Former President Barack Obama in his recent statement regarding the murder of George Floyd at the hands (knee) of a policeman in Minnesota, said “This shouldn’t be ‘normal’ in 2020 America. It can’t be ‘normal,’…. If we want our children to grow up in a nation that lives up to its highest ideals, we can and must be better.” I agree 100%.
Mr. Obama ended his message calling for justice for Mr. Floyd’s death and reiterating that violent acts of racism can no longer be tolerated in America and beyond. Amen!
“It will fall mainly on the officials of Minnesota to ensure that the circumstances surrounding George Floyd’s death are investigated thoroughly and that justice is ultimately done,” declared Obama. “But it falls on all of us, regardless of our race or station—including the majority of men and women in law enforcement who take pride in doing their tough job the right way, every day to work together to create a ‘new normal’ in which the legacy of bigotry and unequal treatment no longer infects our institutions or our hearts.”
I must be honest here and ask, “what does it mean to work together to create a new normal?” There is no question that we have a legacy of bigotry and unequal treatment in this country that is systemic and infects our institutions. It keeps happening over and over and I can understand the frustration of the black community. You would think that police departments around the country would have figured this out by now. Why haven’t they? What needs to happen? This needs to be fleshed out and not shoved onto the back burner until the next time.
Then there is the last part of Mr. Obama’s statement where he mentions the bigotry infecting our hearts. What can police departments do about that? Is there any kind of training that can change the human heart if racism is already there? ? It has been my observation that while education, training, and racial justice legislation have cleared the way for many significant rights, freedoms, and protection for racial and ethnic minorities, they have at the same time, threatened and inflamed the hatred of many in the majority and those in positions of power. In my anecdotal studies, I have never seen anyone converted by such training or legislation whose heart was already hostile by racial prejudice. By no means am I saying that we stop legislating against injustice or do away with cultural and educational training, I’m just saying that we are naive to think that it will deal with the bigotry that springs from the human heart.
A few years ago, I had the privilege to be in Selma at the 50th Anniversary of “Bloody Sunday,” the civil rights march led by Dr King in 1965 across the Edmond Pettis Bridge to Birmingham. President Obama was there at the anniversary and asked me to walk with him- just kidding. Actually, I was there with 12 football players from Wheaton College—I was the interim chaplain at the time. We spent the week working with a church and helping some start-up businesses by doing grunt work and heavy-lifting. I observed that the local golf course was still “whites only.” The Civil War memorials were still divided between whites and “coloreds.” The local cemetery was strewn with confederate flags and had become the meeting place of white supremacy groups. And talking to older black folks in coffee shops, I got the distinct impression that while laws have produced change, racism was/is just beneath the surface waiting to raise its ugly head again.
A few years before that, I took a bus trip with a group of black and white clergy from the Chicago area, following the route of the civil rights protest movement, and ending up in Birmingham. (This was the first time I visited Selma, worshiped in an African American church, and walked across the bridge.) My seat-mate and roommate on the week long trip was a minority pastor from Uptown, Chicago. All of us interacted, watched movies on racial issues, had lively seat discussions on the bus. We visited a slave museum and “experienced” the de-humanizing process of being herded like cattle onto a slave ship and then sold into slavery when we arrived in America. We worshipped at the 16th St Baptist Church in Birmingham where 4 young girls were killed in 1963 by 15 sticks of dynamite exploded in a church bathroom during Sunday school.* We also visited the MLK museum in Atlanta and the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, where Dr. King was killed on April 4, 1968 .
In all our heated and energetic discussions, we kept coming back to the gospel. It is only through the work of Christ in the human heart that love can replace hate and reconciliation replace separation. Granted that there are many white supremacists who also claim to be Christians. But just as being born in a garage doesn’t make you car, neither does being born into the Christian religion make you a follower of Jesus. “Everyone who hates his brother is a murderer and you know that no murderer has eternal life abiding in him.” (1 John 3:15)
I keep coming back to the powerful example of the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, SC, whose members forgave the young white supremacist, Dylan Roof, after he killed 9 church members at a Bible Study back in 2015. I was humbled, and still am, by these followers of Jesus “bestowing grace” and not hatred upon this white boy whose intent was to start a race war. Such an action is a stunning example of the gospel, which I believe is the only thing that can deal with Mr Obama’s concern for the “bigotry of the heart.”
In no way am I am I placing the burden of responsibility on African American believers here. As a white believer, I do not know the risk and fear of the black American who is a victim of a routine traffic stop, or who simply goes for a jog through a suburban neighborhood like Ahmaud Arbery, or out for a walk like Trayvon Martin, or bird-watching in a park. The gospel must penetrate my heart as well, digging out the putrid prejudice which is there through years of growing up in a predominately white America, being ignorant of the history and plight of its black citizens, and even being separated from worship with my minority sisters and brothers by our mono-cultural churches.
I am in constant need of God’s forgiving and transforming grace to continue to make me into a Jesus-man. And I believe that a part of this grace is found in a desire and sincere interest to learn more about the history of the African American people, the great contributions they have made to our country, the beginnings of the horrible slave trade, the heroic work of the Abolitionist movement, and especially the importance of the Christian faith that not only sustained the oppressed in their suffering, but also motivated their major movements toward freedom. It also means learning that most of the inalienable rights granted to me by the original signers of the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and the Bill of Rights would not be granted to one of my black friends if we lived back in the day. While education cannot change the human heart, it can help to shape a heart renewed by God’s grace.
While the world searches for an antidote for Covid-19, let us not we shun the only proven medicine available for the sick hearts of humanity—the gospel.
*A well-known Klan member, Robert Chambliss, was charged with murder and buying 122 sticks of dynamite, but a month later he was cleared of the murder charge, received a 6-month jail sentence, and fined $100 for the dynamite. The FBI identified 3 other men as co-conspirators of the crime, but Director J. Edgar Hoover shut down the investigation without any charges being filed. Doesn’t that tick you off? However, Alabama’s Attorney General re-opened the case about 14 yrs. later and Chambliss was sentenced to life in prison, and in 2002 the only remaining co-conspirator that was alive and sane was also sentenced to life.