George Floyd Minneapolis Christian

On Saying Too Little Vs. Saying Too Much

on June 5, 2020

This is a difficult time in America. How often have we had a major epidemic, a drastic economic downturn, widespread urban rioting, presidential impeachment proceedings, and such a divisive presidential election all in the same year?

I previously spoke out about the killing of Ahmaud Arbery. Then George Floyd was killed. Seeing law enforcement officers act that in such an open, public way, knowing they were being filmed by bystanders, raises obvious questions of how many other incidents there have been of such abusive policing when they thought no one was watching or before cellphone cameras.

How is the church to respond?

If the body of Christ is serious about following biblical teaching, then we must consciously seek to model a better way of addressing such challenges than how the world addresses them.

There are multiple pitfalls that we must take care to avoid.

One major pitfall is silence. Particularly for white American Christians, there is a long history of so many of us remaining silent and declining to suffer with those who suffer. Pastor Miles McPherson recently wrote:

It would help tremendously if White people spoke out against abuses of power more consistently, and loudly. But their collective silence on this issue is deafening, and constitutes a form of withholding help from their brothers and sister in need. The best analogy I can equate it to is watching someone else drown, and having a life preserver, but choosing not to throw it in. As Martin Luther King Jr. so eloquently said, “In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.”

I whole-heartedly agree with Wesleyan Covenant Association (WCA) President Keith Boyette’s recent statement, “Make Justice a Reality,” which you should read in full, and which includes these words:

As Christians we are called to relentlessly work for a society where African Americans no longer have to fear for their lives or be treated differently when encountered by law enforcement, or when they are simply going about the business of their daily lives. We must dedicate ourselves to building a church that bears witness to the dignity of all God’s people, particularly those who have been marginalized, stereotyped, and treated with cruelty and violence based on the color of their skin. The church must summon every fiber of its being to root out racism in its midst. Collectively and individually we must examine our hearts, our minds, our institutions, and our practices, and, with unwavering determination, stamp out racism.

We must also avoid the pitfall of feeling that we do not need to be too concerned about the means we use if the ends seem righteous to us and we think our intentions are good. With other social evils—abortion, greed, sexual immorality, etc.—there are ways of defending Christian values that are ultimately unhelpful, unloving, and fleshly. The same is true with racism and recent killings. One of the most recurring themes of fallen human history is how righteous outrage and the desire to “do something” so often results in people making situations worse.

So much of the world’s current reactions fan the flames of hatred, various bigotries, factional divisiveness, and misunderstanding, all of which make further violence more likely.

So much of the world is already on a hair trigger to begin broadly lashing out—in thought, word, or deed—at various groups against whom they are already prejudiced: blacks, whites, Asians, cops, Democrats, Trump supporters, etc. Christians must be especially careful to act in ways that dampen, rather than inflame, such destructive tendencies.

We do not need to join in what are really pointless ways of fighting, like the woker-than-thou shaming or the false dichotomies (“if you care about businesses, that shows you don’t care about people!”).

A related pitfall is moral inconsistency. Those of us in any sort of teaching role must avoid selectively focusing only certain problems depending on what seems convenient at the moment or what we think our own “tribe” will tolerate from us. Riots, vandalism, and looting are inexcusable, cause great suffering (including on many minority-owned businesses), have been widely condemned across the political spectrum, and must never be rationalized or justified. There have recently been numerous firsthand accounts of black peaceful protesters getting infuriated at relatively smaller numbers of disproportionately white people using the protests as a chance to get violent.

Those of us who are white Americans should especially at this time seek to speak a bit less, and humbly read, listen to, and learn from African-American brothers and sisters. In most cases, “but what about the riots?” should NOT be a main topic in such cross-racial private conversations between friends. The riots are awful, but there is much justification for suspicions that white Americans focusing on riots involves unfairly collectively blaming “those people” and avoiding the hard work of seeking to understanding the underlying pain of African Americans.

Christians of every background must be honest that we are all fallen creatures in desperate need of salvation, that ALL people are capable of abusing as much power as they have been given, and that we all have our biases and blind spots which can lead us to make mistakes.

In this era of polarized media, it is especially urgent to consciously avoid the pitfall of being too quick to believe reports – and especially undocumented memes and social-media posts – which conform too neatly with our pre-conceived loyalties vs. distrust towards certain people. When we get upset by some claim we hear and in our passion rush to pass it on without first checking our facts, there is a good chance we will be, knowingly or not, guilty of bearing false witness. Among sins, that’s one of the big ten.

We must all acknowledge and beware the sub-conscious temptations to believe unproven allegations of wrongdoing by some people and to disbelieve even documented instances of wrongdoing by others.

If we are going to comment on specific incidents, we had better get our facts straight first.

For example, lately there has been some controversy and debate about circumstances surrounding President Trump’s photo op in front of St. John’s Episcopal Church, the famous “church of presidents,” after arsonists had attacked the building.

The liberal New York Times offers the most detailed account I have seen, including an upsetting video clip of riot police roughly shoving people and viciously striking a cameraman with a shield.

The conservative Federalist website seeks to rebut the widespread narratives that for the sake of this photo op, peaceful protesters were tear-gassed out of the area. The Federalist links to a now-updated statement from the U.S. Park Police asserting that “USPP officers and other assisting law enforcement partners did not use tear gas or OC Skat Shells to close the area,” and defending their actions as a response to some protesters “throwing projectiles including bricks” and trying to grab officers’ weapons, among other threats. One reporter, who remained highly critical of President Trump, provided eyewitness confirmation, including limited video, of some protesters throwing things while other protesters shouted disapproval (see here, but warning about language).

You can read the above links and make your own judgments.

Meanwhile, officials in one liberal-dominated conference of the United Methodist Church rushed out a public statement making the factual claims that police had used tear gas on protesters and that “President Donald Trump used [St. John’s Church] as a backdrop to make a statement condemning the demonstrations against police brutality in the wake of George Floyd’s death.” I reached out to conference officials and among other things, asked about them spreading these specific claims when the use of tear gas is disputed, the New York Times reported that the president “made no formal remarks” in front of the church, and his speech immediately before his walk over to the church including him talking about being “rightly sickened and revolted by the brutal death of George Floyd” and distinguishing between “peaceful protesters,” for whom he offered at least some weak affirmation, and those committing violence.

With recent actions of our president, and of other political leaders across the partisan spectrum, there is much with which I personally find fault. But the inaccuracies in the above-quoted UMC statement is the sort of thing that needlessly promotes factional hatred and demonization.

To their credit, conference officials thanked me and told me they will be issuing a “correction/clarification.” Such humility to offer retractions and apologies is something we could use a lot more of in the UMC.

But this sort of rhetorical over-reach is too common.

Another pitfall would be over-correcting such excesses by limiting ourselves to general affirmations of principles while avoiding mentioning any specifics. But this results in victims, and those who identify with them, not feeling heard or genuinely cared about, which makes their victimization worse. Someone helpfully explained recent slogans specifically affirming the worth of African-American lives with an analogy that in a dinner party, when one guest is not served anything while everyone else progresses through their first and second courses, if he protests his need for food, it would not be compassionate to reply, “Hey, we ALL need food!”

In doing our research, we should all have some healthy skepticism about the biases of our sources. But videos often bring less ambiguity. While it is difficult, I encourage you to take time to watch the now-infamous video of what was done to George Floyd in his final moments, especially if you are white like me.

Boyette’s carefully worded statement offers a good model of strongly affirming a principled stance for racial justice, having enough prior research to highly important specifics, but without making partisan cheap shots or getting too far into details about which the facts are still being determined.

May Christians of every ethnicity and denomination stand together, clearly and unmistakably, for racial equality and against such injustices as the killing of George Floyd. May we model a more excellent way to a watching and bleeding world. May we be morally consistent. May we be servants of the truth. May those of us who are white Christians be slower to speak and more eager to listen. And may we all seek to be gracious within the body of Christ for the mistakes we will make as we help each other grow.

  1. Comment by Zaki L. Zaki on June 5, 2020 at 5:06 pm

    Grateful for this focused and well-researched article.

  2. Comment by Gary Bebop on June 5, 2020 at 7:03 pm

    A battle of narratives has commenced. It requires courage to contradict the madness. The church should not hide the truth and take up bricks.

  3. Comment by Caleb on June 6, 2020 at 8:38 am

    It is not clear that George Floyd’s death was the result of racism. We don’t know the police officer’s motives.

    Contrary to the rhetoric of BLM, studies have found that black men are not more likely to be killled by police officers. There are plenty of examples of unnecessary force used against white men.

    Furthermore, based on statistics the police have made significant progress in curtailing the unnecessary use of force in the last 50 years. Pretending like the us has made no progress on civil rights is to both deny obvious reality and to malign the work of those people who fought so hard to achieve it. Is no one grateful anymore?

    Police have a difficult job that puts them in ambiguous situations that result in injustice. This case is particularly bad, but the officers are being held responsible for their behavior using the criminal justice system. This is as good as it gets in this fallen world.

    Almost no tangible requests for change have been made, and what has been offered will probably cause more harm than good. Defunding or abolishing the police are terrible ideas and should not be supported by Christians who believe the government has a responsibility to use the sword against evildoers.

    Categories of “white” and “black” are so broad and ambiguously defined as to be useless. Solidarity on the basis of skin color is not only ridiculous it has also been the basis for some of the worst kinds of evil in the 20th century.

    Your experience as a “white man” tells me nothing about you. Maybe you grew up loving the police and even wanted to be one. Maybe you grew up hating the police because they put your father in jail and harrased you for petty, fund-raising crimes like a broken tail light.

    Those experiences are just as real for a white man as they are for a black man. Skin color doesn’t change that.

    Same goes for the millions of black people who voted for Donald Trump. I may not understand it and it doesn’t fit the narrative, but it demonstrates that critical race theory and racial solidarity are bankrupt worldviews with little connection to reality and almost no explanatory power. The church should abandon them and take up Paul’s stance on ethnicity – that there is no Jew or Gentile in Christ.

  4. Comment by Theodore on June 6, 2020 at 11:33 am

    I take exception to two assertions in this message. There is a suggestion that black and brown people experience pervasive racism in their daily lives. This erroneous idea just may be the greatest lie of our generation. Although it is often repeated it is simply not the reality today. Secondly there is the implication that the church and white people in general share some collective guilt not only for these specific recent incidents but also for the false claim of widespread racism. This itself is a sin. This also unnecessarily burdens people of European descent with a sin that is not theirs. We need to stop this kind of harmful message. This message obfuscates the reality that this country is not racist and provides abundant opportunities for people of all ethnicities.

  5. Comment by Michael McInnis on June 6, 2020 at 11:55 am

    I understand the two points/concerns you’re lifting up; I’m sure John would understand them as well. People of ALL races have been the victim of slavery in the world’s history, and black on black and white on white slavery has been a part of that history. But – we have to address the perceptions and the narrative that is the source of people’s accusations.

    My son and I are having this conversation (via texts and Facebook messages privately), and I said as much to him. We are each responding to the current situation based upon the narratives we’ve listened to and believed. So, as John said, we have to make sure we’re getting as much balanced (which often means first hand) information as possible in order to think, speak and live with wisdom.

    John, thanks for a great article – it has helped but some guard rails around by message for tomorrow (Sunday, June 7) as this will be the first time I address this situation (I was on vacation last weekend). You’ve helped me greatly.

  6. Comment by Michael McInnis on June 6, 2020 at 11:56 am

    above should read: “…it has helped PUT some guard rails around MY message for tomorrow…”

  7. Comment by Eric on June 6, 2020 at 5:43 pm

    Thank you for these balanced thoughts in tumultuous times.

    While I agree that blatant racism is not generally accepted behavior, to deny the racialization of this country is willful ignorance. Search for redlining in communities or consider that interacial marriages were illegal over 50 years ago. Justice is a Christian issue and not just in the cosmos sense. Even a cursory reading of the prophets shows that the misapplication of just laws – especially to widows and orphans – was a grave sin for which the LORD sent punishment (my time has been in Habakkuk recently) because unjust laws were symptoms of an even worse condition of the hearts of the people. Where the laws are unjust or access to resources is withheld, communities should speak up, be heard, and legislation discussed to address.

    As for the church’s role, it has probably mostly been silence or apathy. I agree that all the apologizing I’ve seen lately feels like little more than virtue signaling. The issues at hand are more complicated and take private study and consideration. I’ve been sharing this documentary from 1966 recently to show how one church community handled civil rights in Tulsa, OK:

    I pray that the LORD will help this country realize it’s stated values and that His name will be glorified in all places.

  8. Comment by Douglas E Ehrhardt on June 6, 2020 at 7:29 pm

    Amen to that Brother.

  9. Comment by JR on June 8, 2020 at 8:59 am

    Hi Theodore.

    “There is a suggestion that black and brown people experience pervasive racism in their daily lives.”

    I don’t think that most people see it as pervasive racism on a daily basis. I think that there is a low-level ‘fog’ in most cases, that at some times coalesces into something much nastier. One great example of that was the recent incident with the (african american) bird watcher in NYC’s Central Park.

    And I don’t think that most are expected to feel guilt about ‘the sins of the fathers’ – more important, I think, is to be aware of the privilege we have and to make an effort not to perpetuate that ‘fog’.

    If we can eliminate the fog (which may be impossible within a generation, but requires that we start making the effort) we won’t see those nasty incidents pop up.

  10. Comment by Jim on June 6, 2020 at 5:51 pm

    John – your columns are consistently too long! Theodore’s comments are in my opinion spot on. I had a conversation with a neighbor who like me is a Christ follower. He essentially repeats the white guilt mantra and feels his hands are bloody because of the sins of our fathers (e.g. founding fathers). When I asked what his life’s experience was interacting with blacks , he admitted it was very minimal. If we want to have a two-way conversation that is genuine great. The BLM crowd and white guilt crowd really are not interested in that. They have made their collective mind up – they’re right period. They’ve nothing more to talk about.

  11. Comment by Gary Bebop on June 6, 2020 at 6:43 pm

    UMC pastors will soon have to submit to “struggle sessions” similar to the listening sessions that have been the vanguard of the Rainbow agenda. Evasions of silence or demurrals on the basis of reason or conviction will not be allowed. Everybody will be caught in the big sweep. Where will conservative holdouts hide out in the UMC? The encirclement has begun.

  12. Comment by AML in Tennessee on June 7, 2020 at 6:30 pm

    Excellent column! Very thoughtful, with nzny good ways we can work together for a better world.

  13. Comment by EdenSprings on June 7, 2020 at 11:25 pm

    “As Christians we are called to relentlessly work for a society where African Americans no longer have to fear for their lives or be treated differently when encountered by law enforcement…”

    Normally a huge fan of this site, but in this instance we all need to take a breath. And think.

    Rather than follow the breathless narrative, how about reviewing some actual facts?

    Fact: In 2018, out of about 10 million arrests and 30+ million interactions law enforcement had with the public, 995 people were shot and killed by the police. Of those 995 people, only 47 were unarmed. Of the 47, 23 were white, 17 black, 5 Hispanic and 2 were of unknown race.

    Fact: The Sun-Times reported that in 2019 Chicago’s Mayor was delighted to learn of that city’s annual homicides had dropped to only 503, with more than 75% of deaths being black-on-black crimes. Where were the outraged protesters over those numbers?

    Fact: More police officers are killed in the line of duty each year than there are young black men killed by law enforcement. Who protested the murder of the black ex-police officer recently killed in rioting?

    Yes, George Floyd’s death was a tragedy. But the bigger tragedy is that it’s being used to support the false narrative that American law enforcement has an open season on black people, and that “systemic racism” in the U.S. is a real thing when they’re not.

    Don’t just listen to someone else’s narrative (including mine). Do your homework and learn the facts for yourself. Then ask the important question: Why are we being told this lie in the first place?

  14. Comment by Sidney Debolt on June 8, 2020 at 7:10 am

    Thank You! This is the most mature, and coherent response I have read about present circumstances.

  15. Comment by Jim on June 8, 2020 at 10:17 am

    Thank you for this information.

  16. Comment by JR on June 8, 2020 at 5:03 pm

    “Yes, George Floyd’s death was a tragedy. But the bigger tragedy is that it’s being used to support the false narrative that American law enforcement has an open season on black people, and that “systemic racism” in the U.S. is a real thing when they’re not.”

    Tragedy, agreed.

    Open season on black people? Not only demonstrably false, that’s a straight up strawman.

    “Systemic racism” … is a real thing. And it is present in the US. We can argue about how strong or prevalent it is, but it’s existence isn’t really in doubt. But let’s be honest, you are almost certainly not a subject of such a thing, so you can quite safely ‘not see it’ and think that it’s completely made up.

    Hey, go back to your stats. Those numbers – unarmed people shot and killed by the police… George Floyd wouldn’t be counted in those numbers. Eric Garner wouldn’t be included in those numbers. Freddie Gray wouldn’t be included in those numbers. Not a shot was fired in any of those deaths.

    No, there’s no vast police conspiracy to kill african-american citizens (your point #2). But that’s not the same as there being no systemic racism, and simply because you don’t want to see it doesn’t mean that it doesn’t exist.

    I’m personally privileged enough not to be impacted by it, but aware enough to see how I’m privileged.

  17. Comment by Dan on June 8, 2020 at 2:42 pm

    John, while I agree with your sentiment, I am gently calling BS on your general expression of white guilt and virtue signalling.

    How many people of privilege have “less privileged” close friends they socialize with, have over to dinner, go out with, and go to church with? I am dismayed at how people of privilege treat others they encounter in service professions. When was the last time your typical guilt ridden person of privilege engaged the person packing your groceries or the person cleaning your grocery cart to ask them how they are doing and really listen to their answer. We need to connect with people one on one and show them we care about them as people and bearers of “imago dei.”

    It’s great to virtue signal over social media, but until people do the personal work of building sustained, Christ based relationships with “the other,” nothing is really going to change. Just sayin’.

  18. Comment by George Brown on June 8, 2020 at 3:37 pm

    No one was more brutal in their “police” work than the Roman soldiers in Judea during Jesus’ earth-walk. (there was no “palestine” until mid 2nd c.) Has anyone noticed how He protested? How He spoke against it? Me neither! In estimation we have these problems BECAUSE “Christian” leadership has failed so devastatingly and miserably! Serving “self” for the most part the people in the pews have been “sheep without a shepherd.” Not nice I know. But I believe this to be historically true.

  19. Comment by William on June 12, 2020 at 6:50 pm

    As Forrest Gump would say, “and just like that we found ourselves in an insanity chamber.” John, thanks for presenting a sane, mature, thoughtful, insightful, balanced, and reasoned perspective.

  20. Comment by Michael L Vannoy on June 13, 2020 at 4:05 pm

    I’m just afraid if our Churches don’t get involved in Politics and stand up against some of these left leaning Bishops and factions in our Leaders. We as Christians are going to loose this battle. We are being persecuted all over the world not just here at home. The Western Division of the UMC is still basically shut down. If we do not stand up to these left leaners we are going to loose everything.

  21. Comment by Penny on June 26, 2020 at 7:07 pm

    We have three sons. From the time they were 12, we preached to them about law enforcement. Don’t ever talk back to an officer, don’t resist an officer. You may feel like things are not going well, but you can explain your side later. Be smart. Don’t make matters worse. And we actually had to go get one out of jail when he received a ticket for changing lanes without signaling. He said the officer taunted him, called him a “frat boy” although he was not in college but in a college town. He replied and was arrested and taken to jail. (He did learn his lesson at that time.) We had to pay a lot of money for a lawyer for him but we eventually got it settled. We are white.

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