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Bleeding Steel

You must stand here. You must feel the weight. You must hear the voices—of each victim and each perpetrator of violence. You must mourn the loss.

Published on:
September 23, 2019
Read time:
5 min.
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You are forced to pace the boarded walkway as if walking the plank to your own demise. As the path descends below ground level, the unrelenting weight of horror and grief settle in, with no intention of letting you up quickly. Everything within you wants to escape, to wish it was just a horrific nightmare and that someone would shake you awake. 

No banal platitudes can medicate away the shock. Saccharine sentimentality about the good ‘ol days must be laid to rest here. There is no eject button. No escape hatch.

No, you must stand here. You must feel the weight. You must hear the voices—of each victim and each perpetrator of violence. You must mourn the loss.

As the path descends below ground level, the unrelenting weight of horror and grief settle in, with no intention of letting you up quickly.

National Memorial for Peace and Justice

Earlier this year I had the privilege of visiting the National Memorial for Peace and Justice built by the Equal Justice Initiative in Montgomery, AL. It was a pilgrimage I had been longing to make since the memorial opened over a year ago. I say pilgrimage because it is a sacred place that tells part of the story of my people. It’s the part that most white people are ignorant of at best, or dismissive of at worst because it was so long ago and, well, “things have changed.” 

It’s an era that is still too painful to talk about for many black folks of my parent’s generation. “So long ago” wasn’t really that long ago, after all. They can still hear the taunts. Their minds are still haunted by the faces of blind rage and the mouths that unleashed torrents of slurs and insults at people like them who had the audacity to believe that they were human.

As the memorial’s boardwalk descends below you and the rusty pendants hanging from above force your neck to arch and your eyes to strain, it feels as if your feet are being lifted off the ground. Neck tightening. Breath getting shorter by the moment. Jeers of the crowd echo in your ear as you wonder what about your being evokes such bloodlust from another human and makes you deserving of death. To them you are just refuse—not a person. They can’t consider you a person or else the God-fearing among them might feel some sense of conviction over the destruction of your dark-skinned reflection of the imago dei.

Inscribed on the suspended steel inside the memorial are the names of men, women, children who had been eradicated by the racialized, idolatrous ideology that produced the terrorism of lynching. Their crime: offending the idol of white supremacy. And idols demand sacrifices.

The monument screams to us that these lives matter, too.

In this case, thousands of offerings of “strange fruit” were suspended from branches of southern trees. Bodies lifted from the ground like incense to a god that had an insatiable thirst for domination, unquenched by centuries of treading human produce on the winepress of oppression.

In defense of the idol, bodies were brutalized, lives mercilessly ended. But what their tormentors had intended to erase from history hangs now as a witness against the terror that they inflicted. 

The monument screams to us that these lives matter, too. Image-bearers who were erased, but whose names are known to the God who created them, and deserve to be known by us. 

The testimony is inscribed on Corten Steel bearing the names of every county known where a lynching occurred, along with every name and date available to this point. Corten Steel is known as a weathering steel. One of the men who stands watch over the memorial remarked that the steel, in essence, heals itself. As the steel gets wet, rust forms on the surface, and under proper conditions, that layer of rust stabilizes and forms a protective seal on the material below. However, under unfavorable conditions, like high humidity, the steel won’t stabilize because it continues to corrode, eventually causing structural weakness.

My people have experienced the unrelenting heat and atmospheric pressure of slavery and systemic oppression for so long it is a wonder that we are still standing. For that matter, it shouldn’t be a surprise that so many of us seem to collapse under the sheer weight of the pressure of life. Our deterioration, however, has more to do with the long-endured conditions, rather than the strength or weakness of the material of which we are made.

Never Forgetting the Past

As you walk below the ominous, weathered pendants that bear witness to 400 years and repeated scarring, there is another testimony that the untrained ear cannot hear and the untrained eye cannot see. The boards below are stained dark red. When water hits it, the steel bleeds—the slow drip bearing witness to the gruesome nature of the act depicted above. The “blood” stains on the ground illustrate the thoughtfulness of the architect who suspended them in the air. They bear witness to the terroristic rage of those who lynched the people honored there—whether for entertainment, revenge, or some form of vigilante justice. Their blood cries out.

The “blood” stains on the ground illustrate the thoughtfulness of the architect who suspended them in the air. They bear witness to the terroristic rage of those who lynched the people honored there—whether for entertainment, revenge, or some form of vigilante justice. Their blood cries out.

Stains let you know that something bad happened here. Most of the time it was just an accident. Someone tripped. Something slipped out of your hand. A glass got tipped over in a moment of excitement. 

But the stains that we walked past that day represented blood purposely spilled. Life ruthlessly taken. This was no accident. And this can’t just be cleaned up with club soda. All of my life I have listened as people attempt to brush past or whitewash this era of American history. I’ve never understood how we have been taught to never forget some atrocities, and others never seem to be mentioned. We allow ourselves to file the “unmentionables” farther away than they actually are. But the horror of lynching has tentacles that still reach into the present reality of family systems of the slain. 

There is no amount of cover up that can hide this scar. The blood from those stains cry out against their tormenters and cry out to us, begging that we remember them. Begging God to vindicate them.

We think that if we whitewash the truth or avoid looking, it will somehow go away, and we will somehow experience healing through forgetting. None of us, however, thinks that in real life. It is why we go to the ER to get properly cared for and stitched up when we experience trauma. Why, then, do we assume that the pathway to peace, reconciliation, and a more just society will come through anything other than recognizing the traumatic, complex nature of the wound and applying restorative treatment? Truth has to be acknowledged before there can be healing and restoration—or, in this case, reconciliation and justice.

Remember Christ

Those deep red stains remind me of wine stains that darken the carpet of our church where we celebrate communion each week. The stains remain as visible reminders of the unjust murder of one whose very being offended the idolatry of those in power, too. That crowd executed vigilante justice as well, protected by the legal loopholes of the land. False witnesses arose. Fraudulent charges were established, followed by orders of public, shameful execution.

A crowd gathered around and made a day of watching a man hanged on a tree, his body laboring, lungs stretching for just one more breath. They mocked. They jeered. They left their religious duties, packed lunches, pulled up a lawn chair, and watched him die.

A crowd gathered around and made a day of watching a man hanged on a tree, his body laboring, lungs stretching for just one more breath. They mocked. They jeered. They left their religious duties, packed lunches, pulled up a lawn chair, and watched him die. The victims whose names are etched in steel have someone who can identify with them. 

His blood and tears stained the ground below, too. And just like the weathering stains of the memorial, his blood stains tell a truth that must be faced in order for there to be reconciliation.

Every time I hear someone say, “Get over it. It happened a long time ago. Just move on,” about issues of racial injustice and reconciliation, I hear Jesus say, “Remember me.” The way toward righteousness and reconciliation is not forgetting the blood stains and what caused them, but remembering them, lamenting the cause, repenting for our lot, and crying out for mercy.

There is no other way for a soul to be made new. 

There is no other way for our country to be healed.

Brian Key
Brian lives with his wife, Kelly, and their two daughters in Kansas City, MO where he also serves as a pastor and Residency Director at Redeemer Fellowship. In addition to spending time outdoors hiking and fishing, he loves to cook large meals and host people with his wife at their home. He believes his most important work is to set tables in every sphere of his life in order to create space for people's lives to be transformed as they commune with God and one another. Also, he dares you to try to make a better biscuit. You can find him on Twitter @BrianKeyKC.

Cover photo by Mitchell Griest.

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