A Tale of Three Mothers
Updated: Jun 15, 2020
It’s a bit of a perfect storm in America today. Long-standing inequities, economic challenges, racial and political tensions abounded long before most of us were confined to our homes in March. Passing the three month mark of isolation, we are all tired and frustrated. The pandemic and our necessary responses to it have inflicted further damage on our economic state than were already present. Anger and desperation are everywhere. We see photos of angry people with automatic weapons, demanding that the government remove life-saving restrictions on the false assumption that this will somehow return life to normal. Messages from our leaders are, to be very generous, mixed. The value of systems and wealth over people (especially poor people, and the minorities disproportionately affected by all of these factors) is on stark display.
Into this context came a relatively ordinary call to the police in a midwestern city. Someone was trying to pass a $20 bill suspected as counterfeit. A short time later, an African American man named George Floyd lay dead on a Minneapolis street with a white police officer’s knee on his neck. This officer pinned him this way (a technique long criticized as potentially lethal) for more than eight and a half minutes. For about six minutes, Mr. Floyd pleaded for his life, saying he could not breathe, and even calling for his mother. For the rest of the time, he lay unresponsive, while the officer continued to rest his weight on his neck, very literally cutting off his life’s blood. Two other officers helped hold him down, and a third looked on, apparently silent, as a man died before their eyes. For twenty dollars.
It was hardly the beginning of the story, but considering the other circumstances we currently face, and especially the fact the Mr. Floyd was just the most recent in a long line of people of color to lose his life to excessive police force, we can’t honestly claim surprise at just how passionate the response has been all across our country.
There has been some lowering of the temperature of the protests, and of the forcefulness of the government response. But we should harbor no illusions. This will not simply return to normal, any more than COVID-19 will magically go away, or our economy suddenly rebound to bring security and prosperity for all. There is so much to be done. This is a watershed moment, and we must not waste it.
There have been plenty of very loud opinions about the nature and “appropriateness” of the protests against George Floyd’s death. Many have debated who has caused the violence, who the looters are, and what it says about the legitimacy of the protests. Many calls for drastic reform have been issued, which, shall we say, don’t enjoy universal support. And frankly, I have opinions on most of those things. Anyone who knows me knows I’m rarely short of opinions. But I’m keeping most of those opinions to myself. The last thing this conversation needs is one more white guy telling people of color how they should respond to their own oppression. So the opinions I’m prepared to voice, and any advice I may be so bold as to give, is unapologetically directed to white people like me. I know that friends of mine who are people of color will read this, as may others who I don’t know. If you find something worthwhile here, I’ll be glad for that. But I will not presume to lecture communities whose lived experience I simply do not share.
The image of George Floyd calling out for his mother is haunting and heart-wrenching to me. So I want to tell you three stories, about three mothers.
I heard the first story many years ago now, I couldn’t even say where. A mother of two young sons hears a big commotion in the living room. She goes to investigate, and is horrified to find the whole room in disarray: furniture is overturned, books and knick-knacks cleared from shelves, curtains pulled down from windows, one of the windows smashed. In the middle of the havoc, her two sons are engaged in an all out brawl. With much yelling and pulling, she brings them to neutral corners of the room, and demands to know what is going on. They both begin yelling unintelligibly, heavy breathing, fat lips, and bloody noses adding nothing to their clarity. She demands quiet, and after a long slow breath, turns to her older son: “Johnny, you first, what on earth is going on here?” Johnny wipes his nose, looks sincerely into her eyes, and says, “Well, mom, it all started when Bobby hit me back.”
In case it’s unclear to anyone, our current situation did NOT start when Bobby hit me back. The cycle of racial violence in this country didn’t start with violent protests of the death of George Floyd. It didn’t start with Officer Derek Chauvin kneeling on Floyd’s neck. It didn’t start with any of the recent incidents of excessive police force or their respective protests. Racial tension and violence have been present in American as long as there has been an America. Along the way, we’ve made some progress, of course: emancipation, enfranchisement, civil rights, desegregation. But virtually every time, these advances had to be wrested unwillingly from the hands of those in power, who (there is no point pretending) have always been the white majority. And that, I believe, is what must change now if this watershed moment is not to be wasted.
Let me state it as plainly as I can: The responsibility for breaking the cycle of violence rests with those who began it, not with those who were first its victims. I’ll repeat it because it’s critical. The responsibility for breaking the cycle of violence rests with those who began it, not with those who were first its victims. Do I want an end to violent protests and looting? Of course I do. But I want them to end because there is no longer any reason for them. I want them to end when we find ourselves living in a country where people of color are treated equally by law enforcement, by our government, and by all of us as their neighbors. That responsibility is ours.
Rest assured, we will not get peace or an end to the cycle of violence by harsher and harsher applications of force, no matter how justified we think they are. Decades of Cold War slogans notwithstanding, “peace through superior firepower” is a rainbow unicorn: pretty to think about, but none of us will ever really see it. The calm that comes by force is not peace. It is at best compliance. It is usually just plain old oppression. The protestors’ slogan, “No Justice, No Peace,” is not a threat. It is a simple statement of fact. Where there is no justice from those in power, there can be no peace for anyone.
The first tale is a tale of responsibility. The onus lies with the haves, not the have nots. We who can make the difference, must.
Now let me tell you about my own mother. She was a truly remarkable woman of great intelligence, strength, character, and faith. I’m tempted to spend several pages telling you how wonderful she was. Instead, I’ll just say that I didn’t realize until well into my adulthood how many great moral lessons my mother had hidden away in the ordinary passing of our daily life. And one of them is the second Tale of Three Mothers. In a home with six children, and later, at holidays with the extended family of six children and their own children (usually with a handful of dogs thrown in to keep it interesting), dinner time could become a bit competitive. We weren’t short on food, but everyone had their favorites, and sharing wasn’t always a strong suit. I’ve often joked that while Jesus said the last will be first, in a family our size the last would be hungry. And in the midst of dinner service, when someone decided to take an unfair share of some favorite dish, we would predictably hear the same simple words from our mother: “That’s enough. Leave some for everyone else.”
It’s an awfully simple statement. And if we applied it as grown-ups, it would literally change the world. But we live in an age of greed, and an age where enough is never enough. Disparities in income and basic quality of life should be evidence enough that we’ve largely forgotten my mother’s advice. Our slogan is much more along the lines of “I got here first, so too bad for you.”
As true as this is in our handling of wealth as a culture and a nation, it is equally true with our handling of power. For us, power is to be amassed, solidified, guarded –never relinquished or shared. And this power greed lies very near the heart of our current crisis. Real justice and peace cannot be achieved without someone giving up power.
In a previous job in state government, I was involved with the employee empowerment committee. “Empowerment” was a big buzzword in business, and some government agencies, like mine, wanted to get involved. At one point, the Secretary of our Department shared an article from his favorite blog, a site called “Leadership Freak,” written by Dan Rockwell. The article observed: “Empowerment is smoke and mirrors until management loses power… Preaching empowerment and hanging on to power, at the same time, is manipulation. It’s a way to make people think they have power so they’ll go along and work harder.”
This is exactly the problem we are facing now. No one wants to give up any power. That’s happening at the highest levels of government, on the front lines of protests, and in each of our own hearts. Giving up power is a difficult, scary experience. It feels out of control, precisely because it is. That’s what giving up power means. Which is why I’ve heard more than a few white friends, sensible people without malice or overt racism, say with no trace of irony, “white men are the most discriminated against group in America today.” Of course it’s an absurd statement. But it’s how it feels for some, because the giving up of power, the leveling of the playing field, seems unfair to those who’ve never even noticed the privilege they live in.
The question of exactly how this shift in power should occur is admittedly a very sticky one. Current calls to abolish or defund the police make many very nervous. The Minneapolis City Council has used much broader language about “reimagining public safety.” I don’t know what exactly that looks like, either. I do know what the status quo looks like. And it’s not good enough. It is injustice. In the realm of power, it is clearly way past time to say, that’s enough. Leave some for everyone else.
You may already know the mother in the third tale. Her name is Mary. She was a young Middle Eastern woman, probably of minimal means, living in an occupied homeland. The occupiers, in a cruel irony, are among the ancestors of today’s white people. She was engaged to be married to a carpenter named Joseph, when she had a vision of an angel, telling her she would become pregnant by the power of God’s own Holy Spirit, and that the child she would bear would be the long awaited Messiah, God made human and present to humanity. Christians know the story so well that we think of the Annunciation as a wonderful occasion of unequivocally good news, but one can only imagine her trepidation. Now, in addition to being a woman in a male-dominated culture, without means, and under a powerful occupying government, Mary was about to become, at least in the eyes of those around her, an unwed mother. This would set her at odds with the religious establishment and the holders of power within her own people, who in turn were outcasts in their own occupied land. She would be twice outcast.
You can understand why she might feel the need to spend time with family. And so she goes to visit her cousin Elizabeth, who is also pregnant. The child Elizabeth is bearing will come to be known as John the Baptizer. After Elizabeth adds her own affirmation to the angel’s message, Mary, remarkably, rejoices in the terrifying circumstances in which she finds herself. She sings a song we call the Magnificat (See Luke 1:46-55). We recite it daily at Evening Prayer, and it includes these words expressing Mary’s understanding of the significance of her child: “[God] has cast down the mighty from their thrones, and has lifted up the lowly.” The word the gospel writer uses here for “lowly” has many shades of meaning. It can be rendered lowly, humble, downcast… one meaning I find particularly poignant is “made low.” Think about that. Not lowly or humble by nature or necessity, but made low. The other word for that is oppressed. In the birth of Jesus, says Mary, God has cast down the powerful from their places of power, and has raised up those they had oppressed.
Mary didn’t make up that imagery out of nowhere. I do believe her words were inspired by the Spirit, but it would also have been very familiar imagery from her Jewish upbringing. Throughout the Hebrew Scriptures she would have heard stories and admonitions about God’s deep care for the poor, for widows, for orphans, for strangers, for foreigners, for the sick, for prisoners. She would have heard over and over again examples of God siding with these marginalized groups over those the world considered important. And she would have heard, over and over again, commands to God’s people to do the same. The righteous are to side with those on the margins, because that’s what God does. In short, God is on the side of the underdog.
We can only surmise what Mary understood at that moment when she sang out those words. But let me tell you what I understand by them. In the Incarnation, the entry of God into human flesh in the person of Jesus of Nazareth, God gives us the ultimate example of surrendering power to bring peace. Imagine the Almighty God of all creation, who needs permission from no one to act or to choose; imagine this God deigning to enter creation in the body of a helpless newborn, in a poor family, in an occupied nation, under the presumption of illegitimacy. There is no smoke and mirrors here, but rather a genuine laying aside of power. And in willingly laying aside the power he could have retained, he would (among many things) accomplish the reconciling of the relationship between God and humans.
In the New Testament letter of Paul to the Philippians (2:6-8), it is powerfully framed this way: “though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death— even death on a cross.”
There has never been a more perfect example of how power must act toward the disempowered. And yet many today, in spite of his name or even claiming his name, take the very opposite side from Jesus. Retaining power is not gospel work. Consolidating power is not gospel work. Wielding power is not gospel work. Only yielding power is gospel work.
And right now, fellow white folks, is a moment of truth. If we pass this moment by, let us be clear that we are taking sides. And the side we are taking is not God’s. Because God is in the business of breaking down what is, of yielding power, and of raising up those who have been made low.
But are we? What will we do with this moment? Will we talk or listen? Will we defend ourselves or open ourselves to learn? Will we continue to protect a system that protects us, but literally kills others? Or will we finally listen to our mothers? This did not begin when Bobby hit us back. We have enough, it’s time to leave some for everyone else. And when choosing sides, remember, God is on the side of the oppressed.
Mother said so.