George Floyd: What Can I Do?

Blogger’s Note: This is a long post. I hope to do some shorter ones, rooted in specific Catholic teachings and principles. But I think I need to say a few things first. (Photo courtesy of a local Catholic friend, Jim Lang.)

* * * * *

For days, I have wanted to write and couldn’t—not because I didn’t have anything to say, but because I had too much to say, and most of it felt too easy. I re-read an essay I wrote from four years ago, when the dead man’s name was Philando Castile, then reposted it—but that seemed too easy, as well. Something was different this time. Something more needed to be said. Something else needed to be done.

I wanted to have said something so I could stop thinking. I even sat and began to type a time or two. But the only clear thought that came, again and again, was, “What can I do?”

I also worried about saying the wrong thing. It doesn’t take long online to discover that too many people are looking for fight. I’ve seen folks advocating violence, dismantling the reputation and character of businesses and strangers, and dismissing people entirely for using the wrong word in the wrong way.

And I am prone to vainglory (worrying overmuch about what people think of me) and have a hard time letting things go, especially when misunderstood.

So I’d much rather sit this one out.

With Philando Castile, I simply described the tension in my heart and mind. This time I leaned into that tension, not looking to respond, explain or excuse, but to see, hear and learn about myself.

Something is different this time. Something more needs to be said. Something needs to be done.

What can I do?

* * * * *

I can tell people where I stand. George Floyd’s killing is an outrage, and I am angry. This should not have happened and should never happen again.

Perhaps, like me, your first instinct now is to say, “Yes, but…”

Hold that thought.

Just sit in silence with the image of a six-foot-six man, created in God’s image, dying in the street, held down by police officers who would not help him and watched by bystanders who could not. Let that break your heart.

Did George Floyd commit the crime he was suspected of? I don’t honestly know. And it doesn’t matter now—he’s dead.

But knowing that he died, the infamous photo of his face pressed to the pavement told my own heart all it needed to hear. He was clearly “in police custody”—and the photos showing multiple other officers on hand to apprehend and control a prone man are even more convicting. He begged for help; he died in their custody with a knee on his neck.

I sat with my head in my hands and wept.

But I said nothing—and that silence is deafening. Those who deal with the reality of racism daily need to know that we hear them and support them, even when we don’t fully understand.

Which leads to another thing…

* * * * *

I can admit my ignorance and listen. I don’t have the first clue what it’s actually like to be a person of color in America.

I have a good, comfortable life and cannot fathom living in fear because of my race, gender, ethnicity or background. I can and should admit that I don’t understand—and then I should listen.

Many of us have an instinctive tendency to look for and share perceived common ground between the situations of others and our own. It makes us feel as though we can relate, but it also enables us to respond quickly, feel compassionate and move on. To the person on the receiving end, it can feel condescending and dismissive.

For example: Shortly after Jodi and I got married, we were driving from the small South Dakota town where we lived to Sioux Falls for a date. I was excited for our night out and accelerated to highway speeds before I got outside the village limits. A local deputy pulled me over on the edge of town, asked for my license and registration, then asked me to get out of the car. He escorted me back to his squad car while Jodi sat alone in our vehicle and made me sit in the back, behind the cage, while he ran my information.

My heart was pounding. I was anxious and confused as to why a routine stop for speeding now felt like I was about to be arrested. But for all that, I never once feared for my life. I didn’t worry about Jodi. I answered his questions as calmly as I could; he issued me a speeding ticket, and we went on our date (probably skipping dessert due to the unexpected fine).

I could share that story and pretend to relate to friends, acquaintances or strangers who have been profiled, followed, questioned, threatened or locked up due to their race. But it would be a lie.

I could say that if they are respectful and obedient and do not resist, they’ll be fine. But I don’t know that.

I am a middle-class, white, male Catholic from suburbia, and a sinner. Aside from the sinner part, I don’t repent of who I am: I believe God created me who I am, where I am, for a purpose. But I can acknowledge that I have been blessed in many ways and do not face the same problems many of our minority brothers and sisters do. And I can commit to listening to the struggle of those experiencing racism, violence, poverty and oppression on a day-to-day basis. I can try to understand and look for ways to help.

* * * * *

I can admit my mistakes and my responsibility. Every time I have let a racist action, idea or remark go unchallenged or unanswered for, I have perpetuated this problem.

Every time.

This was a tough step for me to take mentally. When people use the term white privilege—and especially, when people say that I am responsible for the systems, actions and attitudes that oppress people of color, I bristle.

Why?

One reason—the reason I usually give—is that I can’t be responsible for attitudes I don’t hold, actions I didn’t take and systems I didn’t create and don’t support.

But the deeper reason is that, when I open my eyes and look from sins of commission to sins of omission—the things I didn’t do that I should have—I begin to realize the truth about what is wrong with the world.

As G.K. Chesterton said: “I am.”

I have said racist things myself that I regret, unintentionally and out of ignorance, and have apologized and made amends as best I could. But far more often I have also stood in silence—angrily, sorrowfully, helplessly…but also selfishly—while others have said and done racist things that demanded correction.

I was silent because I didn’t want to move out of my comfort zone and bring trouble on myself, never mind the trouble such unchecked attitudes might bring to others one day.

True, people say stupid things—and sometimes what passes for humor in certain circles is offensive in others. But this only underscores our brokenness—it doesn’t excuse it.

The effects of my inaction may not be measurable, but they are no less real, and I believe I will answer for them one day to the One who judges with perfect justice. I ask God and all of you to forgive my cowardice and my sin, now and forever.

I am sorry.

* * * * *

I can stop equivocating, rationalizing and justifying. Floyd’s death in police custody is inexcusable. What happened before and after, what happens here or elsewhere, doesn’t change that.

In truth, there is no justice for George Floyd. Not in this world. Justice is not a legal standard, but a virtue—a habit to be practiced, in which we give another his or her due as a person made in God’s image.

What was George Floyd’s due? Certainly not death. The complaint was forgery in progress; the scene was reportedly an intoxicated man who resisted the police by collapsing to the ground as they tried to put him in a police car.

I am seeing more posts today, including from Christians, detailing the ways in which George Floyd was no saint. But those of us who are Christians are called to be saints and love sinners, not to love saints and be sinners.

The latter may be our reality, but the former is our mission.

A Church that values every human life, that abhors abortion and euthanasia and strongly discourages the death penalty even for the worst of criminals, cannot believe justice was served on that Minneapolis street.  The tragic, violent aftermath of Floyd’s killing, both here and across the country; the fact that there are a lot of good police officers doing a difficult and often thankless job both here and across the country; the  countless feel-good clips of white officers and black citizens apparently making peace—even the fact that a white officer was killed by a black man a short time later, and no one rioted—does not change that fact that there can be no justice for Floyd in this life.

This is a simple, but significant, realization. There are many other problems, larger and lesser problems, but none of them diminish or fix this problem.

* * * * *

I can stop hiding behind principles and embrace the Gospel. 

“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your heavenly Father, for he makes his sun rise on the bad and the good, and causes rain to fall on the just and the unjust. For if you love those who love you, what recompense will you have? Do not the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet your brothers only, what is unusual about that? Do not the pagans do the same? So be perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect.” – Matthew 5:43-48

Jesus sets the bar high. I am called to radical love, and I haven’t been living that way. I prefer to my Christianity neat and tidy.

You cannot do evil so that good may come of it.

Violence begets violence.

All lives matter—from conception to natural death.

I believe these things. But none of them contradicts or changes the fact that black lives matter. None of that diminishes or fixes the problem of racism.

If our principles are sound and true, we should live by them—not use them as shields to protect ourselves from the pain of real, radical love of neighbor.

The parallel with abortion is striking to me: As Catholics, we are accused, at times, of caring more about the unborn than we do about single mothers or children in poverty.

“Don’t they matter?” our critics ask.

Of course they do, we might say. But they aren’t being killed on a daily basis.

“Well, what about the little girl who was killed last week?”

It’s tragic, and our hearts go out to her family—but it doesn’t change the bigger issue of abortion.

If all lives matter, if unborn lives matter, then it stands to reason: Black lives matter. And because we are called to love our neighbor as ourselves, black lives should matter to us.

* * * * *

It occurs to me now: This problem of racism is beginning to seem too big and heavy to handle—especially with all the other serious problems we face.

But it also seems like I’m in the right place. And I had to dig to get here. Imagine how it feels to those who live beneath this weight, day after day.

The good news is, we don’t carry the weight of this alone. Jesus carried all of this on His bloody back to the top of Calvary. We who are His Body today are called to carry just a part of it. Our part.

It’s time to bear up and lean into it.

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