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Brutalization: The Dangerous Construction of Whiteness

06/09/2015 01:39 pm ET | Updated Jun 09, 2016
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Another week, another video--this time of a young African American woman wearing a bathing suit, holding only a towel. She is thrown to the ground and a white male police officer pulls her hair and sits on her back.

The United States is in the midst of a moral crisis--a nearly continuous brutalization of black bodies as a performance of white privilege. It has to be named as a profound wrong, and it has to be stopped.

From Ferguson, to Cleveland, to New York, to Baltimore, and in many other cities and towns in this nation, the bodies of African Americans are shown manhandled, choked, beaten, shot. Often this violence is lethal, but even when it is not, it is serving a purpose. And that purpose is the exercise of power by white America over black America.

The performance of racial brutalization, by both police and vigilantes, is, in my view, a way to model racial hierarchy and control. Played over and over again on the Internet, these acts help anesthetize a segment of white America to African American suffering, and suppress empathy for our common humanity.

Even as lynching was performed in public, often on Sundays after church (see Dr. James Cone The Cross and the Lynching Tree) as a way to re-consolidate white privilege after the Civil War, so too is this performance a way to shore up white privilege in a United States rapidly diversifying in terms of race and national origin.

The purpose of this ruthless violence perpetrated on certain bodies and publicly displayed for the consumption of others is very similar to that played by the gladiatorial "games" in the Roman Coliseum. The astonishingly excessive violence of the Roman games served to inure the Roman citizen to the brutality of the society; in fact, it could be argued that the murderous brutality of Rome as a slave society and a warrior state depended on suppressing empathy for either slaves or conquered peoples by the general population.

Rome is becoming more and more a distant mirror of the United States today. The U.S., like Rome, has become a permanent warrior state and it controls and exploits a vast number of people in the virtual slavery of a vast, often private prison network.

The public performance of violence on subjugated bodies served Rome well, helping to create a society where cruelty was not just accepted, but actually part of the morality. It established who was a person, and who was a non-person and therefore deserving of torture and death. From criminals, to slaves, to those captured in war, to Christian martyrs, those fed to the games were outside the protection of being Roman and a citizen. They were subject to torture, as one Christian martyr put it, 'as if we no longer existed'."

The spectators of the Roman games became more and more brutalized as they consumed the pain and death of the dehumanized. The Christian theologian Tertullian argued against the games De spectacles (On the games) because their celebration of violence created an addiction to bloodlust, and caused people to revel in violence.

White America, especially if you call yourself Christian, look into this distant mirror and realize that one of the crucibles for helping create Christian theology was as a protest against bloody, warring, occupying, slave-owning Rome and its practices of vicious brutalization as a means of social control.

Resistance to the use of violence as a way to consolidate white privilege today requires protest as well. Here are a few things we need to do now, and we need to do them together to foster a more decent society:

Demand that those in law enforcement who are shown to have used excessive force be disciplined, and where warranted, prosecuted and jailed.

Work with your local government to create re-training for law enforcement in proven methods of community policing that reduce violence and create more trust.

Bring the full force of your religious faith and humanist values to the public square, calling for real racial justice, accountability and respectful treatment of every human being.

Remember, the "beast" in the New Testament Book of Revelation, Chapter 13, was Rome.

Ask yourself, if you revel in the brutalization of unarmed black bodies, who are you becoming?