Along with millions of others, I watched the shocking video of Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin kneeling on the neck of George Floyd. I was horrified to watch an officer of the law cruelly killing a man who, with his last breath, kept pleading, “I can’t breathe! I can’t breathe.”
The video showed that Floyd was no threat since his hands were handcuffed behind his back. I figured that any second the officer would remove his knee, but he did not. I learned later that he kept his knee pressed down on Floyd’s neck for eight minutes and 46 seconds. I winced as I tried to imagine how excruciating the man’s pain must have been.
Equally disturbing to me about the video was the sight of three fellow officers standing nearby, observing officer Chauvin’s cruelty, and doing nothing.
I kept thinking that the one officer standing nearest Floyd would reach down and insist that Chauvin remove his knee from Floyd’s neck, but he did not. He just stood there, watching. He just stood there, when he could have saved a man’s life. I wanted to shout, “Do something, man; do something! Stop this deliberate cruelty!” But he just stood there, watching.
Officer Chauvin’s brutal cruelty has resulted in his arrest for murder. All four officers share responsibility for George Floyd’s death, but what troubles me deeply is the picture of the officer who stood there, watching and listening to Floyd begging for help, and did nothing. He just stood there, watching.
I thought about the Apostle Paul, arguably the greatest missionary of the Christian faith. When Paul was a young man, he did what the “silent” police officer did; he just stood there watching a man being stoned to death.
Perhaps it was his guilt from doing nothing that caused Paul to describe himself as “the chief of sinners.” You can sense the lingering pain of that hour as he spoke about it in the Acts of the Apostles (22:20, ESV), “And when the blood of Stephen your witness was being shed, I myself was standing by and approving and watching over the garments of those who killed him.”
Thankfully, by the grace of God, Paul later came under the life-changing influence of Stephen’s Lord, Jesus, and eventually died himself a martyr of the Christian faith.
I thought of the disciples of Jesus. They, too, stood there watching (or hiding) as Jesus was cruelly beaten and finally crucified. Like the silent Minneapolis police officer, they never said a mumbling word. They just stood there, watching.
I thought of Pilate, the Roman governor in Jerusalem who could have refused to endorse the crucifixion of Jesus. Instead Pilate yielded to the mob’s demand to “Crucify him!” and “washed his hands” to declare himself innocent of Jesus’ death.
I thought about how the coronavirus has forced us to wash our hands a thousand times this spring, and wondered how many of us have washed our hands a thousand times in the face of the systemic racial injustice that continues to pollute our culture. Too many of us have, in silence, looked the other way, ignoring the undeserved suffering of fellow human beings.
I thought of what Martin Luther King Jr. said about silence during the racial turmoil of his time. His words remain disturbing:
“Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.”
“In the end we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.”
“There comes a time when silence is betrayal.”
“History will have to record that the greatest tragedy of this period of social transition was not the strident clamor of the bad people, but the appalling silence of the good people.”
The troubling truth of King’s words remind us of the familiar words of Edmund Burke who said, “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.”
It is likely true that the accumulated silence of several generations has sparked the widespread protests that have erupted since George Floyd’s murder, and the recent killing of several other black persons by white men.
Unfortunately, some protests have become violent in major cities across America, resulting in deaths, injuries, looting, demonstrators fighting with law enforcement personnel and buildings and property being destroyed by fires. Angry mobs continue to fan the flames of hatred and anger. Peaceful protests can lead to change; violence only exacerbates the problem.
I thought about my own silence for there have been times when I too have just stood there, watching. I should have spoken up, taken a stand, but I left the fight to others. Looking back, I realize there were times when I should have denounced the racial injustice that persists in our white-dominated culture. I have asked God to forgive me and put steel in my backbone.
Racism, of course, is a universal problem; it exists in all the world’s cultures. To find a solution, we must determine the cause of racism. Ultimately, the answer can be summed up in one word, the word sin. Racism, then, is but one expression of man’s defiance of the eternal laws of God.
Since racism is a human sin, there are racists in every ethnic group in the world. People of every race struggle with good versus evil, so there are good people and evil people of every color. Christians find victory over evil through faith in Jesus Christ.
When we receive God’s forgiveness for our sins by yielding to the Lordship of Jesus, we begin to see people differently. We see people not as blacks, whites, Hispanics or Asians, but as persons for whom Jesus died. We value every human life no matter the color of the skin. We see every person as potentially a brother or sister in Christ. We become willing to stand in the gap for the oppressed and disenfranchised. We find ways to express love in good deeds as well as words.
God sent his Son Jesus into the world to die for our sins and open the door to the Kingdom of God for all people. It is the business of those who have found their way into God’s Kingdom to invite and welcome all people to join them in living a life of obedience to the eternal laws of God.
Kingdom life involves primarily loving God and loving one another. And loving one another will lead us to oppose evil and work for a system that provides equality and justice for all people.
We cannot hate another person and love God. While hatred empowers evil and causes suffering, in the end hatred will lose because God is love and love wins. That is eternal truth — love wins!
Martin Luther King Jr. affirmed that truth by grounding his fight for justice on nonviolence rather than hatred for white oppressors. Dr. King put it this way, “Hate cannot drive out hate, only love can do that.” He was right.
Why should good people speak out against bigotry, prejudice and injustice? Because God has taught us that it is his will for us to value every life and respect the dignity of every human being, regardless of their race or social status.
To practice, support or tolerate racial injustice is to defy almighty God. If the chaos in America today has taught us anything, it is that the time has come for white Christians to come out of the closet of silence and oppose racial injustice wherever it exists in our society.
I have dear friends whose skin color is not white like mine. My age reminds me that I do not have much time left to stand up for the dignity and worth of every person. But, God willing, I intend to continue building bridges of friendship across racial lines, as well as opposing racial injustice more aggressively.
I will be silent at times, but only because I need to listen more sensitively to my black brothers and sisters. Listening compassionately will let them know that I am ashamed of the ways they have been mistreated and hurt by the prejudice and injustice of white people like me.
When I listen, really listen, I begin to understand the pain prejudice has inflicted upon my black brothers and sisters.
One day my stammering tongue will lie silent in the grave. But until then, I will ask God for the wisdom to use it wisely and lovingly, in the hope that I can inspire a few people to practice daily the advice Saint Paul gave to his friends in Ephesus: “And be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, even as God in Christ forgave you.”
Ultimately, evil can be overcome by acts of kindness practiced in the name of Jesus by good people of all races. When we do that intentionally, every day, in simple ways, we can make a difference. And surely none of us wants to be remembered as a person who just stood there, watching.
Walter Albritton is a Methodist minister and writes a weekly column for the Opelika-Auburn News. Contact him at email@example.com.