Marked as Bare Life … or Cut Dead

Can structural shunning–ghetto-izing someone so thoroughly that they are EITHER invisible to you OR relevant to you only as a reminder that you’re part of the in-group, powerful enough to keep the ghetto walls high enough–be even more dramatic that ethnic cleansing, ritual murder, or genocide? Greg Ellison, of Emory’s Candler School of Theology, points us toward taking this concern very very seriously.

As I’ve argued now in a series of posts, Trayvon Martin’s violent death has been part of a public ritual re-legitimizing the right to use lethal violence, to exclude in order to be included in the realm of safe, ordered democracy … revealing a cultural problem in the way that American democracy itself is constituted in practice, with society based on an excess of power, from local to international scales. What Greg Ellison suggests is that the expression “cut dead” refers to something we do all too often, whether we realize it or not; but the effects on those we exclude by shunning are simultaneously dramatically cruel, yet–and here’s the important thing–often sufficiently redeemable so as to create new, living social ties with them. While Ellison focuses on young Black men as all-to-often cut dead by the broader American society, he points out that “four fundamental needs—having a sense of belonging, control, self-esteem and meaningful existence—are phenomena that affect all humanity, regardless of race, nationality or faith background.”

I have not yet read his new book Cut Dead But Still Alive (Ellison 2013), but the theme is compelling. Because we need to stop and think about how “cutting someone dead” from wider society’s social, material, and emotional resources slowly, cruelly vitiates them. (From a biocultural perspective, this cruelty stems from the resilience and longevity of the evolved human life history strategy.) Moreover, Ellison describes his “mantra” as: Once you see, you cannot not see. It is not necessary to exclude in order to legitimate our own inclusion in the group and its resources. Moreover, it is important to highlight Ellison’s own projects of engagement, how he builds on seeing. As assistant professor of pastoral care and counseling, Ellison “plans to launch a grassroots community movement, titled Fearless Dialogues, led by a team of experts he has recruited from healthcare, politics, education, community organizing and the arts. Plans include intensive work in five cities …”

I would only add that getting involved in acts of restoring and rehabilitating the “cut-dead,” as hard and difficult and emotionally fraught as that may be, can dramatically invert the cultural symbolic structure of violent exclusion, emphasizing instead compassionate inclusion.


You can see Ellison talk about his work here:


He has also participated in a recent discussion, hosted on the great Michel Martin’s radio program Tell Me More, on how Trayvon Martin’s death relates to the wider situation of young Black men in America today.


Ellison, G. C. (2013). Cut dead but still alive: caring for African American young men. Abingdon Press.