By John Thomas III –
The commemoration of Resurrection Weekend is a solemn and holy event for Christians.
We cannot understand the resurrection of Jesus Christ without traversing through the crucifixion, death, and burial of God’s only begotten son. One of the dividing lines among Christian traditions is the context of Jesus’s passion and death.
When we separate Jesus from his worldly environment and circumstances—being persecuted as a Jewish teacher by a foreign empire and betrayed by compatriots who were threatened by his message and witness—we lose sight that Jesus, both fully God and man, was gruesomely murdered.
This year’s Good Friday was especially poignant for African Americans as it came in the middle of the trial of police officer Derek Chauvin for the gruesome killing of George Floyd. The nine minutes and 29 seconds Chauvin had his knee on Floyd’s neck turned the collective stomach of the world and have been seared into our shared consciousness.
The legacy of this watershed moment is still playing out. In the same way that we cannot allow our faith to be sanitized, we cannot allow Floyd’s killing to be stripped of the circumstances of institutional racism, poverty, and white supremacy that led to his brutal death at the hands of one who was charged to serve and protect.
It is customary on Good Friday to commemorate in solemn worship the seven last words and sayings of Jesus Christ. In that spirit today, I encourage us to reflect upon the seven last words of George Floyd, based upon the police bodycam transcript.
1. Mama, mama, mama!
“When George Floyd called for his mother, he was calling for all of us,” said a friend of mine who is the mother of a young Black son. When Jesus was dying on the cross, he looked to his mother, Mary, commending her to John’s care. We can only imagine how Mary felt to see the life slowly leaving her son’s body. In his last moments, Mr. Floyd cried out for the woman who brought him into this world as he realized he was being ripped out of it.
2. Please, man.
When Jesus was on the cross, he appealed to his tormentors to quench his thirst. Mr. Floyd appealed to the humanity of his tormentor to save his life. He was already on the ground and restrained. He was not a threat. This plea echoes the signs of the 1960s-era strikes when working-class Black people asserted their dignity by simply saying, “I am a Man!” It also echoes the appeal of Sojourner Truth for persons to see and value her humanity by saying, “Ain’t I a Woman?”
3. You’re going to kill me, man!
Mr. Floyd told Chauvin he was dying and pleaded with him to stop. As the trial goes on, we are hearing the damning testimony of persons who all say they know they witnessed a murder—an assassination perpetrated by white supremacy at the hands of the police. How many times have we heard deadly force being justified because of a perceived threat or a need to stand one’s ground? We remember the witnesses of Jesus’s march to Golgotha and Simon of Cyrene who did his best to help our Lord.
4. I can’t believe this.
Floyd’s disbelief that a transaction with an alleged counterfeit bill could cost him his life. The shock from emergency personnel who clearly saw the signs of distress yet were not allowed to render assistance. The horror of rookie police officers out on their training patrol witnessing a superior crushing the life out of a restrained suspect.
We all cannot believe the cruel brutality of white supremacy—yet it plays before our collective eyes daily with its deadly consequences. We remember the brutality of the Roman Empire and the fact that Jesus’s execution was an example of the continued assurance of their supremacy through brutal oppression.
5. Tell my kids I love them.
Floyd had a life before he became a martyr, a slogan, and a T-shirt image. He was a friend, a son and a father. Behind every victim of racism is collateral damage—grieving children, a heartbroken community, the lost potential of what could and should have been.
Even though his death has become a symbol of the cost of institutional racism for Black people, George Floyd was a real man with real people who mourn him and have been robbed of his presence in their lives. We remember Jesus’s human relationships and the grief of his loved ones that often get lost and forgotten in the course of Jesus as a symbol of divine love.
6. I’m dead.
Between 1920 and 1938, the New York branch of the NAACP hung a flag outside of its office emblazoned with the words, “Another man was lynched today.” In 2015, the flag was revived and updated to say, “Another man was lynched by police today.” Jesus’s death was a public lynching complete with a gambling show. The world has borne witness to Floyd’s lynching—many anguished, others cheering and some nonchalant—in the same way the spectators watched Jesus hang his head on Golgotha as the sun set.
7. I can’t breathe!
The most well-known phrase that embodies how white supremacy has strangled the life out of Black people globally through the trans-Atlantic slave trade (Maafa), colonialism, apartheid, segregation, and a litany of other terms associated with white supremacy and anti-Blackness. It was first seared into our memories when we watched Eric Garner have the life choked out of him. On May 25, 2020, over 600 years of global anti-Blackness seemed distilled into a single moment as a white cop ripped the spirit out of a Black man. We remember Jesus committed his spirit to God as his lungs collapsed from the crucifixion.
Breonna Taylor, Atatiana Jefferson, Tamir Rice, Freddie Gray, Philando Castile, Botham Jean, Janisha Fonville, Mr. George Perry Floyd, Jr., and Jesus.
Today as we commemorate one who paid the ultimate price for our eternal salvation, we must also remember those who daily pay the price of the legacy of the brutal and inveterate violence of white supremacy. Our prayer to make it “on Earth as it is in Heaven” is only as good as the witness and daily steps we take to make sure Jesus, George Floyd and so many others have not died in vain.
John Thomas III is the editor at The Christian Recorder, the official newspaper of the AME Church.