A Pastoral Reflection on Grimké, COVID-19, and Racial Injustice
“... I have been thinking, as doubtless you have all been, of these calamitous weeks through which we have been passing—thinking of the large numbers that have been sick—the large numbers that have died, the many, many homes that have been made desolate—the many, many bleeding, sorrowing hearts that have been left behind, and I have been asking myself the question, What is the meaning of it all? What ought it to mean to us? Is it to come and go and we be no wiser, or better for it? Surely God had a purpose in it, and it is our duty to find out, as far as we may, what that purpose is, and try to profit by it.”
Those words were spoken in 1918. Francis Grimké spoke them regarding the influenza pandemic of 1918 and more than a century later those words began to mentor me. I read those words early on in quarantine and they haunted and fueled me. Is it to come and go and we be no wiser, or better for it? The question fueled me: I became resolutely committed to my own transformation, but I also longed for the transformation of the North American church, and, perhaps even, the transformation of this nation to which I immigrated. The question still haunts me: What if we are none the wiser on the other side?
Francis Grimké, the DC Presbyterian minister, continued “Surely God had a purpose in it, and it is our duty to find out, as far as we may, what that purpose is, and try to profit by it.” Early on during the quarantine, I conversed with a friend, the type of friend whose educational credentials tower mine. I listen carefully when he speaks. But initially I pushed back with force. He posed the question “what if this is a judgment from God?” I wanted no part of this. Images of pompous televangelists arrogantly pontificating and attaching the name of God is to me by definition blasphemous. The Mosaic words immortalized in Deuteronomy compel me to navigate with caution: “The secret things belong to the Lord our God, but the things that are revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may do all the words of this law.” Yet the conversation continued: Is it possible to carefully protect the truth that the secret things belong to the Lord and yet carefully consider if this is a judgment?
Peter Leithart urges us to carefully define “judgment.” He contends that while judgment certainly includes the concept of punishment that it is not exclusively limited to that. He borrows from his colleague so as to include in the definition of judgment also the concepts of “unmasking, exposure, testing, and clarification.” My mind returns to Grimké’s counsel “it is our duty to find out, as far as we may, what the purpose is, and try to profit by it.” It will always be inexplicable to me why God has allowed this global pandemic, but I cannot risk missing unmaskings, exposures, testings, and clarifications.
The pandemic changed life quickly. Only naivete would contend that all were impacted equally. In certain places it meant minimal inconveniences. In other places it meant the death of a parent without the closure of a funeral. And yet in other places the global impact of COVID-19 meant that fear of mass starvation towered over the fear of contracting the coronavirus. By no means were all impacted equally. Yet the entire world was aware. The world’s mind locked on the coronavirus. The question haunted me: Is it to come and go and we are no wiser, or better for it?
In his reflections early November of 1918, Francis Grimké contended that careful consideration of the 1918 pandemic should’ve eradicated racism. He explains “In this terrible epidemic, which has afflicted not only this city but the whole country, there is a great lesson for the white man to learn. It is the folly of his stupid color prejudice. It calls attention to the fact that he is acting on a principle that God utterly repudiates, as He has shown during this epidemic scourge; and, as He will show him when He comes to deal with him in the judgment of the great day of solemn account. The lesson taught is clear and distinct, but will he learn it, will he lay it to heart, will he profit by it and seek to mend his evil ways?” A full century passed since Grimké delivered his reflection and yet wicked and irrational racist prejudice rages on.
One-tenth of a millennium unfolded and here we are in the midst of another pandemic. Racial injustice is nothing new. We know of the Atlantic Slave Trade, chattel slavery, Jim Crow, lynchings, redlining, and the list continues. Yet in the midst of this pandemic a video surfaces of two white men hunting down Ahmaud Arbery. But it never should have taken a video.
Days after I learned about Ahmaud Arbery I was in conversation with a small group of Christian leaders. One pastor spoke up and contended that the video should never have been viewed by the public: Ahmaud Arbery is someone’s son and no one has the right to watch him be hunted down and murdered. Internally I initially disagreed, my mind went in two directions. First, without the video how would everyone know what truly took place? Second, my mind rushed to Emmett Till and how his mother’s brave decision for an open casket funeral demanded a national conversation. But my friend was doubtlessly correct. It never should have taken a video. By the time this pastor and friend had finished speaking, I had already changed my mind. The Emmett Till funeral was different. Two differences shone forth. First, the nation was able to see the end result of a brutal lynching, not the entire process. Secondly and most importantly, Emmett Till’s mother Mamie Till-Mobley initiated the decision and gave permission. Our nation had stolen the right of making the agonizing decision from Ahmaud Arbery’s mother. It never should have taken a video. Yet this leaves us with the first question: without the video how would everyone know what truly took place? This is where we need to say it loudest and with the most conviction: It never should have taken a video.
The black voice in America has never been monolithic. But as New Testament scholar Esau McCaulley recently asserted, even though the black voice is not monolithic, there is a consensus. The consensus of the black voice for decades and centuries has been that black people are treated differently in America: Treated differently in education, housing, jobs, economy, and in interactions with the police. The video should never have been necessary. Black brothers and sisters have been telling us this for a very long time. It is here that I stop to reflect on the Apostle Paul’s famous words on love (1 Corinthians 13). Love does not dishonor. It always protects. It always trusts. When someone tells you that they have been wronged. Love believes. Love always believes. But this was not one person that told us. It has been the consensus of the black voice. If love always believes. What does this say about the church for not having believed?
This is where I return to my previously unfinished list of realms in which black brothers and sisters have been telling us that they have been treated differently. It pains me that some are treated differently by schools, bosses, real estate agents, police officers, as well as countless other encounters. But without a doubt, the most grievously painful is the church. Our King demands differently. Our King was crucified to purchase for us an altogether different reality. Our King has given us marching orders to fulfill a different existence. Our King has given us his Holy Spirit to fill us in order to live out that reality.
Moses prophetically inscripturated: “The secret things belong to the Lord our God, but the things that are revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may do all the words of this law.” (Deuteronomy 29:29)
It has been revealed to us that God shows no partiality and that the believer in Christ must follow the character of God in this.
It has been revealed to us that Jesus in his death is our peace and that we are called to live together in one unified body making every effort to maintain that unity which he established.
It has been revealed to us that our Maker detests dishonest scales, how can we who devote our lives to him comfortably live with injustice?
After Ahmaud Arbery came the news of Breonna Taylor. Then we saw the Central Park actions of Amy Cooper as she weaponized the color of Christian Cooper’s skin because it upset her that he had asked her to follow the park’s rules. Then we watched the murder of George Floyd. All of this brought to light during a global pandemic. The words of the presbyterian pastor reverberating in my eardrums: Surely God had a purpose in it, and it is our duty to find out, as far as we may, what that purpose is, and try to profit by it.
Francis Grimké continues to teach. He poses the question: “The lesson taught is clear and distinct, but will he learn it, will he lay it to heart, will he profit by it and seek to mend his evil ways? He may, but I have grave doubts as to whether he will or not. The probabilities are that he will still go on in his evil ways—will still go on believing that a white skin entitles its possessor to better treatment than a dark skin; will still go on practicing his infamous discriminations against colored people, in departments of the general government, and all over the country.”
Church, it is a humbling thing to be unmasked, exposed, discovered. Contrition, repentance, lament must pave the days ahead. But take courage. The writer of Proverbs goes on to be quoted by the writer of Hebrews. Somewhere it says, “My son, do not make light of the Lord’s discipline, and do not lose heart when he rebukes you, because the Lord disciplines the one he loves, and he chastens everyone he accepts as his son.” (Hebrews 12:6)
As I close I am reminded of the prayer Boaz prayed. Before touching on Boaz’s prayer specifically, just a few words on prayer generally. I am quite aware that the world I inhabit mocks prayer. Sometimes justifiably and sometimes unjustifiably. I say justifiably because I too am guilty of at times having all too superficially thrown the words “I am praying” as an excuse not to address difficult problems. But I also say unjustifiably because as a Christian I cling to the power of being able to access the universe’s singular Sovereign. My wickedness severed me from the perfect judge. But King Jesus was crucified on a Latin killing apparatus in my place. I trust what the Crucified and Risen Nazarene accomplished for me. My sin has been removed. The Eternal and Infinite Creator now hears my voice. The one who raised Lazarus from the dead listens to what I have to say. The one who spoke the lion into existence cares about my thoughts. The one who fashioned Andromeda hears me.
Now back to the prayer of Boaz. Early in the book of Ruth, Boaz encounters Ruth and he prays for her: “The Lord repay you for what you have done, and a full reward be given to you by the Lord, the God of Israel, under whose wings you have come to take refuge!” (Ruth 2:12) He prays for her. He entrusts her well-being into divine hands. But the story continues. The providence of God shines in the narrative. God orchestrates human history in such a way that Boaz eventually becomes the very answer to the prayer he initially prayed for Ruth. Church, may we pray boldly at this time and may God orchestrate human history to incorporate us into the answer to our own prayers.
The alternative is terrifying: Is it to come and go and we are no wiser, or better for it?