President of a college historically mostly white, I have known since the murder of George Floyd that we—I, the college and community I serve, and our society at large—must do something now to end the injustice black men and women face in our culture and in our criminal justice system. Although to the college I have spoken about George Floyd briefly, toward the general public I have been mostly dumbfounded by a little cynicism and some caution for the past few days. But no more.
Although neither cynicism nor caution excuses silence when men are being “taken to death” or “delivered to slaughter,” I had to work through both before I could think and then speak both clearly and helpfully.
First, a sliver (perhaps wedge) of cynicism slowed my response. Each time such an atrocity occurs there is an outpouring of public concern followed by a return to normal—a normal within which such moral repugnancies occur so regularly that just the ones caught on video regularly punctuate our years with sincere but short-lived societal outrage. I cannot stand the thought of joining the chorus to signal another verse of the same song, no end in sight.
Second, on caution, I am not inclined to rush in where angels or those who genuinely suffer fear to tread. The din of corporate and celebrity voices speaking George Floyd’s name does have a positive side. It lightens the cynicism I mentioned above—gives hope that the pressure of our society as a whole may actually begin to extrude the pervasive and deep-seated problems which normally tolerate and even encourage the intimidation, abuse, and murder of men like George Floyd. But that noise has a negative side for me as well. I fear—probably unfairly—that institutions and influencers are looting attention on one side of protesters while individuals and instigators are looting electronics on the other.
Were I an attorney, I would advocate for specific reforms in criminal justice; a representative, legislation; a celebrity, protests and prayer vigils. But I am a preacher, a cultural historian, and an ethicist. So as I did two years ago in the short case reproduced below, I am begging those who live in the historically majority side of society to reconsider how we think of our current and past relationship with the minority side of society tracing its roots through slavery back to Africa.
If we lament George Floyd’s death, and wish no more such cause for civil unrest, then we must consider the possibility that unless we change something fundamental about our thinking, we will relive this tragedy as many more times every year hence as we have every year thence.
From April 2018:
To my friends who believe we are innocent as long as we did not personally own a slave, provide a “colored” water fountain, or hold James Earl Ray’s rifle, I simply ask you to consider the implication of Daniel’s prayer. Daniel, one of Ezekiel’s three righteous heroes, confesses as a participant in the corporate guilt and shame of his people:
I prayed to the LORD my God and made confession, saying… we have sinned and done wrong and acted wickedly and rebelled, turning aside from your commandments and rules. We have not listened to your servants the prophets, who spoke in your name to our kings, our princes, and our fathers, and to all the people of the land. To you, O Lord, belongs righteousness, but to us open shame, as at this day, to the men of Judah, to the inhabitants of Jerusalem, and to all Israel, those who are near and those who are far away, in all the lands to which you have driven them, because of the treachery that they have committed against you. To us, O LORD, belongs open shame, to our kings, to our princes, and to our fathers, because we have sinned against you…
Daniel makes the same confession repeatedly through 11 verses of that text. His personally expressed corporate contrition on behalf of his fathers and the rest of his people is for what they had done generations prior, leading up to the captivity which had begun decades before he voiced the prayer. The contrast between Daniel’s shame and the rebuttal I hear from my beloved brothers and sisters in Christ is remarkable. What I have heard, in so many words, is: “Why should I feel guilty about what I did not personally do? After all, Ezekiel says only the soul that sins shall die.”
In fact, the juxtaposition of Ezekiel and Daniel only underscores the point of corporate responsibility.
The idea that an individual can be spared from a corporate judgment is introduced in Ezekiel as an a fortiori argument: “Son of man, when a land sins against me by acting faithlessly, and I stretch out my hand against it and break its supply of bread and send famine upon it, and cut off from it man and beast, even if these three men, Noah, Daniel, and Job, were in it, they would deliver but their own lives by their righteousness, declares the Lord GOD.” The point is that God’s judgment against the entire land is so inescapable that even the most righteous representatives imaginable—men who had demonstrated their faithfulness surrounded by everyone else’s turpitude—would not have delivered anyone with themselves. We might be tempted at this point to say: “Ah, but that proves my point. They would have been spared because of their personal righteousness, just as I should not be judged because of someone else’s guilt.”
That reading misses Ezekiel’s point entirely: even Noah, Daniel, and Job—paragons of righteousness—could not provide shelter for any individual in a society so weighted with shared guilt. But even more importantly, the figure (Daniel) whose righteousness sets him in such a rarified position of blessing is one who—far from pushing back against his corporate guilt—actually embraces it and confesses it in the prayer quoted above.
My answer to the original question then—“Why should I feel guilty about what I did not personally do?”—is that we should feel guilty about our ancestors’ participation in slavery and the Jim Crow south for the same reason we do feel proud about our ancestors’ participation in creating a country with the liberties we love. I can’t make sense of one without the other.
Back to today:
Flags, public pledges, and properly postured anthems declare our American pride; historical hoods, closeted jokes, and the posture of too much current authority our shame. They are not mutually exclusive. But before we stand, I pray we will kneel and confess our cultural role in getting us where we are.
Why dredge up a 400 year old problem? Because the systemic injustice decried in the streets every night is inseparable from the familiar normality knocking on our door every morning. I am praying to God, begging anyone who will listen, hoping within myself, that if we first face our history in the mirror we might be prepared to leave the door closed on our old, normal ways.
God does amazing things when people simply confess. But as president, I look forward to adding to confession the public forums, discussions, and actions which will make the members of our community what our Lord calls us to be: peacemakers.
Why? Because God expects us to turn the love He gave us toward every George Floyd, Trayvon Martin, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, Michael Brown, Tony McDade, Eric Garner, Philando Castile, Sandra Bland, Botham Jean, Tamir Rice, and Atatiana Jefferson. You and I both know that only begins the list. May we end the list starting on our knees.