On May 25 in Minneapolis, George Floyd, a black man, died because a white police officer’s restraining technique cut off his air supply. For over eight minutes, the police officer’s knee pressed directly onto the back of Floyd’s neck while Floyd lay handcuffed on his stomach on the pavement. Floyd stated multiple times that he couldn’t breathe, and those watching and filming this also stated this to the police officer multiple times. Three other police officers on the scene didn’t intervene on Floyd’s behalf. All four police officers have been fired, and the one who performed the restraint has been arrested and charged with third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter. Floyd had been arrested for allegedly passing a counterfeit $20 bill at a nearby store.
If you so desire, you can watch live videos of Floyd’s death filmed by onlookers. If you so desire, you can read social media wars between those with differing perspectives on Floyd’s death. If you so desire, you can investigate the partisan posturing from our politicians over this tragic event. There is no shortage of articles and stories in which you may indulge regarding the death of George Floyd. The cartoon above was actually published four years ago showing the enduring nature of the problem: https://www.tampabay.com/news/editorial-cartoons-for-sept-25-26/2295153/
Limitations of Perspective
I have been wondering about where people go once they learn about Floyd’s death? What philosophical, theological, historical, and/or emotional paths do they walk down once they know about this death? I am a white, heterosexual, middle-class, graduate-level educated American citizen, and so were my parents. The paths I can walk down look a specific way. I am limited in my vision due to my privilege and power, and thus I am limited in my response to this tragedy.
Due to my background, I can’t directly feel the weight of 400 years of slavery, institutionalized and legally-sanctioned racism, oppression, extrajudicial killings, intimidation, underinvestment, over-policing, and disenfranchisement pressing down on my hopes, dreams, psyche, mental health, physical health, educational health, vocational health, housing health, and economic health. I have to listen to those with direct experience. Videos, articles, cartoons, and memes can help raise my awareness, but, more importantly, I have to listen.
To quote Richard Rohr: “Authentic solidarity requires a series of conversions. It requires our voluntary displacement from our position(s) of privilege – whether that be class, race, gender, [sexual orientation], physical ability, nationality, or religion – toward someone not like us in a real and tangible way… Only through relationships can we know what kind of help or advocacy is truly desired. Solidarity is not about ‘I’m helping you,’ but a commitment to walking and learning together. And of course, learning together requires us to be in dialogue with the understanding that I have much to learn.” (https://cac.org/solidarity-weekly-summary-2020-05-30/, emphasis mine)
Justice and Violence
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., after discrediting violence as an effective means of creating meaningful change, said in a 1968 speech entitled, “The Other America”:
“But it is not enough for me to stand before you tonight and condemn riots. It would be morally irresponsible for me to do that without, at the same time, condemning the contingent, intolerable conditions that exist in our society. These conditions are the things that cause individuals to feel that they have no other alternative than to engage in violent rebellions to get attention. And I must say tonight that a riot is the language of the unheard. And what is it America has failed to hear…It has failed to hear that the promises of freedom and justice have not been met. And it has failed to hear that large segments of white society are more concerned about tranquility and the status quo than about justice and humanity.” (https://www.gphistorical.org/mlk/mlkspeech/mlk-gp-speech.pdf)
King could hold two things that are seemingly at odds together and not feel the need to reconcile them: the troubling violence sometimes associated with rioting and the righteous anger behind the rioting. Not all of us can hold these two things at the same time. Sometimes, I should hold things before pronouncing judgement, especially because I come from privilege and power. Consider, for instance, one of the few stories about Jesus found in all four Gospels: “In the temple Jesus found people selling cattle, sheep, and doves, and the money changers seated at their tables. Making a whip of cords, he drove all of them out of the temple, both the sheep and the cattle. He also poured out the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables. He told those who were selling doves, ‘Take these things out of here! Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!’ His disciples remembered that it was written, ‘Zeal for your house will consume me.’” (John 2:14-17). On the one hand, Jesus is acting with physical and verbal violence. On the other hand, Jesus’ anger is righteous.
Consider also, on the one hand, the very legal right of predominately white protestors to go to a state capitol building with several people blatantly displaying automatic and semiautomatic firearms and several dressed in body armor/ammunition vests to protest stay-at-home orders and how these protests did not end in the destruction of property, looting, vandalism, or tense confrontations with law enforcement. On the other hand, is participating in a protest while brandishing firearms and wearing body armor/ammunition vests truly a non-violent form of protest? Even though these protests were legal, would a predominately black group of protestors with automatic and semiautomatic firearms blatantly displayed wearing body armor/ammunition vests protesting the death of unarmed black people and systemic racism at a state capitol be met with the same patience and restraint by law enforcement as these groups of white protestors were? Is the very fact that these predominately white protestors with firearms and body armor/ammunition vests did receive patience and restraint from law enforcement a sign of white privilege and power?
Listening to God and Neighbor
I try to hold these many things together at the same time. It is difficult at times, because I want to pronounce judgment. I want to be viewed as right. I want people to validate my feelings. I want to be viewed by others as articulate, enlightened, righteous, etc. I don’t want to have to think too hard about it all. Then I remember that John the Baptizer’s and Jesus’ first message was “Repent” (“turning around of the mind” in the original texts). Then I remember that after Jesus would share a parable that always contained layers of meaning and things that appeared to be at odds, he would often end his teaching with, “Those that have ears, listen.” In the midst of all that is occurring on Earth currently, maybe my prayer should be, “Lord, please help me to listen to you and to my neighbor.” Perhaps then, instead of feeling as if I must hold all these things together at one time, I can be held by the One through whom “all things hold together” (Colossians 1:17b).