Jessica A. Johnson
While reading the flurry of news reports on the protests across the nation in response to George Floyd’s horrifying death at the hands of former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, who is charged with Floyd’s murder, I pulled out one of my old textbooks and read this quote from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter From a Birmingham Jail:”
“Jesus Christ, was an extremist for love, truth and goodness, and thereby rose above his environment. Perhaps the South, the nation and the world are in dire need of creative extremists.”
The environments of the cities that have been rocked with violent rioting in the wake of Floyd’s death definitely reveal that we are in dire need of tremendous love. Night fires raged in Minneapolis, Atlanta, Brooklyn, Washington and Philadelphia; the orange flames blazing in the furious evening air looked like pockets of hell. Pondering these ghastly images, I came across a photo of hope on social media with a message that echoed what King was trying to instill in us. It was a picture of a young black male college student smiling and holding a sign with reference to John 13:34-35. In verse 35, Jesus says, “By this shall all men know that ye are my disciples, if ye have love one to another.”
When King wrote “Letter From a Birmingham Jail” in 1963 while imprisoned in the Alabama city under the stronghold of Bull Conner, he penned it in the epistle-like fashion of the Apostle Paul. King also expressed great disappointment concerning lack of support from white ministers and implored them to back him and “the freedom movement” and to stop being silent “behind the anesthetizing security of stained-class windows.” I believe God is issuing a clarion call for the church to no longer remain silent in the midst of the unrest that has escalated as a result of Floyd’s murder and other recent killings such as those of Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery. The racial hatred that has remained an iniquitous seed of entrenched dissension in our country can only be uprooted by extreme love, and it is time for the church to take a stand in this crisis.
As current activists, community leaders and politicians are discussing how to proceed with measures to address police brutality — in addition to tactics to combat poverty, education and health disparities, critical social issues that continue to plague the black community — I have noticed the fervent zeal for seeking God for counsel that King and other ministers exhibited during the civil rights movement is largely absent. I will always remember Rev. C.T. Vivian, who marched with King in Selma, Alabama, telling me that they “won” because God was at the center of the movement.
If time travel were possible, I would love to go back and hear the prayers that went up from King, Vivian and other prominent ministers such as Fred Shuttlesworth. Entreating God for wisdom in how to strategize nonviolent protests and how to negotiate with powerful political leaders like former Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson resulted in the three most significant pieces of civil rights legislation: the 1964 Civil Rights Act, the 1965 Voting Rights Act and the 1968 Fair Housing Act, which passed seven days after King’s assassination in Memphis.
Legislation pushing for police reform that will continue this rich legacy, however, must not be the only outcome of the cries demanding justice for Floyd. Centuries of racism have pierced the soul of America with a deep and destructive wound that mere laws on the books cannot mend. This is where the church must step in. In confronting the racial division of his time, Jesus focused on ministering to the souls of those who were hurting. In John 4, Jesus meets a Samaritan woman at Jacob’s well and asks for a drink of water. She immediately tells Him, “the Jews have no dealings with the Samaritans.” Jesus looks past this social barrier and calls out the broken relationships that were adversely affecting her life, the core of what inflicted her soul.
When I look at the protesters across the nation, particularly the young, the pain and despair they are expressing — racial injustice, economic struggles — is coming from the depth of their souls. King referred to this brokenness as a “degenerating sense of ‘nobodiness.’” The church must begin to minister the extreme love of Christ to those who feel like nobodies in this country. If we fail in doing so, our ominous racial predicament will only worsen.
Dr. Jessica A. Johnson is a lecturer in the English department at The Ohio State University-Lima. Email her at email@example.com. @JjSmojc