A perspective on the racism debate in the USA
Rev. Dr. Jacob Corzine, Concordia University Chicago, USA
I cannot but begin with a warm, personal greeting to my brothers and sisters in the FELSISA. My prayer is that the Holy Spirit is with you, enabling your faith in Jesus Christ to endure every kind of trial and trouble. This year has certainly provided its share of both of those things. In the United States, we’ve been hit with a heavy wave of COVID-19 cases and deaths (something that seems to be on the rise again now), and it was in the midst of that crisis that another came upon us in the form of the death of a black man named George Floyd at the hands of a police officer and the protests that erupted in response. These protests mostly flew the banner of a movement known in the USA as “Black Lives Matter.” Pastor Rüdiger Gevers has asked me to write about this for the FELSISA Witness. I hope that I can both provide some clarity about the issue and help in provoking a thoughtful and Christian response to the larger-than-one-event issue of racism as it continues to be a pressing topic both in the United States and in South Africa.Thank you for reading this post, don't forget to subscribe!
Living in the US doesn’t give me any knowledge about the death of George Floyd that is not equally available to all of you on the internet, so I’ll leave you to read that if you choose. What’s important to know is how Floyd died: a police officer kneeled on his neck for nearly nine minutes. This is an expression of sin that simply takes slow, sober acknowledgment: The officer, whose own life was in no way threatened, held this position, despite Floyd’s pleas, long enough to kill a man.
All of this was caught on video, as had been in the previous weeks a number of other occurrences of police officers dealing more drastically with black men than seemed appropriate or warranted. But this time was different, in that it was nearly impossible to imagine the kind of mitigating circumstances that could allow this to be seen as just an unfortunate result of standard policing practice. It really is difficult, humanly speaking, to absolve the officers involved. That means, at least as far as I can judge the situation, that many Americans who previously hesitated to hold the police officers at fault did not hesitate this time, and also began to wonder if they had been wrong before.
The immediate result – violent protests in Minneapolis (the city where Floyd’s death occurred) – evolved through chaotic protests in most major cities in the US (including just a few blocks away from my own home in Chicago) into peaceful, but persistent demonstrations prevalent all over the country. This led to statements of support from practically every corner of American society, the church forming no exception. A particularly moving statement came from a group of black LCMS pastors called the “Black Clergy Caucus.” (Link: https://www.theunbrokencord.com/writings/black-clergy-caucus-statement-on-george-floyd)
I wrote a response to this with three headings: “to hear”, “to listen”, and “to speak”. https://tinyurl.com/y8p86wna.
I was very thankful that they had spoken up, and wanted to honour that. They did not join their voice to the Black Lives Matter movement, which is probably impossible to harmonise with biblical Christianity, and in so doing probably drew the scorn of many Americans who see that movement today as the only legitimate representation of an “anti-racist” position. They were critical of our church body, but not in a way designed to tear down, but rather in simple open honesty. This, likewise, drew some scorn. But their statement was hopeful, rooted in the gospel, and committed to the same foundations of Bible and confessions that guide us all, and that, I thought, needed to be highlighted.
I began by noting how the death of George Floyd so insistently drew our attention. That event was like an alert, telling me that someone was speaking. The next step was to listen carefully to what my black brother pastors were saying. In my response, I tried to reformulate in my own words what the statement of our Black Clergy Caucus said because I knew that my response would have no weight if it weren’t grounded in brotherly acknowledgement of what they had expressed. That meant assuming that even though I might use different words to describe things, or perhaps simply disagree with them, their words were not aimed at deception, but as much at the truth as mine could be.
Finally, though, I found it also important to speak myself. There are plenty of people suggesting right now that white people should stay silent and only listen, but I think that this is wrong. Christian love of neighbours doesn’t require silence, but rather that I don’t use my voice to drown out another person’s. But the question remained, what to say? It has been popular to admit deep guilt and racist motivations for one’s entire white life. I wasn’t inclined to do that. In part, the Black Clergy Caucus objected to actions taken by the church, but not actions in which I played any role; so I wasn’t inclined to apologise for those, nor did I feel that that would be very genuine. Deep personal sins are not confessed before the public eye either, but like this: “Before God we should plead guilty of all sins, even those we are not aware of; but before the pastor we should confess only those sins which we know and feel in our hearts.” (Small Catechism). So how to speak?
Those words in the Catechism don’t describe a Christian’s public behaviour, but they do describe an enduring attitude of repentance. Christians never self-justify, but always turn to God with our sins (even those of which we are not aware!) and ask Him to justify us for Jesus’ sake. This enables a different kind of response when a brother says not even “you have done racist things,” but simply that he has felt as though he is treated differently on account of his race. Then I can begin by saying that perhaps this is true, and if so I accept the guilt. Christ will remove it. This is, then, what I wrote: “I have benefited significantly in my life from not being black, and I have usually ignored the unfairness of that reality. I have regarded black colleagues at times as token, even though that attitude undermines their divine call; I’ve accepted their exclusion from the group, not without pangs of conscience, but because it would be too difficult to work against it. To use Rev. Lattimore’s (the author of the Black Clergy Caucus statement) concepts, I’ve allowed their black identity to take precedence, also in my own attitudes and actions, over their baptismal identity.” I believe those things were sins. And I believe that Christ removed them.
It was an open confession, one I felt free to make knowing that my sins are forgiven, and driven to make as a way of affirming the voice of my black colleagues. I was on the edge of openly accepting the accusation that I’m a racist – but they did not make that accusation, and it’s one I’m not ready to accept without a lot of nuance. I expressed after that, just briefly, my concern with the ideological convictions of the “Black Lives Matter” movement, but the reason I wrote was what seemed – and still seems – to me a simple case of the baby and the bathwater. “We reject certain movements of the American political left, because of an open commitment to viewing the world’s troubles not through the lens of sin and redemption, but of power and oppression.”
I think it’s right to reject these movements. But we ought to not so quickly reject the problems they point out for us. If we cannot, in good conscience, embrace society’s solutions, then we ought to seek our own.
In the Lutheran church, our clear doctrine of Original Sin is a great tool in the struggle with racism. It teaches that at the root of racism is not the hatred of the neighbour, but the love of oneself. The first is easy to deny; to deny the second is dangerously unchristian. But if I can accept the second, then I can both begin to see how often in my life I choose my own benefit over that of others, and I can re-enter the cycle of repentance and forgiveness that is fundamentally Christian. A little more challenging is the realisation of how deeply original sin inflicts us all. I quoted the Small Catechism above, that we should “plead guilty of all sins, even those we are not aware of.” This isn’t just Luther’s way of casting a wide net, but rather his acknowledgement of how Jesus sharpens the 10 commandments in Matthew 5: Only Christ can fulfil even one of God’s expectations.
But we have Christ, and so we can face the truth and, by the power of the Holy Spirit, both have faith in His forgiveness and be renewed in love to every one of our neighbours. These are our tools. I’m seeing in practice right now how difficult it is to put them to use, and how many people want us to believe that they are not enough. Perhaps in one sense they are not enough – we certainly will not remove sin from our world. But if we must live with it, then may we also have our Redeemer by our side. He brings the true solution, redemption, and reconciliation.