"The death of George Floyd is the death of every black human"
A.D.A. France-Williams, author of Ghost Ship: Institutional Racism and the Church of England, reflects on the death of George Floyd, and asks how the church will respond.
if they keep quiet, the stones will cry out.”
The pharisees sought to silence the disciples who were drawing attention to Jesus. Jesus drew attention to the oppressive imperial regime choking the multitudes, keeping them down and out. The rebuke of the religious leaders occurred during Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem. This was a non-violent carnival of life, led by a man on a donkey. He was parading as a parody of the sickness of the bruising state. The empire’s pretentious leaders dazzled the masses with burnished shields in a show of strength - peace through domination. Within a week of this moment, Jesus would be gone.
The death of George Floyd is the death of every black human. His physical suffocation speaks of the state sanctioned strangulation of black life. Black life is seen as arbitrary, not a necessity. We now fear the system will methodically work to cover its tracks. The hit has been carried out and the clean-up team will sweep in removing the evidence of the crime, confusing the scene, planting false evidence and thus disrupting the narrative. The real predatory perpetrators will be given false identities; rewarded, they will be told to lie low, until it blows over. And it probably will. When the fires die down, George could well be forgotten, his own story incinerated with the rest of the evidence against the repressive state.
Jesus has gone. The stirrer of hearts, and stirrer of trouble cannot be heard or held. He lived a life of identification with those the empire crushed without hesitation. He found himself at the top of the watchlist and then the hit list as the people gathered in their numbers to be led by him. He was a threat to the established order. No, more than that, he was a wrecking ball. He was a cleansing chaos unmasking the devouring monster. He refused to be afraid. He took broken individuals with the shattered pieces of their lives and showed them how they could fit those fragments into a mosaic. A new humanity living truthfully and boldly. An organic, living, breathing entity taking the first steps away from confinement and towards liberation. Then Jesus was murdered by the state.
In the moment of Jesus’ crucifixion the temple curtain was torn from top to bottom revealing a rip in space-time. Nothing but void, the heavens were still and achingly empty. This beautiful fragile earth-bound society of common love and common purpose collapsed in on itself. The energising force of love could no longer give this movement the kiss of life.
‘Unless a grain of wheat falls into the ground and dies it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds.’
Just over a week ago, George Floyd was searching for his keys, checking the time, thinking about loved ones, driving, hustling, scrolling through his social media timeline. He was just a year older than me. He had messages to reply to, meetings to attend, and a life to be lived all in the shadow of Covid19. He was arrested outside of a shop where he was suspected of committing fraud. He was unarmed. A number of police officers arrived exerting and flaunting the authority of the badge to serve themselves and protect their own interests. A Roman shield in miniature dazzling the masses as they acted as instruments of the oppressive state. Red buttons on smart phones were activated as a horizontal lynching took place before the watching world. A life was extinguished.
Then there was a spark, and a rumour that Jesus was alive. A report of a sighting of the dead man with his friends. He entered locked rooms. He was seen, but not recognised. He was becoming everyman and everywoman. A stranger on the road, a gardener, or a cook on a beach. He could have been any of us. Though he was one body he became many, as we all shared the one bread. He gathered his friends on a mountain and instructed them to wait for the spirit of truth to come. As he defied death he defied gravity, and was gone a second time. The friends of Jesus the Galilean non-violent revolutionary, wait and watch. Jesus has gone, and they are alone. Then there is the terrible noise of an inhalation as the universe itself draws breath. A pause. Now with the thunder of the ignition of ten thousand furnaces, fiery breath exits the lungs of God and the gathered crowd are set ablaze with insight and inspiration. A fire of possibility lifts the waiting to their feet, and to their knees. Jesus the gardener, the cook, the stranger, the midwife, the shopkeeper, the plumber, the Uber driver, the copy editor, the footballer, the dancer, the accountant, the engineer, the administrator, the illustrator, the film maker, and the mother is born anew in each life devoted to his as through them God breathes in and out, inhale, exhale, the church rises, as a force of loving justice to heal the world. But something has gone wrong.
The pharisees have won. We look to the disciples of Jesus the non-violent activist, but they are silent. Nothing to see here. Nothing to say here. The Roman’s shield, or the cops’ badges, capture our collective attention and we allow the communities of colour who have resisted by taking the knee, to now die by the oppressors knee remaining on their necks.
On Saturday May 30th, a black Church of England priest Revd Darius Weithers wrote a bold message on his Facebook page. He was appealing to our most visible of disciples, the women and men in purple, our bishops who lead our dioceses. Or as I sometimes refer to them our ‘dire seas.’ He said:
“Where are you now, Bishops? Why don't you speak up for us? Your silence bursts the eardrums of my soul and I lament. Jesus didn't do silence. “
Some have responded to Revd Weithers that it is not the place of the Church of England bishops to speak about someone else’s issues, someplace else. In other words it is not our problem. Except it is, the Church of England has been a beneficiary of the labour and love of black lives for a long era. Black pain travels and crosses oceans.
There is a neurological phenomena called mirror touch synesthesia. In short, the pain of others is felt as being the same as one’s own. When it comes to a global black community ‘though we are many, we are one body because we all share the one bread of suffering’. We are all connected and the compulsion of senior church leaders to carve up the world as they see it pierces the skin, but the living, breathing African body is still whole.
Others on the timeline commented that to expose the racism abroad would lead to the cry of hypocrisy of the racism they hide at home. There are at least two responses to that, one is put your hand up, take a hammer and continue Jesus’ work of demolishing the evil of oppression wherever it is found, and another option is to ignore it and wait for it to blow over. However, the thing which is blowing over is the wind of the spirit looking to animate disciples committed to justice and peace.
Within the fires of American cities, tongues of flames are searching for those waiting to play their part in building a new world. The leaders in the Church of England appear to have chosen a side. They have passed by on the other side, bystanders in a rush to keep a zoom appointment. They are afraid of getting blood on their hands, unaware the stain is already caked in.
Well so be it. The stones will cry out.
There will be weeping, wailing, burning and looting in response to our state endorsed silence. Jesus is the wailing stone which has been rejected. It is he with a knee on his neck, and it is us who are choking the life out of him. Jesus has gone.
Ghost Ship: Institutional Racism and the Church of England, described by Michael Curry as "a powerful and provocative word to people on both sides of the ocean, wherever racial injustice is found" is published in July. Preorder a copy at 20% off via our website.
A.D.A France-Williams is priest in the Church of England in an urban parish which is a member of the HeartEdge church network. He has been a priest for 10 years and holds a MPhil in theology as well as a Masters degree in Mission.