In light of the murder of George Floyd and the ensuing violence and widespread protests globally, I’m writing a special series on how Spirit-led followers of Christ should respond to racism and injustice. This is the first essay.
I can’t get the image out of mind. On May 25, a white, Minneapolis policeman calmly kneels on the neck of a face-down, handcuffed, black man…until he is dead.
In the days that followed, Minneapolis was set on fire. While peaceful protestors marched in the street and set up memorials, violent ones started burning down buildings, smashing windows, blowing up cars, and looting businesses. And the protests spread throughout the country, and then globally.
For several days, I kept watching the endless stream of video clips of the murder and violence on social media. I’ve been horrified at all the destruction and lawlessness, and distressed, witnessing police shoving and tear-gassing protestors. I can’t watch any of these videos anymore. They are all too disturbing.
What’s going on? How could such a brazen murder by a uniformed policeman of a black man, in broad daylight, happen? Why did this killing ignite protests and riots across the country so rapidly? What kind of response would actually be helpful, rather than our usual reactivity, which tends to reinforce our biases, justify the status quo, or, worse, actually inflame the polarization and conflict?
For the past two months, I’ve been writing essays on the topic, “What can we expect from God now?” In light of the recent murder, extensive violence, and widespread protests, it’s time to turn that question around. What does God expect from us now?
He has told you, O mortal, what is good;
and what does the LORD require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness,
and to walk humbly with your God?Micah 6:8, NRSV
In the eighth century B.C.E., Micah, the prophet, wrote unsparing words of judgment against widespread idolatry, exploitation, oppression, and other unjust practices of the privileged, powerholders in ancient Israel. In one of the most well-known verses in the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament), he sums up God’s righteous expectations with the three fold answer to the question, “What does the LORD require of you?” He simply says:
- do justice
- love kindness, and
- walk humbly with your God.
When black people and their allies march in the streets, they are shouting out for justice. They are screaming their outrage. They want the world to hear their stories. They are calling out to people with power and privilege, whom they believe could to do something to help, to actually do something. And when peaceful protests devolve into violence, looting, and arson, white people need to go beyond judging the external behavior to see and feel the depth of the rioters’ hopelessness, rage, and grief.
The issue is not just one abominable murder. And it’s not simply about a corrupt police force, as if there would be no problem of crime or violence if only the police were better people. There are thousands of really good, sincere, hardworking, dedicated police in America; and there are some very racist, violent, corrupt ones, too. Significant improvements are needed in training and law enforcement, but that’s not the whole solution. The issue is also not about law and order, that is, the need to deal firmly with violent criminals who are serious threats to society. There are many criminals, of all colors, who need to be stopped; but controlling all the lawbreakers isn’t going to provide more opportunity, respect, and justice to people who are routinely demeaned, mistrusted, and mistreated just because of the color of their skin or racial/ethnic background.
No, the issue at hand, as I see it, is a whole society blighted by a spiritual disease of the heart (racism, self-interest, blindness to injustice) that keeps manifesting itself at the expense of those with the least power to defend themselves or to right the wrongs. All human beings, of all colors and backgrounds, have that disease to some extent (biblical writers call it, “sin”). Yet, what those of us in position to ensure justice and provide mercy must understand better is that those who suffer the most from this societal sin tend to be people of color, at least in the United States.
They and their allies are right to take to the streets. They are not right to destroy other people’s property, but they are right to protest, call for reform, and even scream as loud as they can. And if whites–those of us in positions of power and privilege—don’t listen, the screams will get louder. And should.
Micah’s moral instruction was for the whole community. Justice, loving kindness, and humble submission to God is the calling for all of us, rich or poor, powerful or powerless, white, black, brown, or any color, race, or ethnic group we might be. It’s what God expects from everyone. Each of us has to determine for ourselves what that means in our contexts. Sometimes, the application is obvious. Other times, it takes a crisis to wake us up. We’re there now.
As a follower of Christ, how does your faith apply to blight of racism and injustice? Are you looking deeply into your heart and at your own attitudes and behavior? Are you asking the Holy Spirit to show you where you have harbored racist, indifferent, or even hateful feelings toward those who have a different skin color or ethnic background? Or, are you using most of your energy reacting to the extremists and defending yourself, as if proving that you’re not as bad as some people accuse you of being means that you are actually innocent and not responsible to try to do more to help?
I am not speaking from on high, but as a privileged white person who was raised in a highly racist environment. Even as an adult, pastor, and Christian leader, I confess that at times I have shamefully nurtured prejudice against others whom I did not understand or was afraid of. I don’t have all the answers for myself, let alone for our broken church and society. Racism and injustice are huge, deep-seated problems, without obvious or easy fixes. But I am sorry. I’m sorry for all the ways I’ve contributed to the problem and have failed to take action to right the wrongs when I could have done something.
Since I witnessed George’s murder on video, I’ve been wracking my brain, trying to think about what difference I could make. I don’t know yet. But I do know this. It’s not going to be just one thing. It’s got to start with a real change of heart and attitude toward others who are different from me. And the internal changes have to translate into external action. Action that translates into tangible benefit for those who are suffering from racial discrimination, exploitation, mistreatment, and lack of compassion and empathy. That’s what the prophets, like Micah, called for when they preached repentance to people in positions of power and privilege.
It’s what God expects.
Next week: What would Jesus say about all this?
Copyright © 2020 Timothy C. Geoffrion, Wayzata, Minnesota. All rights reserved to the author, but readers may freely download, print, forward, or distribute to others, providing that this copyright notice is included.