Saturday, May 15, 2021

Empathy and Lamentation

In March of 1955, fifteen-year-old Claudette Colvin made her protest on a bus in Montgomery, Alabama, by refusing to give up her seat to a white woman. She was arrested and joined the legal fight for desegregation in the South. Young, pretty, smart, and engaging, she was the perfect person to represent the movement at the time. But a year later, in the midst of a Supreme Court battle, the civil rights movement leaders dropped her case, and she fell into near obscurity, with Rosa Parks now the face of the struggle in Montgomery. Despite all her talents and charm, she had committed the worst possible sin when appealing to America for civil rights.

She failed to be perfect.

When it was discovered that she was pregnant out of wedlock at the age of sixteen, she ceased to be a viable conduit for empathy from America. Even Rosa Parks said about her that, "If the white press had gotten ahold of that information, they would have a field day. They'd call her a bad girl, and her case wouldn't have a chance." In other words, her talents, her cause, her legal standing, her humanity and the very stamp of God's image on her would have meant nothing, because she had given America a sliver of an excuse to dismiss her from their empathy.

When I hear about Colvin, I think about Ma'Khia Bryant. I've been thinking about her for some time, and wanting to write about her, but sitting with my emotions about her until I felt I could say it right. And in that time, it seems as if the rest of the world has moved on. I don't see her name or her smile or her joyful TikTok videos on my Twitter feed anymore. I don't see the memorials or the angry screeds on my Instagram now like in the days after she was killed.

More than that, when I think about Colvin and Ma'Khia, I think about my own daughter. Like them, she's pretty, smart, ambitious, passionate, even impulsive, about the things she wants. Also, like them, she's had it rough. Claudette Colvin suffered the breakdown of her family, just like Ma'Khia, just like my daughter, and that's no small thing for a developing young woman. I did the best I could as a single father, just as I'm sure Claudette's mother did for her, and Ma'Khia's mother did for her. But if I'm being honest, there were times when my intentions and my love exceeded my wisdom and abilities. Like Claudette, my daughter got pregnant before she was even a senior in high school, and sent us scrambling to care for her in the right way, and her daughter as well. Like Ma'Khia, my daughter had anger in her and a fiery sense of self-defense that was the result of being hurt by the ones she loved and trusted.

My daughter's road is not my road, and I can guide her and provide her with a team to navigate it, but I don't know what it's like to feel my feet cut on those rocks and gravel, to long for the grass under my toes again. But I can empathize with her. I've watched her struggle, succeed, fail, and fight back to success over and over, and I can imagine what she must feel, in the wins as well as the losses. Through her, and through my own experiences of loss and failure and guilt, I can imagine what Claudette must have felt, going from being the righteous defender of justice to the shameful byword of the movement, what Ma'Khia must have felt, calling the police for help in a moment of intense danger, and then realizing that she would have to be her own protector and warrior.

It bothers me that every time one of us is the victim of injustice, before we allow ourselves to empathize, before we lament their loss and the desecration of another bearer of the image of God, we feel the need to comb through every nuance of the situation to make sure the person did everything right, and the government did everything wrong. It bothers me that we feel compelled to scour the history of the victim of injustice to find any sin that would make them unworthy of our empathy and passionate advocacy.

As much as that lack of empathy gets to me, I'm glad that God doesn't treat us that way. Just look at Matthew 9:35. After dealing with people caught in the most repulsive sins and the ugliest diseases, the Scripture doesn't say, "When he saw the crowds, he was very careful to select those who were more or less blameless, or at least had only committed the kind of sins that the nation could relate to and therefore overlook." When Jesus looked at those crowds of sinners and sick people, "he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd."

Who was supposed to shepherd Ma'Khia? She was harassed and helpless, wasn't she? Removed from her family, stuck in a foster system that didn't serve her well, attacked and outnumbered in the place where she was supposed to call home, she called the shepherd, and he shot her to death. 

I wish she hadn't been holding that knife when the police arrived, but then I also wish she hadn't felt the need to defend her life at such a young age. 

I wish that she had never been in that foster home in the first place, that her family had the resources and the power to stay intact and be her foundation and root as well as her bulwark and defense.

I wish that her attackers had seen a young girl in need of love and guidance instead of an enemy.

I wish that the police had gotten there five minutes earlier, or had reached for the taser instead of the gun, or had otherwise been willing or able to defuse the situation without bloodshed.

I wish that we could lament the unjust death of Ma'Khia Bryant without adding the asterisk at the end of our mourning, or just moving on. 

I wish that we were better at empathy, that we were so passionate about lamenting injustice that we didn't look for every loophole to grant ourselves immunity from the Christlike love of the downtrodden and hurting.

I wish I could love like Christ loves me.

When it came to empathy, Jesus set the example for all of us. Recently, Kyle J. Howard pointed out the idea that Christ's empathy for us was demonstrated in the incarnation, that Jesus left his glory to live among us, as one of us, and experience every temptation we experience. Because of his example, and only because of his power within me, I can empathize with a fifteen-year-old girl like Claudette, dehumanized by an unjust system, despite some of her poor decisions. I can see her grief at losing one mother to poverty and another mother to polio before she was thirteen, and I can imagine the ways that trauma would affect the way I think about relationships, motherhood, and pregnancy. Because of Christ's empathy for me, I can empathize with a sixteen-year-old girl whom the system had failed so badly that she found herself standing outside of a foster home wielding a knife against two attackers, only to have the public servants she herself called come and shoot her on sight. And because of Christ's love and empathy for me, I can love and empathize with my daughter when she makes bad decisions that not only affect her own life, but our family's as well.

Because of Christ, I can even empathize with a grown man called on to make a very difficult decision with split-second timing and little information. I can acknowledge the difficulty of that moment and still ask whether it was justice, real justice. And if culpability is found, as it was in the Derek Chauvin case on the same day that Ma'Khia was killed, I should be able to demand accountability and reparations from the offender, and still love him as the prison doors close on him. I should be able to do all these things, but, Lord, it's hard sometimes.