What the George Floyd Trial Reveals to Us about Justice
- Russell Moore President of the ERLC of the Southern Baptist Convention
- 2021 22 Apr
A jury in Minneapolis handed down the verdict the entire country has awaited for almost a year: that police officer Derek Chauvin is guilty of the murder of George Floyd. This conviction comes at the end of a year of memorials and protests and marches, not just all over the country but all over the world. This also is a day for all of us who belong to Jesus Christ to reflect on the meaning of it all.
Was Justice Accomplished?
First, we must recognize that ultimate justice was not accomplished, and never is this side of Judgment Day. No jury can resurrect George Floyd—or any of those who died as he did—from the grave. George Floyd is still gone; his family still grieves. The fact that sentencing cannot ultimately answer our sense of the wrongness of what was done is itself a signpost. We are created for a different sort of cosmos than the one in which we live, where violence sometimes seems to create its own morality. Jesus taught us that our sense of justice is embedded in us precisely because we were created by a just God, a God before whom every one of us will one day give an account, where all the secrets of the heart will be revealed.
Second, we must recognize that the sort of justice we see here—the proximate justice of human courts—matters greatly. What happens in our police forces and in our court systems is not a matter somehow distant from us. We are accountable, as a people and as a nation, to see that these structures do what is right and just. The Bible tells us, “He who justifies the wicked and he who condemns the righteous are alike an abomination to the Lord” (Prov. 17:15). We are called—in our callings as citizens to whom our governments give account—to the kind of just temporal order that, as the Apostle Paul puts it, commends what is good and punishes those who do evil (Rom. 13:1-4). Today, at least in this case, the court offered justice. And so, the moment ought to prompt those of us who belong to Jesus Christ to express relief that a murder has not gone unpunished, even as we lament the fact that this trial was needed at all, that a man created in the image of God lost his life.
Right and Wrong Uses of Authority
Third, this should remind us of the right—and wrong—uses of authority. Any murder is a tragedy, but there is something even more jarring about this kind of murder. The now-convicted killer stood in a place of unique authority as an officer of the law. Authority is necessary and good. And yet, authority—like every aspect of God’s creation order—can be twisted into something awful. This too is not new. Pharaoh believed himself to be a god, as did Nebuchadnezzar, as did Caesar, as have countless others. When John the Baptist preached at the River Jordan, some who came to him seeking God’s mercy were those with authority—as soldiers and tax collectors for the Roman government. They asked, “What now shall we do?” John did not (nor did Jesus after that) call them to abandon their posts of authority, but instead to act within the limits of righteousness and justice and not out of arbitrary power or self-gain (Luke 13-14).
One of the reasons this trial has captured the attention of the world is that it is not an isolated incident. We have seen in our history the ways in which over and over again authority has been used not to provide justice but to deny it. The Jim Crow system was created for just this purpose—to see to it that African American citizens were deprived of their God-given civil rights by day and terrorized with impunity by night. Nor have these issues gone away. History by itself cannot wipe away sin and injustice. Thus, we see instance after instance of especially African American men facing danger and sometimes death—often without the endpoint of the sort of verdict this court has handed down. Our structures and systems, of course, belong to us. For them, we are accountable.
Justice for Every Human Life
We might not know how to fix everything, but we know where we can start. And we must. That will require a long and hard work in our callings as citizens, but also for the church of Jesus Christ—to bear one another’s burdens, with white Christians standing with their African American and other minority brothers and sisters. When one part of the Body of Christ suffers, we all do. If we are, in fact, joined together as brothers and sisters, if we belong to one another, we should act like it.
We should expect the right use of authority precisely because we know that we have been created in the image of a God we can see in the face of Christ Jesus. God did not ignore the murder of Abel, but heard his blood crying from the ground (Gen. 4:8-11). God did not ignore the groanings of the enslaved Israelites under Pharaoh’s yoke, but heard their cries (Exod. 2:23-25). And we have seen Jesus himself—the son of the living God and the anointed king of the cosmos—act as one with authority (Mark 1:21), not to serve himself but as the kind of authority for which we long—an authority anchored to righteousness and justice, an authority that hears the cries of the vulnerable, and an authority that comes not to kill and to destroy but to serve (Deut. 17:14-20; Ps. 72; Mark 10:20-28).
And, finally, we can remember that this verdict matters because George Floyd himself matters. He is not only a symbol of the quest for racial justice in this country—although he is certainly that. He is also a human being created in the image of God. His life matters to God, and should matter to us. Authorities and structures must be accountable for doing what is right not just for the sake of abstract integrity, but because these authorities and structures affect real human lives. And every human life is an awe-striking mystery, pointing us to the God that life reflects and images.
We can thank God for the accountability rendered in this case. We can work to see to it that justice is done in cases like this whenever and wherever they arise around us. We can see to it that no one else ever faces the awful killing experienced by George Floyd and countless others. And, as we do so, we can weep. Even as we are glad for justice done, we should weep for injustices still at work, and for a life that is still gone.
A version of this first appeared in my weekly newsletter. You can subscribe to receive it in your inbox here.
Photo Credit: ©Getty Images/Stephen Maturen/Stringer
Russell Moore is president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention. The ERLC is the moral and public policy entity of the nation’s largest Protestant denomination.