A reflection on our responsibility as white Christians in a world where George Floyd was murdered. By Tim Judson
Responsibility. That is a word that has been on my mind since George Floyd was murdered, though it has shaped my life and thought since Michael Brown was shot in Ferguson on 9 August 2014.
Who is responsible? It might seem like an easy answer. The guy who shot Michael is responsible. The officer whose knee choked George’s neck is responsible. But what about the three other police officers who stood by? Oh yes, they are responsible too. And here lies the heart of my reflection.
When the individual, George Floyd, was brutally murdered in an act of racist violence by a group of four white men, almost the entire global black community felt something. It seems they felt the life strangled out of his body as though it was their own. They felt the pain, the lack of air, the injustice, the evil. They relived the senselessness and moral failure of systems and structures which exacerbate such atrocities, or which are simply complicit in the destruction of black bodies.
I have close friends who struggle to express themselves because they feel George’s death so tangibly, as a collective who bleed in solidarity with yet another victim of white violence. Black lives identify with George Floyd, with his story, his plight and the grief that remains in the wake of this event. Black folks truly can’t breathe because George Floyd no longer can, and this stems back centuries. I don’t fully understand this, but I perceive it, I acknowledge it, I believe in it, and I lament everything around it.
In contrast though, when the individual, George Floyd, was brutally murdered in an act of racist violence by a group of four white men, the general posture that was taken within the global white community was to point the finger at the officers involved. How intriguing that as white bodies we attempt to disentangle ourselves from any association with a group of people who wear the same skin as us, in an attempt to absolve ourselves of any responsibility.
What’s noticeable is that one individual was murdered, but a whole community suffer. Yet, a whole group effectively commits that murder, and a whole community retreats from any identification with the killers.
Why? What is going on here? I’m sure there is far more to this than I can understand, but for now, I want to raise the issue of responsibility. Talking about blame is too sharp, possibly too abstract and therefore, unhelpful for going anywhere. Plus, white fragility is a real thing and some of you may have already stopped reading, so I’ll try and be gentle with us!
I could say, “I’m not racist,” but that is missing the point in a world where our entire story is already shaped for us, from geography to politics, and family to theology. We are all born into a world that carves out our norms and customs, so that we do things without even thinking about it half of the time. We are all participants in a world that has already decided how we should live. Saying, “I’m not racist” does nothing other than highlight the profound individualism that we are born into as white folks, and which keeps us from being faithful to Christ over and against the world’s story. Let me explain what I mean.
Of all people, Jesus is not to blame for racism, or any evil for that matter. Hopefully we can all agree on that? Jesus is the self-revelation of God within creation’s time and space. In Christ, God both affirms the world that he loves, and also judges it for failing to be the world he created it to be. To paraphrase Karl Barth, Jesus is God’s Yes and No to creation. Jesus could quite legitimately walk around and point the finger at everybody, highlighting how their issues are their own fault, and explain who is to blame for this or that problem. However, he doesn’t do that.
No, Jesus takes a crazy approach, by making himself personally and solely responsible for all sin, suffering and sorrow. He freely postures himself towards it in Gethsemane, in order to bear it fully on the cross. I don’t have space to discuss how to construe this in terms of atonement theory, but that’s not my main point. We believe that Jesus is not to blame for evil. However, he bears the responsibility for it while also becoming its ultimate victim through his Passion.
What does this mean for us? Well, I can’t say everything I want to, but let me ground my thinking.
If Jesus demonstrates who he is by bearing responsibility for the world’s sin and suffering even though he is not actually responsible for it as an individual, then surely, as those who are called to participate in his life, death and resurrection, we are to bear responsibility too for that world.
Moreover, I believe white folks bear a genuine responsibility for present conditions around racism, even if only in the way we inherit them from our ancestors, and so the way I do or do not respond makes me in some ways responsible.
As individuals, we are called by Christ to pray, speak and act with a world that God loves, and not be held back by our own individual self-justification (which we are apparently meant to be saved from anyway!). As a white man, I believe I am called to proclaim with all my heart that racism is evil and not in accordance with God’s kingdom, whilst simultaneously repenting of my innate desire to avoid any responsibility for it. My individualism must die, so that I as a free individual can learn and grow in redressing these patterns and stories which perpetuate my ignorance and destroy black bodies today. On the cross, God in Christ bore all black flesh, and he bore all white flesh as well, binding us together, and making us all responsible in him.
As Dietrich Bonhoeffer explains, ‘We are not Christ, but if we want to be Christians it means that we are to take part in Christ’s greatness of heart, in the responsible action that in freedom lays hold of the hour and faces the danger, and in the true sympathy that springs forth not from fear but from Christ’s freeing and redeeming love for all who suffer.’ (DBWE 8, 49)
Let’s recognise our responsibility in Christ for and with a world reconciled only in him.
Tim Judson is pastor of Honiton Family Church in East Devon. Having trained at Bristol Baptist College, he is writing a PhD thesis exploring the place of lament for the Christian community in dialogue with Dietrich Bonhoeffer.
Tim is a singer songwriter and has written a number of albums which engage in issues of justice. Tim is married with two children
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