Eight minutes and twenty-six seconds. That’s over 500 Mississippi’s. Count them out…1 Mississippi, 2 Mississippi, 3 Mississippi…all the way to 500. Now imagine a knee on your neck as you count, each attempted breath one of those Mississippi’s, each breath harder to suck in than the last. Imagine that knee on the neck of your child, your parent, your friend as they try to breathe…1 Mississippi, 2 Mississippi, 3 Mississippi. Imagine.
That’s what happened to George Floyd – a son of God, a brother in Christ created in the image of God, a human being worthy of dignity and respect -- last week. A knee pressed George’s neck against the unforgiving cement of a Minneapolis city street not far from where the Mississippi River runs through and George died, another black person murdered by a white police officer while other officers ignored George’s cries for breath and the pleas of the bystanders watching.
It's hard for those of us who click the Caucasian/white box on our census form to understand the experience of George Floyd and other black, brown and indigenous human beings. It’s hard for us to understand being consistently singled out, stereotyped, threatened, and attacked for having a different skin-tone. It’s hard for us to understand why George Floyd might fear for his life as he is approached by four police officers in a city already known for the systemically permitted abusive behavior by some of its officers. It’s hard for us to understand Ahmed Aubrey’s experience of jogging in a middle-class neighborhood ten minutes from your home and being attacked and shot by two men who think you a criminal simply because of the color of your skin. It’s hard for us to understand the experience of indigenous women like Hanna Harris or Ashley Heavy Runner and their families in our state who are murdered, go missing or are routinely sexually assaulted in a social system that seems to want to do little about it.
It’s hard for us to understand. But we must try. We must imagine. We must do our best, even a little, to put ourselves into the shoes of these fellow human beings who, like us, are also beloved children of God. We must try to imagine what life is like for them. For that imagination is the heart of following the Golden Rule – to treat people of color as we as Caucasian/white people want to be treated…and probably already are.
This attempt to step into another human being’s shoes and feel their suffering is called empathy and for some reason it’s easier for human beings to do when the person looks, acts, thinks, and experiences life like we do. It’s much harder to empathize with those who we deem different, “other,” not like us. And yet such empathy and its partner, compassion, are an exercise in love.
Yes, I’m going to talk about love again.
Why do I and other Christian leaders keep harping on love all the time? Because love is the core of following Christ. To be a Christian is to love. “For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, ‘You shall love your neighbor as you love yourself.’” The whole law – all of it. Every law, rule, command, value, virtue, moral norm, guideline, social system, policy and way of living falls under God’s command to love. If it doesn’t love, it’s not a law from God.
What does this love look like as a response to the deaths and oppression, ignoring and ignorance, apathy toward and forgetting of our indigenous, black and brown brothers and sisters in Christ? For starters, I encourage you to go to the call to love by Bishop Michael Curry, presiding bishop the Episcopalian Church.
In this brief essay, Bishop Curry reminds us of what love can look like during this time of unrest and violence, anger and destruction, peaceful protests and riots (those are not the same thing). For example, participating in peaceful protest by and with people whose suffering has been hidden, ignored and forgotten is one way to love for it exposes the sin at the heart of their suffering that we are so unwilling to see. However, riots, violence, destruction, and purposely creating chaos to serve an agenda that has nothing to do with ending racism – that is not love. An unjustifiable act does not justify more unjustifiable acts.
But for many of us who check the “white” box, even what Bishop Curry speaks about love may be hard for us to hear. So I will propose that the Christian community’s love for people of color, and for all people similar or different than us, actually begins with prayer. Yes, prayer. To reject prayer as a part of our response is to reject the power of God’s love working in the world. Always remember who we are praying to: the God of the impossible, the Savior who brings life out of death, the Spirit who pours love into us and the world.
Now of course we pray for others: for people of color and their families who experience violence and the real threat of it every day. For those whose lives and livelihoods and places of daily life have been burned and destroyed by the rioting. For those shoved under the weighted knee of oppressive social, economic, cultural and political systems who cry out again and again to be able to breathe and seek the life, liberty, and happiness we all yearn for. We are always called to pray for others, to lament with and for them, to ask for God’s abundant life to be poured fully upon them and their communities so they can know God’s shalom.
However, even before we pray for others, we need first and foremost to pray for ourselves. Not in a self-centered “help them see that I’m right and they are wrong” way. Instead we need to pray for the Holy Spirit to transform us into the people of agape love, compassion, empathy and hope that God calls us to be. We need to pray for the Spirit to:
· open our eyes so that we can see the suffering of our black, brown and indigenous siblings;
· open our ears so that we will hear their cries for release so they can breathe;
· open our minds so that we can escape our ignorant not knowing about the depths of sin at work in our
· open our hearts so that we can step into empathy and compassion, and truly love our siblings of color in
· open our hands and feet and mouths so that our bodies can do the required-by-God’s-law work for
equality, equity and fairness for all;
· open our spirits so that we can be transformed into the image-of-God-in-Christ people God created us to
be, filled with the Spirit and empowered with forgiveness and grace to love beyond our sinfulness.
Conservationist John Muir once wrote this about seeing the landscapes around us in new ways, “All that is necessary to make any landscape visible and therefore impressive is to regard it from a new point of view, or from the old one with our heads upside down. Then we behold a new heaven and earth and are born again, as if we had gone on a pilgrimage to some far-off holy land and had become new creatures with bodies inverted; the scales fall from our eyes, and…we are made to see…new.
Ultimately, we who are white need to pray that God’s Spirit will help us see our social and cultural landscape and our suffering brothers and sisters of color from a “new point of view, or at the least with heads upside down” so that we can be born again into new creature with bodies inverted. But the only way such transformation will happen is if we ask the Spirit’s help and guidance to transform us the same way the Spirit changed those first Christians long ago, from a scared, anxious people with tendencies to complain, deny, betray, and crucify to the Spirit-filled new creation God wants us to be who lives and loves Christ into the world in all we do and say.
So, if you’re wondering what you can do in response to the struggles against racism happening around our country, I invite you to pray. Even if you don’t want to do anything else, I ask you to pray. And start by praying for yourself.
Pray a 500 Mississippi’s Prayer for eight and a half minutes each day that invites the Holy Spirit to fill you with God’s unconditional love that will transform you into God’s new creation, a follower of Christ who is willing and able to not only empathize but actually change your life and your corner of the world into an love-filled for your neighbors of color to live as beloved people of God. And then, as you are transformed by the Spirit, go out and live that love as the Spirit calls.
 John Muir, “John of the Mountains”
Bishop Laurie Jungling
Elected June 1, 2019, Laurie is the 5th Bishop of the Montana Synod