The cry for justice for George Floyd has spread around the world. George Floyd died when Derek Chauvin, a white officer with the Minneapolis Police Department, pressed his knee into George Floyd's neck for nearly nine minutes in the presence of three other police officers. In response, people have rushed to show solidarity with the protests against racism. Along with the protestors, leaders from across the country have presented papers and given speeches intending to show their support for the protests. Ironically, however, while desiring to show support, many white political, sports, and academic leaders have ended up insulting the black community even more. It appears that the easy rhetoric of many of the white leaders in our nation reveals ingrained institutional racism that is even deeper than the leaders realized.
For example, Boston University president, Robert Brown, was one of the first college presidents to speak out. Despite his attempts to console the hurting black protestors, what they heard in his words was more of a politician than a friend. To his credit, after the criticism, President Brown responded by saying that he is listening now. Writing in response, Brown said, “In my [first] letter, I spoke like the engineer I was trained to be, trying to look ahead to a time when our community can work together to push out racism and bigotry … Today, this letter is from my heart, and my heart is with all of you who feel the dehumanizing sting of racism, and who lose a part of your own life every time a Black man or woman is murdered because they are Black.”
Another voice was that of Dabo Swinney, head football coach of Clemson University. Swinney wanted to say that he was standing against the injustice involved in the killing of George Floyd. However, to the protestors, his comments seemed hypocritical at best. Recently, his team had been in the news for racist language. In that incident, his silence was seen as tacit assent. So, when Swinney took to the mic to give his condolences to the protestors, they were understandably received as an insult.
As I have watched numerous monologues coming from the high-profile leaders of our country, I have been reminded of the words of Solomon, “The tender mercies of the wicked are cruel” (Proverbs 12:10). When our wickedness is so deep that we don’t even see it, even our best efforts hurt and offend people deeply. Solomon calls all such good intentions “cruel.” In an earnest desire to better understand the pain, I have listened to the criticisms of these white leaders. What I discovered was that besides the blatant hypocrisy, the greatest insult that many felt was that the white leaders were still not listening. Rushing to the mic to say something out of obligation is “cruel,” when the protestors are so desperately trying to be heard. The protestors are not protesting merely to “say something,” but rather, they are protesting because “they have something to say.”
As president of Sattler College, I agree with President Robert Brown in his second, chastened response, that it’s time to stop acting like engineers, trying to fix a problem that we don’t even understand. Sattler College comes from a constituency of mostly Anabaptist and Kingdom-minded churches. In our history, we rightfully tell the stories of how we have been painfully maligned and persecuted for hundreds of years. However, now is not a time to tell that story. Now is a time to consider that our brother is hurting, and literally bleeding in the street. Moreover, now is a time to listen. Now is a time for serious self-reflection, to contemplate where our own best intended “tender mercies” are actually “cruel.”
Listening to the rebuke to Boston University’s president, and throwing away my feebly engineered platitudes, I turn to the black leaders to hear what they have to say. Lee Pelton, president of Emerson College, cried out, “America is on fire.” President Pelton gives a different perspective to the engineer analogy saying, “This is not a black problem, but a structural issue built on white supremacy and centuries of racism. It’s your problem. And until you understand that, we are doomed to relive this week’s tragic events over and over again. What changes will you make in your own life? Begin with answering that question and maybe, just maybe we will get somewhere. The most important question is: What are you going to do?”
I think that’s the bottom line, “What are we going to do?” The world is broken. It demands a response. Talk is cheap. We (not they) need change and action. At Sattler College, we encourage students, “Come join Jesus’ peaceful revolution.” We have published that we are, “Encouraging students to tackle some of the great problems of the day with respect to poverty, injustice, education, healthcare, sustainable business, Christian discipleship, and world change.” How are we going to do that? Now is a time more than ever, that we need to deeply consider the meaning of this charge.
President Lee Pelton finished his strong, rebuking letter, “America is on Fire,” with a call to his college saying, “At an appropriate time, I will gather the community to talk about what I have written and what we might be able to do together to address racism in America, beginning first of all with an honest appraisal of who we are and what we stand for.” We would do well to do the same. As yet a new college president of a new college, I think that this is the best advice that I have heard. It’s time to listen; it’s time to look deep, and it’s time to act. May God give us ears to hear and the grace to go forward with Jesus’ answers to bring help restoration and reconciliation to this broken world.
President of Sattler College