Trauma, Images, and Prayers for Jussie Smollett

Jussie Smollett was attacked in Chicago last week–and because he is gay and black. According to published reports, his injuries occurred while he was walking home in the early hours.

He was insulted during the assault, called names during the severe attack, and thankfully he received medical attention. Brother Smollett yesterday spoke out and his words are being widely reported and underscore his work with the police to find those responsible for his attack.

According to a piece in the SunTimes, he opens his greetings, “Beautiful people. Let me start by saying that I’m OK.” Despite the ugly words spoken over him and the terrible beating given him, he can address a beautiful people. What an image of resilience.

In the last week, folks have been searching for answers about the attack the way the Chicago Police Department searches for the assailants in an attack, developing theories, turning over possible motivations, and questioning every known thing that’s been said in the media.

Black and nonblack people are invested in knowing what happened, appalled at what happened, and engaged in making sure justice comes. That said, I want to encourage you to, among other things, notice the deep and long ways that Brother Smollett’s situation is a part of a historically potent way of harming individuals and disarming a people, namely black people.

Whoever the attackers are, Brother Smollett’s trauma links to the dismal history of harm that comes from personalized aggression that forms in the United States of American context that makes violence and murder an acceptable way of dealing with anger, fear, and difference.

Chicago, like other places, participates in the ways lynching and murderous assaults have kept black people under the ever-present possibility of violence. Living after an assault, anyone’s assault, makes the person living and the community living after that assault a part of the trauma. Everyone is implicated in the pain of the violence.

In other words, Brother Smollett’s sexual life made him a part of the history of assaults occurring against gay and lesbian people. Second, his blackness made him participant, in a similar way, of the history of violence against black folk. Of course, the obvious interconnections between race and sex and gender, and even class, formed a historical and contemporary storm that contributed to this situation.

The offenders participated as well. They had choices to let the man be, to pass him on the street as he walked home, and they chose differently. They participated as offenders in what Womanist theologian Kelly Brown Douglas called an “aggressive assertion” of Smollett’s “guilty black body.”

As Elizabeth Weise says in her brief USA Today piece, “Lynching may seem like something out of the distant past, but the use of lynching symbolism to terrify, intimidate and curtail the lives of black Americans is very much happening today.” Think of that noose around Brother Smollett’s neck.

Brown Douglas studies this past and current violence in her book Stand Your Ground and locates lynching symbolism in slavery, emancipation, the Black Codes, and Jim Crow laws. “Essentially, the more the black body is free, the more intense the war against its body,” says Brown Douglas.

Weise and Brown Douglas offer a point that peace and justice-loving people have been promoting for more than a century. This crime in Chicago is one that the country is intimately acquainted with, and I mean to be descriptive, in the saddest of ways. The lineage of laws and customs are deeply rooted in the United States, the corresponding trauma exacerbated by how long these violent acts have plagued black people.

The connection between being wrapped with a noose near a Chicago bridge echoes on the many men, women, and children who were hanged, burned, tortured, and killed in days and decades past. Cornel West wrote in his popular Race Matters, “One of the best ways to instill fear in people is to terrorize them.”

Hasn’t this happened again for black people as one black man, Brother Smollett, has been terrorized? Thankfully as he wrote, he’s okay, which points to a well-walked path in these hard situations. He was hurt and he will continue to act, continue to pursue his offenders, continue to live his life. And with him, the rest of us. I hope we will continue to pursue justice with the same interest that we are wondering about who did what to whom and when.

Finally, here is a prayer that I’m praying for him and for us, those who are traumatized by extension, traumatized by having been a part of the black community or other badly treated communities. As a straight man and pastor, I write it hoping it is an invitation for us to pray together for justice to come, even if you’ll pray beyond your own particular borders of prayerfulness:

You are the One who heals all manner of illness.

The worst conditions shudder at your presence.

Pain, anguish, and brutality while felt by you are not stronger than you.

You know what happened to Brother Smollett.

You know the deep pains he bears.

And you aren’t far from the pains we feel as a community of supporters.

Black and nonblack crowd around the country and world to pull for his wholeness.

Grant the affirmation and recognition that we need.

Help us to know that we are made by and belong to you,

One that heals in the face of trauma.

Notice his offenders and do what only the Divine can by seeking justice.

Work in and through detectives and citizens so that moral laws are embodied.

Bring healing to Brother Smollett from every sacred space, from sanctuaries and prayer closets, from chapels and prayer rugs.

Bring hope for us all after another incident of unmistakable violence.

Make and claim this city and every one for holy purposes.

Live in this city and make it your habitation.

Bring with you whatever comes with your nearness.

Answer us with change in Chicago and the United States.

Give us strength in our efforts to see justice occur.

Give us wisdom for every next step.

Give us deliverance from every present evil.

And we’ll keep seeking.

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