There has been some comment and concensus among my friends, both black and white, that George Floyd is not a martyr. I agree, there is a sense in which a murder cannot be a martyrdom. Mr. Floyd did not lay down his life. It was taken from him senselessly, unjustly, and horribly. It breaks my heart again even as I write these words to think of the way he died.
On the other hand, there is a sense in which George Floyd died a martyr. The word “martyr” comes from the Greek word “to bear witness”. It was used by Jesus to His disciples to describe their task to announce His saving message to the world. It was used by early Christians to speak of that act of sharing the message, but also of holding to that message even when killed for it, displaying the martyr’s commitment to the message of Jesus. It was an encouragement for those inside the movement and a sign to those outside it. And it had an impact. The spectacle of Christians in the Colosseum lost its “entertainment value” as the martyrs blessed God and prayed for the murderers even as they were torn apart by wild beasts. As women and children were increasingly the victims, the crowds became more uneasy and soon begged that the killing of Christians be stopped. In death, the martyrs were amplifying a truth already present in their lives.
George Floyd’s death has amplified truth for us. He has made unavoidable a truth that our black brothers and sisters have been trying to tell us for years, while we have refused to listen. They have told told us about the injustice and we have strained our eyes to look beyond it. They have said “it is oppressive” and we have said “it isn’t that bad.” They have said, “we can feel the hatred aimed our way” and we have said, “you must be imagining things.” Now George Floyd’s death, captured on nearly 10 minutes of heartrending video has become a visible sign of a truth we too long denied. He has borne witness to the truth and that truth demands a response. Now that we have seen, and believed, what will we do? Will we listen we when we are spoken to? Will we believe those who are speaking? Will we see with clearer eyes? Will we run to help when someone cries, “I can’t breathe”? We will stay close to guard the lives of those who live under a sense of threat? Now that we have seen and heard, will we, in turn, bear witness to the truth?