By Tommy Airey
During this final fortnight of 2020, my mind has been meandering back to Memorial Day and the short life of George Floyd. He and I were born forty days apart, five years after Martin King was murdered. We came up in a split screen society where two totally different games with totally different rules were being played at the totally same time. King called it “the two Americas.” While I was basking in the sunlight of opportunity, George Floyd’s America had a daily ugliness about it that transforms the buoyancy of hope into the fatigue of despair. While I was coddled, George Floyd was criminalized.
Believe it or not, George Floyd and I both played college basketball. He was a 6’7” power forward from Houston. I was short, white and, as one former coach said, slower than shit rolling uphill. He crashed the boards. I hit the threes. After college, we both came back home. While George Floyd was posting up in the projects of Houston’s Third Ward where unemployment was four times the city’s average, I was in the Southern California suburbs saving up my full salary for a couple years while living rent-free with free meals in the home my parents bought in 1970 for $35,000. Mom still stays there and could sell it for thirty times the amount she bought it for.
Because five years after George Floyd and I were born, white people in states like California and Texas staged a tax revolt and passed propositions that sliced their property taxes so they could keep more of their money and divert more of their tax dollars to their community to fund schools for their children. White people from all walks of life and all political persuasions also ramped up their law-and-order rhetoric and signed off on the “war on drugs” in Black and Brown neighborhoods where police incessantly stalked poor people and power forwards.
From 1997 to 2005, while George Floyd put on a one-man full court press looking for a job, he was arrested multiple times for possession of pot and petty theft and spent months in jail. George Floyd found Jesus while he was in federal prison for the entire duration of Obama’s first term. His newfound faith was incarnated in humble service, tenderness and truth-telling. His pastor called him a “person of peace” in the Third Ward. George Floyd knew every mouth that needed bread and every single mother who needed a word from the mouth of God. Eventually, he moved to Minneapolis because, in H-Town, jobs kept fading and cops kept raiding.
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The police who murdered George Floyd were responding to a call from a convenience store employee who accused him of paying for cigarettes with a counterfeit $20 bill. When I watched the viral video that 17-year-old Darnella Frazier uploaded from Minneapolis on Memorial Day, when I saw this Black man forty days younger than me face down on the street pavement calling for his mama while a white man in uniform with his left hand in his pocket took his life by kneeling on his neck, I knew—and, in that moment, deep down we all knew—who the real counterfeit was. Not George Floyd. Not the twenty-dollar bill. Not even the police officers. Deep down, we knew it was America itself. Because in this split screen society, shit like this has never been the exception, but the rule.
My wife-partner Lindsay, who is a licensed marriage and family therapist, says that when we deny and repress what is counterfeit it will always come out sideways. Deep down, white America knows that our country was bought with counterfeit currency and continues to use it to pay for its comforts and conveniences. The split screen runs on police, prisons, payday loans, privatized healthcare, oil pipelines, factory farms, big box stores, military bases and mortgages that manipulate a victory for half of the country and sheer vulnerability for the other. We hide and hoard the counterfeit in the back corners of our soul closets and it always comes out sideways, spiraling in epidemics of alcoholism, abuse, anxiety, depression, intense loneliness and isolation, narcissism, police brutality, mass shootings and sexual violence.
The viral video had white folk wide-awake to the counterfeit for a couple of weeks. By mid-June, most hit the snooze bar. The murder of Black people—from the Middle Passage to Medgar to Martin to Minneapolis—has never been a great awakening for white folk, well-trained in every age to explain away the oppression by pinning the blame on Black people. Eventually, most of white America announced the results of their autopsy. The white man in uniform with his left hand in his pocket who murdered George Floyd by kneeling on his neck was just a bad cop. A small price for protecting and serving their interests. It’s no secret that white people on both sides of the aisle sign on to the script of law and order, lamenting looters and rioters, while demonizing or distancing from the Movement for Black Lives. In the split screen called America, the counterfeit works not by changing the channel, but by changing the color.
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White America will never be able to stop the counterfeit from coming out sideways with a pseudo-objective inquiry over Black death. Our healing and wholeness will only come with a passionate investment in Black life. What we need is a conspiracy of white people who love so much that we commit our lives to breaking rank from our so-called privileges of the split screen with its social connections and successes. The only hope for our collective liberation is to tap into a love legacy of co-conspirators like old John Brown who once proclaimed that Black folk would have ten times as many white friends if white people cared half as much about Black suffering as they did about keeping up with the extravagance and luxury of their white neighbors.
In criminal law, a conspiracy is an agreement between two or more persons to commit a crime at some time in the future. What if the spiritual life of white folk consisted of praying and plotting with the other America? What if our churches were secret gatherings where we got together to strategize creative ways to call out the counterfeit and throw-in with Black rhythm, Black rhyme, Black laughter, Black language, Black posture, Black perspective, Black joy and Black gesture? This is not about appropriation. It is about apprenticeship. This is not about another book club. It is about being born again. This is not about following a formula. It is about falling in love.
Conspiracy comes from Latin words that mean “breathing with.” A conspiracy, like love, is a lot more intimate and implicating than sideline solidarity. If you join the conspiracy it means that when someone cannot breathe, you cannot breathe either. It means that when someone’s body is suffocating, your soul is suffocating too. It means, as Dr. King wrote from his jail cell, that we are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality. It means that we build every aspect of our lives on the blueprint of universal belovedness and belongingness. If we are really “in it together,” it means that we must cut off every knee that chronically asphyxiates the other America.
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Every conspiracy requires spiritual conviction. It will take something concrete to break rank from both white MAGA supremacy and white liberal serenity. We will shatter the split screen with active verbs like breaking rank and breathing with, not passive nouns like acceptance, tolerance and inclusivity. My soul is starved for conviction—which is why I still join George Floyd in the conspiracy of biblical faith. He started studying the sacred text when he went to prison for aggravated robbery—about the same time I went to seminary for post-Evangelical recovery. George Floyd was scripted by the historic Black church tradition that, in the words of Howard Thurman, redeems a religion that white Christians profane in its midst. So George Floyd knew that the bible’s got a split screen too. There are texts of terror that support supremacy stories, but there are also episodes and epiphanies plotting a conspiracy that subversively confronts the counterfeit.
From cover to cover, the sacred stories of Scripture offer readers a clear choice around every corner. Either counterfeit or conspiracy. Either sacrifice or mercy. Either profit maximization or daily bread. Either commodity or relationship. Either hierarchy or beloved community. Either the Lord God Almighty or a divinity descending like a dove. Either an authoritarian faith that demands obedience or an abolitionist faith that sets the captives free. Either a flag-waving faith that connects God to country or a whistle-blowing faith that breaks rank with the oppressive status quo. Two different perspectives. Two different postures. Two radically different spiritual paths. Both competing against each other on the canvas of the same bible.
The interpretive litmus test of the conspiracy is love. The ancient Hebrews called it hesed, often translated “mercy,” “lovingkindness” or “steadfast love” in English. It comes up 248 times in the first half of the sacred text that George Floyd kept by his bedside during the last decade of his life. Steadfast love is lavished upon us by a higher Power that Hagar—a Black woman fleeing for her life in the wilderness—named “El-Roi,” the One who sees us. Steadfast love shimmered in the life and teachings of Jesus who died so that those who live might live no longer for themselves.
Bible study cultivates conviction by strengthening our sensibility to suss out the conspiracy in a counterfeit world—like a farmer harvesting wheat while she burns the weeds or a herder who separates the sheep from the goats. It is both a mind set and a skill set. The biblical key to the conspiracy in every counterfeit context comes from the mouth of the crucified campesino. After he rose up, his co-conspirators remembered when the god-in-a-dark-skinned-Palestinian-bod boldly told them that they would breathe with the divine only when they breathe with the “the other Israel.” With the immigrant. With the imprisoned. With the thirsty. With the hungry. With the sick. With the unhoused. With those, like George Floyd, who was suffocating long before Memorial Day.
In a previous life, Tommy Airey was a high school teacher and Evangelical pastor. He is currently the co-curator of RadicalDiscipleship.net and author of Descending Like a Dove: Adventures in Decolonizing Evangelical Christianity (2018). He is working on a second book tentatively titled Conspiracy: A Biblical Reading Strategy for Breaking Rank.