Should I Respond to George Floyd’s Death This Sunday?

Article
05.30.2020

Editor’s Note: This email exchange has been edited and was written prior to the riots and looting that have since started around the nation.

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Dear Michael,

I am seeking some wisdom/advice right now.  We have some people in our church that are upset that I am not addressing what is going on in our culture with POC.  I told one of them that I cannot address every social issue that comes up and honestly from what I have seen with people that are using their social media to address the issue are creating more division/disunity than anything else.  I am not sure if I am blinded to the issue but have some thoughts on why I shouldn’t address this from the pulpit.  I would love to hear your thoughts on the matter and any advice you would have for pastors on how to deal with this.


Hi friend,

It’s good to hear from you. I’m sorry the pandemic has prevented following up in person. Hopefully, as things settle down, we can figure out a way to meet occasionally.

As for the current national controversy sparked by the death of George Floyd under police custody, our staff has been talking about how we’re going to respond on Sunday. There are several things I always try to keep in mind:

  1. Silence/not responding is a response. And often, it does not communicate what we mean it to communicate. For example, we might mean to avoid division or fanning flames of controversy, but in fact communicate that we’re either indifferent or taking sides.
  2. While the larger issues of #BlackLivesMatter, #BlueLivesMatter, #AllLivesMatter are complex and nuanced, often specific events are quite clear. An African American man, apparently a Christian, was killed unjustly while under restraint by police using excessive force. While we should wait for the courts to render judgment, we should not wait to grieve a death that should not have happened. Coming so close on the heels of the widely publicized murder of Ahmaud Arbery in GA, and even the harassment of the African American birdwatcher in NYC, we can and should acknowledge the fear, pain, and anger this legitimately provokes in minority communities. We can affirm both the greater risk and heightened responsibility for restraint that lethal authority bears. We can lament both the history and the current cultural and political climate that makes this event so fraught. And we can do all of this without even once straying into partisan political statements or sweeping generalizations. That doesn’t mean it’s easy. It will take careful thought rather than extemporaneous remarks. But it can be done.
  3. As much as I’d like to avoid it, moments like these are teaching moments. And I should not avoid the opportunity to teach. It’d be nice if we could always choose the moments, but all too often culture, the news cycle, and outside events set the conversation for us. In this case there’s so much that can be taught—how to lament, how to listen, how to love those who are different from yourself, how to empathize, just to name a few. Events may have set the conversation, but I get to frame that conversation biblically and in light of “the resurrection power of the gospel.
  4. My calling is neither judge nor politician. I’m not responsible to adjudicate what happened in Minneapolis. I’m not responsible to promote or propound policy solutions. My calling is pastor, and so I’m responsible to teach my people how to think and respond biblically, both to the tragedy in Minneapolis, but even more so, to the way in which it affects my neighbors. The principle of moral proximity means I’m most concerned with how my flock are treating each other, and treating outsiders, in response to both the specific tragic event and the larger context that the event plays into.
  5. The culture wars are the culture’s, not the local church’s, battle. For the church to be captured and exclusively identified with either side is to lose the gospel. Christians who angrily denounce or vilify others in the name of defending our constitutional rights or “law and order” or “justice” have forgotten who they are. In Christ we are those who lay down our rights to serve our enemies, and who understand that we are first and foremost citizens of a kingdom that is not of this world. If it were, Jesus’ “servants would fight” to defend him and our ourselves. But it is not. (John 18:36)

With all that in mind, here’s what we’re planning to do Sunday.

  • I will definitely pray about this in the pastoral prayer. I’ll pray for the Floyd family, for peace in Minneapolis and around the country, and for justice. I’ll pray for the officers who were fired and the officer who was arrested. I’ll pray for those in our own community who fear this could happen to them. I’ll pray for law enforcement officers in our church, and in general, for courage and restraint. I’ll pray for our society’s divisions to be healed. And I’ll pray that the government would have wisdom to balance and answer the competing claims of justice, security, due process, and freedom of speech.
  • I may or may not address it by way of a point of application in my sermon. The text will determine that. This Sunday my text includes Luke 6:9, “Is it lawful to do good on the Sabbath or to do evil, to save life or destroy.” Since Jesus was confronting the Pharisees over their use of the law to justify destroying life and neglecting the opportunity to do good, chances are good I’ll address it. For my congregation, that would mean not using the legitimate good of “law and order” to justify or minimize the evil when legitimate coercive authority is abused or exercised without due restraint. I’ll probably also ask what my majority white congregation thinks it would mean to “do good” in this situation and why it is that so many minorities might think differently. And then I won’t answer my own question, but simply leave it with them.
  • In our Sunday PM prayer meeting, we will probably have a prayer of lament over the brokenness on all sides that led to Mr. Floyd’s death and the response to his death.
  • I’ll definitely invite people to come talk to me if they have questions.

Further out, when #BlackLivesMatter began, we did a four-part Wednesday evening series on Race, Racism, and the Church. This is definitely prompting a discussion on whether it’s time to do another focused teaching and discussion on the issue. We’re getting ready to plant a church in the historic African American part of town with an African American church planter. I know this is on his mind, and it may prove an opportunity for our church and his church plant to cooperate together.

There’s so much more that could be said, but this is some of how we’re thinking about it. Bottom line, we each have to pastor our own flocks in light of their needs, strengths, weaknesses, and blind spots. But we don’t do that in a vacuum. We need to be wise, but we also cannot duck when these things come along.

Blessings,

Michael Lawrence

By:
Michael Lawrence

Michael Lawrence is the senior pastor of Hinson Baptist Church in Portland, Oregon. You can find him on Twitter at @pdxtml.