by Dr. Anita Phillips
The year 2020 marked the beginning of a new decade. I feel like we collectively entered this year with a sense of wonder and expectation. So far, it has not gone that way at all! 2020 has instead forced each of us into an unprecedented acquaintance with grief.
It started in late January. The death of Kobe Bryant, his daughter Gianna, and seven others (including two more children) shook us to our core. A little more than six weeks later the United States entered a state of emergency for the coronavirus triggering a domino effect that delivered a series of new losses…weddings, baby showers, graduations all cancelled.
By May 7th at least 76,000 Americans had died from COVID-19 and left nearly 400,000 people weeping graveside or alone at home staring at a live stream of their loved one’s final resting place. But 2020 was not done with us yet.
The next morning, on Thursday May 8th the video of Ahmaud Arbery’s murder pressed fresh salt into a persistent African American wound and – rather unexpectedly -- drew first blood from the hearts of many of my white brothers and sisters. Less than 3 weeks later we watched in horror as George Floyd died before our very eyes. For 8 minutes and 46 seconds a police officer showed no signs of personal distress as he pressed his knee into the neck of a man who was pleading for life. The officer’s chilling expression is an image many will never forget. His choice was bolstered by predictability. He knew his fellow officers would not challenge him, and they didn’t. He knew onlookers in that Black community understood that to physically intervene would likely result in their death too, so they didn’t. The history of police violence had established that even video evidence is highly unlikely to result in an actual conviction. He knew he could abuse this man to whatever extent he wanted, and he abused him to death. Only a predictable, established set of systems could set the stage for this public act committed in the view of so many witnesses. A rogue act of this magnitude would not have succeeded. The bad apple defense would never again be adequate; only fear or a seared conscience would argue otherwise.
Less than a month after George Floyd’s death, with protests sweeping the nation, and Breonna Taylor’s death added to the list, I facilitated a Zoom conversation with a community of newly active allies. A woman in the Zoom told me a story. While out for a walk with her teen son a police car had driven by. She instinctively waved at the officer, but her son hesitated, asking: is it still okay to wave at the police?
Fearing she’d do this “ally” thing wrong, this concerned mom put his question to me. But instead of giving her a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answer, the pain in her face led me somewhere completely different: “I want to acknowledge that you are grieving.” I think the entire Zoom room was shocked. This wasn’t the response my weary white sister was expecting, but naming her grief was what she needed. What they may have all needed.
A tragic accident, the cancellation of a special life event, isolation from loved ones – all of those losses are events to be grieved, but a racial awakening is a loss too. In a matter of weeks, this woman had gone from being a person who said “well, maybe we should just wait for all the facts” to seeing the long and dark history in the sin of racism is alive and well in the present. She realized that racial divisions were being revealed, not created, by this moment. They’d always been there. Now she is wrestling with feelings of defensiveness, frustration, guilt and anger.
But she hadn’t factored in grief.
Many newly active allies are experiencing losses for their stand. Some of your friendships or family relationships have become strained or even been lost. Some of you have been excluded from certain conversations. You may have lost followers on social media or been accused of just speaking out for show. Those rejections entail grief. Perhaps even worse is the loss of the world as you once understood it: a world which felt relatively safe and known, a world in which you never questioned whether the neighborhood policeman was there to protect everyone. You may be grieving the loss of the America you thought you lived in while working to build the incredible country we are destined to be.
The year was already saturated in grief and now this worthy fight is also required of you. But… in order to remain engaged in letting the good work God is doing in you come to fruition without shrinking back, let yourself grieve. Grief is horrible and exhausting, and human beings will by nature do almost anything to escape it. We’d rather avoid, redirect, or check out. But there’s danger if we pull back. You have seen something to repent of, pray about, and act on. Let the Word do its deep work in you - letting it divide between soul and spirit as Hebrews 4:12 promises so that your emotional pain does not dislodge your spiritual conviction. We must not be as those who look in a mirror and then walk away and immediately forget what we look like (James 1:24). Cling to change, grieve the loss, and trust God to lead us forward.
It helps to remember that the losses we’re grieving are not pointless; they mean something important. Hanging on to the meaning serves as a joy set before you, inspiring you to keep running this justice race with perseverance. And fortunately, the search for meaning won’t require you to go very far. Dr. King delivered it fifty-three years ago when he said that Black Americans, “hold only one key to the double lock of peaceful change. The other is in the hands of the white community.”
You have a key. In the United States. In Britain. In South Africa. In Australia. In New Zealand….anywhere in the world where what is happening in America has inspired new quests for freedom and equality. To my white sisters and brothers everywhere, use your key.
For the Body,
P.S. The answer to that mom’s question was yes, of course! I wave at police officers all the time. This isn’t an all or nothing thing and it’s not about hating police officers. It’s about reimagining public safety and creating a culture where wise policies protect communities, great training serves all, and honorable officers set the accountability bar so high that the stage upon which George Floyd died can never again be set. And by the way, police reform is just the beginning. Dismantling racism is a marathon and I’m excited that we’re running it together!
Dr. Anita Phillips is an expert at unraveling the human experience. This trauma therapist is known for her paradigm-shifting insights at the intersection of mental health, spirituality, and culture. Dr. Anita’s work is guided by one simple idea: most things that seem complicated are actually just hard. From overthrowing anxiety to reimagining the path to equity, Dr. Anita helps people, groups, and organizations accomplish hard things. Find her on Facebook and Instagram. Don’t miss Dr. Anita’s conversation with Christine Caine about race and restoration in the body of Christ here.