Eric B. Watkins
“Again I saw all the oppressions that are done under the sun. And behold, the tears of the oppressed, and they had no one to comfort them! On the side of their oppressors there was power, and there was no one to comfort them” (Eccl. 4:1).
On May 25, our nation watched in horror as a police officer held his knee down on a man’s neck until the man, George Floyd, tragically died. One person with power and authority, bearing the image of God, took the life of another person bearing the image of God.
Several things were additionally troubling about this event. First, a bewildered crowd surrounded the event with camera phones, making the world an eyewitness. Second, his death was immediately perceived to be the emblem of systemic police brutality and injustice. But what drew the public ire more than anything else was the fact that the police officer was white and the man on the ground was black. In the eyes of many, George Floyd died simply because he was black.
Since that day, evil has multiplied evil because sin multiplies sin. Violent protests, murder, and destruction of property have been rampant. Police stations have been overtaken by angry mobs. Historical monuments have been defaced and destroyed. Politicians have weaponized these events to their own advantage in what was already a tense election year. Watching the news has become an agonizing reminder that this world is not our home. In short, the world is on fire. How can the church respond in such a difficult time?
It is important to begin by attempting to understand the pain many people are feeling. Where there is pain, there is often an opportunity for the church to be the church and to do what no other institution in the world can fully do: point people to Jesus Christ. People are hurting and angry. Losing a friend is always difficult. Losing a loved one to senseless violence is far more difficult. In a moment, George Floyd became like a family member to the world that watched in horror as his life was slowly taken from him by force while no one intervened to help. Such grief is often accompanied by anger and frustration. In times like this, one of the best things we can do is to genuinely grieve with those who are grieving. Sin is grievous and traumatic, and words cannot easily “fix” such agitated emotions.
The gospel, however, has much to say. Jesus did not come into the world to be comfortable; rather, he came to redeem those who had been ravaged by the horrors of sin and death. His humiliation began upon his entrance into the world (Westminster Shorter Catechism Q. 27). He was not only estranged from the comforts of heaven; he was immediately engulfed by the oppressive realities of sin. He was born under the dark star of genocide. As he fulfilled his earthly ministry, he was “despised and rejected by men,” as Isaiah prophesied (53:3). At the climax of his ministry—at the cross—when he suffered most, there was no one to comfort him or spare him from his cruel oppressors. The weight of our sin was upon him, and he was crushed for our iniquities.
This world could not offer Jesus any lasting comfort, but the resurrection carried him beyond this present evil age into that heavenly land of peace and rest. Scripture not only calls us to fix our eyes upon the resurrection of Jesus as our only source of hope, it also compels us to comfort others with the same resurrection comfort (2 Cor. 1). Only by taking our eyes off the broken things of this world can we find genuine comfort and peace; not by abstract escapism but by looking to Christ and his resurrection victory over this world and over the prince of the power of the air who pretends to rule it.
But is looking to Christ all we are called to do? While our attempt to comfort others needs to be focused on Christ and the hope of heaven, it should also be tangibly and practically expressed.
Our church, Covenant OPC in St. Augustine, Florida, recently had the opportunity to express this hope in tangible ways. Church leaders in our area decided to gather for prayer downtown in our city square. We had no interest in staging a protest or a riot, but the idea of drawing Christians and church leaders from different churches together to pray seemed appropriate. Ecumenical events often poorly communicate the gospel, and trite sentiment frequently eclipses important theological distinctions. But in this case, an elder from our church and I were asked to lead the event, with me preaching and him leading a focused time of prayer.
As the church, the first thing we should do is pray. We should be known for prayer. We cannot fix this world’s problems on our own. People are painfully realizing how broken and bruised this world really is. Sin is a ruthless master and it lies within the heart of each of us—male, female, black, and white. It has endless expressions and wears many masks, including bitterness, anger, rage, racism, murder, and rioting. Sin leaves people ravaged and brutalized. It fractures families and divides nations. When people see the church come together to pray, it sends a calming signal of hope. When the gospel is proclaimed, hearts are either hardened against it or softened by it. The Spirit of God is always at work when the Word of God is read and preached, calling us to repent of our sins and turn to Christ to be healed by him. Only the gospel can convince, convert, and comfort (Shorter Catechism, Q. 89).
An informal comment made by a senior police officer at the community prayer was striking. According to him, recent events have set local law enforcement back fifty years in their relationship with the community. The tensions of the Civil Rights Era have been revived. Whether black or white, law enforcement officers have been smeared with blame for a crime they themselves did not commit. Much like when the media hears of a pastoral scandal and uses it to defame the church, the same has happened to those who labor to protect our lives and property. In response to this, our church decided to bake “pies for police” and deliver them to local police stations along with a letter of prayerful support. To say that it meant a lot to them is an understatement.
Another conversation was even more striking. I met a young black minister who grew up in St. Augustine. His father was a pastor who marched with Martin Luther King Jr. The young man pointed to a place on the street where his father was beaten up and had stones thrown at him for marching with MLK. His dad has since passed away, and now this young man preaches where his father once stood. The death of George Floyd deeply troubled him and brought back painful memories of sadness, helplessness, and anger. But he was willing to talk, and he and I are now building a valuable friendship together. My family and I plan to visit his church soon.
When the world is on fire, the church has an opportunity to bring gospel streams of living water. Love, tangibly expressed, often becomes a stage for gospel witness, if we are patient and genuine. Wisdom in such times is essential. There is a time to speak and a time to listen. There is a time for weeping and a time to bring comfort. In time, justice will be served. In time, peace will be restored. But in times of pain, unrest, and anguish, the church needs to be the church, and we should remind ourselves and the world what the Heidelberg Catechism beautifully summarized long ago in its first question and answer: “What is your only comfort in life and in death? That I am not my own, but belong—both body and soul, in life and in death—to my faithful Savior, Jesus Christ.” He is our only and lasting comfort.