By Lisa Powell
I recently asked students to explore Jesus’ claim that he came “to proclaim release to the captives.” We considered the imprisonment of Peter, John and Silas and the fact that at least 40% of Paul’s letters were written from jail. Despite these examples, some found it difficult to hold together the imprisonment of saints and the experience of inmates in the U.S. prison system.
The saints were imprisoned not simply because they were Christian in a pagan empire, but because they were defiant. The empire required their submission, demanded that they hang their heads and meekly obey: marry this person, make this sacrifice, take this pledge; but the saints rebelled. They refused to deny what they knew to be true.
Similarly, when Black, brown and indigenous people demonstrate their commitment to their God-given worth and dignity in the face of systems that would deny it, they are penalized, sometimes with citations or arrests, often with demotions and dismissals. Black people are still punished for resisting the empire logics that demand Black deference to whiteness, that require a form of tribute, extracted in fear and humiliation: pulled over again, searched again, followed again. In shopping malls, classrooms and boardrooms, on sidewalks and streets.
People are arrested for refusing to hang their head low in submission, for boldly looking someone in the eyes, for daring to disagree, for speaking their rights, declaring their innocence or naming the injustice. People are jailed for defying the structures that demand they give deference in spite of injustice, a deference not dissimilar from the days of an extracted “yes massa” to any and all demands.
At age 16, Kalief Browder was falsely accused of stealing a backpack, but spent three years in jail awaiting trial because his family couldn’t raise the $3,000 bail required. He refused to be bullied into the false confession of a plea deal; he wanted his innocence vindicated. Browder was beaten frequently by inmates, resulting in the psychological torture of two years in solitary confinement.
Not long before the charges were dismissed for lack of evidence or witnesses, he was offered immediate release for admission of guilt to two misdemeanor offenses. Still he refused. He would not take a plea that denied the truth of what had occurred: he was an innocent Black teenager arrested out of convenience and forgotten in jail. The system got him still, the damage was done; he died within a few years of his release. People who die because they stand up for their humanity, their God-given dignity in the face of brutal and persistent persecution are surely martyrs.
In 2015, 28-year-old Sandra Bland drove from Chicago to Texas, excited to start work at her alma mater. The day after her arrival, a police officer pulled her over for failure to signal a lane change as she moved into the empty right lane to allow him to pass. While he processed her citation in his car, she lit a cigarette, stressfully awaiting a ticket she couldn’t afford. When he returned, he asked her why she looked upset; she told him, not disrespectfully, but flatly. She didn’t speak in obsequious tones, which clearly irritated him. He told her to put out her cigarette. She refused, saying there is no law against smoking in your own car. This was too much, and he ordered her out of the car, which she also refused. He tried to drag her from the car and repeatedly put his Taser in her face, saying he would light her up. She stepped out of the car and once out of camera range, he forced her to the ground. She died in prison three days later, having been unable to secure the $5,000 cash bail set for her release or the $500 she would have to relinquish to a bail bond company.
Biblical scholar Mitzi Smith identifies Sandra Bland’s response to the officer as “sass,” which she describes as “verbal and nonverbal gestures of defiance and resistance.” Sass can be back talk or nonverbal action “like placing one’s hands on one’s hips, rolling one’s eyes.” Sass is a term historically applied to women (or children) who step out of line, who speak when silence is expected, particularly if the recipient is a man. It is a demonstration of one’s self-knowledge: of one’s worth, intelligence, competence, rights and strength of will.
Smith explains, “For black women, talk-back and/or sass has been and remains in some situations the only means of agency.” Sass carries the risk of retribution, but the absence of sass in the face of dehumanizing experience carries its own risk — internalizing the lies of one’s worthlessness and subjugation.
Sass is a refusal to be bullied into lies against one’s humanity, not dissimilar to the acts that brought martyrdom upon Archbishop Oscar Romero and others in El Salvador arrested and tortured for denouncing the systems that strip the dignity and agency of the poor and indigenous. They died rebelling against dehumanizing forces and in the name of the God of Life.
(Lisa Powell is associate professor of theology at St. Ambrose University in Davenport.)