Watching the trial of Derek Chauvin during Holy Week
“He cried for his mom. He was in pain. It seemed like he knew—like he knew it was over for him. He was terrified. He was suffering.”
Darnella Frazier, quoted above, recorded George Floyd’s last moments under the knee of a Minneapolis police officer. She could have just as easily been a witness of Jesus Christ’s last moments on the cross. Perhaps she is a modern Veronica, holding up the face of the one crushed for our sins, not for our comfort or idolization but rather for our repentance and conversion.
Many of those who have testified in the trial of Derek Chauvin have spoken in terms resonant with the Passion, the suffering of Jesus Christ between the Last Supper and Good Friday. As many Christian communities around the world commemorate and enter into the Passion of Jesus Christ this week, so, too, are people across the United States and the globe observing and participating in the passion of George Floyd.
“It’s been nights I stayed up apologizing and apologizing to George Floyd for not doing more and not physically interacting and not saving his life.” Ms. Frazier again. Did the women who watched Jesus carry his cross and die on it do the same thing? Did Peter and the other disciples?
Darnella Frazier recorded George Floyd’s last moments under the knee of a Minneapolis police officer. She could have just as easily been a witness of Jesus Christ’s last moments on the cross.
Maybe Jesus’ followers did try to do more, to stop the crucifixion unfolding before their eyes. Perhaps the Gospels don’t record any such effort because state officials—Roman centurions—blocked any unapproved intervention from the crowd, as state officials—police officers—did to Genevieve Hansen, a firefighter and E.M.T. “Desperate to help,” she was rebuffed from providing or even guiding officers in providing chest compressions to the dying George Floyd, leaving her “totally distressed.” The centurions allowed a stranger to assist Jesus, at least for a few minutes; the officers did no such thing.
The centurions and the officers may have seen the onlookers as a “threat,” a word used by Derek Chavin’s defense attorney Eric Nelson. How threatening can ordinary people be to someone who embodies and benefits from the power of the state: a Roman man, a white man? Very, maybe, when these people recognize the brutality with which this power was gained and is held. Mr. Nelson argued the crowd drew officers’ attention away from caring for George Floyd. Perhaps instead the crowd drew attention to how little they cared for George Floyd, how little white Americans care for people of color, frightening them and us from our comfortable inaction to an actively hostile defense of our comfort.
Derek Chauvin’s defense maintains that his trial is about the evidence, not a “political or social cause.” The evidence is crucial, yet it is also evident that George Floyd’s death was political and social. Jesus’ death was, too, no matter how fervently Christians have tried to scrub the blood out of the hands of the political and social authorities, our own empires and ecclesial courts.
The centurions allowed a stranger to assist Jesus, at least for a few minutes; the officers did no such thing.
“Derek Chauvin did exactly what he had been trained to do over the course of his 19-year career.” Thus far, that is the only point on which I agree with the defense. While I also agree with prosecutor Jerry Blackwell that Derek Chauvin “betrayed his badge” in its motto “to protect and serve,” I believe that the reality of policing in the United States routinely runs contrary to that high ideal. Policing in the Roman Empire, the antebellum Union and the United States today is based on maintaining the status quo: the power of the state and the continued exploitation and subjugation of marginalized people.
There are good officers and bad officers, saints and sinners, in this system and every system. We have to look at the system, then, and acknowledge that this system of policing encourages vice rather than virtue, dishonesty rather than transparency, oppression rather than justice, death rather than life. Like the centurions, Derek Chauvin did what he had been trained to do. We must radically change his training and ours.
George Floyd was crushed by and for our sins of racism in church, state, school and home. Jesus Christ was crushed by and for all our sins, particularly those base sins of fearing our weakness, rejecting relationship and choosing the false power of violence over the real power of love. Both George Floyd’s and Jesus Christ’s passions have led to mass movements, to passionate words and actions toward a better world, to hope.
At the same time, the good and life springing from the deaths of God’s son in Minneapolis and God’s Son in Jerusalem do not justify or explain those deaths. The Paschal Mystery remains a confounding, distressing, humbling mystery given by God in Jesus and in all who participate in a death like his, including George Floyd.
If Christians, especially white Christians, vilify Derek Chauvin, we absolve ourselves of our own complicity in the racist structures that permitted him to place and pin his knee on George Floyd’s neck. Surely it is not us, Lord?
George Floyd was and is not the Son of God but certainly was and is a son of God and our sibling in Christ. George Floyd was an imperfect human being who had flaws and had sinned. Had Jesus not lived to serve and sup with people like George Floyd, however, to call not the righteous but sinners, those outcast for their (lack of) profession, addiction, history or appearance? If we call ourselves Christian, we must see Christ in George Floyd and Christ crucified in George Floyd pinned to the ground.
We must also see Christ in Derek Chauvin. Derek Chauvin is not Judas, at least not the Judas portrayed for most of Christian history. That Judas, a money-grubber and spy hellbent on betraying his rabbi from the start, allows us to deny our own betrayal of Jesus, our own attempts to enthrone him in overwhelming authority. If Christians, especially white Christians, vilify Derek Chauvin, we absolve ourselves of our own complicity in the racist structures that permitted him to place and pin his knee on George Floyd’s neck. Surely it is not us, Lord?
It is. We must hold Derek Chauvin accountable. We must also hold ourselves accountable. In both cases, we must also hold out hope that God offers us redemption and reconciliation. Will we choose a self-destructive route in desperation? Or will we wait and work for resurrection in faith, hope and love? The choice was Judas’s, and it is ours. May we choose wisely this Holy Week; may we honor the Passion.