by Yoland Pierce, Ph.D
One might have hoped that, by this hour, the very sight of chains on black flesh, or the very sight of chains, would be so intolerable a sight for the American people, and so unbearable a memory, that they would themselves spontaneously rise up and strike off the manacles. But no, they appear to glory in their chains; now, more than ever, they appear to measure their safety in chains and corpses.
(James Baldwin, The Cross of Redemption)
I find myself at a loss for understanding the blood lust so prevalent in this country. I am struggling with the lack of compassion and the culture of cruelty that greets me every morning when I read the news. We are a nation, as Baldwin suggests, that wants to measure our safety and our self-righteousness by the numbers of corpses and people in chains. This happens each and every time that we literally or metaphorically shout “KILL HIM” when confronted with the poor, the uninsured, the imprisoned, the least of these.
KILL HIM…is the shout for the hypothetical man without health insurance. Rather than work to create a national policy, we would rather parade the corpses of the working poor, the unemployed, the underemployed, and the many others for whom the cost of healthinsurance is prohibitive…those for whom a simple tooth infection means death.
KILL HIM…is the shout of the crowd cheering at the news of 234 human beings put to death by the state of Texas. Despite the overwhelming evidence that the death penalty neither reduces or deters crime, we crave to see more and more men, women, and children fettered in chains and then laid on the death gurney…even if that means we haveDNA evidence exonerating someone put to death in 2009.
KILL HIM...is what a man in a red SUV called out to those peacefully protesting the execution of Troy Davis outside of a Jackson, Georgia prison. Because somehow the corpse of this man, whose guilty verdict raises far too much doubt, proves that our nation is tough on crime.
We build private prisons at breakneck speed, while elementary schools fall in disrepair all around us. We jail children and teens by the thousands, while we cut funding for afterschool programs and school lunches. We seek neither to prevent nor to rehabilitate those caught in the throes of our (in)justice system. We cry for our elected officials to chain these criminals and throw away the key or to chain them and then kill them….they are “other,” they are “not us,” they are “not fully human.” Our bloodlust insists that if we chain them and kill them, then we will be safe.
We are living in a delusion. We will not be a safer nation because we allow state-sanctioned murders. We will not be a safer nation because of a multi-billion dollar prison industrial complex. We will not be a safer nation because we routinely stop and frisk black and brown people without just cause. What we have created is a nation that is more cruel, more prejudiced, and more unconscionable – all in our bloodlust for more chains and corpses. May God have mercy on us all.
Dr. Yolanda Pierce is a tenured Associate Professor of African American Religion and Literature at Princeton Theological Seminary. She holds a Ph.D. and a M.A. degree from Cornell University and undergraduate degrees from Princeton University. Dr. Pierce’s research specialties include African American Religious History, Womanist Theology, African American Literature, and 19th Century American Culture. Dr Pierce blogs @ Reflections of an Afro-Christian Scholar