Rev. Dr. George Hancock-Stefan

Many years ago, a friend gave me the book Let My Heart Be Broken With The Things That Break the Heart of God by Richard Gehman. The thrust of the book was from Hebrews 13:3: “Remember those in prison as if you were their fellow prisoners and those who are mistreated as if you yourselves were suffering.” The expression was popularized by Bob Pierce, the founder of Samaritan’s Purse. Since then, pastors, musicians, and congregants have used the line in sermons, as a song, and as a prayer. The book was written on behalf of the persecuted church, but its title can certainly be applied to what is happening in our country as so many innocent African American lives are taken by those who are supposed to protect the citizens of this great country.

A ministerial colleague of mine recently wrote:

“It would seem the rise of white nationalism that is being flamed by the national rhetoric of divisiveness, is only exposing what we have lived with in our society. The recent deaths of Ahmaud Arbery (while jogging) and George Floyd (while being detained) should pain every American. 

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Jackson Pines and Cranston Dean in residency at Langosta Lounge in Asbury Park
Jackson Pines and Cranston Dean at Langosta

However, the events in NY over the last several weeks are a reflection of what Maya Angelou refers to as the “Yet to be United States of America” – in which we witnessed the reality of a divided nation. In one America you saw those not practicing social distancing – given mask to be safe. While in the other America, you saw many being given summons (tickets) for not social distancing. The pain of our reality was most evident in the words of Amy Cooper who although she was breaking the law (not having her dog on a leash in a public place), felt her “privileged position” gave her the right to call the authorities and say: “a African American man is threatening my life.” Her assumption was, that the authorities would come to her rescue, take her side and defend her position – simply because she was white and he was black. 

Warner Wolf, a popular sportscaster in the 80’s would always say, “let’s roll the tape!” As we roll the tape in America the use of smart phones and technology has only revealed what has always been. I dare say the “new norm” is the same “old norm” in the Land of the Free and Home of the Brave! 

Yet I believe strongly, this could America’s finest hour if we can put aside the partisan politics and negative rhetoric that is destroying us and find our way back to God who is able to heal us. Only then can we respect and value each other’s humanity! I for one, refuse to give up on God’s creation and will continue to work to bring people together. But when you “roll the tape” the pain of our reality is there for all to see.”

As a church historian, I am familiar with the persecution of the church. I am also familiar with protests and riots in this country and around the world. I came to the United States in 1966. The next year, our family witnessed the Detroit riots. It was a frightening experience for all of us. When we returned to our high school, we found that the students who were most impacted were those who lost their homes or had relatives in jail. But we all lived in fear because we knew how quickly entire neighborhood blocks could go in flames. Some residents argue that Detroit never recovered from the 1967 riots. 

Many years later, I was in the Soviet Union. This was during the 1980s, when many ethnic groups revolted against the Russian communist regime and almost every country that seceded had people who died in the process. I was preaching in a church in Chisinau (Kishinev) on a Sunday morning. A young man invited me to go to a rally to overthrow the oppressor. As important as it was for me to witness a revolution, I knew that the first thing that happens in a revolution is closing the borders. I had a wife at home and a baby on the way; instead of being a witness that night, I was on the train leaving the country.

On May 29, I watched on TV as people protested in Washington, D.C., Minneapolis, Atlanta, and in cities across the nation. There is no question that, for many African American citizens, the murder of George Floyd revisits all the killings that have happened in the last ten years and the last 400 years. At the same time, it seems some people are moving from protesting to rioting. The people who were looting and burning may have been more focused on getting new stuff than with identifying with the pain of the Floyd family and the African American community.

When I came into my office to read the religious section the next morning, I was surprised to find an article arguing that Jesus would be with the looters. In “The Theology of Riot, Jim Coppoc wrote, “If you believe as I do, that Jesus was both fully god and fully man, and that his life is a perfect example all Christians should aspire to, then there are some corollaries you are just going to accept:

1. Jesus protested

2. Christ threatened violence

3. Christ damaged property

4. Jesus disrupted commerce.”

He concludes his article this way: “But the disruption of commerce and the fear that always comes when corrupt authorities see a mass of righteously angry human moving toward them—these are the mechanisms by which every successful liberation happens. So disrupt. Protest. March in the streets. Stop traffic. Stop commerce. Get the police on video. You do not have to worry about whether these actions are right or wrong, only about whether they are effective in bringing about the Kingdom of God on earth.”

I have a hard time imagining Jesus in the four categories that Mr. Coppoc presented. I am familiar with the episode when Jesus turns over the table of the money makers and releases the animals in the temple courts. However, I think that it is very hard, if not impossible, to see Jesus setting banks, gas stations, and police stations on fire in order to get his point across.

Jesus wept for his friend Lazarus and Jesus wept for the city of Jerusalem. Jesus wept for George Floyd when the evil knee was pressing on his neck and he pleaded, “I can’t breathe.” When we see that picture and we hear those words, God weeps and so should we, as individuals and as a country. In that historical complexity et pluribus unum (out of many one), we are the ones who cannot breathe and we are the ones who are placing our knees on the ones who cannot breathe. We are both the ones with broken hearts, and the one causing the heartbreak. 

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George Hancock-Stefan

Pastor George Hancock-Stefan completed 30 years as the pastor of the great congregation at Central Baptist Church in Atlantic Highlands in 2020. Those 30 years have been a blessed time for him, his wife...