What is a reckoning? A reckoning is “a settling of accounts.” But sometimes, a reckoning is far more—the sudden and brutal arrival of consequences long coming.
What we’ve been watching the past two weeks is a reckoning.
In recent days, America has caught on fire. The agonizing eight-minute suffocation of George Floyd under the knee of Officer Derek Chauvin on the streets of Minneapolis has lit a nationwide powder keg not seen in this generation. Other recent incidents have compounded the pain: the neighborhood shooting of Ahmaud Arbery in Glynn County, Georgia, the night raid in Louisville which took the life of Breonna Taylor, and the dog-walking Central Park woman who threatened to endanger a black man’s life with a race-baiting 911 call.
In response, millions of passionate but peaceful protesters have marched through cities in every state, and other nations’ citizens have joined in. Rioting, looting, and violence have also broken out, with multiplying video evidence of police brutality as some of our first responders have themselves come unglued. In the chaos, more lives have been lost, individuals whose names and families and souls are no less important than the original tragedies.
Over time, each case will be examined individually, and we should pray for full and impartial justice. Yet no matter the outcome once the dust settles, one thing is already clear: The original deaths, the packed protests, the fierce encounters, the multiplying violence, the raw videos, the dueling narratives, and our simmering social networks reveal a society under a self-made siege.
As the father of four African American children and the pastor of a church I want to lead well, these days have been exhausting. There is much on my heart, and I pray for the right words to say and the right ways to lead in the days to come. But for now, I see this reckoning arriving in all its fire and fury, and I grieve.
I grieve that George Floyd, a fellow human being, has lost his life. I grieve that a mother’s son has been taken from her in the most public way, turning his body into a symbol and his name into an anthem before his loved ones even have time to mourn. I grieve over the hunting of Ahmaud Arbery and the choking of George Floyd and the shooting of Breonna Taylor, and those who came before them. I grieve the long shadow that slavery and Jim Crow and segregation cast over our nation down to the present day. I grieve the deep ethnic biases that haunt the steps of black joggers and the pages of black resumes and the health of black bodies and the hopes of black futures. I grieve the endless stories of race-based pain pouring into our online spaces, stories that too many of us have never had the eyes to see, the hearts to hear, or even the friends to tell us.
I also grieve over the outbreaks of rioting, looting, and violence across our cities, first because of the vigilantism they represent and the livelihoods they destroy, but also because they stain the perception and muffle the voice of the millions of peaceful protesters gathering and marching and chanting and praying to somehow push forward the slow train of justice. I grieve over the warlike scenes playing out in cities across America, I grieve the growing injuries and deaths that have resulted, and I grieve that our penchant for riot-porn turns the most vicious acts into viral viewing for our desensitized souls.
I grieve over the peaking hatred for police and the dehumanizing effects this hatred wreaks on us all, and I grieve their abuses of authority which are not justified but amplified by the uniforms and badges they wear. I grieve over a president whose moral deficiencies, pathological lies, and divisive voice have often violated the public trust and contributed to the further fraying of our society. And I grieve that evangelicals blinded by money and power cannot even rise in solidarity to condemn the blasphemous hijacking of our most sacred faith.
I grieve over the exhaustion of African American friends who have carried these burdens their whole lives and now must also carry the new burden of unchosen conversations with the newly concerned. I grieve that those weary from warring with the beast of racism must now help wean the litter of moral babies born these past two weeks. And I grieve over quick-speaking voices on all sides whose unripe rants and rash words continue to undermine our collective hope that the truth can be known, justice pursued, and a consensus formed.
But I don’t just grieve over our society. I also grieve over the church. And my grief over the church runs far deeper, because I do not place my hope in society, but in the saving and sanctifying work of Christ meant to make his people a city on a hill.
I grieve over a church shaped by partisan politics more than God’s Word, a church discipled more by social media than wise mentors, a church that rarely wakes up when God speaks but often salutes or rages whenever the world yells. I grieve over a liberal church that sidelines the gospel to stay “relevant” to the culture, and I grieve over a conservative church that wears “gospel centrality” as blinders to avoid seeing the other side of the Jericho road. I grieve that my own new church in Houston moved from one diversified neighborhood to another thirteen years ago and still looks little like the colorful city around us, making us a demographic time capsule still advertising a gospel that apparently unites only those who look alike. And I grieve that we do not recognize the remedial nature of the tiny progress we so quickly celebrate.
I am grieved by all these things, and many more. But I am not confused, and I am not surprised. Because this is a reckoning.
The effects of sin are not mono-generational. You can’t cage an ethnic group like animals for centuries, release them only by force of blood, war, and law, devalue their humanity, discount their rights, deny them equal voice and vote, segregate them as a repugnant “other,” assassinate their leaders, redline their communities, sentence them at a twisted bar of justice, and then expect time and neglect to somehow cool this long, boiling current of racism.
We know that ethnocentrism is not the only disease in the culture or the church. We know that the most recent fuse was not lit by solitary events isolated from larger fissures and pressures in society. We know that policies and legislation cannot transform the human heart. And we know that we should never twist a scriptural worldview to accommodate the secular theories that masquerade as full solutions for what ails us.
We know that this reckoning is not the cure. But it is an opportunity for the church to open our eyes: to listen, to learn, and to ask how we could ignore, for so long, a sin so laced through our world.
The sheer ignorance of how sin works is a blight on our churches who pretend to know so well how sin works. Have we forgotten that we reap what we sow? Have we forgotten that every heart is “desperately sick”? We know that pride is insidious, lust is corrosive, anger is consuming, and envy has a thousand faces, but we speak as though “racism” is a simple binary, a “pass/fail” diagnosis that ignores the layered, subtle, deceptive, enculturated ways sin works in our hearts and communities.
So I’m praying that this reckoning would be an awakening—for all of us. I’m praying that God might somehow do a clean surgery on his church with the jagged and bloody and dirty scalpel of our current cultural moment. And if we wonder why God might do it this way instead of through his simple word, I can only say what I’ve learned from my own failures, something we teach our children: “When you won’t listen to words, you get consequences.”
Yet I am not hopeless. I am not hopeless because Jesus is alive and remains head of his church. I am not hopeless because though the arc of history is long, it runs through his cross and ends at his throne. I am not hopeless because his church is held by his Spirit who keeps us reconciled and active in his reconciling work. So while I’m weary, grieved, and fearful for the futures of my children, I’m also hopeful for tremendous fruit within Christ’s body in the years to come.
But I also know that enculturated sin is not expunged that quickly. Repentance will be a process, and must start with godly sorrow. So before we dial up the dawn of self-made hope, we need to bow humbly before our God and ask him to expose our prejudices and partialities, our apathy and our neglect, our willful ignorance and our naïve perspectives. We need to look around at all that’s unfolded, and ask what God might teach us. We need to linger in this Lamentations moment, and reckon with the reckoning God might use to awaken us.
There is much more to say, and no perfect way for fallen men to say it. But for now, two weeks into this firestorm that’s consuming us, my prayer is simply this: Lord, have mercy. Because this is a reckoning.