This image has been constantly before us: a white police officer kneeling on a black man’s neck, while a small crowd gathers to bear witness. Now we know the white officer’s name, as well as the name of the black man passing out on the ground. Now we know that the black man on the ground was dying and the white officer would be charged with murder. When we first took our place among the crowd of witnesses we didn’t know what was happening or where it would lead us.
We know now that Derek Chauvin was the ranking officer on the scene, having worked in the Minneapolis police force eighteen years. We know he had accumulated a list of prior complaints and oral reprimands during his career. We know now that George Floyd had been charged with armed robbery in 2007 and had been sentenced to prison. We know he had gotten out of prison and moved to Minneapolis to turn his life around. We know Derek Chauvin is 44 years old. George Floyd was 46.
Now we know what brought these two men together. Derek Chauvin responded to a call to support the arrest of George Floyd for allegedly passing a counterfeit bill in a quiet corner store in Minneapolis.
As these two men came together there is so much we don’t know. This is where my imagination begins to wander. Did Derek Chauvin guide his police cruiser to the scene mindful of racial tensions in our nation? Did he consider how his actions in the next few minutes would devastate so many lives, including his own? Did he contemplate murder and weigh the value of a black man’s life over against his own? I don’t know, but in my imagination I guess that he did not.
Similarly, I imagine George Floyd walking out of Cup Foods toward his car parked near the corner of 38th Street and Chicago Avenue. Did he sit down in his car mindful that he would never see his brother again in this life? Did he consider the brevity of life and how quickly his might be stolen from him? Did he contemplate becoming the face of a movement as his death was about to spark protests and riots across our nation and around the world? Again, in my imagination I guess that these things did not enter his mind, even as two police officers approached his car on foot.
Within a few moments, George Floyd was on the ground and Derek Chauvin’s knee was on his neck. It’s a powerful image but conflict has erupted around its interpretation. Many voices are calling this the continuation of systemic racism. George Floyd is just one more in a long line of black Americans victimized by a system created to serve the majority culture and push down the minority. They cite the names of a few recent examples: Ahmaud Arbery, Sandra Bland, Eric Garner, Walter Scott, Jordan Edwards. Many frame this as one more example of police brutality which is itself the product of a broken justice system. The Reverend Al Sharpton preached George Floyd’s funeral in Minneapolis. He interpreted this image as the story of black Americans beginning with those enslaved, through the murder of Martin Luther King, Jr., to the harassment of Barack Obama. These all, Sharpton contended, had to battle active oppression in various forms because, as he said, “You had your knee on our neck.”
Other voices are rejecting the interpretation of racism. Four officers, two white, one black, and one Asian, responded to a call that had nothing to do with skin color. Derek Chauvin made a decision in the heat of the moment as the ranking officer that turned out to be terrible and despicable. However it is pure assumption to frame this crime as racially motivated. Others reject the narrative of systemic racism altogether. How can a whole system be blamed if no individual within that system is to blame? They cite statistics indicating that systemic racism is a myth. Other voices claim there is no active oppression in our country for those who are willing to work hard.
This is escalating into a war of words making dialogue more difficult. However, this conflict offers us an opportunity to consider how the gospel shows us an alternative to war, if we will use a little imagination.
As I picture Derek Chauvin and George Floyd, another image takes shape in my imagination.
A man, his skin swarthy, touched with olive, hangs bleeding. Splintered wood presses into raw wounds on his back. Spikes pierce each of his hands, spread wide, rendering them useless claws. His feet also are staked, one over the other, to the rough hewn plank behind him. Every breath means a fight to press down against those feet, against that stake, to lift his chest to open his mouth to claim another moment. He is losing this fight. He can’t breathe. He is dying.
We know now he was arrested on false charges. He was convicted in a hurried, overnight trial so that by the time the city was waking up he already stood condemned. He was tortured and then executed among common criminals by the elites of society to secure their own agendas. We also know that God the Father sent his Son into this moment for this very purpose: to die on the cross. It was God’s will to crush him. The will of God and the will of sinful men operated simultaneously to kill Jesus.
We stand there among the crowd bearing witness and the interpretation is difficult. He hangs there for our sin. He has become our substitute. He is taking our place. We should have died, but he died instead. Because of this he is regarded as the victim. Our punishment has been put upon him.
However, as our substitute, he has taken our place and taken on our sin. He has become the criminal, justly bearing the reproach. He has become sin for us. Because of this he is regarded as the perpetrator. He has adopted our crimes and our sentence and we stand exonerated.
Jesus Christ, as he hangs on the cross, has become both perpetrator and victim. The two have become one in him. I cannot tear my eyes away from this image. And as I watch it is superimposed over the image of Derek Chauvin kneeling on George Floyd’s neck. I see the perpetrator and the victim and my eyes return to Jesus, struggling for breath. In him the two men become one.
As I raise my arm to point a finger I search in vain for someone else to blame for the death of Jesus. I nailed him there and he hangs there because of my sin. When I see that I can embrace the reality of our experience in this world as Paul described it. He was not exaggerating when he wrote, “We ourselves were once foolish, disobedient, led astray, slaves to various passions and pleasures, passing our days in malice and envy, hated by others and hating one another.”* We have been hated and we have hated in return.
I see the two men and naturally I want to differentiate myself from them. I don’t want to be the victim and suffer, but I don’t want to be the perpetrator and take the blame. But there I am, in Christ. To embrace Jesus as he hangs there I must confess that I am both. The confession comes slowly, “Lord, I am the victim. Lord, I am the perpetrator.”
And suddenly I can see George Floyd and feel compassion. I no longer have to treat him as someone else’s problem because I am on the ground with him. I am dying with him. I can feel the value of his life and the terrible loss of his death. He is rescued from becoming merely a metaphor and can be valued as a man.
At the same time I can see Derek Chauvin and feel mercy. I no longer have to treat him as an enemy because my knee is on George Floyd’s neck. I am endangering when I should have protected. I am killing when I could have given life. He is rescued from my hostility by our fellowship.
The gospel offers us the opportunity to exercise our imagination. If we can take hold of this image, we can be freed from the tyranny of the warring divide. We can be freed from the demand to take sides. We can call for justice without hate. We can take responsibility with compassion. We can show mercy without blaming. Instead of contributing to war, we can work for peace. Instead of shouting we can listen because we begin to see that he himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility. He has created one new man in the place of the two.* He has made peace in himself.
In this world we need justice and mercy if we are to find peace. I pray that our need will lead us to Jesus because justice and mercy meet in him.
*See Titus 3:3 and Ephesians 2:14-15