Love, Part 2: Justice and Mercy

On May 25, the world watched in horror as video footage of George Floyd’s death circulated online. Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin pressed his knee into George’s neck for more than eight minutes while Mr. Floyd lay prone on the street – handcuffed and completely defenceless. Two other officers stood by and watched as Mr. Floyd repeatedly gasped, “I can’t breathe,” until he fell silent after the fourth minute. By-standers pleading with the officers to stop were ignored or pushed further back. At times, Officer Chauvin appeared to relish George’s suffering and the crowd’s apprehension. For many absorbing this footage, it was the most blatant disregard for human life, the most grotesque abuse of power they had ever witnessed.

Protests immediately erupted throughout the United States and across the globe as far away as China, including multiple marches right here in Toronto – a groundswell of civic unrest that has sparked symbolic if not substantive change. Confederate statues have come down in Richmond, Virginia. NASCAR has banned the confederate flag from its races. The Mississippi legislature voted to remove the stars and bars from the state flag after decades of debate. The Washington Redskins and other sports teams with aboriginal mascots are even discussing name and logo changes.

In these dark and tumultuous times, such a seismic response to such a truly depraved tragedy has been heartening. There’s a long way still to go but it’s an encouraging start.

Particularly encouraging, at least to me, has been the vocal and visible involvement of churches and church leaders – across denominations and all along the theological spectrum – decrying the actions and the racially biased structures that contributed to George Floyd’s death. However, there are least two sad and regrettable truths lingering in the background of this recent spate of activism.

The first is this: most of us in the North American Church are more than fashionably late to this effort. For far too long and in far too many situations, pastors, elders, deacons, weekly church attenders, and daily Bible readers have held their tongues. Marches for Civil Rights, campaigns for basic human rights are nothing new. Inequities within the criminal justice system are nothing new. George Floyd wasn’t the first unarmed black man to gasp, “I can’t breathe,” while a police officer choked him to death. Yet, when these disturbingly routine abuses have come to light, a majority of North American churches and churchgoers have elected to stay silent or stand on the sidelines – or both. We’ve deemed such revelations unfortunate but too controversial to wade into. Or, worse, we have judged these abuses to be issues unconcerned with matters of the spirit, and thus undeserving of a place on the docket of congregational interest.

The drawing of such conclusions constitutes the second sad and regrettable truth because nothing could be further from the truth.

We in the North American church have ignored or downplayed these tragedies despite the fact that holy Scripture has long called God’s people to a life devoted to justice, mercy, and the cause of those on the margins. God’s holy prophets testify that justice – in our relationship with God, in our relationship with our neighbours, and in our relationship with the wider community – is an essential and unequivocal priority if we worship the God of Abraham, the God of Jacob, the God incarnate in Christ Jesus. In fact, some of the holy prophets declare justice to be more important and a more accurate measure of our worship of God than any spiritual practice we engage or liturgy we design. Consider these words from the prophet Isaiah (Isaiah 58:1-10):

Shout out, do not hold back! Lift up your voice like a trumpet! Announce to my people their rebellion, to the house of Jacob their sins.

2 Yet day after day they seek me and delight to know my ways, as if they were a nation that practiced righteousness, and did not forsake the ordinance of their God; they ask of me righteous judgments, they delight to draw near to God. 3 “Why do we fast, but you do not see? Why humble ourselves, but you do not notice?”

Look [here], you serve your own interest on your fast day, and oppress all your workers.

4 Look [here], you fast only to quarrel and to fight and to strike with a wicked fist.

Such fasting as you do today will not make your voice heard on high. 5 Is such the fast that I choose, a day to humble oneself? Is it to bow down the head like a bulrush, and to lie in sackcloth and ashes?

Will you call this a fast, a day acceptable to the Lord? 6 Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? 7 Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin?

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