June 1, 2020

We gather tonight to reflect on the death of George Floyd. If it were only Mr. Floyd’s death, it would be a great injustice and tragedy. But there are many other deaths to remember. Emmett Till, Medgar Evers, Martin Luther King Jr., Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Freddie Grey, Breonna Taylor, the nine people shot dead at a Charleston church in 2015, Ahmaud Arbery and the many, many nameless black men who were lynched over the centuries. We gather tonight to reflect not just on police violence against a single man in Minneapolis, but on a legacy of violence, often conducted with impunity, against black men and women in our nation. We confront the heavy burden of a legacy of racism.

That is why I find it so hard to know what to say to you tonight. If it were only a matter of a bad police officer, and bad police tactics in Minneapolis, we might know how to respond. These are present in Mr. Floyd’s case, but to focus only on those facts is to miss the point, to miss the reason for the outrage. The challenge is deeper, more enduring, more tragic and more daunting. It is difficult to find words adequate to respond to that challenge.

I will say this. To black colleagues, students and friends: I am so sorry for the pain you are suffering. Several of you told me you wept when you saw the terrible video from Minneapolis. No doubt there has been a mixture of sadness, rage and despair as these killings go on. We are all responsible for combating the legacy of racism, but its burden falls on you. You no doubt have felt the weight of that burden intensely in the past week. I am sorry.

I know you join me in acknowledging with gratitude the dedicated police officers who do dangerous jobs and put their lives on the line to keep us safe. Whatever our reaction to Mr. Floyd’s death, it must not be to smear the work and reputation of the thousands of good officers who serve us.Yet we must all insist that no one is allowed to commit injustice in the name of our safety.   

We take hope from many of the protests of the past week. As Cornel West has said, the worst outcome of Mr. Floyd’s death would perhaps have been that no one protested, if there were no outcry. We need an outcry. We need to advocate for justice.

Our outcry, however, must not give way to violence. As welcome as protests have been, the violence, the burning, the shooting will not serve the cause of justice. It will only perpetuate the violence.

I had the chance to speak with Diane Nash, the holder of a Notre Dame honorary degree and the speaker for our Martin Luther King Day remembrance this past January. She organized nonviolent protests in the south in the 1960s that led to desegregation. Ms. Nash lamented that some recent protests led to sprees of violence. “When we protested,” she said, “we did not allow those who wanted to do violence to participate.”  Ms. Nash and her colleagues led some of the most consequential protests in the history of the United States.

Perhaps, though, the message is not only that we should not allow violence into protests, but we should not allow violence and hatred into our hearts. We should be angry, but we should not let the hatred that leads to violence take hold in our hearts. It not only destroys us, but makes us less effective in serving our cause.

As I said earlier, I struggled with what to tell you tonight. I doubt my words have been adequate to the challenge before us, but perhaps prayer and God’s help can make up for the deficiencies. Let us ask for justice, for an end to the legacy of racism, for an end to violence in our streets and in our hearts and for the wisdom to know what to do and the courage to do it.

In the reading for this evening the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of God, comes as a powerful wind that howls and jostles those in the room. We need that wind to jostle us out of our complacency. The Holy Spirit comes as fire, to burn in the hearts of those to whom it is given. Let us pray for the wind and the fire of the Holy Spirit, and ask God to guide us as we struggle to confront the terrible legacy of the racial violence seen in the ugly video from Minneapolis.

Let us pray for Mr. Floyd. Let us pray for his grieving family and friends. Let us pray for our black colleagues and friends. Let us pray for an awakening in the hearts of those of us who are white to demand an end to the legacy of racial violence. Let us pray for our nation.