One White Minister Responds To The Aquittal in the Murder of Philando Castile
By the Rev. Dr. Christian Scharen
Almost a year ago, as I filed into the St. Paul Cathedral, a woman in front of me leaned into the open casket where Philando Castile lay and said, in a broken halting voice, choking back tears, “Philando, your life mattered.”
Yesterday, nearly a year to the date of the shooting, her profound statement echoes in my ears as news spreads that a jury in St. Paul declared the officer who shot Mr. Castile, Jeronimo Yanez, not guilty on all charges.
As a faith leader who is committed to racial justice, I found myself asking: Again? A Black citizen, shot point blank by the police, with no accountability. What it will take for Black lives like Mr. Castile’s life to really matter, for our nation to not, still, be in this place where Black lives are treated as expendable?
Unfolding just blocks from my house in St. Paul, Mr. Castile was profiled and pulled over by a cop who thought his nose resembled a man wanted for robbery. This kind and gentle elementary school cafeteria worker was killed in a barrage of bullets from the officer literally seconds after pulling him over.
Diamond Reynolds, Mr. Castile’s girlfriend, livestreamed the event on Facebook by starting immediately after the shooting. The incident quickly became an international example of American police brutality and spurred calls for a criminal prosecutions of offending officers and police reform. At the time of the shooting, even Minnesota Governor Mark Dayton called the shooting a “terrible tragedy” and said that he believed Castile would not have been shot if he were white. While police prosecutions for murder are extremely rare, many expected a conviction would be made in this case .
Completely outraged that the jury found Officer Yanez not guilty, I joined last night with thousands of fellow citizens at the state capital in St. Paul. Among the crowd, there were visible signs of people of faith representing the diversity of the cities—Muslims, Jews, Christians, and many others. Together, we raised our voices against a system of injustice that targets and kills African American bodies as if their lives do not matter. “Black lives / they matter here,” we chanted. We called out his name, again and again as we marched: “Philando / Castile” As an acknowledgement of the harsher, more racist tone set by Donald Trump in his presidential campaign and as president, we chanted, “No Trump / No KKK / No racist USA.” Yet the tears and anger showed the truth of our nation’s complete disregard for black lives.
As we marched, my friend, tall, white, and in his clergy shirt, sparked conversations with fellow marchers. “What church are you from,” I heard them ask? “We’re glad you are here,” they added. I found myself thinking about the importance of Black leadership for the movement, and all the speakers at the rally were indeed African American. I found myself thinking, too, what a profound change of heart is needed by, as Ta-Nehisi Coates puts it in his book Between the World and Me, “people who believe themselves to be white.
If change is to come, white leaders of faith and moral courage have work to do. Surveys show how deeply divided we are across race in terms of our trust in the fairness of the police and of the justice system. My twitter feed confirmed this, with the hashtag #philandocastile showing significant white support for Officer Yanez and disparaging Mr. Castile, while overwhelming Black support for Mr. Castile and harsh words for Officer Yanez and a criminal justice system set up to control and contain Black people and other minorities, a task it maddeningly does so well even today.
Professor and Baptist pastor Michael Eric Dyson, in his recent book The Tears We Cannot Stop: A Sermon to White America, calls white people to account in the most direct terms. In the beginning of his chapter, “Coptopia,” he writes:
“Beloved, some of you seem genuinely surprised that most black folk fear the police. You are sometimes shocked that we think of them as a brutalizing force. You cringe when we say they are out to do everything but serve and protect us. You think we are manufacturing stories about our bad encounters with the police. You think that we must have done something wrong to provoke such remorseless cruelty. And yet we have exhausted ourselves telling you how they mistreat us so routinely that it is accepted as the way things are and will always be.”
White faith leaders, of every faith tradition in this country, have to answer to the call heard in the streets last night in St. Paul: “Black Lives, they matter here.” One clear step for me, and for my fellow white faith leaders, is to work urgently in our own institutions, communities, churches and synagogues to more deeply engage in racial justice work. A good place to start is a five-commitment pledge I and a group of fellow Christians have taken, and invited others to join us. It includes:
1) Learn about our nation’s racial history; 2) Break out of white self-segregation; 3) Education myself about the hopes, fears, and desires of people of color today; 4) Engage and challenge racism in white social circles; and 5) Prepare for public action.
If, as Coates and Dyson argue, ‘whiteness’ is a social construction built on violence with its purpose to maintain racial hierarchy, then commitments like these concretely move us from marching to a movement dismantling white supremacy and towards black lives and brown lives mattering, here in St. Paul, and across the nation.
The Rev. Dr. Christian Scharen is Vice President of Applied Research and the Center for the Study of Theological Education at Auburn Seminary.