"I can't breath." We've heard this phrase twice from Black men being killed by police officers. Two times too many.
Minneapolis is grief stricken and rage gripped by the murder of George Floyd. The thoughts I want to share are a problem for a number of reasons. The first is that I am acutely aware that I speak from a place of privilege. This awareness is one of the reasons I have been reluctant to write much about the situation. But as a pastor I have a responsibility to speak God's word, a Gospel word into this moment. I am ill equipped to do so; but I will try.
"Come and see how well despair
Is seasoned by the stif'ling air
See your ghetto in the good old
Suppose the streets were all on fire
The flames like tempers leaping higher
Suppose you'd lived there all your life
D'you think that you would mind?"
My life in the movement toward racial and economic equality in this country is marked by music.
Spanky And Our Gang's "Give A Damn" peaked at number 43 on the Billboard chart in 1968. I was 15. 52 years ago and somehow it seems like we still haven't learned how to "give a damn about our fellow man." Some of us have tried. Some of us have gotten our piece of the action and looked away. For most of us, I think that it's a combination of both.
But the truth is that the ability do chose is a matter of privilege in and of itself. No policeman has ever put their knee on my neck. I have never been arrested because I "fit a description" (read that as being black and color being the primary word in the description). No privileged white woman has ever threatened to call the police and say "please come quick, a black man has threatened me and I'm in fear for my life."
I can count on one hand the times I've been teargassed or pepper sprayed, and both of them were training situations.
Even my rage at the murder in Minneapolis is a privileged rage. It's also a guilty rage. If I, and other white folks had lived our faith and given a damn, perhaps George Floyd might still be alive. I can say that I understand the anger that sets a fire or engages in violence, but that's bullshit...at least in this case. I have, perhaps three times in my life, been angry enough that killing someone was a possibility. I know that kind of anger. But it is not a part of my daily existence. The 'ground down-ness' that makes that anger a part of daily emotion is not my story.
I know that America has perpetrated the oppression that has laid the groundwork for what is happening right now...just as surely as I know there is a racist in the White House who would like nothing better than to throw the red meat of turning attack dogs on protesters and shooting live rounds into the crowd.
"Gotta get down to it
Soldiers are cutting us down
Should have been done long ago
What if you knew her
And found her dead on the ground
How can you run when you know?"
Neil Young wrote "Ohio" in response to the Kent State shootings on May 7, 1970. I was 17. Fifty years ago.
I also know that, in the words of Malcom X "When Patrick Henry said, 'give me liberty or give me death, he was not making a plea for non-violence.'" This is a nation built on blood and the bed rock belief that if you push me far enough, or ignore my need for justice long enough, don't be surprised when I respond with violence. You shoulda seen it coming.....except, of course if I should happen to be black; then suddenly the virtues of patience and forgiveness are touted and held up as the model for what it means to be a good Christian and a good citizen. Let me be clear. That response is bull shit.
I serve a Christ who said, "If you do it to the least of these, you do it to Me." He didn't say that that's true only if the 'least' is white, or upper class, or sober, or has a clean criminal record. He said, "if you do it." Period. On Monday, on the concrete of Minneapolis, God could not breath. This same God said as He lay down the rules for living in the Promise Land in Exodus 22:20-23:
"You shall not wrong a stranger or oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. You shall not ill treat any widow or orphan. If you do mistreat them, I will heed their outcry as soon as they cry out to Me, and My anger shall blaze forth and I will put you to the sword, and your own wives shall become widows and your children orphans."
If you don't think the God of the OT is concerned with Justice, you know nothing of Torah. And if you think that this concern has somehow gone away in Jesus, you don't know much about Him either.
Remember all those wonderful sermons about the "refiner's fire" and how God uses the hard times to refine our lives in Him. Remember how the preacher told you that the gold or silver was heated up til the dross rose to the top and could be scrapped away again and again. And how we heard that the refiner knew their job was complete when they could look into the silver and see their own reflection.
Remember? Well, hang on. Cause this pandemic and this moment in history is a refiner's fire.
In them our national life is being heated and the dross is rising to the top...and oh what a dirty, crappy mess it is. Our denying of equality of medical care. The death of young Black people (mostly men) on the streets. The rise of White Supremacy and the election of a Nazi 'fellow traveler' to the White House. The list goes on as the dross of our national shame rises to the top.
My fear is that we will do this time what we have done so often in the past. We will simply find the long stirrer and stir the dross back into the liquid silver. We will not do the hard work of living in the heat of God's judgement or of scrapping off the dross of racism and inequality. Then the only face we will see in the silver is our own and we will worship that idol and claim it is God.
But it is Pentecost. And I believe that God may breath yet. I remember that when the breath of God, the Holy Spirit blew through that upper room, the next thing the disciples knew, they were out on the street. Preaching the Gospel.
If the Holy Spirit blows through us, it will drop our ass on the street. We can no longer hide in the upper room of our whiteness and our privilege. You may get dropped on the street in a protest raising your arms to say, "hands up, don't shoot" or "I can't breath." You may get dropped into a courtroom defending the rights of minorities. You may get dropped into a food bank making sure those who are hungry during this pandemic are fed. I have no idea where the Spirit will drop you; It blows where It wills. You might even be dropped into a police department to live out that task with fidelity (I know officers who are doing that right now). Each of these is a preaching of Gospel.
I do not know where the Holy Spirit will drop you,..or me. What I do know is that none of us gets to sit on our ass. None of us gets to sing the tepid white liberal blues of "slow down, you move too fast." And that if we do, God's word will be to us what it was to the church at Laodicea: "I know your works; you are neither hot nor cold. Would that you were cold or hot! So because you are lukewarm , and neither cold nor hot, I will vomit you out of My mouth. For you say, I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing; not knowing that you are wretched, pitiable poor, blind, and naked." (Rev. 3:15-17)
The Word Of The Lord