THE VALUE OF MEN, PART 2
Recently I read an article from the Atlantic Monthly (Why So Many Black Men Are Dying In America by Jeffry Goldberg) in which it cited that 260,000 African American men were murdered between 1980 and 2013. I have also heard that the number of homicides annually is about 15,000 in America. These are frightening numbers, but just like all statistics it doesn’t really strike home until it happens to someone you know, or in your family, neighborhood, church or even to you. If it happens to you then of course it will have to be others who are shocked because you will just be dead.
It is helpful sometimes to do that with statistics, not to simply read them but to imagine someone you love could be in that statistic, or that it might someday be you. Driving down the interstate the other day I saw posted on one of the electronic boards the number of people killed this year in Tennessee, and then it hit me that I knew one of those people and had called him a friend. The moment went from a sober warning to “damn,” because it hurt. We need to move from ignorance about this bloodbath to knowledge, and from knowledge to empathy, and from empathy to enough outrage to do something about it.
The public outrage over the killing of unarmed black people by police, as well as videos of sometimes vicious police beatings of handcuffed individuals, has sometimes been met with a scolding comparison of black on black violence and murder. This comparison seems (at times) to be offered as a way of minimizing the injustice of oppression and brutality by authorities, and is met by frustration if not anger from those who are calling for justice. It seems to be offered as a way of saying, “if you were really interested in black people being killed you would do something about the violence in black communities by black people.”
The evaluation of what black people are concerned about when measured by a distant white population may have more to do with the national media and what they chose to cover, and events that are “coverable,” then it does with reality. The estimation of whether or not African Americans are concerned about the rate of violence in their communities cannot be measured by riots showing anger, or the burning or looting of stores, which sometimes happens in the frustration of reacting against oppression by government authorities. While in not in any way seeking to justify those reactions, how would those kind of activities make any kind of sense or be at all a symbol of frustration for something that doesn’t present an easy target such as the cultural reality of violence and murder?
I suspect that an immediate response to the protest of police misbehavior by bringing up black on black crime is a cynical way of using a problem the critic is probably not really concerned about to deflate the legitimacy of black anger. Whether this is a racist response or a political one I am not always sure. I also strongly believe that those who are concerned about police misbehavior cannot, and must not, diminish the urgency about what is truly a national tragedy and scandal, and that is the murder of so many of our nation’s young African Americans. Both of these issues are of immediate and fundamental concern to the African American community, but should and ought to be of immediate concern to everyone.
These two concerns are not totally unrelated but they should not be used against each other to diminish the pain of either. Certainly the violence that has caused the deaths of so many young African American men has also brought many of them into conflict with the police, and sometimes created a climate of fear even among some policemen who throw suspicion on all young black men. One unfortunate result of the alienation from the police by the population of young African Americans in the inner cities of America is the difficulty in using the police to effectively cut down on the violence. It has usually been true in the matter of homicides that most people kill other people within their own racial group. The problem of black on black violence is not that fact, but the facts revealed in the numbers. The enigma that needs to be unraveled is why so many black people get killed by other black people.
Why should we be so concerned about this violence, since this is really just a problem in the black community? Are some of those who have been killed guilty of murder as well? Yes, some were. Are some of those who have been killed gang members? Yes, some of them were. But, were some of them kids walking home from school, athletes playing ball or coming back from practice, children sitting on a porch or playing in their yard, or watching television in their own home and bothering no one else? Yes, too many of them were. This is where we dare not let the numbers or the frequency make us callous to the bloodbath. Death by murder is a sin, a crime, a tragedy to the victim, their family, and a loss for the future of the community and the nation. It is injustice, certainly in a personal sense, but also in a national sense if we will not rise to help put an end to it.
Why, and from whence, does this bloodshed arise? What brings about this passion to kill one another? Why are so many of the “brothers” killing “brothers?” The rate of women being murdered in gang and vendetta killings seems to be rising as well. What has made life so cheap? That quantitative query begins to get at the heart of the philosophical question and I would say it is a theological one as well. We are speaking of a lived out anthropology, in the sense of, “what is a human being, and what is he or she worth?” God’s book, the Bible, has an anthropology. It has a measurement of the value of men and it has a perspective on their identity and purpose. Each one is made in God’s likeness, and when we hurt people we are attacking what rightly belongs only to God. Though each man’s “God likeness” has been marred by sin, and though every human is broken spiritually and morally, God proved our worth by sending Jesus to die for us. Our worth is proved throughout the universe by this simple phrase, “God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son.”
The irony about all this killing among young black men especially is that the life of another becomes cheaper the more one strives to makes one’s own life count, not just physically but emotionally. The more someone feels threatened, disrespected, and insulted the more they might want to authenticate the value of their own life and that might be by the killing of the one who dared to insult, disrespect, or attack them. So, in a vicious cycle, the hunger to feel worthy creates a devaluation of another’s life (the insulter), and ultimately diminishes the value of the one feeling insulted as they become an insulter, violent, and a killer in return.
Ultimately men cannot diminish other men but only themselves. Worth comes from God and not by how we are treated by others; psychologically painful as abuse may be. The psychic pain during any dehumanizing attack comes from a lack of the knowledge of the love of God for ourselves within ourselves; from a failure to know or believe the value he puts on our lives. We cannot increase our worth by illegally and unjustly taking the life of another. Street cred doesn’t really make anyone more of a man. Our lives already have worth, no matter how poor, ignorant, ugly, or bestial they seem to be. Each person is made in God’s image, and when we despise a man or a woman we despise God.
The culture says otherwise. God puts in us a sense that we are worth something, and we each yearn to see that realized in ourselves. Yet, the culture tells us anyone but ourselves is not worth that much. The sense of self-worth, especially for those without fathers and who are poor, comes from the thrill of instant gratification (such as the killing of my enemy), a quick climax of feeling that proclaims we are loved, a winner, and worthwhile. In fact the opposite is true, as there is no accomplishment in the murder or maiming of others. All that remains is the guilt, if we still have that sensitivity, or the callous numbness of being a socio-path, or the uselessness of a life lived in a jail cell bordered and hemmed in by memory and the feeling of futility.
This is a culture of death, and it is one segment of the broader cultural definition of a materialistic and mechanistic view of human life. This culture of death limits every person’s view to the immediate plus or minus benefits in each relationship. Could a culture that produces so much abortion possibly be related to the casualness of life and death in ghetto gangs? Could the disrespect of police against those citizens they are in the act of arresting have something in common with the disregard for life by gangbangers? I am sure some policemen would be insulted to think so, as would those who might think it is time to end the life of grandma since she is a drain on the pocketbook. They might think their actions are within their rights and so much more nuanced and intellectual, but it sure seems to look like a cost-benefit ratio. My life counts and yours doesn’t is the mathematical formula, if it interferes with my prospects for happiness. We seem to live in a society that says, “I really don’t owe you anything unless I am forced by law or public observation and opprobrium to give it to you.
Men and women are more than that and we owe each other more than that because God has made us more than that. We still believe the conscience tells everyone this fact, no matter how the present evil day tries to shut it up and shut it down. This present philosophical-cultural devaluation of human life, the agonizing emotional quest to think of ourselves as important and necessary complicated by the spiritual emptiness left by absent fathers plus the peer attraction for young men by other young men involved in action and violence drives the frequency of using the seemingly ubiquitous availability of guns to settle the question of identity and worth.
We all ought to be tired of seeing and hearing people use one tragedy to diminish the pain and importance of another. This is collectively our country, our society, and our culture. We are all walking in the blood and we don’t just need more impermeable boots to feel comfortable in it. We need to change our thinking so that we can change the way we are living, and killing, and dying.