Just as the national coronavirus death toll passes 100,000, with workers and small business owners at the brink of ruin, the killing of George Lloyd by Minneapolis police officers sparks massive protests around the country. White nationalists infiltrate the protests, and shocking violence erupts.
Some of us, especially we who are white, experience it as a one-two punch. As if a pandemic and violence against black people have nothing to do with one another. As if we are massively unlucky.
People are sure enough hurting. A Kaiser Family Foundation poll suggests that half of Americans say the pandemic is harming their mental health, while calls to a federal emergency hotline spiked 1000 percent in April. In response to the killing, the protests, and the violence we might say, “It’s just one thing after another.”
But didn’t Jesus say something about demons coming in packs?
“When the unclean spirit has gone out of a person, it wanders through waterless regions looking for a resting place, but it finds none. Then it says, ‘I will return to my house from which I came.’ When it comes, it finds it empty, swept, and put in order. Then it goes and brings along seven other spirits more evil than itself, and they enter and live there; and the last state of that person is worse than the first. So will it be also with this evil generation.”
(Matthew 12:43-45, NRSV)
What if the coronavirus and violence against African Americans are demonic teammates? What if it’s not just “one thing after another,” but a revelatory moment?
Coronavirus statistics are notoriously slippery, but it’s beyond doubt that black and brown Americans suffer disproportionately from the pandemic. African Americans are dying from the coronavirus at nearly twice the rate of other Americans. And it’s not just health: African Americans are disproportionately hurt by the economic fallout. They’re more likely to have lost jobs or businesses in the past few months.
The coronavirus is “a racial pandemic within a viral pandemic,” in the words of Ibram X. Kendi. The coronavirus is new, but adverse health outcomes for black and brown people are not. The life expectancy gap between neighboring communities can range over thirty years, a discrepancy often tied to race. The pandemic’s effects on black and brown communities uncover a violence woven into the fiber of our society.
Likewise, George Floyd’s death reminds us of the violence our culture inflicts upon black and brown people. “This is nothing new,” the Rev. Dr. Melvin Baber told Friendship Baptist Church in York, PA, this past Sunday. If we’re alarmed by violence in Minneapolis and other cities like the one where I live, Dr. King would remind us: the violence was here long before people took to the streets. For those of us who don’t suffer racialized violence, the protests bring to our attention a deep violence long present. Truly, the violence is nothing new.
Michael Curry, the Presiding Bishop of The Episcopal Church, drew the connection between one demon and another in a Sunday column.
"I look at searing images of racialized violence across our country—against the backdrop of the disproportionate number of Covid-19 victims who are black, brown and native—and I cannot help but notice love’s profound and tragic absence."
Let’s face it. Jesus’s warning about packs of demons jars our modern ears. We may or may not believe in literal demons. I don’t pretend to understand the whole of Jesus’ logic. But I’m a natural problem solver, and not in a good way. Faced with a painful situation, I look for a quick fix: a pithy response or a simple change of perspective. It’s taken most of my life to see this in myself. And anyone close to me can tell you I haven’t overcome the tendency.
Quick fixes rarely hold for long. The structural racism that has shaped our culture and continues to inflict violence upon black and brown people amounts to a whole knotty pack of vicious demons. All the things are related. The housing, the educational opportunities, the policing and the courts, and the health care system, even the zoning codes—the demonic infests all these systems in murderous ways.
Many of us, most of us white, want the quick fix. If we could just cast out the demon of George Floyd’s murder, maybe we can limp ahead another day or another week until the next thing pops up. That’s the voice of privilege that fails to account for racism’s systemic violence. We’ve gone beyond single exorcisms.
Jesus’ strange saying concludes with sociopolitical commentary. “So will it be also with this evil generation.” Day by day, year by year, generation by generation, we have inflicted grievous wounds upon ourselves and especially upon African Americans and other minorities. At times we’ve all but blown the society apart. Yet somehow the opportunity remains for a massive exorcism. That’s the situation that confronts “this evil generation” today.
Greg Carey is Professor of New Testament at Lancaster Seminary. His publications include numerous studies on the Book of Revelation and ancient apocalyptic literature, rhetorical analysis of the New Testament, and investigations of early Christian self-definition.
Greg serves as co-chair of the Rhetoric and the New Testament Section of the Society of Biblical Literature, and he has appeared in documentaries on the BBC, Discovery Channel, and National Geographic Channel, and most recently the 2011 BBC One documentary, "The Story of Jesus."
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Twitter | @Greg_Carey
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