June 1, 2020 Tom Berlin

Reflections on George Floyd

The most recent headline confirms what most of us suspected, that George Floyd died of ‘asphyxia due to neck and back compression.’ The article says this information is offered by an independent autopsy and appears to contradict information from the county’s initial exam offered to the police. Insult seems to be once again added to injury when an independent autopsy is required to detail what most people saw plainly on a video showing a police officer kneeling on Mr. Floyd’s neck for over eight minutes as he pleaded for breath and life.


I have given a lot of thought to what I need to do as a result of this latest unjust and unnecessary death of a person of color. The long list of such deaths includes the recent actions of two self-deputized armed civilians in Georgia, who took the life of Ahmaud Arbery, a black man running on a public street in their neighborhood who they decided was guilty of a crime. The list includes Breonna Taylor, a 26-year-old African-American emergency room technician who was sleeping soundly in her home in Louisville, Kentucky, when police executed a “no-knock” warrant which allowed them to enter her home without warning or identifying themselves as law enforcement. After a brief confrontation in a dark room, they fired several shots, striking her at least eight times. The coroner in that case understood the cause of death without the need for an independent examination. It turns out that Ms. Taylor was not connected to the concerns listed on the search warrant that brought police crashing through her door. If you are wondering what people are angry about as you watch the news of protests in our cities, I am describing the barest tip of an iceberg of racial inequity and injustice in the United States that is 400 years deep and so wide that historians writing a multi-volume compendium could only begin to outline it.


I have tried to listen over last few days to allow the Lord issue some orders. I have done my study and learning. I know more than enough to understand why people of color and their allies are angry. I know enough about Jesus to feel both a lament for my nation and imagine the righteous anger he holds toward such injustice. If he overthrew tables and kicked the moneychangers out of the temple for their unjust business connected to the worship of God, what would he be doing in light of just these three deaths? I pondered my life and role as a pastor as I reflected on 1 Corinthians 4: Now it is required that those who have been given a trust must prove faithful. I care very little if I am judged by you or by any human court; indeed, I do not even judge myself. My conscience is clear, but that does not make me innocent. It is the Lord who judges me. Therefore judge nothing before the appointed time; wait until the Lord comes. He will bring to light what is hidden in darkness and will expose the motives of the heart. (NIV)


Let me be the first to say that I have secret places in my heart, and they include racism and bigotry that was cultivated there before I was even born. Set aside the possible white impulse to judge me innocent or tell me how good I am. The Lord and I both know what is in those secret places. He knows much more than me, but shows me another patch of ugly every year. While writing Reckless Love, I discovered that my family, in the 1800’s, included more than one branch which listed human beings in the “property” section of their census data. I was in my early 50’s and never knew that. There are some parts of the family history someone chooses to seal in the secret places of the heart. Growing up in a mid-size town in the Shenandoah Valley, I used racist language and carried bigoted constructs of the world in my childhood and adolescence. I have worked to deal with that secret place my whole life and imagine that I will need to turn that soil until I die. In the lives of many white people, racism is like an EPA Superfund site. You can work it your whole life and still not get all the poison out of the dirt where you stand.


About now you may think that I suffer from liberal white guilt. What I suffer from is a conviction of sin placed in my life by my Lord Jesus Christ that I wonder why more white Christians have not experienced. It is profoundly disorienting. My Lord has convicted me that our society has obvious racial sin that is not secret but is often completely ignored. I suggest that white people who are quickly angered when peaceful protests become expensive riots, but who demonstrate their acceptance of injustice through utter silence when a black man is asphyxiated before their very eyes, should seek the Lord. And don’t ask Jesus to pat your head and tell others to calm down. He is already a Savior who has died for your sins. This is no time for Jesus, meek and mild. Call upon the Lord and let him give you some marching orders. Let him open what the Apostle Paul says is hidden in the darkness so that he can expose the motives of the heart. If you are expecting commendations, you do not understand Christ or Christianity. Being a follower of Jesus Christ is a request to have Jesus remove every sin from your life, training and heritage that is unpleasing to Him and Him alone. He does not care about your opinion on racism. He cares that you become a person who loves others fully, inclusively and equally. It is apparent from the study of the gospels that Jesus is an anti-racist. He accepted, healed, stood up for, befriended, and died for everyone others rejected, harmed and killed.


I was hoping Jesus would tell me to read another book or sign up for another discussion. Books and discussion are essential if you want to become an anti-racist. If you have not done the work, now is the time to begin. But I have already asked the Risen Christ to help me take a good look at me. I will continue to do that work, but I knew I needed to ask again, Lord, what would you like me to do now?  I felt the Lord say, Now is the time to do something as a person and a pastor.  I began to do some things. Nothing earth-shattering here. But something done, nonetheless. Karen and I made some donations this weekend to organizations that work for racial justice. And we didn’t rob what we give other organizations. We gave more. We gave extra. I called a friend in my community who is an African American pastor to check in on him and ask what a group we helped initiate last year might get to work on now. I called my Church Council Chairperson and asked her if we could convene a meeting the following night and agree on actions we would take in light of systemic racism in our nation. Such actions will need to be ongoing and deliberate. We need to hear the marching orders our Lord has for our church, and not offer up events designed to make us feel better.


On Wednesday, we will offer a service of lament for the whole bucket of sorrow we are experiencing. We will pray for the over 100,000 deaths from COVID-19. Every one of these deaths is a tragedy, but it should be noted that the pandemic disproportionately impacts persons of color. We will pray for those who fear eviction and who struggle to feed their family due to the economic impact of the pandemic. We will also pray for the Lord to convict us personally and collectively of the systematic racism that exists in our country and call us to be agents of the Reign of God who work against evil, injustice and oppression. No doubt some who have read this far are thinking, There they go. ‘Thoughts and Prayers.’ Give me a break!  Take heart, at the end of this service, we will call our church to go and do what Christ calls them to do in this critical time. We will give them ideas that they can act on as individuals. And we will tell them plans initiated by our church leadership this week. Right now, our witness for Christ can be magnified and believed through action or it will be seen as the fraud is if we offer nothing but silence and inactivity. In both our personal and corporate lives, we must pray and act. Prayer is uniquely necessary when it is associated with our desire to seek the discernment of the Holy Spirit on how to act. Earnest prayer in such moments is the silence in the room as Jesus steps to the podium and issues his call to action. He expects us to be ministers of the gospel who work toward the healing of the nations rather than a fearful people seeking God’s protection as we tell others to be nice.


This is the work of a lifetime, but it has to begin and be continued. I believe I can hear the renewed call of God in this time. It is the call of the One who now desires to bring to light what is hidden in darkness and expose the motives of our hearts. Now is the time to simply do what Jesus is calling us to do: acts of servanthood, compassion, love, and by all means, justice. I can’t wait to hear what I will say on Wednesday. Join us if you do too.

Tom Berlin

Rev. Tom Berlin is the Lead Pastor of Floris United Methodist Church. Tom was raised in the beautiful Shenandoah Valley and has lived in Virginia most of his life. He is a graduate of Virginia Tech and his Master of Divinity is from the Candler School of Theology at Emory University. He has co-authored three books and is the author of several small group studies. Tom and his wife Karen have four daughters.