A couple weeks ago, a friend and former ministry resident at Eastbrook Church, Robert Larry, shared some of his thoughts with me on what it’s like to be a black man and Christian at this time in our nation. After sharing those thoughts with me, I asked him if he would be willing to share it with a broader audience, which he agreed to do. On this Juneteenth, I hope Robert’s words inspire us to think, listen to one another, and grow toward greater authentic unity as the body of Christ. This post has also been cross-posted at the Milwaukee Declaration website.
These are my reactions. By Robert Larry
In the midst of the deaths of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and others recently, as well as the Central Park incident with Amy Cooper, I’ve been asked multiple times to share my reactions to what’s happening in the United States, as both a follower of Jesus Christ and also a black man living in the United States. These are my reactions. Once again, I find myself reacting to yet another sickening demonstration of the reality of the danger that I, my family, and my friends face living as black Americans in this country. I find myself looking at these deeply disturbing scenarios where they are publicly killed, which is more than disturbing enough, but even more so are the narratives that surround each of their deaths and listening to how they were somehow at fault all in their own specialized, individual ways. They “looked suspicious” or had the wrong clothes on or were somewhere they didn’t belong or perhaps didn’t speak the correct way or sitting in the wrong house (even though it’s later revealed that it’s their own house). What could a black person ever do to look less threatening to someone who is threatened by a black face? And though there are always extenuating circumstances surrounding scenarios like this, I am not and will never be convinced that it warrants no-holds-barred execution; without a trial, without a day in court, without a chance to be defended and without the very rights guaranteed to them as African “Americans.” That is directly violating rights and promises that we earned as citizens of a country that we were brought to illegally to serve an inhuman purpose and had to fight to initially obtain in the first place. And then afterwards watching as no consequences ever ensue to the offenders. Our murderers regularly acquitted in court if it ever even goes to a trial; their inhumane actions excused as their victim’s loved ones grieve. I find myself reacting to the cold reality of racism and systematic oppression in the United States; and shockingly I even find myself reacting to racism and compliance in the Church in the manner that we choose to react; or rather not react to it.
Most recently in George Floyd’s incident, we see that a person can be suffocated for over nine minutes…completely uninterrupted…and in the vicinity of other community serving officers who were all so numb to it and desensitized that their main priority was engaging the bystanders and keeping them at bay while a man was murdered in their care and by their hand. No one there thought to check a pulse, no one thought to allow him air, no one even thought to advise their colleague, “Hey, he’s not a threat,” and allow him the right to breathe; allow him the right to live. And so, now we have documentation of black men and boys and people being killed by former cops (Ahmaud Arbery), current cops (George Floyd), “wannabe” cops (Trayvon Martin), poorly trained cops (Philando Castile), and just indifferent cops (Breonna Taylor); and whether they are racists or not, for whatever reason these cops had no regard for the lives of these black people. Hence the phrase “Black lives matter”; not to be interpreted as mattering more than any other lives as it is wildly miscomprehended to mean. Yes, all lives do indeed matter and no one (certainly not a follower of Christ) should ever dispute this fundamental biblical fact. However, it is when it is offered as a retort to these glaring issues with the understanding that black lives have not historically and continually do not matter in this country presently that the phrase “all lives matter,” while fundamentally true, becomes indescribably insensitive.
And then after suffering such traumatic and humiliating events, and having a loved one being publicly killed, and listening to the country argue about whether or not it was a warranted killing, we now have the task of communicating to our countrymen why we’re devastated and the responses we receive are unfathomable. We’re often told that “it’s all in our head” or to “play by the rules and we’ll be fine.” Isn’t walking down a street committing no crimes playing by the rules? Isn’t sitting in your own house playing by the rules? Isn’t going on a jog playing by the rules? The unwritten and often unspoken rule is that one cannot look threatening…or to clarify further, be black while doing so. And so here we are still dying.
“If you can talk, you can breathe.” How can that ever be the response of any decent person? To discredit a dying man’s pleas for his life to be spared, his wish to be allowed to live, what ended up being his final wish in the hands of officers who are sworn to serve and protect him as an American citizen, guaranteed the right to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” And yet we can’t even get that first part right. A man: handcuffed, but not resisting arrest nor a danger to anyone, pleading for his right to live with what ended up being his last words. And your reaction to his death is, “if you can talk, you can breathe?” To discredit his words and therefor discredit the atrocity of the details that led to his death, thereby discrediting his very existence as a human being made in the image of God you claim to serve. If so, then where is your compassion? Where is your sympathy? Wouldn’t Christ have compassion? At its core, this is what “black lives matter” means. That even at the very least you would hear his cries for help and at least be sympathetic. And instead we’re presented with laughter and dismissal and belittlement due to the scientific technical inaccuracies of what this man said as he died like an animal in the streets by those whose salaries were paid for by the taxes given by people who look just like him and would’ve suffered the same fate had they been in his predicament.
While this specific example is sickening in itself, it demonstrates the far more disturbing tendency that America has to respond to its deeply rooted racism with skepticism about racism’s very existence. There’s always an excuse. For centuries there has been some type of justification offered for the unlawful death of a black person; even one as blatant and irrefutable as George Floyd’s. America excuses these deaths, never giving their attention to the matter again. We have become so addicted to our hatred and the rest of us so comfortable in our compliance of it that we discredit the truth in order to avoid the discomfort of even addressing it. It’s alarming. And what’s more alarming is that there are still people who don’t consider it alarming.
Guilt and remorse are real and powerful emotions but far from acceptable excuses to deny the truth of racism and racial discrimination particularly when it’s been embedded and personified in multiple, unending manifestations throughout the centuries of the United States’ history as a nation. Should we be considered “un-American” or “unpatriotic” for having the courage to speak out against it? Is it really an acceptable or appropriate response to tell us to “leave if we hate America so much”? Would that response be acceptable in any other instance of an abusive relationship? Do we chastise the victim of a domestically abusive relationship for confronting the destructive, abusive tendencies of their spouse? Is not pointing out the deficiencies of a loved one a sign of a loving regard for them in improving themselves? Should constructive criticism be responded to with the ultimatum to accept someone as they are or abandon the relationship altogether? Confronting someone is among the most loving things that you can do for them if your desire is for them to be grow for their own betterment. Why is it then so unthinkable for America to be confronted with its issues? Facing your deficiencies can be hard and painful but it’s a sign of maturity in yourself and love for the offended when you value their voice enough to allow yourself to change out of your love for them and your regard for their well being. And yet we somehow immediately lose our patriotism and our voice the second we even suggest that America has failed in their treatment of us; which it certainly has. The American experience is far different for its white citizens then it is for its black citizens. Please understand those differences before criticizing the criticism. The United States has the same responsibilities to its black citizens and has yet to afford them the decency to hear their cries of pain and criticism of their failure to execute them with anything besides intolerance and the debilitating unwillingness to even listen to it. Out of fear, hatred, guilt, and maddening stubbornness, America continues to refuse to hear the criticism that it has rightfully earned countless times over. Though it may be uncomfortable to realize and accept, America needs to understand and comprehend that African Americans have been in an abusive relationship with the United States for hundreds of years. And furthermore there is no escape for us. There is no “country we can return to.” This is our home. Many of us never asked to be brought or born here but this is our home now. And yet we are still waiting to be accepted here. To be loved here. To matter here. And while America continues to turn their backs to us and struggle with these truths, in the meantime we continue to be targeted and killed.
We’re told to look less threatening. To wear a mask. To make sure we appease the people we’re around and make them feel safe just to make it out of the room or situation alive. We need to smile even if we don’t feel joyful. To laugh even if we don’t feel cheerful. To speak in dialects that aren’t our own even if we want to be ourselves all to convince the people around us that we’re not a threat to them. Essentially, we are asked to wear a mask. It’s amusing how quickly America has grown to want to abandon their masks after a just few months on danger. Imagine wearing a mask for centuries regardless of whether you want to or not. But in doing so, keep in mind a human heart filled with hatred is far more lethal than any virus could ever be.
Any of these people killed in the streets and in their own homes could’ve easily been me or my brother or my friends or my family and loved ones. Next time, it could easily be me. It gives me serious reservations in continuing to live here. Even more so as I consider raising my children here. Am I to be considered a poor father for fathering black children and sending them into this America to live their lives in the near future? I don’t know. The fact that the officer who killed George Floyd lived in freedom while protesters were arrested in outrage of his death is unfathomable. The fact is: racism is wrong and unbiblical and completely unbecoming of anyone claiming to be a member of the body of Christ. I don’t know what to do or say to those who cannot agree on that and I’ve run out of strength to listen to it. To make it clear and precise: racism does exist. It’s not in our heads. And it’s not okay. And while progress has certainly been made it can never be mistaken for completion nor does it exonerate the glaring issues that are still to be addressed and eradicated. I’ll never forget what it was like listening to my father tell me of his experiences with these very issues and how eerily similar the circumstances are to today.
As Christians, Christ himself has called us to “love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind” before adding to “love your neighbor as yourself” (Matthew 22:36-40). As God’s church, we would be creating a poor reflection of Christ if we refuse to listen to a cry for help simply because we found it personally offensive in some way. In His time on earth, Christ was personally attacked with questions of His very identify, even to the point where his power and anointing from God was accused to be the power of the same enemy that He would lay down His life on behalf those who made that blasphemous accusation. And yet He never once allowed the offense to become a hindrance to His mission. How then can we allow an offense to hinder our mission to love the Lord and our neighbors as ourselves? We have progressed to a point as a nation where patriotism has become a hindrance in loving our African American citizens, which means that but very definition it has become an idol in God’s church in the United States. It has become a device for the enemy to continue to cause deep divisions in us as God’s children and silences the voices of oppressed people, distracting us from living out our responsibilities as God’s presence in this society and country. If these issues are to improve it must be spearheaded by God’s church and people. If this is ever going to happen, we must put our patriotism and offense aside and listen to the cries of those who need our help as Christ would undoubtedly do.
And so the timeless question that plagued the existence of all mankind since the fall of man in the garden echoes in my mind once more, “from where does our hope come from?” Despite everything and through it all, our God is still and though beyond my ability to ever comprehend, so much greater. I call out to You, Lord, to soften our hearts. These issues are of the heart and they are sinful. Therefore they must be defeated through His power. There is no sin in God’s kingdom. And so once again I say, “Come, Lord Jesus, come!” In the meantime, let’s all try to love people, all people in the manner that Christ would. These are my reactions.