‘I can’t breathe …’
Justice Enabler Wale Hudson-Roberts reflects on the death of George Floyd - and how Baptists might respond
You might have thought that, more than 50 years on from the assassination of Martin Luther King Jnr, the world would have moved on with respect to racism – but clearly, it is not so. King’s words speak as clearly into the present moment as they did into North America in the 1960s.
“We have come here today to dramatize a shameful condition. In a sense, we have come to the nation’s capital to cash a cheque. When the architects of our republic wrote those magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all would be guaranteed the unalienable Rights of Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness. It is obvious today that America has defaulted on that promissory note insofar as the citizens of colour are concerned. Instead of honouring this sacred obligation, America has given the Negro people a bad cheque, a cheque that has come back marked insufficient funds. …
And so, we have come to cash this cheque, a cheque that will give us on demand the riches of freedom and the security of justice. We have also come to this hallowed spot to remind America of the fierce urgency of NOW. It would be fatal for the nations to overlook the urgency of the moment.”
Among the many speeches delivered that day, it was this speech that galvanised the 250,000-strong crowd. His charge was that those in power had issued a bad cheque – making a mockery of the Constitution’s historic guarantee, “In the God we trust.” King claimed that those who controlled 1960s America had ‘defaulted’ on the promises in the Declaration of Independence - despite continuing protestations that the Constitution applied equally to all Americans, both black and white. The last line of this quotation certainly has an ominous ring: “It would be fatal for the nation to overlook the urgency of the moment.”
King had thrown down the gauntlet, inspiring and empowering Americans to protest for justice. Activist groups seized on the spirit of the moment, emboldened by King’s protests in Washington, pushing for crucial changes to the Civil Rights and Voting bills.
Despite attempts at containment by the authorities, the very fact and sheer boldness of the March on Washington sent a chill down the spine of those who served on Capitol Hill. Life Magazine claimed that, as the date of the March neared: “The nation’s capital was suffering its worst case of jitters since the First Battle of Bull Run” – and with good reason, for despite the potential for massive commercial gains, 80 per cent of all business revenue was lost, hospitals postponed elective surgery ready to accommodate casualties, and the Pentagon had 19,000 troops at the ready protecting the outskirts of the District of Columbia. The March on Washington occupied the secular temples of power and disabled the conduct of commerce - just as Jesus had done long before in the Jerusalem Temple.
In Jesus’ day, the Jerusalem Temple was not only the centre of religious life, but also the hub of national government, the beating heart of the nation’s economy, its central bank and treasury, and a depositary of massive wealth. It was from the Temple that there was issued pronouncements and decisions that impacted the lives of every single person in the land. In Mark’s Gospel we see Jesus, not only attacking the money changers and dove sellers but, for a short time at least, suspending all commercial operations. Mark leaves us in no doubt that Jesus was angry. ‘A den of robbers’ was the scathing expression Jesus used in his condemnation of the Temple merchants – reclaiming for another time that most bitter attacks against the Temple, the declaration of judgement on the Temple in Jeremiah 7:15. That historic judgement had found its moment a second time in the days of Jesus.
Initiatives for protest begin with God. God graciously permits us to participate in his reign by means of protest; time and again we are commissioned to challenge the structures of power reflecting the ‘image of God’ that we bear. As large swathes of North America - now joined in solidarity by protests in the UK, Germany and parts of the Middle East – challenge continuing institutional racism in their land, responsibility falls again on all who are made in the divine image to participate in advocacy. In 2020, the straw that has broken the camel’s back has been the lynching of George Floyd.
Back in the 19th century, Sam Sharpe (like King, a Baptist) also committed himself to protest. His protest began peacefully, but later turned into Jamaica’s largest ever slave rebellion. The uprising lasting for around 10 days and soon spread throughout the entire island of Jamaica, mobilising as many as 60,000 of Jamaica’s enslaved population. The protests contributed to the eventual passage through the UK Parliament of the 1833 Slavery Abolition Act, culminating in the abolition of slavery across the British Empire in 1838.
King and Sharpe should remind Baptists that protest is an essential part of our inheritance. Surely our various traditions and theologies all demand that we also speak out and stand in solidarity with black and brown communities still experiencing institutional racism in North America – as indeed in our own country where in the aftermath of the institutional racism presented in spaces such as the Hostile Environment, Grenfell Tower fire, the Windrush Scandal, and more latterly Covid 19, many people of colour can barely ‘breathe.’
Covid 19 has shed an intense light on these injustices, both in North America and in the UK, where the death rate from the virus of the BAME community is significantly higher than that of the white population. Right now, white Baptists are being challenged once again to join a ‘holy insurrection’, going beyond merely hashtag activism, and putting their white bodies on the line - like King, Sharpe and Jesus. As Baptists Together our tradition should fly in the face of superficial platitudes about racial justice, often from the comfort of our homes, churches and Baptist Associations. Rather, it should commit white Baptists to participate in sacrificial protest with your black and brown sisters and brothers around the world. God is no neutral observer in matters of justice, racial or otherwise. God sides against injustice, with countless numbers of people of colour in this country and, everywhere, where people cry out in pain: “I can’t breathe ...”
Wale Hudson-Roberts is the Justice Enabler of the Baptist Union of Great Britain
Image | Mike Von and Logan Weaver | Unsplash
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