For the Love of God: Maundy Thursday, George Floyd, and the Suffering Love of the Witnesses (We Are All Witnesses)
“As I listened to their emotional testimonies, I reflected on the human superpower that is empathy, the superpower that racism tries to choke off. Empathy led these innocent bystanders to wrack themselves with guilt following Floyd’s killing.“ Heather McGhee
“I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.” Matthew 13:34
Thinker and commentator Heather McGhee has her fingers on the pulse of politics and economics, but feels for the blood of racism flowing through both.
This morning, she posted this piece: Witnesses Should Not Have to Apologize for Not Saving George Floyd.
McGhee can’t shake the wrenching words and tears from those on the witness stand, innocent people who saw Derick Chauvin put his knee on George Floyd’s neck, citizens who were going about their normal day-to-days: shopping, strolling, working, and even simply being a nine-year-old girl who simply happened to be standing right there simply wearing the T-shirt she picked out that day: “LOVE,” it said, simply, across the front.
She noticed the guilt that wracked these people, that cracked their composure on the stand when they had to reenact what happened on that day, a day that began in an ordinary way, when they were ordinary people going about their ordinary business until the moment when they couldn’t counteract the killing.
They couldn’t save George Floyd—even though they tried.
They couldn’t, McGhee points out, because of the law of the land which threatened them as much as it did George Floyd.
“In the middle of the night,” she writes, “I lay awake wondering: What are all the laws and institutions that stop us from being able to do what our humanity cries out for us to do? To protect one another, to cherish the lives of our neighbors?”
It’s a Maundy Thursday set of questions.
Today is called Maundy Thursday, Maundy being directly related to the word ‘Commandment,’ meaning, well…commandment. The original Latin is mandatum (hence, also ‘mandate’) and carried then sense of a “legal order.”
So in the sphere of the liturgical church, we pay this day attention because on it, Jesus gave two new commandments, two, if you will, new laws, i.e., “Do this,” namely give thanksgiving to God and share Holy Communion with one another (see 1 Corinthians 11:23-25); and love one another as God has loved us.
But in McGhee’s sphere, she pays attention to every day.
She pays attention to how the commandments, that is how the laws, of prevailing systems circumvent, supersede, suppress what those in the Christian tradition might see as God’s Maundy Thursday law (though rooted far into the Old Testament) to love God and love your neighbor.
It’s difficult no matter what, sometimes, but she knows it’s especially difficult always if you aren’t white.
McGhee begins her article by speaking of empathy, this remarkable capacity with which humans have been given to know someone else’s perspective, to care about someone else’s experience, to feel someone else’s emotions, and to therefore be invested in them.
But in this case, it’s exactly empathy which causes these ordinary people extraordinary pain: they knew George Floyd’s helplessness, they cared about his life slipping away, they felt his fear, and they were invested in saving his life.
See, I think these witnesses did exactly as God commanded.
They loved George Floyd powerfully.
In that moment, even though they’d never known him, these children of God, loved by God, loved George Floyd.
And oh, did it, does it, hurt.
On that first Maundy Thursday, Jesus wanted the disciples to understand that love is risky.
He was not talking saccharine Precious Moments-like love here.
Jesus was talking about the sort of love that recognizes that every moment is precious, and every moment is precarious, and every moment calls us to passionate love.
Christians call this week “Passion Week.”
It causes some head tilts, because the word ‘passion’ is typically associated with sensual, sexual love.
But it’s rooted in the Latin word passionem, which means suffering.
To love is to suffer.
These people, these unwitting witnesses and would-be rescuers, they loved George Floyd and they suffered for it.
Any of us listening to this trial are also suffering, for we have come to love both George Floyd and these bystanders, and we suffer for our love.
McGhee ends her reflections on the witnesses who have wept on the stand with this observation and this question:
“We are all bystanders. How are we going to take our stand?”
I think what she’s saying is this: We are all witnesses to injustice, all the time.
I think what she’s asking is this: How are we going to love?
This Maundy Thursday, I think Jesus is saying and asking much the same thing.