I was jogging on the path that runs alongside Lake Michigan in Chicago when the verdict in the trial of the man who murdered George Floyd was handed down yesterday. As soon as the news broke that the verdict was imminent, I kept checking my notifications and refreshing my social media feeds, hoping for a hint of what the decision might be. I noticed an ache creeping into my stomach, as though my body were preparing for the sudden absence of justice, once again denied. And so I layered up against the cold wind blowing off the lake and began my slow pace north.
I managed to make it to my turn-around spot before glancing at my phone. There on the screen was the breaking news: guilty of second-degree unintentional murder, third-degree murder, and second-degree manslaughter. I stood still for a moment before continuing my jog back to the church office. A few minutes later my friend called. “It’s good, right?” he asked. “Yeah,” I replied. But it didn’t feel good. It still doesn’t.
Later that evening I logged on to the weekly seminary class I’ve been assisting with this semester. The professor, an African American scholar, noted how strange it was to hear people celebrating this verdict. Why, he wondered with the class, must we await fearfully a decision that should have been inevitable? Is this actually worth celebrating?
Yesterday’s verdict was good, and any expression of justice is worth celebrating. But expressions of justice in a society steeped in white supremacy will never be straightforward matters of celebration or condemnation. There is a tension here, one that disciples of Jesus are capable of holding tightly and tenderly.Expressions of justice in a society steeped in white supremacy will never be straightforward matters of celebration or condemnation. Click To Tweet
The Pull Toward Lament
On one side of this tension is the pull toward lament. Why, given that George Floyd was slowly killed before a crowd of witnesses while being filmed, did so many of us (especially those who are Black) doubt a just verdict in this case? One obvious answer is that justice has so rarely been served in these sorts of high-profile instances. I remember, for example, watching cable news as we learned that the man who killed Trayvon Martin had been acquitted. In Between the World and Me, Ta-Nehisi Coates writes to his fifteen-year-old son about these spectacular miscarriages of justice:
I am writing you because this is the year you saw Eric Garner choked to death for selling cigarettes; because you know now that Renisha McBride was shot for seeking help, that John Crawford was shot down for browsing in a department store. And you have seen men in uniform drive by and murder Tamir Rice, a twelve-year-old child whom they were oath-bound to protect…The destroyers will rarely be held accountable. Mostly they will receive pensions.
There is more, though, to our lament than this terrible litany of stolen lives. It’s not only that we cannot give ourselves fully to celebration because there have been too many other moments of injustice. The problem, as I heard someone recently describe it, is not with too many bad apples; the problem is the rotten tree.
Why are so many gasping with relief at yesterday’s news from Minneapolis? Why are so many shocked? Because a rotten tree does not typically produce good fruit. Ours is a country riven by white supremacy in which racial justice has been repeatedly delayed and denied. Within these wicked circumstances, any expression of righteousness, no matter how basic or obvious, cannot help but be met with some gladness. How can we not lament when clearing such an embarrassingly low bar provokes our relief?How can we not lament when clearing such an embarrassingly low bar provokes our relief? Click To Tweet
Choosing a Posture of Praise
There is, for those who worship the Lord Jesus, another side to the tension. Because we have the courage to tell the truth about the racial injustice built into our culture, we understand that moments like yesterday’s verdict are neither natural nor inevitable. In their new book Reparations: A Christian Call for Repentance and Repair, Duke Kwon and Gregory Thompson write that racism in this country is “an entire culture—a comprehensive way of being and doing.” This being the case, the conviction of a white law enforcement officer for murdering a Black man is a counter-cultural act worth our attention.
Does the verdict instill a bit of optimism in these difficult days? No. Again, yesterday’s relief reminds us of just how warped our sense of justice has been, how infected it remains with racial supremacy. The surprise many felt at such obvious accountability is not a sign that we have made a collective turn away from exploitation and plunder. Our reaction points us in a different direction.Yesterday’s relief reminds us of just how warped our sense of justice has been, how infected it remains with racial supremacy. Click To Tweet
The prophet Habakkuk lived during the violence and existential threats expressed by two bloodthirsty empires, Assyria and Babylon. The book bearing his name begins with a desperate complaint that could easily be adopted by many communities today:
How long, Lord, must I call for help,
but you do not listen?
Or cry out to you, “Violence!”
but you do not save?
Why do you make me look at injustice?
Why do you tolerate wrongdoing?
Destruction and violence are before me;
there is strife, and conflict abounds.
Therefore the law is paralyzed,
and justice never prevails.
The wicked hem in the righteous,
so that justice is perverted.
God responds in the following verse:
Look at the nations and watch—
and be utterly amazed.
For I am going to do something in your days
that you would not believe,
even if you were told.
Christians who are alert to the extent of this nation’s perverted justice, who have perhaps experienced its destruction and violence for themselves, do not look hopefully to courthouses, legislative chambers, or campaigns to reform law enforcement. This isn’t to say we remain silent in response to abusive power, only that we rightly interpret what we are up against. Our hope comes from somewhere beyond the halls of corrupt and self-serving power, from the God whose righteous power rattles our disbelief.Our hope comes from somewhere beyond the halls of corrupt and self-serving power, from the God whose righteous power rattles our disbelief. Click To Tweet
While this particular verdict does little to change the wickedness that African Americans and other people of color continue to face, it is a reminder that our God does not stand a long ways off. God hears the complaint of those who have been denied justice, who have long suffered this nation’s violence. In response to the authoritative claims and organizing power of white supremacy—determining who thrives and suffers, who is valorized and victimized, who lives and dies—God still acts even today in ways that defy belief. To our lament, then, we add our praise.
The tension between lament and praise cannot be passively held. The pull between the two rouses us from apathy and cynicism to join the God who still does the unbelievable. As we lament the pervasive destruction of white supremacy and praise the One who intervenes with justice, we are called to take our place in the struggle for justice so that like the saints who’ve gone before us, we too can be utterly amazed at what our God will do.