George Floyd’s plea voiced the pain of generations of African Americans. “I can’t breathe,” he gasped as a white police officer pressed a knee on his neck, crushing a black man’s life under the weight of brutal authority. Anger at the persistence of racism boiled over in cities across America.
For William Barber II, a black activist pastor who leads the Poor People’s Campaign, Floyd’s death connected metaphorically to the COVID-19 pandemic, which has disproportionately killed African Americans.
“More than 100,000 people have said, ‘I can’t breathe,’ as this disease choked them to death,” Barber said in a Pentecost sermon broadcast from Greenleaf Christian Church in Goldsboro, N.C. He described the outpouring of anger and frustration in the days that followed Floyd’s death as “the inevitable reflex of a people who cannot breathe because their life is being systematically snuffed out.”
The racism that infects America remains virulent. A police officer’s deadly act multiplied, kindling violence in cities across America. It was as if Minneapolis officer Derek Chauvin’s decision to hold his knee on George Floyd’s neck for nearly nine minutes unleashed a force of violence with deceitful power to divert people’s attention from the righteous voices of the peaceful crowds.
It is not a denial of human agency to sense an evil force at work in racist acts, like police brutality, and racist systems, like job discrimination and health-care inequality. It is, rather, a recognition that the sin of racism serves what Scripture calls “the powers of this dark world” (Eph. 6:12).
A June 1 statement from Mennonite Church USA urged lament, prayer and action. It challenged white Christians who felt more outrage at property damage than at racial injustice. Much vandalism and looting was done by people who had nothing to do with the peaceful demonstrators, who voiced legitimate passion and anger.
It would be tragic, willful blindness if white Christian peacemakers condemned rioting in urban streets yet ignored what the statement calls “the foundational violence that oppressed communities have sought to change for years.” This includes “the white supremacy that goes unseen by those who benefit most from it.” It bears repeating: White privilege feels so normal that those comfortably situated in the racial majority don’t see their own advantage.
Members of predominantly white Mennonite churches need to see how the world looks to people of color. One Mennonite leader to learn from is Glen Guyton, an African American and the first person of color to lead MC USA. In an open letter, Guyton writes: “Systems of racial power would like nothing better than for leaders like me to lay my blackness and pain aside.”
Yet he rejects any attempt to erase who he is. Blackness and pain “are part of what shapes my identity.” Further, he rejects the powerlessness that a racially oppressive system would impose on him. Instead, “I am called to push down my fear and sadness,” he says, and to call upon “our historic peace church . . . to speak to the growing injustice in our country.”
Black men are at risk when confronted by police. This is real to Guyton, who can imagine himself as the object of suspicion or target of violence. Yet many white Christians are blind to racism, blind to their complicity in white supremacy. It is not enough to be passively “not racist.” White Mennonites need to be actively antiracist. This is a historic moment to hear prophetic voices and pray for eyes to be opened.