Religious Leaders Blast Racism & Despotism

Religious leaders are like the rest of us. They’re wearing the who-would-a-thunk-it look. It turns out 1968 was a rehearsal for 2020 – or, as George McKinney put it in a Facebook reply: “Not sure what to do when 1918 (the year of the killer flu epidemic) + 1929 (the market crashed) + 1968 = 2020. Laws of the universe seem askew.”

Those laws were especially frayed on May 25th, when America’s simmering undercurrent exploded into full view upon the death of 46-year-old George Floyd, an African American. Four Minneapolis police officers were involved in Floyd’s fatal restraint after the unemployed bouncer allegedly tried to pass a fake $20 bill. The officers seemed cavalier. Derek Chauvin, the 19-year veteran who knelt on Floyd’s neck, ignored his I-can’t-breathe pleas as well as appeals from video-reeling bystanders. Another officer repeatedly told Floyd to “get up” while Chauvin held him down.

All four were fired and eventually arrested, with Chauvin immediately charged with third-degree murder, now raised to second degree. Violent protests erupted across the country, with some heavy-handed National Guard troops and law enforcement officials emulating the 1968 police rioters.

It didn’t take long for theologians, pastors, educators, and Christian writers to shake off their who-would-a-thunk-it look and file their replies. Fuller Theological Seminary, an intellectual Mecca for post-conservative evangelicals, pinned this statement on its web site:

Fuller, in the strongest of terms, denounces the senseless, brutal killing of George Floyd and the countless instances of abuse and othering of black and brown bodies in a long line of systemic injustice. We have, over the past few months, seen again this rhythm of violence. There is a temptation to view these occasions as isolated instances of radical hatred. But this violence is sadly not unique—it is in the core of our nation’s existence and the expressions of violence against non-white bodies that have been a perpetual rhythm since America’s founding.

The protests and riots of the past few days have elicited a variety of responses. The loss of life is cause for full-throated lament, and it is for that reason that we choose to stand in solidarity with those who have lost loved ones, with those who are seeking justice, and with those who are advocating for drastic and overdue change. We believe this is consistent with the God revealed in our Scriptures, who in both Testaments disrupted established institutions for the sake of justice.

In this moment, we must again turn towards our Savior, who intimately knows the contours of unjust violence. We must fervently ask for the Spirit’s guidance in examining ourselves, our institutions, our theologies, and practices for the ways in which they retain ideologies that disregard the humanity of all non-white peoples. And we must join our God in God’s own solidarity with the oppressed and the marginalized.

This is not an abstract solidarity, but God’s presence in the midst of real pain and God’s concern for the black communities which have suffered devastation after devastation. It is that solidarity that guides us toward action. We urge those in elected positions, those in positions of power, those with privilege, and those who follow the crucified Savior Jesus to resist any justification for unjust killings, to act in bold love for the flourishing of marginalized communities, and, by God’s grace and bold power to create new rhythms that honor human life—rhythms that carry with them justice for George Floyd.

Fuller President Mark Labberton used the occasion to discuss systems of oppression and generational trauma on his podcast with Dwight Radcliff, assistant provost for the William E. Pannell Center for African American Church Studies. Here’s the talk:

Fuller, of course, was not alone. Southern Baptist leaders issued a remarkable call for racial reconciliation. A sample:

As a convention of churches committed to the equality and dignity of all people, Southern Baptists grieve the death of George Floyd, who was killed May 25, 2020, in Minneapolis, Minn.

While all must grieve, we understand that in the hearts of our fellow citizens of color, incidents like these connect to a long history of unequal justice in our country, going back to the grievous Jim Crow and slavery eras. The images and information we have available to us in this case are horrific and remind us that there is much more work to be done to ensure that there is not even a hint of racial inequity in the distribution of justice in our country. We grieve to see examples of the misuse of force, and call for these issues to be addressed with speed and justice.

They also reminded police of their duty to serve and protect:

While we thank God for our law enforcement officers that bravely risk their lives for the sake of others and uphold justice with dignity and integrity, we also lament when some law enforcement officers misuse their authority and bring unnecessary harm on the people they are called to protect. We further grieve with our minority brothers and sisters in the wake of George Floyd’s death, pray for his family and friends and greatly desire to see the misuse of force and any inequitable distributions of justice come to an end.

Southern Baptist pastors were once rapped for serving as veritable KKK chaplains. They’ve come far.

Read the whole thing here.

Other religious officials pounded their laptops as America leaped from nuts to crazy, with events crystallizing on June 1st. President Trump made a blustering Rose Garden speech as law enforcement officials fired tear gas and shot rubber bullets to disperse peaceful protesters in Lafayette Square. They were clearing the way so the president could walk to St. John’s Church, the basement of which had been damaged by fire, and hold a Bible aloft in a photo op.

Episcopalian Bishop Mariann Edgar Budde said she was “outraged” that the president used her church as a “prop.” He didn’t even notify her beforehand.

Many invited the president to crack open that Bible. The Rev. William Barber III and Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove called his gesture “obscene” and a perversion of the Bible itself. They wrote:

The Bible as a talisman has real political power. But we believe the words inside the book are more powerful. If we unite across lines of race, creed and culture to stand together on the moral vision of love, justice and truth that was proclaimed by Jesus and the prophets, we have the capacity to reclaim the heart of this democracy and work together for a more perfect union.

Trump visited the Saint John Paul II National Shrine in Northeast Washington the following day, which prompted an angry reply from Archbishop Wilton Gregory:

I find it baffling and reprehensible that any Catholic facility would allow itself to be so egregiously misused and manipulated in a fashion that violates our religious principles, which call us to defend the rights of all people even those with whom we might disagree. Saint Pope John Paul II was an ardent defender of the rights and dignity of human beings. His legacy bears vivid witness to that truth. He certainly would not condone the use of tear gas and other deterrents to silence, scatter or intimidate them for a photo opportunity in front of a place of worship and peace.

A spokesman for the Knights of Columbus, which runs the shrine, said the White House “originally scheduled this as an event for the president to sign an executive order on international religious freedom,” which he did later that day.

All this comes as Trump’s popularity among evangelicals and conservative Catholics declines. Will they now snap back as he waves the Bible? Perhaps. Some on the religious right rallied to the president, but at least one stalwart colored outside the lines. Pat Robertson made an assessment of Trump’s bluster:

It seems like now is the time to say, ‘I understand your pain, I want to comfort you, I think it’s time we love each other. But the President took a different course. He said, ‘I am the President of law and order,’ and he issued a heads-up. He said, ‘I’m ready to send in military troops if the nation’s governors don’t act to quell the violence that has rocked American cities.’ A matter of fact, he spoke of them as being jerks. You just don’t do that, Mr. President. It isn’t cool!”

Robertson denounced racism. “We’ve got to love each other, we just got to do that. We are all one race, and we need to love each other.”

So Pat Robertson is on the same page as Fuller Theological Seminary. Who would-a thunk it?

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About Charles Redfern

Charles Redfern is a writer, activist, and clergyman living in Connecticut with his wife and family. He's currently writing two books, with more in his head.

View all posts by Charles Redfern


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