jesus, share the stories of what we’re discovering, and invite people to take the journey with us.

  3. mm Greg Reich says:

    Jer,

    Thomas Grey a 18th century poet wrote a poem entitled “Ode on a Distance Prospect of Eaton College.” He wrote the line “Where ignorance is bliss, ’tis folly to be wise.” Grey was looking back remembering the days of his childhood when the innocent lack of knowledge made life light and carefree. We often think the some of the socially clumsy things children do are humorous and cute because of their innocence. BUT if these childish things are done by an adult they cease to be cute. Why? Because maturity should bring knowledge, a lack of ignorance and innocence. There are times we all wish that ignorance was bliss but once the box of knowledge is opened innocence is lost, with it the excuse for ignorance. We in America are without excuse. My heart mourns with yours.

    • mm Jer Swigart says:

      “…when childish things are done by adults.” Greg, you’ve offered a poignant definition of ignorance or, at least the immaturity that accompanies ignorance. That said, I’m reminded of Jesus teaching on the wisdom of the children. That wisdom seems to manifest itself in wonder, innocence, generoisty, spaciousness. Perhaps the oppositie of ignornace is not brilliance, but these child-like characteristics.

  4. mm Shawn Cramer says:

    One of the many privileges most White people have is the option to engage and disengage in this conversation at will as if it is a book on the nightstand to grab when convenient. Numbness, ignorance, and distractions all tempt one to leave the journey towards restorative faith. What other temptations do you see that detract people from the path?

    • mm Jer Swigart says:

      Let me offer two temptations/obstacles: First, we white folk have been groomed to perpetuate and celebrate the very systems that killed Breonna and then set her murderers free. When these systems are exposed as violent and illegitmate, my sense is that it creates a parayzling disorientation for us. This is uncomfortable. We’ve been trained to understand discomfort as an indicaiton that something wrong is happening and to re-attain comfort as quickly as possible. This cycle keeps us apathetic to systems change. Further, in order to begin a journey toward justice in this regard means that we will have to venture beyond the community that has shaped our identity. That journey is lonely and almost always results in the pilgrim sacrificing his/her good standing among his/her former community. Most of us lack the resiliance and resolve to keep moving despite the loss of reputation.

  5. mm Chris Pollock says:

    Ignorance. What happens when we are impacted by the possibility that, in fact, a little piece of God was in Breonna? That, the body she was in, one also with the capacity to express (in whatever way) this life of God-within, was snuffed out?

    Impactful thoughts you’ve shared, Jer. Impossible to be ignorant in consideration of the immanence of Something that is meant to unify us, a certain-sameness with the same origin, inside each one of us. This feeling of continual breaking apart, killing apart on this planet. Perspective for a deeper sameness and a ‘wokeness’ to this.

    Bless ya!

    • mm Jer Swigart says:

      Good thoughts here, Chris. Thanks for helping me think about this in multiple facets. It does seem that ignorance is the thing that causes one beloved image-bearer to so disregard the image of God in another that s/he can extinguish the flame of his/her life. What a tragedy. And does this not inspire us to keep doing the work we’re doing? Maturity (the opposite of ignorance?) begins with us seeing our own belovedness so that we can perceive it in another.

  6. mm Dylan Branson says:

    We typically hold that “ignorance is bliss” and “what we don’t know won’t hurt us.”

    One of my colleagues (Greek-Canadian by nationality) is always drilling into her experience of Americans as being ignorant of what’s happening around the world. She’s told me of the times she visited the US and when she turned the TV on, the only news that would show is local or national news. There was very little – if anything – about what was happening internationally. She asked me about that and the only response I could give is that in America, it has to be something that objectively can’t be ignored to make the news – and that only IF it’s going to affect America.

    It’s such a contrast to how news works in other places. Here in HK, the Black Lives Matter protests and the murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor made the news. My students have asked me about those events and have tried to understand why America is the way it is.

    But America is sheltered from what’s happening in other places. It takes work to step out of that ignorance, but doing so involves stepping out of our insulation.

    Ignorance may in itself bliss for some. But willful ignorance is irresponsibility.

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