So what can we as a church — and what can we as individual Christians — say and do in response to the death of George Floyd, the resulting outrage and demonstrations, and the looting and burning by a minority of the protesters? Is there anything we are called to say and do as a church — and as Christians — that is different from what is already being said and done?
As some of you know, before I went into ministry I was a criminal prosecutor in Washington D.C. For one year of my five-year tenure there, I was on the street in the inner-city, teamed with two homicide detectives, making cases against violent offenders. For another three years I prosecuted assault, robbery, murder, and rape cases in the D.C. courts. And for one year I was Deputy Chief of Felony Trial, one of two people in charge of all the prosecutions of violent crimes in D.C.
I saw first-hand the effects of poverty and racism in those inner-city neighborhoods. I saw that it was almost impossible for black children to make their way out of those ghettoes. I saw their hopelessness and their increasing bitterness, anger, and resignation to the random injustice of their plights. I saw the way that the racism of the economic and criminal justice systems trapped them. I saw first-hand the way that police officers interacted with the black residents of those neighborhoods and vice versa.
I experienced that some of those residents distrusted all police officers and subjected them to the brunt of their anger and resentment, unable to see them as individuals doing a terribly hard job. And I experienced that some of the officers gave into terrible racism, saturated with their own resentment and anger from the constant crime and disrespect, made inexcusable judgments about people merely based upon their race and poverty, operated with a metaphoric hair trigger, and were incapable of seeing the residents as individuals.
I saw both sides. As Deputy Chief, I reviewed and approved all criminal indictments of police officers for excessive force. But I was also one of the few prosecutors ever made an honorary member of the D.C. Police Department Homicide Squad, an award I still display proudly in my office at the Methodist Justice Ministry.
THE problem in the D.C. justice system was division with a capital “D.” People were terribly divided by race, class, experience, perspective — everything. I see that kind of division growing now in the nation as a whole.
Neuroscientists tell us that all of our brains are hard-wired for division. We evolved as a species needing a community to survive. In order to strengthen our community-bonding instincts, we developed a natural distrust and hostility to groups not like our own — to groups of people who looked, lived, and spoke differently.
The scientists tell us that this hard wiring persists in each of our brains. And that is why we are so susceptible and vulnerable to the Great Dividers among us — people who seek power and position by inviting us to condemn others who don’t look or act or believe just like we do; people who advance themselves by blaming and scapegoating and name calling; people who build themselves up only by tearing others down.
That is why we as a nation and a species are so much in need of Great Unifiers — peacemakers who see individuals not just their groups; who seek to understand and empathize with the experience and perspective of all others; who seek and see the good in others, who seek common ground through honest communication and mutual respect, who eschew name-calling and labeling, who demonstrate to persuade and reform non-violently, who seek consensus in legislation to protect the victims.
This calling to be among the Great Unifiers is part of the particular mission of the church and of Christians at this time. (Why? Because who else is doing it?) To carry out this mission, we have the gift of the most beautiful, powerful, and hopeful set of convictions that can bring about so much good, if we will just speak them and live them.
We believe that everything and everyone in all of creation is the product of the one overflowing love of the one God. We believe that this God bends low in creation in humble love at all times, and that the nature of this humility and love is shown in the lives of so many humble and loving persons but particularly in the humble and loving life of Jesus.
We believe that this humble, loving, and saving God is seen and found within the entirety of creation, including in the core and center of every single human life. We believe that every human being is a “little word” spoken into being by God, in the image of God, and held in being by the eternal Word of God.
We believe that God never loses any of God’s creatures. We believe that it is the will of this one God to break down all the divisions between us and creation, as well as among us. We believe that this will of God will be carried out through Great Unifiers, not Great Dividers.
George Floyd? A “little word” of the eternal Word of God whose center was home to God’s overflowing love. Derek Chauvin? Hard as it may be to admit, also a “little word” of the eternal Word of God whose center was home to God’s overflowing love. What in his life had brought him to that curb and that inhuman cruelty? Those who demonstrated peacefully? Each the same. Those who have looted and vandalized and started fires? The same.
How different would Derek Chauvin’s life be if he had been able to see the “little word” in George Floyd and in himself? The same can be said for all of us.
I am most certainly not saying that there should be no legal consequences for Officer Chauvin and looters. I am most certainly not saying there should be no societal sanction against those who discriminate and carry out hate crimes.
We in the Methodist Justice Ministry are in court everyday struggling to obtain human justice and legal protections for victims of violence and oppression. What I am speaking about is words and actions that are beautiful, powerful, and hopeful, that can lead us out of this hell of a status quo.
There are three images from this past week which we all carry in our hearts.
One is Derek Chauvin’s knee on George Floyd’s neck as he cried for mercy.
The second is of a young woman demonstrator screaming at the top of her lungs from a foot away into the set-jawed, rock-hard face of a police officer standing a barrier line. The one motivated by her angry, righteous outrage, and the other furious at being unjustly abused as an individual. Neither one actually seeing the individual in front of them, totally divided with no hope of reconciliation.
The third is of an older African American woman, who, in the midst of a loud demonstration, crossed through a barrier to approach and hug for long seconds a white police officer who was being verbally abused. At first, the officer was embarrassed and non-responsive. But then, slowly, his arm slid up and he hugged her back.
In which of these images did hope live? In which did God’s overflowing love live?
Surely in the demonstrations for justice and humanity. But what about in the righteous screaming and the set jaw? Or in the barrier crossing and the humble, merciful hug?
Racism, injustice, and oppression are real, cruel, and intolerable. But we Christians believe that there is at the core of each of us a presence of God that abhors this racism, injustice, and oppression — and will bring us out of it together.
Rev. Brooks Harrington
To support the tireless work of the Methodist Justice Ministry, click here