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Tower of Babel or Pentecost? The Church must not turn a deaf ear to cries for justice.

Emmitt DrumgooleThere are cries of injustice in the land. Many turn a deaf ear.

Last month I took a week-long fast from social media. 168 hours. My absence was not a ploy to escape the news of the latest killings of black men by police and the waves of social protest and demonstrations in cities across the country. As a black man in America, no amount of social media fasting can exempt me from that. I took a break for my emotional and spiritual health and to rest from the insensitive remarks, memes and comments that flood my newsfeeds daily.

So, I was not surprised by the vitriol waiting online when I returned. My feed, like many others, resembles more the Tower of Babel than a united nation speaking out against injustice and working together for justice.

In the story of the Tower of Babel in Genesis 11, the languages of the people were mixed up so that each group only heard and spoke in their own language. Everyone could speak and hear, but no group could understand what the other groups were saying.

Thousands of years later, I find little difference in our digital Babylon. There are cries for justice in the streets. Tragically, many choose not to hear.

“These were not isolated, one-off occurrences. They have been added to a line that is as long as our country is old.”

The month of May brought to light two events that shook our nation and resulted in much talk about racism. The first was the inhumane killing of Ahmaud Arbery at the hands of white vigilantes eager to make a “citizen’s arrest” because Arbery supposedly fit the description of a burglary suspect. The second was the death of George Floyd, who died in the custody of four white police as one officer pressed his knee into Floyd’s neck even as Floyd expressed repeatedly, “I can’t breathe!”

In recent days we have watched the videos, read the articles, glanced at the memes, seen the protests and witnessed the rioting. We have repeatedly seen the names of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor and George Floyd. We have all seen, but have we heard?

So much is being said. So little is being heard.

Buried beneath the binary, overly simplistic talking points and rebuttals that ignite social media content wars is the collective cry of black people who have experienced these acts of violence for hundreds of years. For us, these senseless murders are all too familiar and happen all too often at the hands of law enforcement supposedly entrusted with keeping safe all citizens in every neighborhood.

If they were stand-alone incidences, one might be tempted to say that these recent murders were simply unfortunate, tragic events attributable to misunderstandings or pre-existing cardiac conditions. We know better. These were not isolated, one-off occurrences. They have been added to a line that is as long as our country is old. From inhumane enslavement, to the horrific practice of lynching, to Jim Crow laws, to stop-and-frisk practices and much more. They are all connected, tethered to one another by the thread of racism that pervades culturally-privileged educational systems, economic structures and institutions – and, yes, many of our churches.

The murder of George Floyd on a Minneapolis street as he pleaded “I can’t breathe!” to the white police officer forcing the life out of him speaks to us. His death is a voice that sings a haunting melody in concert with the thousands of unjust killings that have long gone unheard by white America – ignored, defended, rationalized and buried in majority renderings of our nation’s history. Their blood cries in concert from the ground. And, for followers of Jesus, the sounds of those voices should shake every bone in our bodies.

With photos and video recording readily at the fingertips of anyone with a smartphone, we are able today to see the racism that has simmered just beneath the surface of our country since its inception. We cannot refuse to see it. Neither can we refuse to see ourselves for who we truly are. We must see that racism has not died. It is woven into the fabric of our nation. We must see it, and must allow ourselves to be disturbed, even haunted, by it. And to be moved to act.

The Church needs fresh wind. The people of God need fresh fire.

“To turn a deaf ear to the cries of all who are oppressed today is to turn a deaf ear to Christ.”

The vivid imagery of tongues of fire at Pentecost has always captured my attention. So has the beautiful Pentecost image of people of different nationalities speaking different languages. But what of the miracle of tongues if we cannot hear what is being said? At Pentecost, each person heard what was being said in their native language. They heard in a way that deeply resonated in their being. Through the Spirit, they became deep listeners to each other.

Listening is the first and most important thing that we can do right now. Before we speak, before we act, we must listen. And there is an abundance of long-neglected voices pleading to be heard.

Ahmaud, Breonna and George speak to us from the ground. Our black sisters and brothers speak to us. The chants of Black Lives Matter speak to us. Protesters speak to us. Yes, even the rioters speak to us.

Above all, the Spirit of the living God speaks to us, reminding us of our call as the Church to live prophetically and speak boldly to a world that desperately needs the hope, love and justice found in the Gospel. We must hear the Christ, because he, like so many, was executed brutally and unjustly.

To turn a deaf ear to the cries of all who are oppressed today is to turn a deaf ear to Christ.


Related opinion:

Darrell Hamilton II | We can’t talk about racial justice without addressing the ‘value gap’

Kristopher Norris | Could the righteous, riotous fire of Pentecost be burning in the protests for racial justice?

Wendell Griffen | Justice for George Floyd: what went wrong and how to make it right

Andrew Manis | George Floyd and the silence of white evangelical America

Kris Aaron | Will we white Christians continue to ignore the pleas of our black brothers and sisters?

Susan M. Shaw | ‘I can’t breathe’: three words that capture the crushing weight of systemic racism in America

Cody J. Sanders | ‘We can’t breathe’: an apt Pentecost prayer for white Christians

Timothy Peoples | Ahmaud, Breonna, Christian, George, and The Talk every black boy receives