It’s 2020, and a black man’s life is cut short by a policeman’s knee. I understand the outrage. What I don’t understand is why this is unexpected.
Perhaps we imagined we’d improved past this. Perhaps we thought that driving vehicles into protestors could only happen in places like Tiananmen Square. Perhaps we lost sight of rulers like Assad dropping bombs on their own people, or of the number of countries that have been bombed by the only air force to have used nuclear weapons. Perhaps we’d rather direct our anger at foreign injustice than face the inequities in Australia where black deaths in custody are among the worst in the world.
The depth of injustice
It feels insidious when the perpetrators are those tasked with preventing violence. It shakes the trust we place in our leaders when they murder us. We react as if something strange is happening, because the evil is senseless. Tentacles of injustice run deeper than we expect. It’s as if we can’t breathe.
So, how do we respond? Join the protestors and demand a better world? That’s led to 13 more deaths so far. Sit home and wring our hands in hopeless grief? How does that change anything?
The evil is unacceptable, symptomatic of deeper systemic injustice. So what do we do? What does the gospel call us to do?
The gospel response
Here’s some wisdom from a founder of the church, himself a statistic of state violence:
1 Peter 4:12-13 (NIV)
12 Dear friends, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal that has come on you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. 13 But rejoice inasmuch as you participate in the sufferings of Christ, so that you may be overjoyed when his glory is revealed.
We’ll get to Peter’s three points, but first let’s be clear that Peter is not talking merely about what we call religious persecution. Consider the sufferings of Christ. Why did God’s anointed suffer? For himself, or for his world?
Many Christians think, “He suffered for my sins.” True, but don’t reduce the gospel to personal forgiveness. That miniaturized message stops us seeing the scope of both the problem and the solution:
- Since we think of sin as personal guilt, we don’t recognize sin as the power that holds the world oppressed so it cannot flourish as God’s realm (a kingdom of God). We don’t watch the news and go, “Ah, yes, that kind of oppressive behaviour is the expression in a world held in the grip of sin.”
- Since we understand the gospel merely as personal forgiveness, we don’t understand the gospel as the announcement that God has installed a new global leader. Consequently, we don’t see Jesus as God’s answer to our social problems. Because we have not understood the sufferings of Christ as God’s mechanism for restoring his just reign to the earth, we don’t know how to participate in the sufferings of Christ as he leads us towards a just world.
Stop calling Jesus a personal Saviour (a phrase never used in Scripture). Declare him as Saviour of the world (John 4:42). He isn’t merely a way, a truth, and a life for me. Jesus is the way to a better world, the truth of God’s kingship incarnate on the earth, the life of the community embodying his Father’s reign (John 14:6).
Step beyond good news for me. The gospel is good news for the world. The sufferings of Christ address the troubled world where those with power kill those without. If you haven’t understood this, you have not understood why the rulers crucified Jesus.
Suffering and power
Why did Peter and others suffer in the first century? They died at the hands of state rulers like Nero and Domitian. Christians suffered because they recognized a higher authority than Caesar, refusing to offer sacrifices to Caesar as a god. Rome was not targeting Christians specifically. Any who refused to name Caesar as their highest Lord found themselves under pressure.
Peter found this unsurprising because the powers always behaved like this. Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego endured a fiery ordeal for not bowing to Babylon. Daniel was thrown to the beasts because his prayers recognized someone greater than the king of Persia.
It’s no different today. Christians in China have suffered social demotion and confiscation of property for refusing to give the Communist Party their highest allegiance. But the target isn’t just Christians: it’s any who recognize a higher power.
Ever since Abel, people have suffered at the hands of those who abuse power for their own purposes, revenge instead of calling on the name of the Lord. It’s why Jesus suffered. It’s why people suffer today.
What happened to George Floyd is not a strange aberration in an otherwise wonderful world. His death at the hands of the authorities is one more example of systemic evil. Those whose rule is based on evil use death to maintain their power. Occasionally the threats become overt, in tweets like, “When the looting starts, the shooting starts.”
So is our suffering hopeless?
Unpack Peter’s three themes:
- Don’t be surprised.
- Participate in Christ’s sufferings.
- Do it in joyful anticipation of his kingship.
Don’t be surprised when an authority figure crushes the breath from us. It destroys the faith we place in earthly rulers, for they are not our saviours. Whether you live under Donald Trump, Xi Jinping, Bashar al-Assad, Kim Jong-un, or Scott Morrison, it’s always been like this — under Nebuchadnezzar, Darius, Pontius Pilate, or Nero. It’s not as if something strange happened. The murder of George Floyd reveals the evil that grips this world, the evil Jesus came to address.
George is one of us. We feel his pain. We’re angry, but we choose not to perpetuate the violence. We bear the suffering in ourselves, participating in Christ’s redemptive suffering for the world. Jesus’ sufferings were not pointless: with resurrection power, his sufferings bring the world back under God’s authority. Every knee will bow to his authority and every tongue will name him as leader. He must reign until all enemies are under his feet, and death will be the last enemy to go. That’s when the earth will be fully liberated to experience God’s glorious reign.
That’s why our response arises from an unexpected emotion. We are not driven by anger or resentment (make the rulers pay). We are not driven by resignation or despair (what a hopeless world). We’re motivated by joy. The murder of George Floyd reveals the evil in the power systems of this world. It causes us to look to our Lord who carried that murder in his own body. We participate in the sufferings of God’s anointed, bearing away the sufferings of the world that expose the domination of evil. We do this with joy because this is how the earth rises out of its death, into its resurrected Messiah, a world whose joy is restored in his glorious king.
Dear friends, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal that has come on you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice inasmuch as you participate in the sufferings of Christ, so that you may be overjoyed when his glory is revealed (1 Peter 4:12-13).