Rome Is Burning
I sit here staring at a blinking cursor mostly lost for words. I am grieving the horrendous death of George Floyd like everyone else but I know I’m processing only a sliver of its significance. I am hesitant to say much of anything because I feel so unqualified. I’m a white due who doesn’t even tan, I just burn. I want to listen to, learn from, and empathize with the lived experience of people of color—be a student first and critic last. I’m not black or brown and I am reluctant to speak for those who are or even add my voice to the fray.
But I’m a leader and I have a responsibility to say and do something. As I look back through this stream of consciousness first paragraph I notice how self-absorbed it reads. Literally every sentence starts with “I” or “I’m”. This isn’t about me. See, I watched a black man address an officer of the law by that title—officer, not “pig” or other pot shots—as he begged for the ability to breathe for minutes that felt like months. I watched a black man call out for his momma as fellow officers and citizens stood by, hands in pockets. It needs to be called what it is: shameful, flagrant, heinous, evil.
On Pentecost Sunday I had hoped for a different kind of fire. Our world is burning down and it needs to. We have to feel the blaze the black community has been enduring for generations. If only for a cultural second, we are forced to stare eyes peeled, mouths agape, speechless, and breathless into the incandescent glow of burning city streets tainted with tear gas and smoke and maybe, just maybe, we can catch a glimpse of or hear a fragment of the vacuous echo of a sobbing black mothers grieving the loss of sons and daughters time and time again.
People of color don’t need to told to turn down their emotion because white people are uncomfortable with its substance. What would you do if it was your kid on the ground gasping for air? I hesitate to think why I might do. Plus, let’s be honest, we are never comfortable with protests of racial inequality or inequity, civil and peaceful or otherwise. It’s always inconvenient. It hurts professional sports profit sharing.
Hear me, I’m not condoning the riots and looting that litter news headlines. I value law and order. I pray for peace. I, like others, decry the violence we are seeing around our nation. I do not believe that the four cops featured in the George Floyd murder video typify law enforcement, not by a long shot. Strongly believing all these things though, I’m not black. I’ve never, not once, felt unsafe jogging through my or any other neighborhood in town. I won’t have to explain to my daughters how they’ve aged out of their “cute” stage and will now be perceived as a threatening and unsettling presence because of the color of their skin and choice of clothing. I’ve never been profiled by racially insensitive law enforcement officers. The closest I’ve ever come to anything like that was dealing with a small town cop in Pickens, SC who was on a power trip and wrote me my first, and so far only, speeding ticket for going 10 over on an empty country road, on a hill, following someone going the same speed. He saw out of state plates and saw easy money. He said as much. All that being said, just because my lived experience of racial inequity is limited or absent does not mean it doesn’t exist. How many more videos do we need?
Derek Chauvin (the cop pictured kneeling on George’s neck) was a bad egg. I agree. Stories and reports continue to surface to further confirm that truth. But what about his colleagues who helped restrain George Floyd and did nothing to answer his pleas for life? Are they bad eggs too, horrible racists who couldn’t have cared less as they watched George go limp and lifeless? I’m speculating for course, time will tell, due process will be served, but I doubt it. I imagine their hearts are nowhere near as calloused and cold as the video would have us believe. This is why justice for this moment is so much bigger than Derek Chauvin being charged with manslaughter and third degree murder. True justice addresses the system that allowed, in fact practically necessitated, these cops honor their fellow officer more than the black man dying beneath them.
We have a bigger problem than bad egg cops and racist grandmas. It transcends geographical barriers and isn’t confined to urban centers. It’s cultural, historical, socio-economical, all the “i-cals”. I’m bias for sure, but I believe it is spiritual at its root. We have an empathy problem. We have a hard time seeing outside of our lived experience because to do so risks popping the comfortable, insulated bubbles we inhabit.
We can’t ignore it anymore. Fiery riots (even if largely instigated by outsiders, organized crime, or even white supremacists) ought to wake us up to the truth that we have to do more, especially within the body of Christ, than simply say, “I’m not racist.” We have to be anti-racist. We have to work to dismantle systems and structures that aren’t equal or equitable. And we can. We can raise new generations that aren’t ignorant to these issues nor inoculated against helpful conversations because they are so politically or religiously charged. We can and must do better at talking about these things civilly, working toward real solutions, legislative or otherwise (though you can’t change hearts through legislation), and standing with and lending our voices to communities in pain.
God used a moment of impulsive and illegal action (murder) in Exodus 2 to shape the life of Moses, the great emancipator and law giver of the Old Testament. Shortly thereafter in the narrative, this dude brings down divine laws from Yahweh’s holy mountain, one of which was “thou shall not murder,” with blood stained hands. God was able to use the crisis moment of Moses’ life as the springboard to his higher calling. My prayer is He is doing the same thing in our nation and in our churches today in these tumultuous times.
But hey, don’t take my word for it. Listen to a black or brown friend. Hear their hearts and stories. Trying walking a mile in their shoes (so much as is possible) before trying to correct their stride.