In recent weeks protests have convulsed hundreds of cities across the United States and the world. These protests have forced consideration of neglected social and spiritual wounds, revealing the unaddressed pain and grief which now pours through the gaping holes of superficial justice. News media and social media have flashed up moments from these protests, some that escalated into violence and mayhem and others that offered extended moments of peaceful demonstration.

If you’ve watched videos of the protestors, and especially if you have participated in a protest yourself, it is difficult to forget the sound of a collective group of perfect strangers shouting in unison:

“No justice, no peace!”

“I can’t breathe.”

“Black Lives Matter.”

“[Expletive] the police.”

But the one that haunts me the most is the thundering of a thousand voices crying out,

“George Floyd, say his name! Breonna Taylor, say her name!”

Naming versus Knowing

I remember the moment when I first felt the visceral pang of loss. I was brushing my teeth one summer morning, my head just barely taller than the bathroom sink counter, when I was informed that my great-grandmother had passed away. My faint memories of her include her radiant smile, her hair parted down the middle and pulled back into a bun like so many other Korean women of her generation, and the moments when she mischievously slipped me small green rectangular pieces of paper when my mother wasn’t looking. She had lived a long life, yet that piece of news shocked me into a feeling I had not previously experienced, at least to that degree – sorrow and fear compounded by helplessness.

In the wake of his wife’s death, C.S. Lewis expressed, “Grief is like a long valley, a winding valley where any bend may reveal a totally new landscape…not every bend does…Sometimes…you are presented with exactly the same sort of country you thought you had left behind miles ago.”[1] Indeed over the years, that initial shock I felt as a young child has changed without forgetting the previous bends in this valley. Some of the loss has been personal. Names of those I knew would end up in the local newspaper. Natural causes, cancer, car accident, suicide, homicide. In addition, the atrocities of global events like 9/11, Sandy Hook, the Sewol Ferry disaster, Paris, Boston, and many more all cut wounds into the hearts of millions and into my own. I may have never met you, but there is a certain level of agony we share when we remember the story of a six-year-old child gunned down on what started off as just another day at school.

Though loss described in a collective sense is shocking, death at the lowest and most personal level leaves open wounds in the heart. The pain we feel is most acute when we are intimately familiar with the story that sits inside of a name. For names not only identify, but they carry the weight of identity. When we see this identity marred and knelt upon, our grief breaks us.

When the crowd chanted, “George Floyd, say his name!” I realized that while I could visually identify Trayvon Martin, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery because of national news media coverage, the weight of their identity was not personal enough to me. The injustice done to them had become objectified, depersonalized, and made into a philosophical concept.[2]

I could say their names, but I could not tell their stories.

As I’ve been continuing to reflect on that moment, I know that as a Christian, I need to do both. I need to know their names, not just say their names. And this ‘knowing’ cannot be from an angle to become ‘more self-aware’ or ‘better informed’ – it must be a knowing that steers the sails of my soul towards the heart of Christ. With his heart, saying their names will invoke a disturbance within me that leads to a response of neither sorry platitudes nor even reactive anger but an intense wrestling with the injustice delivered to a man who was just going for a jog or a woman sleeping in her bed – an injustice that spans all the way back to the arrival of the first African slaves to Virginia in 1619. Saying the name of Breonna Taylor will enable me to elevate her from a statistic to a story, from a news picture to personhood. And when the time comes, the way that I speak about her will be personal, because her story has become more personal to me. No longer will she be a reference but rather a reason, one of far too many, that reminds me where I must stand.

The Cost of Proximity

Though there are a variety of ways people respond in our current cultural moment, it is sometimes difficult to decipher which ways are not only right, but also wise and sustainable. But as we consider ways to contribute to positive and tangible progress, what we cannot ignore is proximity. As Bryan Stevenson has so often said, “You can’t understand most of the important things from a distance…You have to get close…there is power in proximity.” I know that a four-hundred-year-old system of oppression will not, overnight, break by my mere attempt at intentional proximity. However, by the grace of God, becoming relationally proximate will help me elevate the stories of those in the margins and understand how to advocate for them, but more importantly with them. Becoming proximate will increase my sorrows yet multiply my victories. Ultimately, becoming proximate will remind me of my own story of costly redemption and deliverance through Christ.

This story tells me that God has always been in proximity with me. The garden, the pillar of smoke, the tent, and the tabernacle were all visible reminders that God was with his people. But they pale in comparison to our Immanuel, Jesus Christ, who left his Heavenly dwelling place, humbled himself into the form of man, and tabernacled among us here on earth. The Son of God became proximate to the least and the last – the leper, the blind, the deaf, the lame, the adulteress, the Samaritan, and the tax collector. Simultaneously he drew near to the lost – the rich young ruler, the young lawyer, even a sage teacher of the law. Although Jesus had the power and authority to deliver judgement, he instead delivered justice. He made the blind to see, the deaf to hear, and the lame to walk. He enabled the outcasts to rejoin society and enjoy community. The physical restoration of their bodies was a small taste of spiritual restoration for their souls. He corrected the wayward theology of the ‘learned,’ spoke truth in love to the misinformed, and harshly rebuked the proud and arrogant. Whether poverty was visible or invisible, he always gave of himself to bring dignity to the ‘other.’

This story tells me that Jesus Christ willingly traded his heavenly prosperity for earthly poverty in pursuit of peace for his enemies — for me. No matter how broken my life is because of what I did or what someone else did to me, Jesus declares that he is my advocate. His death and resurrection are proof that he not only has spoken but also continues to speak on my behalf in the throne room of God the Father. There will be times, and there certainly have been and are times, where those continually oppressed feel this must not be true. Because of the incredibly difficult and unjust circumstances in which we find ourselves, it often feels like there is no one who is for us – for decades or even centuries. There is no simple answer to these realities. Familiarity with Bible verses that declare God is for us and with us does not make it easier to understand. But as difficult as it may be, we must remind ourselves that the cost of Jesus’s proximity to us was his death on a cross.

Because of his blood shed on that cross, we who were formerly guilty in our sins are now more than just exonerated – we are declared to be righteous. Because of his blood shed on that cross, we are reconciled to God and are now part of his family. So we get to reflect the heart of Jesus through not only what we identify as, children of God, but who we identify with, the least, the last, and the lost. We can respond to our calling as ones made in the Imago Dei to put on compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, patience, to be forgiving as the Lord has forgiven us, and to do so out of love (Col 3:12-14). The more we get to know and say the name of the man who hung on a cross instead of us, the more we will be able to live a cruciform life that mirrored his own. It will not be easy. It will often not be pleasant. But His presence is our peace through both the current storm and the ones to come. It is not a peace that eradicates external conflict, nor is it to be confused with a mere absence of chaos. Rather, it is the peace that resoundingly declares throughout each dark valley, that His grace is sufficient for me.

So as we pray, repent, become proximate to those in the margins, contribute to building up our communities, donate, and vote, let us not neglect to seek the Lord in all things. While we live our whole lives getting to know him better, he already intimately knows our names. He advocates for us now until we see him face to face, and he will render justice for all the blood that cries out to him.

[1] From, A Grief Observed, by C.S. Lewis.

[2] In his commentary on Lamentations, Prophetic Lament: A Call for Justice in Troubled Times, Soong-Chan Rah argues that by making injustice into a philosophical concept, believers and the church become disengaged from the work of justice (88).

Heidi Wong is the Executive Director for Exilic Church in New York City and also oversees its college ministry. She worked in management consulting and big tech prior to entering vocational ministry. She is a graduate of Cornell University and received her Master of Arts in Biblical Studies from Reformed Theological Seminary in New York City. You can find her on Twitter at @kheidiwong.

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