It’s hard for me to look when evil is happening right in front of me. Most of the time my usual coping mechanisms kick in: see but-not-really see; consider it some anomaly of behavior perpetrated and experienced by those not like me; feel relieved and grateful to let others take up the mantel of justice so that I can return to the more pressing problems in my own life. Sometimes it’s just more than I can take in. Too painful to bear.
And then, for the second time, I heard, “I can’t breathe. I can’t breathe,” and all my usual ways of coping crumbled. Seeing one of my dear black brothers crushed under the knee of another white brother–yes, brother–split my heart open and left me hemorrhaging, spewing raw sorrow from the jagged edges. No. This time, I could not see but–not–really see or hear but–not–really hear. This time, though this type of violence is played out every day on streets across our nation and the world, this time I truly saw and heard.
And now, my life is George Floyd’s life. My breath his.
We as peoples of faith are fond of calling all peoples our brothers and sisters. We proclaim our unity with all of life. We delight in building bridges of unity across diversity. And at times like these, we are the ones who often call for societal reflection on how we may eradicate the causes of such vile and insidious behaviors and invite discourse on what might be done to enact supportive public policy. All these efforts are most noble.
But, as important as they are, I don’t believe true, lasting, change comes solely from inter–relational discourse or from the enactment of public policy. You can’t legislate brotherly love. No, such love, necessary to move the needle from impulsive reactions toward more laser-focused compassionate ones, can only come from a true change of heart, a change that lifts the veil so, finally, we truly see and truly hear. A change that leaves the heart aching and tender to its unity with all its brothers and sisters. A heart, that, when confronted with one brother sadistically killing another, can only respond from a visceral, innate, knowledge that what is happening to one of my brothers is happening to me–right there, right here, right now. Bottom line, standing idly by, watching for eight minutes and forty–six seconds would simply not be an option.
So, how do we, you and I, go about experiencing this change of heart for ourselves? Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. left us clear direction. When delivering the eulogy to the congregation of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, after the bombing where four children were killed and many others injured, warned, “And so in spite of the darkness of this hour, we must not despair. We must not become bitter; nor must we harbor the desire to retaliate with violence. We must not lose faith in our white brothers.” White brothers.
How do we possibly get there? In his sermon, “Loving Your Enemies,” he tells us. “We begin to love our enemies and love those persons that hate us, whether in collective or individual life, by looking at ourselves.” Oh…..
Truth is each of us must be willing to do the hard work of excavating the hate that festers within us. We must have the courage to ask ourselves: when, where and how have I seen but–not–really seen? What prejudices exist within me that need my true seeing? So many of us want to change the world. Yet, harder still is changing ourselves so that our hearts can finally, truly, see. Such seeing would not, could not, exchange hate for hate or violence for violence. Instead, such seeing, emanating from a heart now changed, could only respond with that laser–focused compassion for both victim and perpetrator. Not easy. Yet, most faith traditions call us to love . . . to love one another in just this way. Perhaps this is a perfect moment in time for all of us to better practice our faith—not from place of exalted righteousness but, rather, from a place of humbled culpability.
Like me, so many of us have had our hearts torn open watching the killing of George Floyd, sadly, just the most recent killing in what has felt like an endless string of brutal violence against our black brothers and sisters. My prayer is that we continue to keep our hearts open so, going forward, we may better truly see and hear what is right before us. Let’s allow our deep sadness and rage to be funneled into actions of love fueled by that visceral knowledge that what happens to one of us happens to all of us. And, most of all, let’s continue to cleanse our own hearts of the residue of hate and prejudice that would continue to cause us to see but–not–really see.
Let’s join all those who have walked out in faith to pray with their feet. Black. White. Young. Old. Rich. Poor. Let’s use this moment, when the veil has been torn off, to truly see . . . to ignite the heart . . . to seek to love all our brothers and sisters. For it is only in this way that peace may one day prevail in this one heart of God in which we all move, breathe . . . and have our being . . .
in this one heart where, graciously, I and my brother, my sister, are one.