“George Floyd and the Limits of Law”

Categories: M. W. Bassford, Meditations

Just when we thought that racist behavior couldn’t get any more indefensible and awful than the Ahmaud Arbery shooting, along comes the George Floyd suffocation.  The image of a uniformed police officer kneeling on the neck of a compliant Floyd who is pleading for air is among the most horrible I’ve ever seen.  I can’t bring myself to watch the video, even though I can claim no closer kinship to Floyd than being the fellow bearer of an immortal soul.

In the face of such a stark symbol of human hatred, I completely understand why black people all over the country have taken to the streets, crying for justice.  Though I cannot condone it, I even understand the behavior of those whose rage and pain has led them to loot, burn, and destroy.  Surely something must be done in response to such monstrous evil!  If there is anything in this tragedy that I don’t understand, it is how one human being can literally crush the life from another while listening to his pleas for mercy.

However, as comprehensible as the actions of the rioters are, I only can see them as fundamentally misguided.  It may be satisfying to destroy the business of some shopkeeper who had nothing to do with the Floyd killing, may well be committed to racial equality, and might even be black themselves, but doing so does nothing to advance justice for anybody.  In fact, it only makes the world more evil and less just.  People who feel like they have to do something are doing the wrong thing.

I worry too that the feeling that we have to do something is a trap for the rest of us.  In its infinite wisdom, the online mediasphere has concluded that all of us need to take a stand against systemic racism, but the problem is that there don’t seem to be any systemic solutions available.  The state of Minnesota already has laws on the books prohibiting murder.  I’m sure that the handbook for the Minneapolis police department emphasizes that officers must treat all people equally and fairly.  I’m sure they undergo sensitivity training on a regular basis. I’m sure they’ve been told that they must intervene whenever they see a fellow officer abusing someone.

And yet, one police officer killed a man who was no threat to him while three others watched.  Write the laws how you will; until the hearts of people like that change, nothing will change.  After all, if the Pharisees successfully subverted even the law of God, I am confident that those who are so minded will be able to subvert and defeat the intent of any mere human law.

This takes us, then, to Christ.  He has the power to transform the most corrupt and hateful heart if it will submit to Him.  When it comes to racism, meaningful change is possible only through the gospel, one conversion at a time.

Some say that’s not good enough.  We can’t wait for the slow work of the word; we have to take action now!  However, those apparently quick, easy solutions tend to have coercion behind them.  If others do not want to be righteous, we must make them be righteous.

Sadly, the more we use force to fight against racism, the more it will flourish.  Even now, racists across the nation are watching looting videos and nodding self-righteously, confirmed in their belief that black people are little more than animals.  If the government seeks to compel heart change, it will create martyrs for a cause unworthy of them.

The work of persuading others to God is like planting a white-oak sapling in your front yard.  Change is always slow, sometimes imperceptible.  As the years go by, the apparent lack of progress will be frustrating.  However, if we are patient and do not lose heart, it will produce the result that we desire to see.