“I can’t breathe.”
We first heard those words nearly six years ago out of the mouth of Eric Garner as he lay face down on the pavement of a New York City street. And his dying words certainly produced a national response. Protests erupted around the country and then redoubled the following month after Michael Brown was killed in Ferguson, Missouri. Those two events in the summer of 2014 catalyzed the nascent Black Lives Matter movement that had begun to take shape the previous year after George Zimmerman was acquitted in the death of Trayvon Martin. These past seven years have intimately acquainted us with civil unrest motivated by ethnic division.
And yet, this feels different.
When we all watched George Floyd’s body go limp last week, something snapped. It seemed to be one of those rare moments when the collective conscience of an entire nation was lit on fire. That conscience had begun to flare up a time or two in recent years, but this past week it was set fully ablaze. Perhaps it was because the coronavirus has changed us and heightened our sensitivities. Perhaps we were primed in the preceding weeks by Ahmaud Arbery and Amy Cooper. Regardless, nearly everyone I know felt something deeply. Sadness. Rage. Determination.
Of course, then the riots and looting started, and as they did, you could feel things change. We all began to gravitate towards different ideological camps. Now that multiple injustices were emerging, each of us had to decide which injustice deserved to be accented. “Yes, X was unjust, but what about Y?” Whatever you substituted for X and Y was pretty telling and definitely contentious.
But before it all completely devolves into the same old political squabbles, can we rescue this moment and let it do a work in us? After all, I believe in a redemptive God. He will bring good out of this. But how? What does he want to do with us? The list is long, but perhaps it begins with identification. I believe that God wants us to identify with others, and to do so in two ways.
I mentioned in a sermon a few weeks ago that my daughter has changed me. Before adopting an African American girl, I think I could recognize racial injustice, but it wouldn’t necessarily have a visceral effect on me. I could give a nod towards the unfairness of some racially motivated killing, but it didn’t take the breath out of me as it does now. I certainly have not arrived, but I think I’m beginning to at least scratch the surface of seeing things through black eyes. I’d like to invite you to join me.
I read an essay recently, written in 2016, by a Jamaican man named Garnette Cadogan who moved to New Orleans and eventually to New York as a young man in the late 1990s. It’s a longer read, but well worth your time. He describes what he unexpectedly encountered in those early days in New Orleans:
“Within days I noticed that many people on the street seemed apprehensive of me: Some gave me a circumspect glance as they approached, and then crossed the street; others, ahead, would glance behind, register my presence, and then speed up; older white women clutched their bags; young white men nervously greeted me, as if exchanging a salutation for their safety: “What’s up, bro?” On one occasion, less than a month after my arrival, I tried to help a man whose wheelchair was stuck in the middle of a crosswalk; he threatened to shoot me in the face, then asked a white pedestrian for help.
I wasn’t prepared for any of this. I had come from a majority-black country in which no one was wary of me because of my skin color. Now I wasn’t sure who was afraid of me. I was especially unprepared for the cops. They regularly stopped and bullied me, asking questions that took my guilt for granted. I’d never received what many of my African American friends call “The Talk”: No parents had told me how to behave when I was stopped by the police, how to be as polite and cooperative as possible, no matter what they said or did to me. So I had to cobble together my own rules of engagement. Thicken my Jamaican accent. Quickly mention my college. “Accidentally” pull out my college identification card when asked for my driver’s license.”
What might that do to you if others regularly crossed the street to avoid you? How would you see the world if you experienced just one encounter with police like he described? How would it affect you if your guilt was taken for granted? Soon, race would dominate the way you viewed the world. Most of us who are white aren’t Jim Crow kind of racists, but I think we should understand how it lands on black people when we shrug at the issue that has so defined their experience of reality.
In Acts 6 we read about a situation in the early church in which Greek widows were being neglected in the daily distribution of food in favor of the Hebraic widows. Once brought to the attention of the apostles, they organized a system to address this injustice. Specifically, they chose seven deacons to devote themselves to the fair distribution of church resources to the needy widows. The interesting thing, though, is that all seven were Greek. They didn’t create a team that equally represented each ethnicity. Instead, they weighted the representation (fully) towards the neglected group. Did this mean that the Hebraic widows didn’t matter? Of course not. Rather, they recognized a need to give special attention to the minority party. In order to achieve fairness, the needs of one group needed to be highlighted.
Now I can understand feeling the need to guard against certain ideologies. In different contexts, we as a church have highlighted the dangers of critical theory, cultural marxism, identity politics, etc. I see weaknesses in these types of ideologies that can and will yield bad fruit. However, in our emphasis on protecting ourselves from imbalanced ideologies, have we neglected basic compassion? And is that the pattern that Jesus confronted so vehemently?
Okay, but why such anger? Why such destruction? Why not something more civil and peaceful? Well first, let’s not just consider the small minority of looters and rioters. Clearly those people are in the wrong. But rather let’s consider the people that are just plain mad. Can we step into their shoes?
“Yes, protests often are used as an excuse for some to take advantage, just as when fans celebrating a hometown sports team championship burn cars and destroy storefronts. I don’t want to see stores looted or even buildings burn. But African Americans have been living in a burning building for many years, choking on the smoke as the flames burn closer and closer. Racism in America is like dust in the air. It seems invisible — even if you’re choking on it — until you let the sun in. Then you see it’s everywhere. As long as we keep shining that light, we have a chance of cleaning it wherever it lands. But we have to stay vigilant, because it’s always still in the air.”Kareem Abdul-Jabbar
What if you and/or your family members had repeatedly experienced some kind of bigotry over a number of years? And what if you had repeatedly tried to bring attention to this injustice through peaceful means but had continually felt ignored and dismissed? And what if you believed that bigotry had not simply resulted in discomfort, but in death?
After all, there’s something in each one of us that senses that the unjustified taking of a life requires severe punishment. We can debate capital punishment and how to apply certain biblical principles, but Genesis 9:5-6 clearly demonstrates that human life, made in the image of God, is of great value and cannot be easily discarded. We’re all programmed with that understanding. That’s why we see such emotional responses when life is taken unjustly.
What happens to a dream deferred?Harlem by Langston Hughes
Does it dry up
like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore—
And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over—
like a syrupy sweet?
Maybe it just sags
like a heavy load.
Or does it explode?
And this is especially true when the killing feels personal. White people find it difficult to relate to this because we don’t often see ourselves as a we. When you’re in the minority, though, you tend to develop a close solidarity with others that are like you. You’re family. Another person’s experience becomes your own.
So can we put ourselves in the place of someone who has experienced genuine racism and extremely frightening situations? Someone who has tried to address these situations in a variety of ways but has seen no measurable progress? And someone who identifies very closely with the victims and their families? I think we must. This is our opportunity to truly empathize in a way that perhaps we never have.
And yet the black community is not the only group to identify with. Regardless of ethnicity, we must also do the uncomfortable work of considering how much Derek Chauvin is in each one of us.
A few days ago Michael Porter Jr. of the Denver Nuggets tweeted a few short thoughts on the situation. First, he expressed sadness and outrage, plainly calling what happened “murder” and “evil.” But then he tweeted this:
“As much as you pray for George’s family, gotta also pray for the police officer(s) who were involved in this evil. As hard as it is, pray for them instead of hate them…Pray that God changes their hearts.”
The response was anything but supportive. Several fellow players and other followers labeled Porter’s tweet as tone-deaf, dismissive and a failure to “read the room.” I can understand that. When extreme injustices are committed, there is a God-designed yearning for justice. As I mentioned above, payment is required for a life lost and we know it in our bones. So when a horrible crime seems to be downplayed, we react. But on the other hand, a reaction against the extension of grace (such as prayer), exposes some natural human tendencies.
For one, we love to create categories of sinners. There are the good guys and the bad guys. But the way we typically draw the lines ensures that we are firmly in the good guy camp. So there are the Derek Chauvins of the world, along with all of those who are completely blind to the realities of systemic racism, and then there are people like me, who are enlightened enough to see other people’s blindness. That’s the potential problem when there’s nearly unanimous moral outrage. We all quickly align ourselves in such a way that we’re on the morally upright side. Of course, this is dangerous for several reasons.
First, it removes the spotlight from other sins that we may be more susceptible to. This is the point of James 2.
For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become guilty of all of it. For he who said, “Do not commit adultery,” also said, “Do not murder.” If you do not commit adultery but do murder, you have become a transgressor of the law. So speak and so act as those who are to be judged under the law of liberty. For judgment is without mercy to one who has shown no mercy. Mercy triumphs over judgment.James 2:10-13
It’s easy to highlight one sin that we don’t commit (and be very unmerciful to those that commit it) and ignore a different sin that is dominating us.
Secondly, it often prevents us from seeing necessary growth areas in ourselves when we compare ourselves to the “real sinners.” Progressive writer Robin DiAngelo says this:
“I believe that white progressives cause the most daily damage to people of color. I define a white progressive as any white person who thinks he or she is not racist, or is less racist, or in the “choir,” or already “gets it.” White progressives can be the most difficult for people of color because, to the degree that we think we have arrived, we will put our energy into making sure that others see us as having arrived. None of our energy will go into what we need to be doing for the rest of our lives: engaging in ongoing, self-awareness, continuing education, relationship building, and actual antiracist practice. White progressives do indeed uphold and perpetrate racism, but our defensiveness and certitude make it virtually impossible to explain to us how we do so.”
I realize that many reading this would not label themselves as “progressives,” but in the sense that she is talking about, perhaps many of us are. We are “progressive” when it comes to race issues because we are enlightened and working hard to enlighten others about the realities of systemic racism. Yet human nature is such that we tend to consider ourselves as having achieved certain levels of “righteousness” when the reality is that we have a long way to go.
Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, we are prevented from seeing how easily we could plunge into the same kind of horrific sin given the right circumstances.
We have a childhood family friend who went into law enforcement in a pretty rough part of the country. He witnessed unspeakable things and saw the absolute worst of humanity. Over time, unfortunately, he hardened. He began to see potential criminals as vermin. He went from a relatively tender-hearted person to a calloused cynic. He became the kind of person who would speak in dehumanizing ways about those “cockroaches” and then treat them as such when on duty.
As I consider the transformation of our family friend, and then witness what appeared to be the same attitude in Derek Chauvin as he kneeled on the neck of George Floyd, I have to ask, is that same potential in me? Given the right circumstances and experiences, could I just as easily turn into a monster?
In reality, I am Derek Chauvin. And if I’m going to initiate any positive change in this world, I have to start by identifying myself with him. As Walt Kelly said, “We have met the enemy, and he is us.”
Now, once we realize that we are the enemy, and no more deserving of life than Derek Chauvin, we have two options. The first one is despair. The second one is humbly acknowledging our condition and then receiving cleansing from the only one who can do the job.
Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!Romans 7:24-25
This is a critical moment in our lives and what we do with it will shape our nation and world for decades to come. But it starts with identification. We identify with the victims of bigotry and recognize the prevalence of injustice. And then we recognize ourselves as perpetrators of such injustice. From this place of empathy and humility, we can truly bring about change.
-Aaron, on behalf of the Summitview Pastors