A Reflection on the killing of George Floyd for a South African context

A Reflection on the Killing of George Floyd for a South African Context

Dear Hope City

In the light of recent events playing out in the USA, our pastor, Stephen Murray, wrote a personal piece (initially posted on Facebook) reflecting on his own reactions to the tragic death of George Floyd and its significance for us in South Africa.

As elders, we thought that it would be helpful to share it with the wider congregation – not as another opinion piece to add to the growing body of social commentary on the matter, but as a personal testimony exhorting us as Christians to honestly examine our own hearts before the Lord.

Wesley Marshall has written a short prologue to the article which will follow below. We’ve also included some biblical resources at the end of the pieces for further study and consideration. We really want to encourage you to not only read these reflections but to dive into the resources for further engagement. These resources are not perfect but they are a very good place to start in arming yourself with a combination of biblical truth and an understanding of racial history and experience.

In Christ,
The Hope City Elders

Prologue by Wesley Marshall

Last week an image was seared into my memory, an image that caused me to feel so many different emotions – the image of an unconscious black man being pinned to the ground at his neck, with the knee of a white police officer in America. This image conveys a message that the life of a person of colour has less value than that of a bounced cheque. This message rings aloud far too often in America, and it is a message we hear aloud in our beautiful “Rainbow Nation”, South Africa. We hear this message in reports that have come to the fore of men of colour being victims of police brutality, several of them succumbing to their injuries. Men like Petrus Miggels and Collins Khosa. I hear this message when I drive through the oppressive, micro-aggressive and hostile space I was reared in – a product of a racist Apartheid regime, where I see young men succumbing to the environment in which they live.

As a person of colour and as a Christian, I lament that people of colour, who are made in God’s image, are often not seen for who they truly are – image bearers. I lament humanity’s incessant love-affair with racism – black or white. I lament the way our society today has been wired and enslaved by the views of our ancestors when it comes to the colour of a man’s skin.

As I am processing all of this and as I seek out the end to all of this, I found my colleague and dear friend’s reflection on the subject helpful. Stephen challenges us to do the hard work of introspection which would lead us to re-wiring our systems, that we may no longer be a danger to each other. I would like to wholeheartedly recommend it for careful consideration and meditation.

A Reflection on the Killing of George Floyd for a South African Context by Stephen Murray

For the last few days, I’ve seen my social media timeline filled with grief expressed by my African American friends and colleagues. I’ve seen fellow church planters and pastors, with whom I’ve attended many a conference and training, expressing their emotional exhaustion in the face of the killing of yet another black man, the killing of #GeorgeFloyd. When my colleagues, with tears in their eyes, talk about how they have to train their boys from an early age to be as submissive as possible in front of law enforcement – or their wives voice fears that not even their husband’s post-graduate degree in theology, or ordination in a reputable denomination, is sufficient to raise their credibility above the colour of their skin – I’m left without words to try and comfort and console.

I do so very much want to bring comfort and consolation, but for me, I think introspection is perhaps my most valuable contribution right now. I’m white and I live in South Africa, a country with an incredibly racialized past and present. But I’m not going to speak as a white male, because that would allow critics to chime back, “Not all whites…” – and I’m not going to give you that opportunity. I’m just going to speak for myself – take it or leave it.

The big question is whether the killing of George Floyd is a tragic case of police brutality or part of larger systemic racism present in the US. In South Africa we’ve had numerous conversations about systemic racism – this is not something new or foreign to us. Like our friends over the Atlantic, views on the issue are greatly polarized, to the point that people don’t want to talk about it simply because of the uncomfortable experience it engenders. But I have to talk about it, because that systemic racism is in me. Let me explain…

The other racially charged story coming out of the US at the moment is the Amy Cooper story and her horrific comment, “I’m going to tell them there’s an African American man threatening my life.” That’s what weaponizing race looks like. And presumably she’s only able to weaponize it that way because there’s a fertile social fabric it’ll take root in. Is that social fabric in South Africa? I think so, because Amy Cooper is in South Africa – I felt Amy Cooper in my own heart just a few days ago.

On the 22nd of May video footage emerged of a white female being manhandled by the police in Strand in the Western Cape. I watched the video and outrage boiled up inside of me. Some news outlets reported she was a jogger, exercising in the window permitted during lockdown. I don’t know all the details. I know I felt indignation at the behaviour of the police. But as soon as I started to process that feeling I became disheartened. I became disheartened because in the weeks prior to that video I’d seen several reports, and footage, of black people being manhandled by the police and the SANDF. Upon seeing those reports that same level of indignation just didn’t rise up in me. I was unhappy about them, for sure, but I didn’t have that gut instinct of rage that appeared when I watched the video of the white female jogger. Why?

The cold hard disconcerting answer that I came to in my own head and heart is that I, almost subconsciously, devalue black bodies. There’s no way around it. I don’t hold any personal malice towards black people, I don’t hate them, I don’t wish them ill will, yet somewhere deep down there’s this ungodly partiality. How did it get there? I can guess. I’m old enough to remember the adults around the braai speaking about how the “terrorist” Mandela was going to be released from prison and how we were going to have to go to Australia to get away when the blacks took over. That’s got to do something to your psyche. I’m also bombarded by the same reality my young children are suddenly – and tragically – becoming very aware of, that wherever you look in our city black people are largely in impoverished positions of service propping up the white authority figures. That’s got to do something to your psyche. I can mention other things, but in the end, it seems I’ve so imbibed the narrative of white supremacy and black inferiority that it still affects my gut instincts. And this has happened to me even while I’ve endeavoured to teach and preach against racism and partiality and behave consistently with that message. That’s what systemic evil is. That’s why it’s so insidious and so hard to combat. That’s why, if I’m honest, there’s a bit of Amy Cooper inside of me. And that’s why (and this is the last one) there’s a sense in which I’m a danger to my black brothers and sisters.

What my black brothers and sisters need from me more than anything right now is not primarily words of comfort and consolation. What they need is for me to do the hard uncomfortable work of going deep down inside and re-wiring my system so that I’m not a danger to them anymore. This is my story, I’m not extrapolating it to other whites, they can speak for themselves. But I suspect my story is not unique. And so if you know, deep down, that this is your story too – that there’s a little bit of Amy Cooper inside of you – then won’t you consider joining me in attempting to do that hard uncomfortable work.

Here’s how you can start. I serve as a board member for an organization called Isiphambano Centre for Biblical Justice. For almost 2 years we’ve been putting out resources to help Christians think through biblical justice within the South African context. There’s a lot of content there to help you on your journey of re-wiring your own internal system. Perhaps if we can get enough re-wiring on the go, we might just see the entire system begin to change.

I pray that this personal reflection will be received in the spirit that it’s given.

Resources

Below are links to several online resources that will help you explore this subject further. All of these resources come from people within our formal networks: the Acts 29 Church Planting Network, Redeemer City to City, and the Presbyterian Church in America (with whom we are working closely to establish a Presbyterian & Reformed church planting movement in Southern Africa). We point this out to underscore our theological unity and agreement with these partners. We also want to continue to commend the resources of Isiphambano Centre for Biblical Justice which in part was birthed out of Hope City and which we continue to support as one of our formal ministry partners.

Group of PCA Coordinators and Presidents Issues Statement on “Heinous Killings” – This is a public statement from several leaders in the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) in response to the killing of George Floyd.

A Call to Justice, Restoration, and Renewal – This is the public statement that Acts 29, our global church planting network, put out in response to the killing of George Floyd.

Recommended Resources on Race and Justice – This is a catalogue of resources put together by Acts 29 to guide partner churches in exploring the subject further.

Understanding Race and Reconciliation in the USA – This is a panel discussion that took place at the Acts 29 Retreat in 2016 (the predecessor to the Global Gathering). It is admittedly USA-focussed but there is a lot to be gleaned from it that can be applied in the South African context.

Protest and Anarchy in Black and Blue – This is an article by professor of theology and culture at Reformed Theological Seminary, Dr. Carl Ellis (PCA) exploring the complexities of the protests that followed the killing of George Floyd.

The Whole in our Holiness – In this talk from the 2018 Together for the Gospel conference, Dr. Ligon Duncan (PCA) teaches on deficiencies in Christian holiness and applies this to the issue of historical racism.

Racism and Corporate Evil: A White Guy’s Perspective – This is a talk given by Dr. Timothy Keller (PCA) in 2017 addressing the biblical idea of corporate or systemic sin.

Grace, Justice & Mercy: An Evening with Bryan Stevenson and Tim Keller – This video is from an event put on by the Redeemer Center for Faith & Work. Well known justice advocate and lawyer, Bryan Stevenson and Timothy Keller (PCA) dialogue on this important topic.

The Confession of Corporate Sins – This is an article from 2016 in the PCA’s online magazine addressing the biblical basis for corporate sin and how we might think about confession and repentance in relation to corporate sin.