The Criminal Christ: Finding Jesus Amidst a War on Drugs

This post originally appeared on the Clergy for a New Drug Policy blog.

“My son was about two years old.  I had taken him to the park to play… Two little boys, one blond-haired, the other red-headed, ran down to the car where my son was playing. Seeing them coming, my son immediately jumped out… The little red-headed boy… saw my son looking on… With all the venom that a seven- or eight-year-old boy could muster, he pointed his finger at my son and said, ‘You better stop looking at us, before I put you in jail where you belong. … At two years old my son was already viewed as a criminal.” (pp. 86-7)

In her book Stand Your Ground: Black Bodies and the Justice of God, womanist theologian Kelly Brown Douglas shares this story to illustrate the depth to which the criminalization of African-American men and boys has permeated the American psyche. In 2012, a neighborhood watch captain singled out Trayvon Martin, an unarmed teenager, as “suspicious” character, pursued him, and killed him.  In acquitting his killer, the jury determined this characterization to be justified.  Trayvon Martin had not committed a crime. But like Kelly Brown Douglas’s son, he had been criminalized- he had been named “criminal” by another. The label led to his murder.

At the annual Theology & Peace conference held last week in Chicago, Paul Nuechterlein, a Lutheran pastor and editor of Girardian Reflections on the Lectionary, considered the stories of Kelly Brown Douglas and Trayvon Martin through the lens of French philosopher Rene Girard, who passed away last November.

Girard argued that societies continually achieve solidarity by identifying a scapegoat, an “other.” That scapegoat is denied access to the social goods deemed valuable by the society; its exclusion reinforces the value those goods hold. As in the Hebrew Scriptures, the community symbolically lays its sins upon this scapegoat. It becomes the object of that community’s fear and anger. By violent means, the scapegoat is held down, and then driven out. At the scapegoat’s expense, the community preserves its own sense of security and identity.

Individuals of African descent have long borne the role of the scapegoat in the United States. Whether by lynch mobs, sexual violence, or discriminatory housing policies, black people have carried the brunt of white American fear, suspicion, and anger. As Douglas argues, the system of slavery preserved the scapegoat role by assigning black people the status of “chattel,” of sub-human entities. Once slavery ended, Jim Crow laws emerged in its place to maintain their legal subjugation, and with it the viability of scapegoating.  During this era, racially-inflected policies began to appear in criminal law.

After the civil rights era, it became less possible to maintain African-American scapegoat status on the explicit basis of race.  But the American Dream- that alluring and illusory vision of securing safety, success, and belonging that Ta-Nehisi Coates indicts- had long been built upon the presupposition of black exclusion. It would not go away so easily. The War on Drugs emerged to inscribe a “New Jim Crow,” laid out in a brilliant social analysis by Michelle Alexander. Under War on Drugs policies, disproportionate numbers of black people get branded as criminals.  They are imprisoned.  They are denied access to rights, like voting, and benefits, like public housing.  In the case of Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown, the label of criminal- even when assigned outside of a court of law- meant they were killed, and their deaths were justified. As Douglas puts it, the United States has “effectively removed the black body from the white space by criminalizing it” (p. 77).  Black people, again, are driven out as scapegoat.

In the midst of a society that casts out African-Americans as criminals, the image of Christ on the cross stands out as an indictment. Those of us who identify as Christian revere a God who became human, was branded a criminal, and was executed. According to Girard, God assumed the role of the scapegoat in the crufixion of Jesus. God was driven out of the dominant society.  God continues to be driven out whenever an individual or group of people becomes a scapegoat.

Before she wrote about stand-your-ground culture, Kelly Brown Douglas wrote a book that championed the Black Christ, who stands in solidarity with marginalized peoples.  In a time when the “criminal” label has become the means of casting out our brothers and sisters, of labeling them as less than people and undeserving of rights, we must recall the “criminal Christ,” who died on the cross under a government sentence. We must see Christ in the faces of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, and those individuals imprisoned under the harsh mandatory sentences of the War on Drugs.

Girard wrote that God assumed the role of the scapegoat so that we may never again cast the burdens of our fear and anger onto another group of people. Wherever someone is cast out, God goes with them and we must follow. May it yet be so.

Image Credit: Ruizanglada. “Cristo Negro.” Via Wikimedia Commons.

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