“Another life taken. Another public lynching. Another news story. Another act of recorded Black death . . . [This death] is not an anomaly, but a historical pattern of behavior that binds every American to an unexamined history of our nation.”
These lines are from the opening scenes of the “sermonic film” Rev. Otis Moss III, senior pastor of Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago, released on May 17: The Cross and the Lynching Tree: A Requiem for Ahmaud Arbery. The 22-minute film covers the long legacy of racial injustice and violence in the United States and how we must respond to America’s original sins of slavery, racism, and White supremacy. One week later that prophetic sermon also became a requiem for George Floyd, who was killed May 25 by Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin. Chauvin has since been fired and charged with second-degree murder, along with three other officers who have been charged with aiding and abetting murder and manslaughter. In a nation with a long shameful history of public lynchings as spectacle and entertainment, George Floyd’s murder has ignited something new: public mourning and public outcry for real justice.
Rev. Moss took his film’s title from the book by the late Rev. Dr. James Cone, the founder of Black liberation theology and a tireless crusader against racial terrorism and other forms of injustice. Rev. Cone’s central message was that the God of the gospels must be understood as a God of the oppressed who is most concerned with the poorest and most vulnerable members of society. In his words, “Nobody who is lynching anybody can understand the cross.” When Rev. Cone spoke to an audience at the Children’s Defense Fund’s Proctor Institute about The Cross and the Lynching Tree he said: “This book is my prayer, my invocation to God on behalf of Black people, in the hope that the nearly four centuries of Black suffering will be redemptive for our children and grandchildren, revealing to them the beauty in their tragic path, and also empowering them to continue to fight, to resist the violence of White supremacy. It is also my hope that Whites, too, will be redeemed from their blindness, and made to open their eyes to the terror of their deeds, so they will know that we are all of one blood, and what we do to others we do to ourselves…Let us hope that we, through God’s grace and our struggle, we will be able to overcome our prejudices and hate that separate us, and thereby empower us to become the one people God created us to be.”
What a prescient prayer for exactly this moment. Witnessing George Floyd’s murder has proven to be an inflection point in the fight against the violence of White supremacy, unleashing waves of pain and anger and a deep, deep cry for justice that cannot be stopped or silenced. It has become a cry for Mr. Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, Tamir Rice, and generations of Black men, women, and children lynched and murdered with no arrests, convictions, or justice. It is a soul piercing cry from every mother who heard Mr. Floyd calling out for his own mother as Derek Chauvin knelt on his neck for eight minutes and 46 seconds. For centuries Black families mourned our murders alone, but this cry is different. Across the nation and world Blacks, Whites and people of all colors, including those who had never before joined a protest against racial injustice, are coming together, speaking up, and loudly proclaiming the same essential truth: Black lives matter.
We are seeing blindness being removed and history being made before our eyes. Where will America go from here? Can this be a moment where suffering will prove redemptive? Will Mr. Floyd’s death force us to finally confront our history, overcome the legacy of hate, including hateful leaders who seek to divide rather than unify, and become the one people God created us to be? This is our moment. There is a reward for our struggle.
Thus says the Lord:
A voice is heard in Ramah,
lamentation and bitter weeping.
Rachel is weeping for her children;
she refuses to be comforted for her children,
because they are no more.
Thus says the Lord:
Keep your voice from weeping,
and your eyes from tears;
for there is a reward for your work,
says the Lord:
they shall come back from the land of the enemy;
there is hope for your future,
says the Lord:
your children shall come back to their own country.