By Pamela A. Lewis
“It demands great spiritual resilience not to hate the hater whose foot is on your neck, and an even greater miracle of perception and charity not to teach your child to hate.”
— James Baldwin
America has been and is a place of irreconcilables. In contrast to the stalwart Pilgrims and other early settlers who survived perilous journeys to come to these shores to forge new lives are the innumerable indigenous peoples whose territories were taken from them and who became displaced persons within their own lands. There are the soaring words of the Declaration of Independence, that speaks of humanity’s God-endowed freedom and unalienable rights, penned in elegant calligraphy by a man whose slaves were not meant to be included in those words. America is a place where a black man has served two terms as its president, yet one where an unarmed black man can also die from a white police officer pressing his knee on his neck.
On a day that has been set aside for this nation to proudly memorialize its fallen in past conflicts, on a day meant to honor those who gave “the last full measure,” something hideously dishonorable occurred. That shocking moment, captured on film, has since “gone viral,” an expression which, in the larger context of the COVID-19 pandemic, is painfully ironic. The footage of that awful moment has been replayed so many times that it may be impossible to find someone who has not seen it at least once.
While horrified by the chilling video of Mr. Floyd’s contorted face and by his gasped final words “I can’t breathe,” that evoke the memory of Eric Garner’s death some six years ago, I, like many African-Americans, am not surprised by this latest killing, because it is not new. It has taken different forms, and has occurred in myriad places, but it goes back 400 years, as Jacob Frey, mayor of Minneapolis, acknowledged. But as George Floyd’s likeness has already become immortalized, as have those of so many martyred black males before him, on murals amid burned-out and looted stores in his home city of Minneapolis and elsewhere, vast numbers of Americans of all stripes have raised their fists and voices in enraged protest and taken to the streets. This, too, is not surprising.
This is rage born of frustration, of people who are ravenous for the justice they have been denied too long. Their rage is understandably and justifiably directed at a kind of policing — such as was exercised on George Floyd — that is violently indifferent to the humanity they know they possess. The anger-fueled shouts of the protesters are launched not only over George Floyd’s murder, but also at what they long have recognized as white supremacist-fueled law enforcement. As Jelani Cobb, staff writer at The New Yorker magazine, puts it, “It’s necessary and, at this point, pedestrian to observe that policing in this country is mediated by race.” Regardless of whether any of the protesters knew George Floyd personally, they and he have become one; they identify with the life he had led, and they can envision themselves dying his manner of death.
At such moments, there is always the need to find parallels in history, to look to past events that might offer explanations for the ones unfurling before us. We look back to the 1918 influenza in hope of understanding the present COVID-19 pandemic; we see similarities between the conditions that gave rise to the riots of the 1960s and those that have informed the uprisings in the wake of George Floyd’s death.
These are expectable and reasonable impulses on the part of the wider society. But the Christian community is always impelled to look at events such as those overflowing from the nightly news into our living rooms through a different lens. The glass of that lens is ground by Christ, and it is his kingdom we should see when looking through it, and the one I argue the protesters are struggling — albeit unwittingly — to bring into view.
Past historical events, however instructive they may be, offer a secular and, arguably, partial understanding of those events. The faith community can derive more useful and powerful assistance from the Old Testament stories that speak of the sufferings of oppressed people, as well as in the New Testament accounts of Christ’s life and his teachings of unconditional love, forgiveness and reconciliation. We can understand today’s people of color as latter-day ancient Israelites, who were oppressed by earthly power in the person of a Pharaoh, as well as by the power of the Roman Empire, that employed crucifixion to terrorize its Jewish subjects, most notably Jesus of Nazareth. We can understand these examples as the “state” imposing its power on the powerless, not unlike what many African-Americans in communities such as George Floyd’s in Minneapolis have experienced in their encounters with the police. It is this present and unjust “kingdom” which the protesters (and, to be clear, I speak of those protesters who are not engaging in destruction of property or in physically attacking other persons) seek to overthrow and replace with a kingdom of justice, love, and peace. Or, in the words of the Rev. Dr. Matthew Burdette in his 2016 series of essays, A Sacred Conversation on Race, “God’s kingdom will be what the Lord makes of the failure of our politics and systems.”
What has felt like an unending season of injustice and anger can be rendered finite only if it is followed by restorative justice, which is eternal, and without which reconciliation and true community is impossible. Because it is informed by and deeply imbedded in the Gospel, whose unchanging message asserts that humanity is made in the image of God, restorative justice differs in significant ways from criminal justice.
Whereas traditional criminal justice seeks to protect individuals’ rights through ostensibly formal, adversarial processes, the goal of restorative justice is to place the responsibility of resolving conflict on individuals themselves and through informal processes. Although it acknowledges that real conflict exists between peoples, restorative justice seeks reconciliation between people who hate one another by establishing the norms of the beloved community, which comprise security, well-being, contentment, and harmony. Whereas in criminal justice the police, prosecutors, and judges are invariably the ones to guide how disputes are handled, it is the commonly held interests and desires of disputing parties that serve as the guiding principles in restorative justice. Restorative justice recognizes the fundamental dignity of every individual, seeing that all are worthy of and treated with respect and care. While criminal justice is concerned with enforcement of laws, restorative justice seeks to engage people in uncomfortable conversations whereby they confront equally uncomfortable truths towards resolving conflicts. In so doing, those who have been in enmity become “repairers of the breach.”
On June 17, 2015, Dylann Roof, a young self-avowed white supremacist, murdered nine African-Americans at Emanuel A.M.E. Church in Charleston, South Carolina. Almost immediately after the shooting, some family and members of Emanuel Church forgave Roof. Their act communicated to the world that they were not simply black people or victims, but Christians, fully committed to Christ’s teachings of agape and forgiveness of one’s enemies. Theirs was not a racial or political statement, but an uncompromisingly theological one, and they understood that, as Martin Luther King, Jr. observed in his 1957 sermon, “Loving Your Enemies,” “Jesus Christ wasn’t playing” when he gave this commandment, as forgiveness is the source of our redemption. He understood how extremely serious and difficult forgiveness and loving enemies are, yet he carried out these actions, even as he hung on the cross.
Yet our forgiveness cannot, must not be “cheap,” otherwise there can be no true reconciliation. Too often, we use forgiveness as a weapon, demanding that it be given without first taking into account the real and deep wounds and injustices that have accumulated over time. It is our responsibility to painstakingly discover its meaning of forgiveness and how to live out Christ’s command to do this. While the murder of George Floyd presents yet again another opportunity to take stock of our society, each of us must begin with the self and engage in the hard interior work of constant and honest self-scrutiny.
In 2019, the Episcopal Diocese of New York declared the Year of Lamentation, acknowledging the Church’s role in slavery and discrimination, and it has declared 2020 the Year of Apology, expressing the understanding of its need to apologize and atone for its role in racial injustice. While this is an important start, the institutional Church, regardless of denomination, must assume a greater, reconciling presence in the struggle to correct what has been wrong, for it has frequently spoken too softly or been silent altogether in response to bigotry.
Depicting the countless immigrants who had come to America in their quest for freedom and opportunity, Emma Lazarus wrote movingly in her poem about the Statue of Liberty “The New Colossus,” of the “huddled masses, yearning to breathe free,” words now engraved on a plaque and set in the statue’s pedestal. George Floyd, an American citizen, gasping under the pressing knee of Derek Chauvin, was, literally, yearning and begging to breathe free, but had his breath cruelly taken away. We who are still alive are also yearning to breathe free, to breathe air that will one day be free of the choking smoke of racism. God grant that that day arrive in our lifetime.
Pamela A. Lewis is a member of Saint Thomas Church, Fifth Avenue, New York City. She writes on topics of faith.