This morning I was preparing for the noon-Mass homily on today’s gospel. It is well known passage that it part of the Sermon on the Mount: ““You have heard that it was said, An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. But I say to you, offer no resistance to one who is evil.” (Mt 5:38) The cultural context for the saying is the 1st century honor-shame dynamic. And so I was reading online about the dynamics of shame. I found some interesting and thoughtful articles. But I also found something I was not looking for.
On one of the pages was link to another post titled “George Floyd and Me.” It was authored by Shai Linne, a recording artist who has released numerous acclaimed Christian hip-hop albums and lives in Philadelphia with his wife and two children. He posted an email that he wrote in response to a friend’s inquiry about how he and his wife were doing in the aftermath of the killing of George Floyd. The Linne family is black; the inquiring friend is white. He had not intended to respond in more than “thanks for asking,” but found he poured out his soul into the response. I would encourage you to read the article in the link above. The core of the post follows. It is a powerful message and an all to common experience.
Sister, I’m going to tell you how I’m doing. And as I tell you, please understand that I’m incapable of completing this message without weeping. There’s a part of me that’s saying, “Spare yourself the pain, Shai. It’s not worth it.” But I’m choosing not to listen to that part of me because I would be robbing you of an opportunity to “bear one another’s burdens” and “mourn with those who mourn”—and I’m sure, as a sister in Christ, you want to do just that.
Sister, I am heartbroken and devastated. I feel gutted. I haven’t been able to focus on much at all since I saw the horrific video of George Floyd’s murder. The image of that officer with hand in pocket as he calmly and callously squeezed the life out of that man while he begged for his life is an image that will haunt me until the day I die. But it’s not just the video of this one incident. For many black people, it’s never about just one incident. Just as it wasn’t just about the videos of Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, Philando Castile, Sandra Bland, Laquan McDonald, Walter Scott, Rodney King, etc., etc., etc., etc.
This is about how being a black man in America has shaped both the way I see myself and the way others have seen me my whole life. It’s about being told to leave the sneaker store as a 12-year-old, because I was taking too long to decide which sneakers I wanted to buy with my birthday money and the white saleswoman assumed I was in the store to steal something.
It’s about being handcuffed and thrown into the back of a police car while walking down the street during college, and then waiting for a white couple to come identify whether or not I was the one who’d committed a crime against them, knowing that if they said I was the one, I would be immediately taken to jail, no questions asked.
It’s about walking down the street as a young man and beginning to notice that white people, women especially, would cross to the other side of the street to avoid walking past me—and me beginning to preemptively cross to the other side myself to save them the trouble of being afraid and to save me the humiliation of that silent transaction.
It’s about taking a road trip with my sons to visit Blair’s family in Michigan—and my greatest fear being getting pulled over for no reason other than driving while black, told to get out of the car, cuffed, and sat down on the side of the road, utterly emasculated and humiliated with my young boys looking out the window, terrified, which is exactly what happened to a good friend of mine when he took his family on a road trip.
It’s about the exhaustion of constantly feeling I have to assert my humanity in front of some white people I’m meeting for the first time, to let them know, “Hey! I’m not a threat! You don’t need to be afraid. If you got to know me, I’m sure we have things in common!”
It’s about me sometimes asking my wife to do things in certain customer-service situations, since I know she’ll likely get treated better than I will.
It’s about borrowing a baby swing from a white friend in our mostly white suburb of D.C. and her telling me, “Sure you can borrow it. I have to step out, but I’ll leave it on the porch for you. Just go grab it”—and then feeling heart palpitations as my car approached her home, debating whether or not to get the swing and being terrified as I walked up the steps that someone would think I was stealing it and call the cops on me.
It’s about intentionally making sure the carseats are in the car, even if the kids aren’t, so that when (not “if”—it happens all the time) I’m stopped by the police, they will perhaps notice the carseats and also the wedding band on one of my visible hands on the wheel (which I’ve been taught to keep there and not move until he tells me to—and even then, in an exaggeratedly slow manner) and will perhaps think to himself, This man is married with a family and small kids like me. Maybe he wants to get home safely to his family just like I do.
It’s about having to explain to my 4-year-old son at his mostly white Christian school that the kids who laughed at him for having brown skin were wrong, that God made him in his image, and that his skin is beautiful—after he told me, “Daddy, I don’t want brown skin. I want white skin.”
It’s about having what feels like genuine fellowship with my white brothers and sisters who share the same Reformed theology—until I mention racism, injustice, or police brutality, at which point I’m looked at skeptically as if I embrace a “social gospel” or am some kind of “liberal” or “social justice warrior.”
And it’s about sometimes feeling like some of my white friends aren’t that particularly interested in truly knowing me—at least not in any meaningful way that might actually challenge their preconceptions. Rather, it feels like they use me to feel better about themselves because I check off the “black friend” box. Much more could be mentioned. These were the first things that came to mind.
So when I watch a video like George Floyd’s, it represents for me the fresh reopening of a deep wound and the reliving of layers of trauma that get exponentially compounded each time a well-meaning white friend says, “All lives matter.” Of course they do, but in this country, black lives have been treated like they don’t matter for centuries and present inequities in criminal justice, income, housing, health care, education, etc. show that all lives don’t actually matter like they should.
I suspect most people reading this article have never experienced any of the above. Now you understand the privilege of being white in this country.