The word “extrajudicial” is a strangely dispassionate-sounding word. Extras are usually a bonus. If credit is good, then extra credit is better. So, even if we know that “extra” in this case means “outside of,” the term “extrajudicial killing” does not sound like lynching.
The racial terror of lynching is addressed in the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Ala., where 800 six-foot suspended columns convey the heaviness of bodies hanging. When you enter the open-air memorial, the steel columns are at eye level. As you proceed, the ground descends so that eventually the monuments hang high overhead. Each monument carries the names of the men, women, and children killed in one county.
The accounting of the victims ends with 1950. But, as the late theologian James Cone says in The Cross and the Lynching Tree, you don’t need a rope or a tree to lynch someone. He observes grimly, “The struggle to survive in a white supremacist society was a full-time occupation for black people.”
When two white men were arrested in May for the killing of Ahmaud Arbery, a black man jogging through the neighborhood, their actions were part of a long line of extrajudicial killings that have taken place since the lynching era.
Also in May, a black EMT named Breonna Taylor was killed in her bed by police officers who stormed her apartment. The police were at the wrong address, but shot her eight times and then charged her boyfriend with attempted murder for firing back in self-defense.
My friend Lisa Sharon Harper, founder of Freedom Road, has narrated a five-minute video for Red Letter Christians called “Black People Are Tired.” The lament by an anonymous writer begins, “We can’t go jogging,” and continues through a long list of activities that are unsafe for black people. It ends with “We’re tired. Tired of making hashtags. Tired of trying to convince you that #BlackLivesMatter. Tired of dying. Tired. Tired. Tired. So very tired.”
Staying safe in a pandemic is difficult. It is even harder to rid ourselves of the additional deadly viruses of racism and poverty. Observes Cone: “Personal suffering challenges faith, but social suffering, which comes from human hate, challenges it even more.”
As our society presses toward a scientific cure for that which stalks us, may we also hasten toward a social and spiritual cure for our other ills.
Note: There’s a period of time between writing an essay and then publishing it. In that space, video of yet another killing of a black man, George Floyd, has been made public. Out of his death has come an explosion of pain and rage.
Wendy McFadden is publisher of Brethren Press and Communications for the Church of the Brethren.