Until last week, I saw myself as a pretty typical right-of-center white guy born and raised in the United States. I have an aversion to virtue-signaling, think that social justice warriors should be required to serve in the military before they are allowed to speak publicly, and generally thought (quietly, to myself) that for citizens of wealthy Western countries, if you were poor it was probably because you weren’t working hard enough. Probably.
Despite having lived the past eight years in East Africa where I worked alongside extraordinary levels of human suffering, I’m not naturally inclined to compassion first. I’m inclined to “let’s analyze the root cause of this problem and fix it, and please don’t complain while we do so” first.
However, (not for the first time in my life) my heart has been broken through this week’s events. And if you’re struggling with how to respond to the global voices being raised in response to George Floyd’s murder, I don’t have anything to teach you, and I sure don’t want to preach at you. I understand the struggle a bit, and so I want to share what happened to me this past week, and how my thinking radically changed. I am not proud of my experience. But I am compelled to bear witness to it.
My initial response to the death of George Floyd and the public reaction that followed was along the lines of “I hope the police crush those opportunistic rioters”. Also, “I bet they find out that George Floyd resisted arrest and it wasn’t Officer Chauvin’s fault, just like subsequent investigations did with all those other black guys who died in police custody.”
As I type this last sentence, I feel a deep grief at how heartless and anti-Christ this was.
It took two days–two days–as I watched the eight minutes and forty-six seconds of a black man being murdered by a white authority figure visibly reveling in his power and supremacy–for me to feel differently. As I watched, I felt horror, grief, physically ill. And in that moment, some clarity: a recognition that my my initial “law and order” response might not be in alignment with my Christian belief system, and may in fact directly oppose it. Not in a sort of harmless, passive way, but dangerously, actively, like darkness creeping into a forest after the sun sets.
Instead of “clothing myself” with “compassion, kindness, humility, and meekness” (Col 3:12), my initial response was clothed in something else.
Instead of feeling the gut-wrenching (literally, in the original Greek of Luke 20:34) compassion of Christ for someone suffering, I felt something else.
Not “Christ in me” (Col 1:27)…but something else.
I’ve had this experience of grief and compassion once before in my life, when Mardi and I encountered the HIV/AIDS pandemic in Africa through a friend. It was compelling enough to lead us to sell our house, quit our jobs, and move to volunteer at a hospital in the Rift Valley in Kenya. So I’ve learned to sit up and pay attention when I have experiences like this, and compelled by this conviction, I resolved try to listen to what voices from the black community in the USA are saying.
I heard black Yale theologian (and Baptist minister) Willie Jennings share his stories of being held unlawfully by the police, and say “I have learned that living the discipline of hope in this racial world requires anger. I am angry … [and] my anger is connected to the righteous indignation of God.”
I heard a black pastor and mentor say “I pay attention to those who speak out about injustice, and I take note of those who choose to remain silent. Both speak volumes.”
I listened to a black pastor from a Minneapolis church we partner with share how her elementary-age son was recently “Amy Cooper’ed” by a white girl at school, say “You know, to be honest I’m tired of white folks asking me to teach them about racial reconciliation and what they can do to help. If you can google directions to your lake house, you can google racial injustice. Stop telling me you’re going to pray about it and DO something.”
I heard Bishop T.D. Jakes say “This is not a new problem. It’s not the result of the pandemic. It’s a result of a spiritual pandemic and a cultural pandemic that has existed in America from the very foundations. We’ve never dealt with it, we don’t talk about it. It’s taboo to discuss it. The church has a very difficult history when it comes to racial issues. We have been complicit participants…”
I listened to historian Aaron Griffith, who documented the rise of “law and order” rhetoric in the 1960’s, observe that “…white Christians [got] drawn into siding with candidates who they saw as tough on crime. And in response to complaints about police brutality, white evangelicals would claim that police brutality wasn’t a real problem or that police use of violent force was justified …to be frank, I see this happening today. I see very similar things happening today, where leading evangelical figures downplay brutality and the concerns of people of color.”
And I heard a black American diplomat (whose last posting was in Melbourne, Australia!) say “For white Americans, owning the problem begins with acknowledging the truth about themselves, our nation, and the policies that intensify our nation’s divides. They must acknowledge that they are the primary beneficiaries of the very racism and white supremacy that so many of them find to be repugnant — racism that they themselves sometimes dispense.”
I am trying to listen.
As I listen, I am reluctant to share words of advice…I don’t have any apart from “maybe we should all listen”. Thankfully, this is safe ground. For Christians particularly, listening is a spiritual discipline–it’s the first word of the Rule of St Benedict, it trains us to recognize “the eruptions of grace into one’s life–often from unlikely sources”, and perhaps is of most value to the listener, as we learn that “one of the fruits of silence is the freedom to let God be our justifier. We don’t need to straighten others out.”
No, I really don’t have much advice. What I have is a conviction that I can’t be silent; that my silence could be in fact be complicity in something deeply evil, something that God in fact hates.
I have to pause to let that sink into my soul…it is possible that I have benefited from a system which is riddled with something that God hates. All analysis aside, my only response to this can be to repent: “We have delighted in cultural conflict and disdained the pursuit of peace and understanding. Lord, have mercy.“
So…friends and readers…may we listen.
If the voices we hear come in conflict with our understanding of the gospel and Christianity…may we listen. It may be that the Holy Spirit is calling me away from religious nationalism and towards Christ “plus” nothing.
If their voices just make us angry because no one likes being told what to do or what to think…may we listen. It may be that God is speaking to me through someone I would ordinarily refuse to be taught by, like Balaam, to help take my pride down a peg (Numbers 22:8).
If all we can hear are the voices on the periphery–calls to “defund the police” or calls to “send in the military”–may we look for what God is saying to us through the quiet wisdom of the thoughtful, rather than the noise of the fringe. May I exercise wisdom in my listening, in other words, and not jump at every frisbee, like a labrador puppy.
If we won’t listen to anyone talking about “rights” unless they will also talk simultaneously about their “responsibilities”…may we listen. Is a conversation about “responsibilities” in a system riddled with systemic injustice a fair conversation?
If we are angry at those who are paying a price because others are hurting too–whether police being unfairly demonized, innocent folk losing property, bystanders getting hurt, etc–may we listen. Often prophetic witness comes in incomplete packages. It does not lessen the prophetic voice when it raises additional questions or is untidy. May I commit to study the Hebrew scriptures thoughtfully. David was a philanderer, murderer, and possibly the worst father who ever lived – a mess – and yet, somehow…”a man after God’s own heart.” (Acts 13:22).
If we think the voices aren’t speaking to us, because we are “color-blind” or “adopted a black baby” or “have black friends”…may we listen. Perhaps we’re in the majority of decent white Americans–we’re actively repulsed when we see the Amy Cooper’s of the world, weaponizing white privilege. But is it possible that I am Amy Cooper on the inside, just a little bit, when I refuse to even consider if I benefit in some way from a system founded on the supremacy of my ethnic group? And if I am benefiting, is it possible that I am corporately responsible for speaking up about it, as Aachen’s family was held accountable by God–and stoned to death, in that ancient culture–for the action of a single person in the family?
And, perhaps most importantly for followers of Jesus, if we have been raised in a tradition that hears these voices as raising issues that are peripheral to the gospel, “majoring on the minors”: may we open our Bibles again. May we hear the debar Yahweh, the living word of God, pointing us to the center of God’s being–that “righteousness and justice are the foundation of his throne” (Psalm 89:14)–not a “nice to have” after the “real work” of evangelism and church planting happens. And may this spur me beyond knowledge to action: to “Spirit-enabled transformative participation in the life and character of God revealed in the crucified and resurrected Messiah Jesus.”