I woke yesterday to the news that George Floyd’s killer, Derek Chauvin has been convicted. This is good news because it means justice for Floyd’s family, but it does not deal with the issue of racism. In fact, it is concerning that some people are still trying to separate out the race issue here and suggest it was just about a rouge cop so that it was the black community in America who made it a race matter.
The killing of George Floyd became a race matter as soon as a white police office knelt on a black man’s neck. That was the image which stuck out for so many people because it was in the eye, mind and heart of so many immediately associated with the brutal and historic oppression of the slave trade. I think that is why symbols like street names and statues suddenly became significant because the visual image captured the broader mood of how people experienced life. The optics do matter.
It’s important to say this because we live in a day and age when people virtue signal and where pr consultants and spin doctors are only concerned about “the optics” or how things are seen. We should not be only concerned by what people see because it is possibly to put on an empty outward performance but when what people see aligns with the truth, aligns with the shared experience, then the optics do matter.
This leads me back to another optic from the summer of last year, the many people at protests and events “taking the knee.” I’ve heard white British Christians respond angrily to this. They’ve denounced it as a form of idolatry and insisted that the only person they will kneel before is King Jesus. They’ve then tended to spoil their argument a little bit by saying that they will also kneel for the Queen (so that the action can no longer be presented as idolatry).
As I explained at the time, this is to completely misunderstand (or if knowingly then to misrepresent) what is going on with the “taking the knee” act. This was never a case of black people demanding that white people bow before them. Rather, its origins where rooted in black sportsmen wishing to protest racism and so choosing to kneel often for the US National Anthem. It was a way of on the one hand continuing to show respect whilst poignantly saying “I can’t stand with you.” You see the implication was that rather than being allowed to stand as equals with their fellow citizens, historically through slavery and segregation they had been compelled to kneel, to be the second class servants.
When white people took the knee, they were expressing a willingness to kneel with their black brothers and sisters. Now, if all they did was that symbolic action and then forgot about things then it was a wasted and empty gesture. But if the action represented a genuine and ongoing commitment to work for justice and change then the optics did and do matter.
We might at this stage note the optics of Christian faith, that Christ chose not just to give us Scripture but to institute two highly visual symbols into the life of the church, baptism and communion. These are things that are meant to be both experienced by the participants and witnessed/seen too. The optics of a group of people sharing a meal together matter if they reflect true unity between people from different backgrounds, the optics of someone going down as to the grave and being raised up as to life through the waters of baptism matter if that represents their real heart experience.
The expectation in Scripture is that people will see that we love Jesus as we show this by our love for one another. Love is meant to be visible. Can people see our love for him? Furthermore, repentance and justice needs to be seen, not just empty acts but the visual evidence of real change in response to the shocking reports on Fletcher, Smyth, Zacharias and Timmis. Furthermore, and particularly in the light of Monday’s disturbing Panorama programme about racism in the church, there needs to be visual evidence that we do take racism seriously.
The optics do matter.