On May 25, Minneapolis police officers arrested George Floyd, a 46-year-old black man, after a deli employee called 911, accusing him of buying cigarettes with a counterfeit $20 bill. Seventeen minutes after the first squad car arrived at the scene, Mr. Floyd was unconscious and pinned beneath three police officers, showing no signs of life. Shortly thereafter, George Floyd was pronounced dead.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer once said, “Silence in the face of evil is evil itself. God will not hold us guiltless. Not to speak is to speak. Not to act is to act.” Silence about the 8 minutes and 46 seconds it took to end George Floyd’s life is not an option. Silence about ignoring the appeals of a man pleading for his life as he gasped out the words “I can’t breathe” is inexcusable.
But what words appropriately communicate the gravity and universal threat of the grotesque abuse of power? What words cut through the man-generated, sin-corrupted political and cultural fog that minimizes God’s concern for justice, mars the dignity of all people made in God’s image, and fuels our tribal instincts?
George Floyd’s death is an unspeakable tragedy. It is a ruthless miscarriage of God-given authority. He died at the hands of a man who betrayed his oath to protect and serve the most vulnerable. Floyd’s death is the exclamation point on decades of unjust treatment of people of color in America.
It’s now been ten days since George Floyd died. Ten days of sorrow, anger, repentance, rage, protest, violence, and conversation. It’s been ten days for some of us. But for others, these ten days have been a painful reminder of a history on repeat, tragically manifesting the sins of the past in the present. Will it ever end?
As the white pastor of a predominantly white church with predominantly white friends who outnumber my relationships with people of color by an embarrassing margin, no matter how hard I’ve tried to place my focus on my African American friends and understand what they must be feeling right now, I keep coming back to a thought that applies primarily to my white friends and acquaintances.
Do we even know why African Americans are angry? Seriously. Do we really know? I thought I did. I’m not sure I do. But I can assure you that we’ll never know as long as we assume we know. We’ll never know unless we listen more than we talk. We’ll never know until we become advocates instead of bystanders.
These words are risky. I know they may be received or interpreted as political. Too often when ideas – even true and good ideas – are politicized, they become controversial and divisive. Everything today is political, which is to say that everything is polarizing. Meaningful, honest, sincere, other-focused dialogue is hard to achieve these days.
I’m not being “political”. I can say that because racism isn’t a political issue. Racism is a heart issue, and that makes it a gospel issue. And only God can change the heart.
Talking about racism is inherently controversial because it is personal and painful. But Jesus did not come into the world to ultimately deliver us from difficulty and controversy. He came to work redemption in each of us by sustaining and empowering us to overcome that which separates us from God and one another.
In one month, I’ll be 46 years old. George Floyd was less than a year older than me. Did he even know he was making a purchase with what might have been counterfeit money? Has that ever happened to me without knowing it? I wonder, if that was me buying cigarettes (or Gatorade or donuts or any other number of things one might purchase at a convenience store), with my white skin and socio-economic favor, if that same deli employee would have called 911 on me? Or would he simply have given me the benefit of a doubt? How many counterfeit bills are in circulation? Did you buy that Starbuck mocha latte with real currency?
I didn’t know George Floyd. But a brother I didn’t know died that day. I’m moved by Barnabas Piper’s words as he reminds us of how interconnected we all are to that fateful day.
It is your brother who was killed when his neck was kneeled on
And your brother who killed him
And your sisters and mothers who mourn him
And your sons who rage with brick in hand
And your sons adorned in riot gear and wielding weapons
Christ loves sinners.
Christ loves justice.
Christ loves the oppressed.
Christ loves black.
Christ loves white.
So we do not get to choose a side
We do not get to choose whether to love
Or care or be involved
If we are in Christ
Then we must be as Christ.
My brother died, and my brother killed him. And my family is grieving. Grief and loss have made me intentionally circumspect with my words. I know I’ll be weighed and measured by them.
So many words are being spoken by so many. Side-choosing words. We’re all tempted to do that. But don’t forget. If we belong to Jesus, we don’t get to choose a side.
We don’t speak to choose sides. We speak to mourn. We speak to advocate for the oppressed and afflicted. We speak to communicate, “You are not alone.” We speak to “be as Christ”.
Our words matter. Scripture is clear about this. Ecclesiastes 3:7 tells us there is a time to speak. God’s people must speak up and plead the widow’s (or any other disenfranchised or marginalized person) cause (Isaiah 1:7). Psalm 82:3-4 tells us to “give justice to the weak…maintain the right of the afflicted…rescue the needy…[and] deliver [the oppressed] from the hand of the wicked.”
Nine days after George Floyd’s death I spoke on the phone with an African American brother about what he was feeling and how I could support him. His first words straining through the cracks in his voice: “I’m tired.” There have been too many stories like George Floyd’s. And if things don’t change, there will be more. God, have mercy. Please make it stop.
This tragedy, and much of the unrest occurring in response to Floyd’s murder, is a sin issue. And the gospel is, without a doubt, the ultimate resolution to this sin issue (and every other sin issue in the world).
But the gospel is, as Piper said, “a summons, a call, a command”. As the church, we are called to lay down our lives for others, to love our enemies, and to pursue a life in Christ Jesus where there is no Jew or Gentile, no black or white, no male or female, but a life displaying we are all one through faith in Jesus. God isn’t just in the business of saving souls. Jesus has come to redeem structures. He comes to make all things new.
For too long the evangelical white church has been content to say (explicitly or implicitly) to our black brothers and sisters, “This is your fight.” One reason there has not been more progress toward racial equality in America since the Civil Rights movement is because white evangelical churches were content to stay on the sidelines. We told black Christians, “This is your fight.” But it’s not their fight. It’s our fight. We are the Body of Christ, and each of us members of it. If one part suffers, we all suffer with it (1 Corinthians 12).
My friend went on to say, “I’m tired of sucking it up. I want someone else to stand up.” And by someone else, he meant people like me. And you. He said, “I need my white brothers to say, ‘I got this.’”
I confessed to him that I don’t know what that looks like. I’m not entirely sure how to stand with him. But I don’t want him to fight alone. Not anymore. And I’m so thankful to be a part of a church where I’m confident that many of you feel the same way.
It’s our turn to share the weight of this. Our fight is not a political or cultural fight. We aren’t choosing those kinds of sides. We’re choosing the side of valuing life in all its colors because God has made all men in His image. Father, please show us how and where we can be the hands and feet of Christ to the hurting people of color – especially African Americans – all around us.