We’ve seen the gut-wrenching footage. Hands cuffed behind his back, Mr. George Floyd on his face, oppressed by the unjust knee of cruelty that has afflicted African Americans for centuries.
Immobilized and groaning on the pavement
“I can’t breathe.”
Eight minutes long—suffocating to death. “Let him breathe, man!” a bystander yells. Passing cars, disjointed sounds, ambient voices encircle. “He is a human being!” comes an anguished plea from a passerby.
“Please, I can’t breathe.”
“Mamma, Mamma,” he called to his deceased mother, as he was dying.
Asphyxia ad Mortem (suffocation unto death)
Afraid of the suffocation that comes by an upper respiratory virus, we failed to see the far deeper problem—our disease of the heart, our sin of racial prejudice and injustice that is woven through the fabric of American society. E pluribus non unum.
The outworking of this sin is destruction and death, a violence of which rioting and looting is a manifestation. In the words of Yeats:
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned
To our black friends, we want to say that we see the ongoing persecution, the prejudices, the system that’s stacked against you—and that stacks us against one another. And our hearts break.
What’s required of the Church in this moment?
Before we answer, we should remember that we belong to a Savior who purchased our redemption by asphyxia.
The One who breathed life into creation
lifted up on wooden beam
storm-fist clouds gliding above
a tunic of one piece
condemned and forsaken,
King of the Jews
in the presence of enemies
Body weight centering down
“It is finished”
a spear-lunged wound
linen-bound and carried
Who dares to speak?
Why try to craft sentences when words cannot grasp the depth of this tragedy? It is no less than the taking of a man’s life, another tragic death in a long chain of deaths, which goes back through Jim Crow laws and all the way to the slave traders who snatched Africans from their homes.
Because this is the moment of asphyxia, and those who breathe must not be silent.
The Church of all people—men and women who belong to the suffocated Savior—must respond clearly and decisively. We do so by first repenting of our prejudices and recognizing our calling as a multiethnic people. Acts 2 describes how God brought us together in His Son from the various nations of the world—a unity that we are called to maintain. To the extent that we’ve failed to “diligently preserve” this unity (Eph 4:3), we must honestly repent.
We must also protest injustice wherever it’s found—peacefully, lovingly, and truthfully. Paul the Apostle did not hesitate to publicly protest in Acts 16:37 when he was unlawfully treated by the authorities. To be sure, violent rioting and looting are emphatically not the right response. Instead, Christians must peacefully protest injustice, holding our leaders to the standard of righteousness to which they have been called.
We must build bridges. Now is a time to personally reach out to our black friends in particular and express our love and support. Be honest. Tell them you’re not sure what exactly to say in such a moment, but that you want to understand better what this is like for them so that together we can embody the loving unity that God ordains for his people and for our world. And we say to the black members of our own church how deeply sorry we are, how much we love and value you, and how we’re praying for reconciliation and peace to prevail.
On the island of Patmos, the Apostle John wrote his Revelation. Amid great social and political consternation, he described the leaves of the Tree of Life as “for the healing of the nations” (22:2). The full realization of this blessing awaits the return of our Savior—the arrival of Jesus to make all things new. In the meantime, Christians are called to serve as agents of peace and righteousness who embody, proclaim, and extend divine healing to the world.
This is the moment of asphyxia and we dare not remain silent.