In 1886 an American minister from Topeka, Kansas by the name of Charles Sheldon delivered a series of sermons that offered stories that posed difficult moral and ethical considerations. He would end each sermon by posing the question, “What would Jesus do?” The sermons were so popular that they were eventually published in a book titled: In His Steps: What Would Jesus Do? This was the beginning of the immensely popular slogan that millions around the world are now familiar with. For me, WWJD is not just a cliché, it’s a valid question that is as relevant in our own time as it was one-hundred and thirty-four years ago.
Things are complicated right now. We are living through a global pandemic that has taken nearly 400,000 lives worldwide and 116,000 here in America. It’s bringing about changes in ways we live, and move, and have our being together; and brought with it an economic crisis that will take years to recover from. And now, since George Floyd – the latest in a long list of black people who have been killed by police – lost his life, our streets are flooded as the American people demand justice and cry out for an end to the sin of racism in our country. In addition, we are approaching an election that will determine who will lead us forward in our struggle to heal from these atrocities and come together as nation. In the words penned by poet and prophet Bob Dylan, “The Times, They Are a-Changin.” Indeed they are.
So what would Jesus do? Where would he be? With whom would he stand? For Christians these should be the questions that inform our guiding principles. If we are truly following the teachings of Jesus and modeling our own life on his, the answers are clear and undeniable. Jesus would align himself today with the most marginalized, disenfranchised and vulnerable among us. That means the refugees, the undocumented persons, and the black community that has been the most targeted and victimized by police aggression and racism in our country. All people of color and “other” ethnicities have suffered from racial discrimination in these United States, but it has been worse for our black brothers and sisters. Racism is the fundamental sin of America. The killing of George Floyd and the long list of other black brothers and sisters is an affront to God. There is no doubt that Jesus would speak out against it and so should we, because to stand silent is to be complicit. Jesus would call for a social change of consciousness and so should we if we are going to claim ourselves as followers of his way.
Where would Jesus be? He would be on the streets, one among the millions who are marching – including our own San Marino young people who marched along Huntington Drive on Saturday – young people who have had enough and they are stepping in to guide us because their future is on the line. Jesus would be with George’s weeping family and friends and the families of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, Eric Gardner, Michael Brown, Tanisha Anderson, Tamir Rice, Walter Scott, Freddie Gray and all the others whose lives were cut short by the hands of racism. Jesus would be on the right side of things now and so should we. Jesus would stand against racial discrimination in all its forms and so should we.
But this is also about what we stand for. We should stand for true equality for all people. We should stand for protecting the dignity of every single human being. We should stand for justice and peace for all people because these things are purely and simply the right thing. We should all commit to being an icon of these human rights for others to see. We should strive to bring people together, not in spite of our differences, but because of them. As has been famously said, “We are the ones we have been waiting for.” We need not wait for those in power to have a change in consciousness. We are that change. Our time is now and I know that God is with us.
This is a hard reality to face. But it has been much harder for those most affected for many generations. It’s hard because as horrible as George’s death is, it is not just about this one incident. It’s about systemic racism that has been the stain of our country since its founding. It’s also not only about the four police officers charged in George’s death. It’s about us ... as a nation of people. The knee that cut-off George’s breath of life is our collective knee of systemic racism and white privilege, and the only way to affect a shift in consciousness is to first claim our own complicity.
I am a white man of privilege. I didn’t choose my skin color any more than my black, Hispanic or Asian brothers and sisters. But I have benefited from white privilege. I never have to worry about being pulled over because I’m driving through a nice neighborhood, or having the police called on me by someone falsely claiming I am attacking them knowing (consciously or unconsciously) the police will believe them and not me because of the color of my skin. Some may falsely think that white privilege is about wealth. It’s not. It’s much deeper and dangerously insidious than that. I am claiming my part in generations of systemic aggression and discrimination towards non-white people in this country. Our path forward is first one of repentance. That is the only way we can be free and that is always about the freedom to truly love all people fully and equally. The hard truth is that our country – which I don’t doubt for a moment that we all love – has never been truly the “Land of the Free,” not for all people anyway. But the call of this moment is for all people everywhere, regardless of skin color, spiritual tradition or political affiliation. Now is the time to come together as one. This needs to be the work of all people for all people. The words of my friend Rachel Hoffman struck at the heart of the matter for me: “George Floyd died for our national sin. He didn’t offer himself for this horrible fate, he suffered it because of everything we have done to oppress people of color who feel our collective knee on their necks. He is a martyr, our martyr. He is our responsibility. We owe him our grief and outrage. We owe him the kind of change that takes hard work that forces us to account for ourselves.”
So what would Jesus do? The shortest sentence in the New Testament says: “And Jesus wept.” He is weeping now – for George and for us. They are God’s tears falling from our eyes, tears of grief and sorrow and tears of hope that this can be the axial moment that shifts the consciousness of our collective soul.
BROTHER DENNIS GIBBS