The Other Pandemic

Martin Thielen

July 1, 2020

Many years ago, when I served a church in Arkansas, I asked my congregation if we could host a community-wide ecumenical Thanksgiving service. The proposal passed at the next business meeting without incident.

Seeing an opportunity to strengthen racial relationships in my town, I invited every church in the community to the service, including the black congregations. A few days later, several key church leaders marched into my office, visibly upset. One of them said, “We hear you invited black churches to attend the Thanksgiving service.”

“Of course I did,” I replied. “Just two weeks ago our church unanimously approved that we host a community-wide Thanksgiving service.”

One of the men angrily responded, “We thought you meant the white community.”

Although the group insisted that I disinvite the black churches, I stood my ground. The Thanksgiving service went on as planned and provided a beautiful moment of rare racial harmony.

However, the negative responses among my parishioners deeply disturbed me. I realized that racism wasn’t just alive and well in my community but in my congregation. I also realized that in spite of my efforts to avoid it, sometimes I harbored negative stereotypes about people of color in my own heart.

I remembered that sad experience when I watched the video of a black man named George Floyd saying, “I can’t breathe,” while a white policeman pressed his knee into George’s neck for over eight minutes—resulting in Floyd’s death and a national crisis.

Black people in America are angry. And who can blame them? The long, brutal legacy of slavery and racism still linger today. African Americans are disproportionally dying from COVID-19, they are paying a disproportionate cost of the economic fallout created by the virus, and they are disproportionally arrested and killed by police.

As one demonstrator said, “Either COVID is killing us, cops are killing us, or the economy is killing us.”

One of the saddest images from the George Floyd crisis was an eleven-year-old black boy holding a sign above his head that said, “Am I next?”

While I condemn the violence committed during some of the protests (as do the vast majority of the protesters themselves), I understand the rage George Floyd’s killing created. Actually, as a white man of privilege, I can never fully understand it. But I can imagine, at least a little, why people of color are so angry. If white people felt they had a knee pressing down on their throats for centuries, we also would feel enraged.

I wish I could offer easy answers for solving this long-running national nightmare, but none exist. However, as people of faith, we must admit that racism is real, that it’s sinful, and that none of us are totally innocent.

We must also stand firmly against racism and white nationalism and challenge any leader who fans the flames of racial division for political gain. Finally, we must embrace the biblical prophetic tradition that calls us to “loose the chains of injustice . . . , to set the oppressed free and break every yoke” (Isaiah 58:6 niv).

Two pandemics ravage America today: COVID-19 and racism. In due time COVID will be defeated. Unfortunately, eradicating racism will prove far harder and take much longer. But it must be done. And people of faith, if we wanted, could lead the way.