(RNS) — The first thing my daughter Claire asked when she came home from school on Tuesday (April 20) was, “Dad, what does a guilty verdict mean?”
I thought of the passage in the Book of Joshua: “This shall be a sign among you; when your children ask later, saying, ‘What do these stones mean to you?’ then you shall say to them, ‘That the waters of the Jordan were cut off before the ark of the covenant of the Lord.’”
The 12 stones, set to block the flow of the Jordan, allowed the Israelites to cross the river, the final step of their journey from Egypt to freedom.
The God of the Bible does not seem to trust history to human memory alone. Somehow, we quickly forget the deliverance of God.
Years after their exodus from Egypt, after they had forgotten the taste of manna from heaven, a new generation of Israelite children would sit in the Promised Land and openly wonder at the progress they had made. And in years to come, when your children ask, “What do these stones mean?,” we will tell them that we were in bondage, but the Lord brought us over.
It is no secret that the Exodus narrative of Scripture is significant to the American Black church tradition. It is the singular biblical book the slave-holding preacher purposefully overlooked. It was the reason so-called slaves, such as Frederick Douglass, were not taught to read. Still, Black preachers, in the hush harbors, proclaimed the power of God to deliver his people. They understood the God of Exodus to be both a deliverer then and an emancipator now. That chronicle became the hope of liberation to an entire people.
The guilty verdict of former Minneapolis police Officer Derek Chauvin in the murder of George Floyd might be an exodus for America. Tuesday may be the day that the ancient account of God’s deliverance becomes as important to America as it has been to the Black church.
This guilty verdict is an opportunity for the liberation of not just Black, brown, and Asian Americans, but for White Americans, too. Chauvin, like many anti-Black authoritarians before him, was imprisoned by his sense of supremacy long before he was assigned a prison cell in Minnesota on Tuesday afternoon.
One day our children will ask, “What does this verdict mean?” We will tell them that we were in bondage, but the Lord brought us over.
Let me not overstate or understate the significance of this verdict. The jury’s determination is not the singular correction of centuries of injustice. It may be the hinge, however, on which turns the steel page of history.
Anyone familiar with the history of unprosecuted lynchings on American soil or the long night of racialized kangaroo courts can sense that something special happened in Minnesota Tuesday afternoon. Anyone who remembers that we still live in an era when a murdered child is not guaranteed to have her executioners put on trial comes to appreciate the promise that Tuesday’s progress represents.
My house is down the street and around the corner from the childhood home of a famously murdered Chicago kid. His killers never saw the light of justice. At his funeral, Mamie Till forced open the casket of her son, Emmett, so the world could see the evil lurking inside the heart of racist America. In 1955, she permitted Jet Magazine to publish images of the torn and bloated face that was once her son. She received no restitution, no justice, no compensation. His murderers walked free. His blood cried for justice from the Tallahatchie River.
And in years to come, when your children ask, “What do these stones mean?,” we will tell them that we were in bondage, but the Lord brought us over.
There are other children still, such as Rekia Boyd and Tamir Rice, whose blood yet cries out for justice. Children need the governing hand of justice to rightfully interpret God’s righteousness. George Floyd died crying out for his mother as both his breath and justice was snatched away. In his dying moment, he spoke as a child being lynched under a policeman’s knee.
So, what is a child’s reading of Tuesday’s verdict? One day we will tell them that we were in bondage, but the Lord brought us over.
It was her older brother who answered Claire’s question. Charlie II replied, “It’s when you go to a judge and he pounds his wooden stick on the desk and shouts, ‘Guilty!’ Then the people cry and the judge says, ‘You will spend so-in-so number of years in jail.’”
I smiled because that’s a child’s reading of the verdict turned history on Tuesday. The day will come when this verdict will mean something more. It will mean that the moral arc of the universe is long, but it really does bend toward justice.
The verdict in Minnesota will signal that though truth is forever on the scaffold and wrong forever on the throne, yet behind the dim unknown standeth God keeping watch above his own. It will mean that though justice be delayed, it cannot forever be denied.
Charlie Edward Dates is the senior pastor at Chicago’s Progressive Baptist Church. He also serves as an affiliate professor at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School.