Matthew 23:23 offers a glimpse of Jesus’ righteous indignation regarding injustice.
“Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices – mint, dill and cumin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law – justice, mercy and faithfulness. You should have practiced the latter, without neglecting the former.”
How should we respond?
That’s the question our local clergy group began discussing following the horrific death of an unarmed, nonviolent African American man named George Floyd at the knee of a Minneapolis police officer.
As a first step, we decided to organize a peaceful protest near city hall.
We also determined we should craft a statement, declaring our collective pain, righteous indignation and frustration over unchecked police brutality and the systems that allow for repeated offenses by police against people of color.
Our statement included the phrase, “Black Lives Matter.” Almost immediately, one of our well-meaning white clergy brothers responded, “Why not say, ‘All lives matter?’”
One by one, we each responded, emphasizing while all lives do matter, black lives continue to be disproportionately terrorized, oppressed, disenfranchised and murdered figuratively and literally by police.
To his credit, our clergy brother apologized, agreed to using the phrase and then transparently shared that in his life he had “dismissed” the words.
He never really thought about them or took the time to understand why people were using them.
He has since committed not only to repenting of his insensitivities but also to engaging in dialogue and actions to help address racism in our community and beyond.
Since that dialogue, I have reflected deeply upon the idea that many of our white sisters and brothers, like our colleague in the ministry, have dismissed not only the phrase, but also what necessitated the phrase, “Black Lives Matter.”
What were they thinking when video after video emerged with unarmed, nonviolent African American individuals shot in the back, strangled with a baton, beat unmercifully and shot to death in their own homes as police officers in plain clothes with no warrant, no warning and no justifiable reason broke down their door and burst into their living space spraying them with bullets?
What were they thinking?
What were they thinking as conspiracy theories that our first African American president arose, naming him a terrorist with a fake U.S. birth certificate?
What were they thinking as white evangelicals started spreading the notion that President Obama was the anti-Christ? (I literally had several of my former members – white members – ask me if I thought this could be true.)
Why did it have to take a modern-day “Emmett Till experience” with the horrific murder of Mr. Floyd on camera before they saw the everyday reality of African Americans in America?
The question must be raised: What has produced this level of indifference and insensitivity to our tormented, oppressed condition?
If the answer is (as I have heard many say) that since it is not happening to them, it was not something they thought about, what does that say about their humanity?
Does it have to happen to you, your son, your daughter, your family, your neighborhood, your sphere before you care?
Our nation seems to be on the verge of a breakthrough. Like never before, people of all racial backgrounds are joining together by the thousands, demanding change and declaring, “Black Lives Matter.” We are at the door.
May we recognize the occurrences of recent days are not new.
May we emerge from the pit with new understandings and patterns of thinking that refuse to dismiss the pain of others.
May we continue to do what we know to be right and not leave undone the weightier matters of justice, mercy and faithfulness.
May we recognize the problem is not just “a few bad apples” on the police force, but rather an institutionalized, systemic, pervasive, historic inculcation of privilege, power, abuse, control and subjugation of African Americans, tied to the long shadow of slavery.
May we do all we can to break down the door of racism, inequality, injustice and indifference.
Like you, “I too sing America…”
Chris Smith is the senior pastor of Restoration Ministries of Greater Cleveland. She is the author of “Beyond the Stained Glass Ceiling: Equipping and Encouraging Female Pastors.”