(This article was written by Dr. Carmichael 5/31/2020 and reflects his personal opinion only.)
We weap with aggrieved Americans in mourning over the brutal, outrageous killing of George Floyd last Monday in Minneapolis.
According to one report, George Floyd, a 46 yr-old African American, had a “quiet personality but a beautiful spirit.” Like many Americans he was out of work, looking for a job. He is survived by his six year-old daughter who lives in Houston with Floyd’s ex-wife, Roxie. Read the description of Mr. Floyd in the words of his friends here.
Who have we become?
Like many of us, I am struggling make sense of the violence of George Floyd’s murder, and the equally abhorrent violent response to it. Police officers have been killed and critically wounded. Businesses (owned by people of all colors) and whole communities have been destroyed (by agitators and anarchists of all colors.) Who have we become? Is there a solution? What is the first step? I held these same questions in my heart when Zack Parrish III, a Deputy Sheriff in Douglas County and a friend of mine, was heartlessly murdered on December 31, 2018. Zack was a good man. It appears that George Floyd was a good man, too. Neither deserved the violent treatment and subsequent deaths they suffered.
I am clueless about what it must be like to be black in America
In my experience law enforcement officers are good people in a high-risk, high-stress job that could be a life-threatening proposition on any given day. They are good husbands and fathers, wives and mothers. Our clinic has the privilege of treating many of these officers. In my experience black people are good people from all walks of life who enjoy their spouses and children, lead companies, perform surgery, coach, serve their communities, and love to laugh as much as I do. Our clinic has the privilege of treating many of these men and women.
Until last week, I hadn’t really felt what it could be like to be a black man in this country. Even when I was training at an inner-city hospital in St. Louis in 1986 — very much in the minority as a white man. Serving the inner city, there were socioeconomic disparities affecting black and white families alike. But more inpatients were black. So, too, were many of the doctors and surgeons on staff who trained me.
Last week I gained more insight into what it can be like to be black in America.
Though all law enforcement personnel I have ever met are awesome, the events of last week have shown us that this is not guaranteed. Consequently, a broken tail lamp that leads to being pulled over after dark might lead to a different encounter for a white person than a black person. And perhaps a dire circumstance if the black person is male. “No way in Colorado!” my inner voice screams, and I try to satisfy myself that I’m right. Especially since “I’ve lived here 32 years!” But the reality is, racial discrimination against blacks persists. The “what if” mindset of wariness regarding a potential dire circumstance is baked-in if you are a black man. How can it not be? Reciprocally, is it not fair to say that there is historically-validated bias by blacks against law enforcement as well? Not everywhere. Hopefully not here. But it is real all the same.
As we remember George Floyd and those who have died or been injured this week as a result of non-peaceful protests, we seek answers and a way forward. As a community we affirm with conviction that all men are created equal. Carrying this conviction, we speak and act accordingly. And our children (and grandchildren) learn by watching. Hatred is not the way. Violence and anarchy are not the way. If I read Dr. Martin Luther King Jr’s 1963 speech correctly, the pursuit of justice (mentioned 9 times) and freedom (17 times) for genuine black-white brotherhood (3 times) must never “degenerate into physical violence.”
At the Core
Daniel Bell (1919-2011), Professor of Sociology at Harvard University, gave an astute warning to us: “A post-industrial society cannot provide a transcendent ethic … The lack of a rooted moral belief system [italics added] is the cultural contradiction of the [American] society, the deepest challenge to its survival.”
Political science, philosophy, and American history have taught me that democracy is dependent on moral consensus. Democracy is GOVERNMENT BY THE CONSENT OF THE GOVERNED. How can government enforce a law forbidding murder if the there is no consensus that murder is wrong? When ‘the governed’ DO possess a rooted moral belief that murder is wrong, a democratic government IS possible.
A love of violence for violence’s sake
What if the rightness or wrongness of murder is a relative proposition? What if “it depends” as is not absolute? If running over three police officers in a speeding vehicle (as happened this past Saturday night in Denver) is OK because George Floyd’s death was an outrage, that is moral relativism. Running over three police officers with the intent to kill or maim is not OK, ever. If moral relativism on this scale is allowed to prevail in our society (but how can it not, without an absolute moral compass?), wide freedoms without chaos will no longer be possible at some point in our future. The results of moral relativism, according to Francis Schaeffer (1912-1984) include a descent into cultural degeneracy, and with it, decadence, depravity, and a love of violence for violence’s sake. The maxim “Virtue triumphs and vice is punished” no longer holds. And, lamentably, this was painfully enacted before our eyes on television during these past 5 nights of rioting across America. Chaos. Anarchy. The absence of moral restraint. The absence of a moral anchor.
The conflict between moral outrage and forgiveness
It is not wrong to want justice done. The impulse of anger over George Floyd’s death is from the overwhelming sense that his killer does not deserve forgiveness. This deep sense of legitimacy gives our bitterness unbending compulsion. A great crime has been committed. The magnitude of evil is great. Into this conflict Edward John Carnell (1919-1967) speaks to us: “We cannot ignore inconsiderate [or in this case, brutal] acts of others; yet we cannot execute the penalty of law. We have no right to complete the moral cycle…Although we sense no spiritual inhibition against crying out against injustice, the purity of our moral life deteriorates the moment we attempt to administer justice.” Our personal craving for retaliation is not moral, and is not legitimate. It invites bitterness to take root, resulting in gnawing unrest and the decay of our spirit within.
Carnell advocates for patience for the process of justice. As a theologian, he — like Francis Schaeffer, Martin Luther King Jr., or current black contemporaries like Jack Brewer, Tony Evans, Tony Dungy, and others — would even advocate for the justice of God were the machinations of the man-made justice system to fail in Minneapolis. “Vengeance is mine. I will repay,” saith the Lord.
The physical segregation that Dr. King so passionately sought to abolish is much improved in America. Though it has now been 157 years since the emancipation proclamation, there is still far more to do. I’ve been asleep. I need to wake up; to plan to discuss American history in the context of race relations with my grandchildren. To glean with them the deeper lessons our often painful national history of segregation, prejudice, and racial abuse have to offer. Joining with their parents to teach them that there are moral absolutes, and that life has great meaning and purpose far beyond the pursuit of personal peace and affluence. Though far from perfect, I will endeavor to model (in public and in private) friendship, kindness, personal responsibility, and service toward my fellow man — regardless of race, religion or creed.
I love to see the slivers of cultural healing that Dr. King once only dreamed of: “…little black boys and black girls …[joining] hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers.” As often as I see this it does my soul good!
In honor of the life of George Floyd, and of all those who have suffered injury or death in the wake of his passing, we must seek peace and pursue it — always and with everyone.
Dr. Joel Carmichael
(Analysis and opinions are my own, but with the acknowledgement of many respected authors, philosophers, activists, ministers and teachers past and present)