Column from Sumter's Pastor Clay Smith: 'My Savior knew exactly how George Floyd felt'

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Let me state the obvious: I’m not a black man. I’ve never been particularly worried about being stopped by the police. I’ve never coached my son on how to act when an officer of the law gives an order, fearing that if he doesn’t give exactly the right responses, he would be shot.

My friends of color tell me there is a different reality. They tell me they worry about their children every day being shot by law enforcement. They tell me about shopping in stores and being followed by clerks, who profile them as potential thieves. They tell me about being demeaned because of the color of their skin in the workplace and in the marketplace.

I never thought much about “white privilege.” But I could not help but wonder: what if I was in Minneapolis and gave a store clerk a fake $20 bill? What would happen? The police might be called. If they asked me where I got that bill, I would probably say “I don’t know.” I would tell them I didn’t know it was fake. The officers would probably believe me, just because I’m white. That’s “white privilege.”

If I were arrested, I probably wouldn’t panic. If the officers tried to put me in a police car and I said I was claustrophobic, they would probably let me stand outside until I was able to calm myself. If they put me on the ground and I protested, “I can’t breathe,” they probably would have let me up and told me to stay still. All because I’m white.

My friends in law enforcement tell me something was dreadfully wrong with what happened to George Floyd in Minneapolis. The incident is an unfortunate reminder that even if 99% of law enforcement do their jobs and protect the rights of all, 1% is still too high a failure rate. There are many good law enforcement officers out there. But the incident with George Floyd is even more terrible than a police shooting of someone unarmed. This occurred while a man begged for mercy: “I can’t breathe.”

I think about the Savior I follow. He was not white. He was not black. He was a Mediterranean Jew, who probably had an olive complexion. Jesus knew what it meant to be profiled. The Roman authorities thought every Jew had rebellion on their mind. The Romans believed in law and order. They would flood areas of their empire with troops to suppress any activity that threatened their power. Innocent people were often beaten, or imprisoned, or killed, just because of their race.

All four gospels make clear that Jesus was not strung up by a mob. It was all very tidy, very legal. He was condemned by a Jewish court, then condemned by Pilate, the supreme authority of Rome. Though his death was part of God’s plan, it was still wrong, horribly wrong, for him to die. But it was done legally, by all the law enforcement officials.

The cross was a cruel instrument of death. It was designed by the Romans to send a message: “Don’t mess with Rome.” When preachers talked about the cross, we usually focus on the nailing of the hands and feet. Nails piercing flesh result in intense pain. But the body has a way of producing adrenaline to push the pain back. The true great cruelty of the cross was asphyxiation. The body was stretched out, and a block of wood was placed above the buttocks. To breathe, a person would have to lift their weight up, use their upper body and arm strength, pull their weight over the block of wood, and then gasp for air. As the body tired, as strength left the muscles, the breaths became shallower and shallower. Oxygen became scarce. Finally, when strength left the body, the victim could no longer pull his body up to breathe and he died. This is what happened to Jesus. He died because he could not breathe.

This is something I need to remember. My Savior knew exactly how George Floyd felt.

There is a difference, however. George Floyd died because he tried to pay with a fake $20 bill. Jesus died for the sins of the world. The unfathomable mystery of God is this: Jesus died for George Floyd, so that whatever sins he committed could be forgiven. Jesus also died for Derek Chauvin, the former police officer who put his knee on George Floyd’s neck, so his sins could be forgiven as well. That, my friends, is the depth of the grace of God.

The Rev. Dr. Clay Smith is the lead pastor of Alice Drive Baptist Church in Sumter.