The Jim Crow Still Flies: White Supremacy, Biblical Justice & the Murders of Ahmaud & George Floyd
Updated: May 27, 2020
George Floyd. I can't breathe.
John Crawford III.
There is a weariness to it all, most acutely felt by our fellow image-bearers in the black and brown community. They live it, it is their reality and has been for centuries.
Add to the weariness of the legacy of racial injustice and continual racial injustice throughout this country the degree to which minorities have suffered under COVID-19, in large part because of systemic issues that COVID-19 reveals about the different economic and health issues in communities in different parts of each city. COVID-19 exposes the massive disparity in our cities as it relates to health & health care especially, but also all the issues that separate communities that have access to resources and those that don't. There is more here than one can handle.
There continues to be the need for lamenting and wailing and righteous anger. This is always a God-driven act of worship. There continues to be a need for those of us who are white to reach out and listen to our brothers and sisters of color, and to listen some more, and to educate ourselves (yes educate ourselves not simply look to our black and brow about the history of racial injustice in our country, to become more aware of what the actual reality has been and continues to be.
But we must also work for justice, for the dismantling of the systems of white supremacy in this country, from engaging our hearts that long for justice to roll down to rolling up our sleeves to speak, act, and do justice with our hands and feet. It is God who does the work ultimately, but he uses his church to be his presence in this world. He is grieved by the death of George Floyd and he is with those who grieve and he is calling his bride to pick up the sword of his truth, to speak the message of justice and to strike down the systems built on injustice that continue to reign.
To quote from my friend and pastor Dominque Lee (Full post of his is here)
"I’m angry, but not violent.
I’m sad, but still holding on to my faith.
I’m scared, but I dare to keep living.
I’m a pastor, and I’m human. So thanks for letting me be human.
Here is my hope:
There shall be a day when Christ will bring total justice to the sin in the world, including the sin of racism, systematic oppression, and discrimination.
The Church needs to stop talking the talk and do some real work. We need to do what they did in the old days and protest, hold legislators accountable, and demand the wholistic equal protection of black people.
And from Frederick Douglas:
Where justice is denied, where poverty is enforced, where ignorance prevails, and where any one class is made to feel that society is an organized conspiracy to oppress, rob and degrade them, neither persons nor property will be safe...
It is not light that we need, but fire; it is not the gentle shower, but thunder. We need the storm, the whirlwind, and the earthquake.
Let it thunder Lord, let us thunder Lord. Here and now.
"That damn racist bird. That crow. That Jim Crow."
The elderly African-American pastor looked at me, with a slight smile of hope, but also with eyes weighed down by certain sadness said, "RD, you are a fine young man and I think you will make a good pastor one day, but you have never had to really think about justice in your life, you have never had a need to, because you are white. It doesn't make you a bad person, but it does mean you have a choice whether or not you want to think about it, to engage in it, to deal with. I don't have a choice. I've never had a choice. And you really don't have a choice either, to get involved or not in the fight for justice if you love Jesus. The Jim Crow still flies in the deep south RD, that damn racist bird. You've just never had to look him in the face."
A Son of the South
I was born in the deep south of Mobile, Alabama, a land of cotton fields, antebellum homes, and magnolias. I noticed those things growing up as a boy. I loved growing up down there and love the wonderful family the Lord gave me. There were other things about Alabama that I noticed growing up as well. I could see that there were 'white' sections of town and 'black' sections of town. There weren't signs that literally said this, but it was obvious to see the division that existed based on geography. I didn't really know why or have a sense of the racial history of the United States and the South in particular, but I was certainly shaped by what I observed in that in many other areas growing up in Alabama.
My sophomore year at college (the year of our Lord 2005) I enrolled in a class called "Issues in United States History" and a few weeks into the class our professor asked us to return to class later in the week with a short paper on the reality of slavery in the world today. I'm not proud to admit it publicly, but my honest first reaction internally was "What liberal plot is this? Slavery in the world today? Does she not know that ended completely back in 1865?".
I decided to knock this "paper" out and went straight to the library after class for what I thought would be an hour at most to do some research and write up a few thoughts about this "issue".
I typed in 'human slavery in 21st century' into Google and pressed enter.
I did not leave the library for 8 more hours.
I could not believe I had never heard of modern-day slavery, human trafficking, child labor, and as I read further in the days and weeks to come I came across articles and books about the how deeply the institutions of slavery and legal segregation still haunted the South. I learned more about the ways that the post-Civil War South, the era of Reconstruction into the Jim Crow era continued to segregate, discriminate, and oppress black and brown people. The Jim Crow laws "were a collection of state and local statutes that legalized racial segregation. Named after a black minstrel show character, the laws—which existed for about 100 years, from the post-Civil War era until 1968—were meant to marginalize African Americans by denying them the right to vote, hold jobs, get an education or other opportunities. Those who attempted to defy Jim Crow laws often faced arrest, fines, jail sentences, violence and death". (History Channel).
I had studied the Civil War and modern US history so I was familiar with the Jim Crow south as a point of history, as a couple of paragraphs in a history book, but not as a current reality, not as an oppressive shadow that still physically, emotionally, psychologically haunted many minorities to this day. I didn't have to experience it that way because of the color of my skin.
It was at this same time, in God's good providence, that I had an internship at a local homeless shelter in Greenville, South Carolina where I met Pastor Howard on occasion as he served at the shelter. He was a long time pastor in the area serving in a historically black church in downtown Greenville and also a long time volunteer to the shelter I spent time at. He is the elder gentleman I quote to open the piece and he is a man who began to truly open my eyes to the legacy of slavery and white supremacy in the south and how it continued to traumatize black people. But at the same time he and many others showed me how the God of the Bible was the one who identified himself as a God of justice and that to truly love God and follow God meant following him into the places of injustice and oppression to bring justice and jubilee. I wasn't unfamiliar with that aspect of God's character, but it was not central to my understanding of who God was. I had missed a lot growing up.
Advocating and laboring for justice and mercy are not progressive political values, but biblical ones. The deeper you root yourself in the Bible, the more unavoidable God's heart for justice and mercy becomes. It certainly did for me.
What is biblical justice?
The Hebrew word for justice is mishpat and it literally means giving people their right or due.
In the New Testament this theme continues with the Greek language bringing another layer of meaning to justice. In New Testament Greek, the words translated “justice” and “righteousness” actually come from the same root. The two are inseparable. Together they sum up all God cares about and is working for. That includes forgiveness of personal sins, deepening holiness, growing communities of faith, care for God’s creation, generosity to the poor, good government, a world without wars, protection for the vulnerable, and end to lies and bribes, family reconciliation, and much, much more.
Justice is God making things right, making relationships and systems whole, restored, and healed. And the Bible is filled with verses speaking of God's heart for justice and mercy.
Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your deeds from before my eyes; cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, correct oppression; bring justice to the fatherless, plead the widow's cause.
- Isaiah 1:16-17
Read through Isaiah 58, 59, and 61 and see where God is outraged that the people are worshipping him, but not practicing justice among themselves. God declares repeatedly to his people that if there is rampant injustice going on among them then he takes no delight in his people's sacrifices. There is no true worship of God unless our hearts and hands are engaged in the practice of justice. It's that stark.
The Gospel, a Slave Girl, and Justice
The gospel is the good news of what God has done in and through Jesus Christ to reconcile all things to himself (Colossians 1:20). The gospel is not something that we do (like practicing justice or hospitality), it is news of what God has done through Christ to reconcile humanity & creation to God and also reconcile races to each other through life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. (Ephesians 2).
It is the grace of God that changes ours hearts and then sends us out to be people of reconciliation and justice in our city. The gospel fuels the work and practice of justice because the gospel shows us a vision of the restored world God longs to see. A great example of how the gospel leads to the practice of justice is found in Acts 16:16-21 below.
"As we were going to the place of prayer, we were met by a slave girl who had a spirit of divination and brought her owners much gain by fortune-telling. 17 She followed Paul and us, crying out, “These men are servants of the Most High God, who proclaim to you the way of salvation.” 18 And this she kept doing for many days. Paul, having become greatly annoyed, turned and said to the spirit, “I command you in the name of Jesus Christ to come out of her.” And it came out that very hour. 19 But when her owners saw that their hope of gain was gone, they seized Paul and Silas and dragged them into the marketplace before the rulers. 20 And when they had brought them to the magistrates, they said, “These men are Jews, and they are disturbing our city. 21 They advocate customs that are not lawful for us as Romans to accept or practice.”
Luke records the encounter between Paul and a teenage slave girl in the city of Corinth here in Acts 16, an encounter which is bookended by the conversion of the business owner Lydia and the blue collar Roman jailer. Luke notes for us that this slave girl earns economic and cultural advancement for her owners. It is important to remember that ancient slavery and the slavery of 18th and 19th century America were markedly different. See this for a very brief overview of a few differences. But slavery in the ancient world was still largely built on an unjust system and though often not as brutal as American slavery was still contrary to the biblical design of men and women not only being free in Christ, but free in life.
This young slave girl is oppressed both supernaturally through demons and naturally through her owners (though that is also demonic power working through human agents). Paul, after getting annoyed with the girl (see, he was human) rebukes the spirit within her and frees her and because of her newfound freedom her owners "saw that their hope of gain was gone". The name of Jesus liberates this girl personally, but it also proves to be a wrecking ball for the systemic structure of slavery that had also oppressed this girl. That is why her owners drag Paul and Silas before the city officials. Paul and Silas are advocating a different way to live, to be, to exist that brought liberation both personally and structurally. Their power was threatened by the different customs that the gospel brought and so there must a retribution for this.
The gospel frees the individual first by liberating our hearts from the tyranny of sin that had dominion over us and made us enemies of God. But the gospel doesn't stop there, like a waterfall cascading down a mountain, it also moves to liberate people and groups suffering underneath the tyranny of systems and structures of oppression. The gospel brings personal forgiveness and restored relationship with God and then it brings public justice and restored systems and structures in line with the Kingdom of God.
Much more can be said on that and there are a host of fantastic books to plunge more deeply into this specific topic of the Bible and justice...including Generous Justice, Good News About Injustice, and Let Justice Roll Down. But my point is this: no one is more passionate about, dedicated to, and committed to justice for all people, especially the foreigner, the widow, the orphan, and the oppressed than the God of the Bible. No one.
This brings us to absolutely evil and wicked murder of Ahmaud Arbery, jogging in a neighborhood in south Georgia when he was viciously gunned down by two white men who claim that they thought he was potentially a burglar. If you would like to read an extremely detailed and very well-written profile of the specifics of what happened then read David French's piece A Vigilante Killing in Georgia. His death is both shocking and yet not shocking at all, it has routinely and regularly happened to black and brown people (men especially) in our country. If you say "I cannot believe this can happen in our country today" then you have not being paying attention and/or you do not have close relationships with African-Americans who can tell you this is not abnormal, but normal, it is simply the way it is. And the way it has always been.
The damn Jim Crow bird still flies and brings terror and murder and evil with him.
We are living in a country that continues to experience the horrific effects of slavery, segregation, and white supremacy. White supremacy is not something discarded to the past with men who wear hoods, no it is alive and well in the hearts of many still today. It is sinful, an affront to God, and a wickedness perpetrated against the imago dei. Only this past week a white man walked into a supermarket with a KKK hood on as he shopped. And he walked out alive.
Has there been progress made in our country over the past 150 years? Yes, yes there has. The South, for the most part, is not the same South that Frederick Douglas, Harriet Tubman, and Martin Luther King, Jr. knew, but let us not pretend that the progress we have made means there is still not much more progress to be made! We've come a long way, but we have a long way to still go to see the kingdom of God come. If we want to see real breakthrough in progress in this area than it is vital that white evangelicals in particular confront our past, our structural advantages, and our silence.
The white evangelical church has largely (thought certainly not totally) and tragically been far too silent on naming and confronting issues of injustice head on and tangibly fighting against injustice in all its forms. This silence is not based on the Bible, it is based on sinfulness. It is the residue from the silence of Adam, a man who refuses to speak up and protect the woman entrusted to him from evil. I, like Adam, have been far too silent, far too comfortable, far too unconcerned with speaking about this, with praying about this, with talking about this, with acting about this. I must repent. I do repent. So must we all. There is no future unity and reconciliation without gospel-wrought reckoning and repentance.
There is often great courage to speak up (and rightly so) against the evil of abortion and the personal tragedy of every child lost to an abortion and the evil structures in place which allow the abortion industry to thrive and thrive especially in minority communities. The Guttmacher Institute notes that "Black and Hispanic women have much higher abortion rates than white women—because they have much higher rates of unintended pregnancy." This leads into a larger conversation beyond abortion into the familial and economic dynamics of economically disadvantaged communities and the absence of options for women of color especially that many in wealthier communities have. But often in more conservative, suburban places there is the courage to confront the evil of abortion and in a similar way to speak with truth and grace about the Bible's good word on sexuality. I preached a sermon last year on what the Bible teaches about same-sex relations and how the church should respond to this and I can guarantee you that sermon will be seen as far less controversial and receive far less blowback than this article will.
Because when it comes to confronting white supremacy, racial injustice, and broader issues of poverty, inequality, and injustice we (white people) often hit the mute button or at least turn the volume way down. The courage we have in these other areas transforms into intermittent lip service of solidarity at best or outright hostility and suspicion at worst at the motives of those advocating for more and deeper justice. And it can be easy to do this because of our lack of proximity, to borrow from Bryan Stevenson of the Equal Justice Initiative, from minorities. This lack of proximity, of deep relationship only further distances our need to think or engage deeply with this. So for white people to form cross-cultural, interracial relationships of mutuality is vitally important and is a desperate need in the segregated south and the segregated church. And for white people to be advocates for black and brown people, to not be silent, to not be afraid to say something because we are afraid of who we may offend or what we may get wrong at first.
It is simply a reality that my reality as a white man is different than that for a black man or woman. For example, I run in my neighborhood all the time and I have run in dozens and dozens of neighborhoods over the course of my life and I have never, not one single time even had to think for a second about someone stopping me, discriminating against me or even potentially killing me. Not one time. That's an advantage my race automatically gives. And as a man I also have less to fear than a woman of who is out running. The feelings I have for my daughters if they were to go running on a trail or if they were walking through a parking lot late at night are different then how I would feel if they were men.
I'm not guilty because I am a white man, and I'm not guilty because I'm a southerner. That is exactly who God made me to be and where God made for me to live, but I need to be aware of what advantages being born a white man have given me. It is the reality that I am privileged to not have to think about, worry about, or to live with any type of fear that my mere presence potentially threatens someone else. If you want a theologically-driven take on this then read Jonathan Leeman's excellent piece More Than Mere Equality. Alright, everyone take a deep breath and exhale.
Jesus of Nazareth
Jesus Christ was a brown-skinned man who was murdered on a tree by a corrupt and unjust system. That is a true reality, but it is important to remember that that is not the truest reality of what happened on the cross. It was, of course, in the eternal and sovereign plan and purpose of God for Jesus to live and die in this way, but it is not insignificant the way in which he did die, he was "counted among the transgressors" Isaiah 53:12 tell us. He was not merely a victim like the two criminals beside him on the cross, he was fully in control of his life and he was the one who laid it down. He was far, far more than a victim, but he was not less than one.
Jesus identified with the poor, the vulnerable, the racially cast out and sexually altered, he moved into those places and got proximate. Even the Son of God, who knew the thoughts and hearts of every one he ever spoke with still listened, still lamented, still grieved, and still courageously spoke out against injustice and oppression. He modeled for us what the church should be like and even now I believe with courageous leadership and prophetic lament can be like.
Where to even begin? It can be overwhelming and in listening to my black friends over the past few days they are both outraged and wearied by this shooting and by so much more. Don't be motivated by guilt, but be motivated by grace, by the gospel of Jesus Christ to get involved in the work of justice.
My friend Amanda McIntyre linked to this post by Alissa Molina about some concrete steps one can do to think and live differently in light of Ahmaud Arbery's murder. A few other thoughts, especially for my white brothers and sisters. And I write this to myself as well!
1) Listen, Learn From, and Listen Some More to Voices of Color
We do not know what it is like to be a person of color and we can never truly know what it is like, but we can grow in our understanding as we learn from those we know personally and from books and resources out there as well. Listen and learn with no agenda except to listen and learn. Ask questions and know some of your questions will show your ignorance (that has happened to me!). We are all learning together, give grace to yourself to be wrong! Now these books will likely make you uncomfortable! Good! Not as uncomfortable as the Bible should make you at times!
The Color of Compromise by Jemar Tisby
I'm Still Here: Black Dignity in a World made for Whiteness by Austin Channing Brown
Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson
THE BIBLE by God.
2) Lament & Grieve
Two-thirds of all the psalms are psalms of lament and there is an entire book of the Bible named Lamentations. This is part of how God wants us to respond in our broken world. Before you rush into try and fix the thing lament 'the thing', lament and grieve the evil and injustice of it all and grieve for and with those who are truly suffering. When one part of the body is bleeding, we all are bleeding and we all experience it differently, but we can lament and grieve as a family.
If you don't honestly face the past in your life, really face it then you will never experience the healing and restoration available to you in the gospel. And honestly facing our past and our past sins means we have to repent for what we have done, named what we have done, acknowledged what has been done to us and let God work into us the healing balm of restoration that leads to freed living. The same holds true for the church facing her distant and not so distant past, we must stare at it, be grieved by it, and repent honestly and fully as best we can, and experience true restoration as a church. God does want to liberate us from our past, both personally and corporately, but in order for that to truly happen we have to have the courage to own it, name it, and repent of it.
We have to find ways to speak publicly, to engage injustice at a local level and to get proximate to people different from us. That can look a lot of different ways and in different seasons of your life you will have different margin to get involved, but it needs to have some look to it. Start small. Just start. My family and I are involved locally in Thrive Park Ridge. And in the fight for justice let's remember that we are not the saviors here to fix all the problems of the inner city--we are here to learn, to listen, and to mutually partner alongside others for the prospering of the city, "for when the city prospers, you prosper as well" (Jeremiah 29:7).
If the fight for justice was easy then the world would look a lot different, but it is not easy. We stand against a supernatural enemy who opposes all justice and against systems and structures that continue to build and create cultures of injustice and oppression. There is a power to sin and to the principalities of this evil age that still lash out at us. But we know, in the end, justice does roll down and God wins. We know it! And so our hope is in that, that one day God will come back in Jesus Christ to make everything right. We may not see it in our lifetime, but that hope gives us the power to sustain the fight, especially when the fight leaves us (as it already has x10000 for our black and brown brothers and sisters) outraged, wearied and seemingly hopeless that real change will ever come.
The Sons of Georgia and the Son of God
Today, Friday, May 8th would have been Ahmaud Arbery's 26th birthday, but he will not be around to celebrate it. There will be no cake, no presents, no birthday song. In their place for his family, as for the families of so many who have been tragically killed there will be grief and numbness, and the painful reminder that the Jim Crow bird still flies with a viciousness in the deep south.
But one day he will fly no more, he will be dead and buried along with the ideology of hate and evil he represents. And with inspiration from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. himself...one day the slain sons of Georgia and all the slain sons and daughters of God will have their tears wiped away and their spilt blood avenged by the slain yet triumphant son of God.
One glorious day to come, at the great table of grace, when the eternal dawn showers the redeemed red hills of Georgia with resplendent glory, the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will eat together at last, not as strangers or even friends but as brothers, because Jesus Christ our true brother has broken down the dividing wall of hostility between us with his blood and made us one.