It did not take long did it. Fairly soon after George Floyd’s murder and the outpouring of grief, anger and protest, the stories were circulating. Floyd was high on meth, Floyd was a serial, violent criminal so why was he being celebrated as a martyr. Of course those stories started with the socially required statements along the lines of “I am not justifying what happened to him … but …”
At the other end of the spectrum were articles about George Floyd’s Christian faith and some of the write ups about his criminal past seem to have been provoked by a perceived hagiography.
So, it might be helpful to set out some facts as we have them.
First of all, yes, George Floyd did have a criminal past. Though there are question marks about the sensationalism and accuracy of some of the reporting.
Secondly, yes, the toxicology reports from his autopsy do suggest that he had been using drugs. However, again, the sensationalism and accuracy of the reporting seems subject to questioning. Both from interpretations of the toxicology report and his observed behaviour at the time, there does not appear to be evidence that he was high, out of control or dangerous.
Thirdly, there is evidence of a profession of Christian faith and a genuine desire to engage with those in need.
What does all of this mean? Well simply it means that George Floyd was human. If and in that he had repented and put his trust in Jesus, that made him a saint. When we use the word “saint” Biblically, it does not mean that he was perfect, this is not about hagiography. It simply means that he was forgiven, set apart, reconciled to God. It means that he was justified -declared righteous, a new creation and it means that he was sanctified – a work in progress.
That Floyd was human means that he was a sinner. It means that he had done things wrong and just like you and me will have continued to sin each day and needed to keep confessing his sin. It means that whilst lots of people will have loved him, just like you and me, there will have people that he had hurt. There would have been things in his life that would have caused him regret. However, that does not make him a monster, it makes him human.
This is important because we will never get to the much needed truth, justice and reconciliation we seek if we continue to draw the story in cartoon terms, a tale of monsters and angels. If we do that, then we will miss the following points.
First of all, that the issue in terms of Floyd and institutional and systemic racism is not just about whether completely innocent people get treated unjustly because of the colour of their skin but also that people who may legitimately come under the scrutiny of law enforces should not be treated differently to other suspects because of race.
Secondly, that there is an argument that, without taking away personal responsibility, some of those criminal behaviours and drug related offences may in part be a consequence of divisions and inequality in society. Whilst in the end, it is the individual’s choice to slide into criminal behaviour, that does not excuse those who have power from having set up a society where those temptations and pressures are even heavier on some than others.
Thirdly, I think it also works the other way. Whilst we need to recognise the systemic nature of this particular sin and its effects, language about white privilege may distract from the prejudice and suffering that many white people have faced because of ethnicity, class or religion. It may also disguise the fact that prejudice is itself a heart condition that does not discriminate but finds its way into all of our hearts. Racism can exist between non-white ethnic groups. Black people can use wealth and power to put down and harm other black people. It was not just white Europeans who were complicit in the slave trade. The current grooming gang scandals reflect a form of anti-white racism. Then there is the horrific situation where even in the recent shadow of the holocaust, antisemitism still seems to have a disturbing level of social acceptability. Those ugly truths need to be confronted.
Similarly it relates to the complicity of some Christians in the slave trade. Don’t be surprised that the people we looked up to as heroes had feet of clay. Don’t be surprised to discover that John Wesley was a bad husband. Don’t be surprised to find racism and support for slavery among the revivalists. This does not change the fact that the sin was utterly wrong. Nor does it change the fact that God still chose to save and to use those men for his glory.
So, let’s have the nuanced conversation which recognises the evil of sin and idolatry, the fallen nature of humanity and the great work of grace, forgiveness and reconciliation that God has done in our lives which makes true reconciliation between us possible.