Wednesday, June 17, 2020

Of Meth Heads and Christ Figures

People are complicated, Christians included. They are not all one thing, either good or bad.

Friends of whom I once thought very highly have later shown the world sides of themselves I never knew existed, betraying and deceiving loved ones, harboring unimagined secrets and bad habits, or getting involved in situations that seem incomprehensible to those who thought they knew them. Equally, people who lived quite openly and despicably in sin have on occasion shown evidence of tenderness, affection or intelligence I never thought possible for them.

People are complicated, and they will surprise you.

Propaganda and Manipulation

The media should not surprise us. They are what they are these days. Almost all mainstream “news” is little more than propaganda; manipulation directed at the more gullible elements in society in service of a publisher’s broader agenda. Thus, when we find the left- and right-wing media presenting us with two very different versions of the late George Floyd since his death during a May 25 arrest for allegedly trying to pass a bogus $20 bill at a Minneapolis deli, there is little point in pretending to be shocked at the significant discrepancies in the two sets of accounts. Whatever Mr. Floyd was really like in life, almost everyone who has chosen to weigh in about his history and character has their reasons for emphasizing a certain subset of facts and opinions about him while downplaying others. And since people are complicated, and none of us is all one thing, it’s not impossible that two very divergent presentations of Mr. Floyd may each contain elements of the truth.

But George Floyd is no longer here to straighten out any misconceptions about himself or the circumstances of his death, assuming he would be inclined to in the first place, and the stakes for which his demonizers and hagiographers are playing are very high indeed: the question of who sits in the White House for the next four years may well end up turning on what happened on May 25, and how effectively those events may be spun in service of a very specific media narrative.

What we don’t expect, and shouldn’t expect, is for the Christian media to be doing the spinning.

Social Justice Kool-Aid

It has been evident for years that a few of the folks writing for Christianity Today have taken one sip too many of the social justice Kool-Aid, but Kate Shellnutt’s May 28 article on George Floyd sets some kind of new low bar for manipulative reporting in an allegedly Christian publication. So I’ve waited a bit to react to it. I did not want to respond hastily while emotions about Floyd’s death and the international reaction it has spawned were running high, and while the facts of the case are still being gathered and reported. But since it doesn’t look like the movement is going anywhere soon, and since we are unlikely to be able to trust any new media revelations about George Floyd much more than we can trust the existing ones ... well, let’s have at it.

The CT piece is entitled “George Floyd Left a Gospel Legacy in Houston”, and in it we meet a man who “lived for decades” as “a mentor to a generation of young men and a ‘person of peace’ ushering ministries into the area”; who moved to Minneapolis in 2018 for a job opportunity through a Christian work program which involved a discipleship component; who was a “community leader” and elder statesman, and a man who “lent a helping hand” to church involvement in his neighborhood; who said things to young men like “God trumps street culture” and whose “mission was empowering other believers” to come where he lived and promote the gospel; who was thought of as a brother, uncle or father figure by community members and whose passing was much lamented by his Christian friends in Houston; who was an “innocent sufferer” whose blood cries out for vengeance like Abel’s; and who in the final paragraph of Shellnutt’s piece is called a “Christ figure” by a Houston pastor.

Another Set of “Facts”

Well, that’s a pretty impressive resume, and if it were all I had ever read about George Floyd, it would paint quite the picture indeed. However, prior to reading Shellnutt’s application for Floydian sainthood, I happen to have read a few other things about George Floyd. Maybe you have too by now, though they were all out there in the secular media to be found when Shellnutt researched her article in late May. I have chosen to link only to popular leftist media sources which would have no conceivable reason to slander George Floyd. You will not find the likes of The Daily Caller or Breitbart linked below.

Here goes: One, the NPR website reports George Floyd had been working regularly for “a couple of years” as a bouncer at a Minneapolis nightclub. “A couple of years” is 2018 when, according to Shellnutt’s piece, Floyd moved to Minneapolis as part of a discipleship work program. El Nuevo Rodeo does not look like a horrible place by nightclub standards, but it’s somewhat unlikely it was ever part of any Christian placement program. Something didn’t work out there.

Two, Newsweek reports that George Floyd had a powerful street opioid called Fentanyl in his system at the time of his death which his autopsy report shows was multiples above the level known to cause fatalities.

Three, The Washington Times reports that at the time of his death George Floyd had recently used methamphetamines.

Four, The Sun reports George Floyd was an ex-convict charged in 2007 with armed robbery in a multi-person home invasion in Houston, and sentenced in 2009 to five years. The Courier Daily adds that Floyd held a pistol to the stomach of pregnant woman. He also had five cocaine busts over a twenty year period, the last in 2005. People can change, of course, but Kate Shellnutt wants us to believe this all happened during the same period when George was “a mentor to a generation of young men” “for decades”. Quite the mentor ...

Five, according to The Express UK, when Floyd left Texas for Minneapolis, he left behind as many as five children (two of whom are now adults), including a then-three-year old daughter he had with a woman to whom he was not married. According to The Sun, he had been in a live-in relationship with a woman name Courtney Ross since moving to Minneapolis. Shellnutt’s article implies Floyd’s conversion took place sometime after 2010, and quotes a Houston pastor to say Floyd’s heart was “radically changed by the gospel”. This may indeed be the case, but let’s just say that in Christian circles George’s parenting style and living arrangements since conversion would be considered a non-standard application of New Testament principles.

In summary, reconciling Kate Shellnutt’s glowing portrayal of Saint George with the secular media accounts of Floyd’s life and death is no easy task.

People are Complicated

Now, that’s not to say reconciling two wildly different sides of a story can’t be done. People are complicated, Christians included. They are not all one thing, either good or bad. One can love the Lord and spend one’s working life around dancing and drinking every night, hurling misbehaving patrons out on to the sidewalk. One can love the Lord and have children out of wedlock and a live-in girlfriend. One can even love the Lord and take copious amounts of drugs ... although there is the expectation in the word of God that sin in the lives of Christians is exceptional rather than characteristic. One can certainly love the Lord and have a tragic, violent history that one repents of and turns away from. Admittedly, it is a tough slog to make all these elements of George Floyd’s distant and recent past fit comfortably into the standard picture of a growing and thriving Christian life, let alone Shellnutt’s caricature, but who are we to judge?

Was George Floyd a meth head or a Christ figure? Realistically, I suspect he was neither. It’s more than possible his saintliness has been severely overstated in the wake of his untimely death by those who would like to make him a poster boy for their revolution, just as his history of occasional brutality, lack of self-control and poor lifestyle choices is being used by imprudent defenders of Derek Chauvin as some sort of weird justification for Floyd’s death and premature exoneration of Chauvin. Neither portrayal seems 100% right.

Using Equal Weights and Measures

Moreover — and I think this is important — for the purpose of deciding whether George Floyd’s death was a tragic accident or a racist murder, and whether entire social institutions ought to be turned upside down and cities barbecued as a result, Floyd’s character is entirely irrelevant. The legal penalty for murdering a genial, drugged-up thug is — or at least should be — exactly the same as the legal penalty for murdering the saintly mentor of young boys. It is the act which needs judgment, not George Floyd’s life. Equally, the legal penalty for incompetently arresting someone and accidentally killing him in the process should be identical whether the unfortunate victim is a meth head or a Christ figure. It is arguable that the bigger tragedy is the death of the meth head, because he is permanently cut off from the opportunity for repentance, but that’s not the story Kate Shellnutt decided to write for her audience.

From a Christian perspective, it is imperative that we not be respecters of persons, neither reflexively jumping on board with BLM’s ultra-popular systemic oppression narrative, nor gullibly swallowing pat establishment excuses for what may be criminal behavior on the part of the authorities. Christians cannot simply stack the deck because the world has done so and because social media makes it so easy to hurl out one’s uninformed opinion to the world long before all the facts are in. It remains true that “Unequal weights and unequal measures are both alike an abomination to the Lord.” Or, as Leviticus puts it, “You shall not be partial to the poor or defer to the great, but in righteousness shall you judge your neighbor.”

We cannot tell only one side of the story. Our faith forbids it.

One Side Fits All

Even though they are heavily invested in pushing the “systemic oppression” narrative, The Times, CNN, NPR, The Express and the rest of the media still permitted George Floyd’s criminality and drug use to be (a relatively small) part of their stories. Perhaps his well-documented record would simply have been too difficult to cover up. They give little or no play to CT’s “Christian” angle, but that could be simply be a lack of interest in that side of George Floyd.

More importantly, though, why did Kate Shellnutt write her tale the way she did? Why has she given her readers such a heavily censored and incomplete picture of the late George Floyd? It cannot have been anything but a series of very deliberate choices to omit anything that might contradict the narrative she was building and cause readers to question the emotional authority of her rhetorical case.

Here’s what that narrative was building up to, in case you’re interested. To no one’s surprise, it’s the exact same case the leftist mainstream media is pushing: systemic oppression.
“The viral video of Floyd pinned to the pavement by a Minnesota police officer joins a devastating canon of cell phone footage depicting police using force against black men. There’s only so much disbelief [Floyd’s friends in ministry] can muster from this kind of killing. They’re black men too. Despite their innocence, their faith, their good deeds, they have their own stories of being suspected, humiliated, and threatened by authorities.”
In this case there is no pretense of anything but a rhetorical argument being made. Shellnutt provides zero evidence to back up her claim that the police generally use disproportionate force against blacks, as opposed to against other races, shows no willingness to wait for things like actual evidence or a trial to choose sides, gives no apparent consideration to the possibility even that there may be another side to any story. George Floyd’s killing may indeed have been a racist act, but that too remains to be proven. It cannot just be assumed. That is not how our societies are supposed to do business, and it is definitely not appropriate for Christians.

We are used to this kind of nonsense from the mainstream media. Should we start getting used to it from the Christian media as well?

The Reporting We Deserve

Let’s concede this: we get the sort of reporting we are prepared to allow. The secular media is what it is, and Christians have little we can do to influence how they report the news beyond simply turning it off. However, Christians need to hold ourselves to higher standards. If CT is unwilling to write the other side of this story, or even to tell one side accurately, its readers will have to decide whether they are prepared to put up with more of the same. If so, then they deserve what they get.

Does Kate Shellnutt really believe the death of a gospel proponent and community leader will move her believing readers into the social justice camp more effectively than the death of a well-liked deadbeat dad with a drug problem? Does she believe it’s worth misrepresenting reality if it enables her to persuade a Christian audience of the moral superiority of her political position?

More importantly, are we really that gullible?

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