Who’s With Me?: A Pastor’s Response to the Violence Waged on Black People and Women in Our World
By Claire K. McKeever-Burgett.
“Claire, the judge declared a mistrial in the Vanderbilt rape case.”
“No,” I said with horror. “No!”
Silence hung between us, the silence our palpable, “Yes.”
Apparently the foreman of the jury was raped and did not disclose this information during jury selection. However, he claims it was consensual. His parents claim it was statutory rape.
This is why I’m not an attorney, I think, as I shake my head and fall to my knees.
I remain body-broken on the floor for quite some time, wondering how as a pastor, theologian, person of faith, woman, soon to be mother I will respond. I remain body-broken on the floor with grief, and like Rachel, I refuse to be comforted because our children are no more.
The young woman who was raped by Vanderbilt football players in the summer of 2013 will now have to relive her horror all over again. She will have to muster the courage and the strength to face her abusers; she will have to call upon her dignity and her breath to speak in a new trial; she will have to endure more questions from defense attorneys speculating about just what she might’ve done to bring this on; she will have to endure more humiliation and more abuse.
The fact that she now has to endure these realities again is wrong. There is no reason the victim of rape, of abuse and assault and degradation and humiliation should have to relive it any more than she already does as a victim of such atrocity.
And while I despise the protection of a legal system that does not protect its victims first and foremost and while I am angered by the need to give the young men convicted of rape, aggravated rape, and aggravated sexual battery the benefit of the doubt, I am most confounded by the evidence of our culture’s continued practice of discounting women’s experiences and invalidating the horrors they endure.
The news of the Vanderbilt rape mistrial comes in the wake of the terrorist killing of black people in Charleston. More violence, more brutality, more war waged on specific, particular bodies. Again, body-broken with grief, how do I, how do we respond?
While I do not seek to compare the particular, specific horror of racism to the horror of rape, I cannot deny the countless articles I’ve read in the past few weeks about the terrorist killing of black people in Charleston and how reading the accounts of brutality remind me of how unsafe both black people and women are.
So, I went back and read about what happened to the young woman at Vanderbilt on June 23, 2013. It is horrifying to read. There were a few times I had to stop reading it for fear I would throw up. To complicate the matter further, one of the rapists is black, the other white. The young woman is also white. Given what I know about the stereotype of black men raping white women as a way to further indict the black male body throughout history, I am further grieved by these realities.
I, like the young woman who was raped and sexually assaulted, live as a woman in this world—a world in which women’s bodies are not safe, women’s bodies are hyper-sexualized and held suspect, a world in which women’s rapists are set free. I can imagine the young woman’s sorrow, torment, humiliation, and rage.
But, I reread what happened to her so as not to discount her experience or ignore it entirely, but instead to see her body abused and battered and so to mourn, really, truly mourn what it is she endured and will now have to endure, yet again. I seek to do the same with the experience of white brutality on black bodies, knowing full well that no matter what I read I will never truly know what it is our sisters and brothers have endured and continue to endure.
Faced with these realities, complexities, and particularities, I feel inadequate. Even writing this piece presents challenges of nuance and control. Again, body-broken with grief, how do I, how do we respond?
How do we consistently name the horrors we face without sinking into despair? Is there a place for anguish in our faith communities, in our writing forums, in our classes? If so, where are they, and how do we find them?
If there isn’t a place for anguish in our faith communities, writing forums, and classes, then I don’t know where else to go. If our faith communities and the spaces of writing and learning that stem from them are not consistently naming the atrocities that happen to women and people of color, creating space for outward sorrow and grief, and inviting others to join them in these spaces, then they aren’t doing their job.
I grieve a world in which black bodies and women’s bodies are abused and slaughtered. I grieve that I even sit to write this piece, wishing there was no need for it because no one’s body was killed or beaten or raped.
Yet, in my grieving, I remember that to name is to pray, and to pray is to create space in which constructive, hopeful ways of living our sorrows out loud and moving into more just ways of being can and do occur.
Today, I grieve. Tomorrow, I will grieve, too.
And I wonder, who will grieve with me, and where will our grief take us, and will it be enough?
I, pastor and theologian, woman and friend, must confess that nothing may ever be enough, and that I may not know where grief will lead until I am there. But, I am willing to go there anyway so as to sit and stand, wallow and wail, write and pray, name and create until all of God’s children are safe, are loved, are free.
Who’s with me?
Claire McKeever-Burgett (M.Div. ’11, Vanderbilt Divinity School) is on staff at The Upper Room in Nashville, Tennessee working to tell The Upper Room’s story in interesting and compelling ways. She is an ordained Alliance of Baptist pastor and writes often at pastorpoet.com. As a pastor, dancer, writer, traveler, singer, spouse, soon-to-be-mother, and friend, Claire wants women to feel empowered and deeply blessed in their bodies and believes in the inherent, sacred value of all.