Speak out on behalf of the voiceless,
and for the rights of all who are vulnerable.
Speak out in order to judge with righteousness
and to defend the needy and the poor.
(Proverbs 31:8-9, Common English Bible)
Vasanth Rajkumar, CC BY-SA 4.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0, via Wikimedia Commons
Many words have been spoken and written about the murder of George Floyd, and many, many more will be written and spoken about the verdict of guilty, guilty, guilty that came down yesterday. I do not presume that my words to be any wiser than others, but I do feel compelled to offer some reflections. To start, I have so many conflicting emotions—relief and grief, anger and joy, fear and hope, exhaustion and renewed energy. If I am brutally honest, there is some smug gratification mixed in there as well, particularly when we watched Mr. Floyd’s killer be handcuffed and taken to jail. I am not particularly proud of that…but there it is. I am only human.
We all know that this doesn’t solve police brutality against people of color. It doesn’t bring Gianna Floyd’s daddy back. It doesn’t bring justice to Breonna Taylor’s family. Or Tamir Rice’s family. Or Michael Brown’s family. The verdict yesterday was the bare minimum of what should be expected for people who abuse their authority, especially those who are charged with protecting and serving. But because we live in a racial hierarchy that dehumanizes people of color in countless ways, a guilty verdict feels like a victory…a deeply hard-earned victory.
Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison (a son of the great city of Detroit!) spoke yesterday evening and in his remarks, he highlighted the bravery of the bystanders who witnessed the murder in person. He highlighted that it was ordinary people who rose to the occasion to give voice to Mr. Floyd whose own voice was crushed out of him slowly and painfully. Teenagers and children, shop clerks and MMA fighters, neighborhood residents and passersby. None of these people wanted to be witnesses to this cruelty. None of them wanted to be famous or to be on national TV from a court room in Minnesota. All of them are forever changed, forever scarred. But somehow they all found the strength to speak the truth, to stand witness and to let the world (yes, the whole world) know that George Floyd was murdered in plain sight.
Lots of pundits have pontificated about how remarkable it was that so many police officers testified against the defendant. While I get that this is very, very unusual, I can’t help but think, well, duh, that is what they are supposed to do. But those ordinary citizens, they were the brave ones, the courageous ones. They are the ones that sparked this new civil rights movement. We owe them a great debt.
So we say their names: Jena Scurry. Alisha Oyler. Donald Williams II. Judeah Reynolds. Alyssa Funari. Kaylynn Gilbert. Genevieve Hansen. Christopher Martin. Christopher Belfrey. Charles McMillian. And Darnella Frazier, the teenager whose video broke all of our hearts but revealed the truth to the world. We say their names in gratitude and in awe.
And we remember that this is our purpose. We are called to be witnesses to and bearers of the truth. Our biblical tradition calls us to be the voice of the voiceless, to be justice seekers, to be brave and bold in our refusal to be silent in the face of oppression. We are called to listen, really listen, to those at the margins of our society and to stand with them. Being witnesses to others suffering is painful and overwhelming, but it is our duty not to turn away.
Friends, this is hard. There is no way around that. But we are not alone in this work. We have each other and our God. We have our ancestors of faith who have modeled this for us. And we have our mentor and friend, Jesus, who walks with us and talks with us and reminds us that we are all God’s own.
Blessings and love to you all,