A Time to Mourn

A Letter to Pittsburgh Presbytery from
Rev. Dr. Sheldon W. Sorge
General Minister
June 4, 2020

A week ago, we surpassed the grim total of 100,000 American lives lost to COVID-19, and that number continues to grow daily. A few days earlier, the National Council of Churches hosted a solemn memorial service for the virus’s victims entitled “A Time to Mourn.” It is well worth watching.

Just as that gruesome milestone was being passed, we were further jolted and sickened by a widely circulated video of Minneapolis Police Officer Derek Chauvin kneeling on the neck of George Floyd, lying handcuffed on the ground, while Mr. Floyd pleaded that he couldn’t breathe. Onlookers pled on his behalf as well, yet Officer Chauvin kept his knee on Mr. Floyd’s neck for nine minutes, while fellow officers helped hold him down or watched in silent support. As is far too often the case, Mr. Floyd was black and unarmed, while Officer Chauvin is white. Chauvin and the officers on the scene were fired immediately, and Chauvin was eventually charged with third-degree murder.

In response, our country has been roiled in turmoil for the past week, with demonstrations of outrage over this senseless killing spilling out to other countries as well. Pittsburgh has been the scene of numerous protests, some of which have turned violent. Eastminster Church hosted an ecumenical prayer service last Sunday night, attended by several hundred people. Clergy rallied more than three hundred people on Monday with prayer and proclamation at Freedom Corner, then everyone marched to the City-County building. The Pittsburgh Chapter of the National Black Presbyterian Caucus organized a silent noon vigil on Wednesday at East Liberty Presbyterian Church, and anticipates doing the same on subsequent Wednesdays this month at other churches. Many of the participants in these three events are Presbyterians.

Between the ravages of the natural virus known as COVID-19, and the violence against George Floyd rooted in the unnatural virus of white racism, death is before us constantly in news cycles and stories that tear at our hearts. And with both the COVID-19 pandemic and violence against the defenseless perpetrated by those in power, the black community bears the brunt of the brutality.

Yes, we must fight back. But first, we must mourn. There is a time to dance, and there is a time to mourn, says Ecclesiastes 3:4. Today we mourn. We join the psalmists’ laments. I have joined protests and rallies, yet I believe that our first recourse is prayer of lament. It may express itself in “sighs too deep for words,” (Romans 8:26) or in high decibel outrage, “Shout out, do not hold back!” (Isaiah 58:1) Earlier this week I published a letter with my own prayer of lament.

In the fifth of the Church’s six “Great Ends,” Presbyterians affirm that one of the church’s core callings is “the promotion of social righteousness.” (Book of Order F-1.0304) Not just “proclamation,” but “promotion.” We need to do more than merely spout platitudes of justice. We need to advocate, to come alongside, to roll up our sleeves and get to work in in the face of injustice. Ralph Lowe, our Director of Justice Ministries wrote a powerful letter to his “white siblings in Christ” on Monday. I urge everyone to read and reread it, and especially to ponder his bullet list at the end detailing things we can do. They are forms of enacted lament-prayer.

The scourge of racism in both its loud and silent forms is abetted as much by quiet onlookers as it is by those who visibly and actively perpetrate it. None of us can wash our hands and say, “Not my problem.” It is not just an inner-city problem. It is not just a problem for black and brown people. The problem belongs to all of us. We must own it, and we have no option but to lament it before holy God, investing our hearts, hands, and feet in the promotion of “the kingdom of God and his righteousness.” (Matthew 6:33)

We proclaim a Gospel in which Christ has broken down the walls of hostility between groups that have been long separate, making us one new humanity. (Ephesians 2:14-15) If anyone should be at the forefront of tearing down walls that separate us, it should be those who claim to follow Jesus. Reconciliation lies at the heart of the Gospel. Racial reconciliation is only one form of Gospel reconciliation, but in America today it is crucial. We must yearn for it, work for it, hope in it, and rejoice in it when God mercifully grants it to us.

The church is immeasurably more powerful in its witness as a reconciled community than as a segregated community. It is no accident that at Pentecost the Christian church was born as a community that, in the power of the Holy Spirit, actively reached out to and included Europeans, Asians, and Africans. (Acts 2:9-11) Pentecostal power and racial reconciliation are joined at the hip.

May our mourning over the racism among us be turned into the dance of the reconciled! May those who “sow in tears” of lament find a homecoming in God’s kingdom with “shouts of joy!” (Psalm 126:5-6)

Yours in shared lament,

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