In Christianity the phrase “holy desperation” refers to that tipping point in the process of sanctification when you become so discontent with your spiritual state, and so utterly desperate for change that you finally enter into a true surrender to God. These are rare moments and they become symbolic markers for transformation and change.
I think that this is a rough analogy to where our nation is today in regard to racial justice. We just may be entering into a state of such desperation that we finally accept the kind of deep change that is required. I want to highlight three racial moments, all in my lifetime, that gave us three iconic phrases, which collectively demonstrate the point of “holy desperation” we are in today.
Racial Moment #1: “I Have a Dream” This is, of course, the iconic phrase from the speech by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial on August 28, 1963. It is a hopeful speech. He called upon Americans to remember our own founding documents that “all men are created equal.” King was blunt about the racial problems and the speech speaks openly about the “unspeakable horrors of police brutality.” Yet, the speech calls the nation to “not wallow in the valley of despair.” King optimistically said that he did not believe that the “bank of justice is bankrupt” and the speech ended with a seven-fold cry “I have a dream” which resonates as faith in a more hopeful future. In 1963 Americans dared to believe that we would pass down to our children a more just America, one which lived up to “the true meaning of its creed.”
Racial Moment #2: “Hands Up-Don’t Shoot!” This is the famous rallying cry which arose from the death of Michael Brown, an eighteen-year-old African American man in Ferguson, Missouri, in August 2014. Several witnesses testified (later unproven in the trial) that at the moment he was shot (twelve times) he had his hands up and said, “Don’t shoot.” Despite the lack of clarity about what actually happened, the phrase “hands up” became a rallying cry for racial justice. Raised hands are a symbol of submission and a posture of vulnerability. Martin Luther King’s 1963 speech spoke of “soul power,” but by 2014, many were feeling powerless to affect change in the face of injustice. The dream is dimming, and the posture is more of powerlessness than of hope. King told us to lift our heads high and hope. Now, we can only lift our hands up and say, “Don’t shoot.”
Racial Moment #3: “I Can’t Breathe.” This is the most recent rallying cry echoing those heard from the lips of George Floyd during the eight minutes and forty-six seconds Derek Chauvin, the arresting police officer, kept his knee on Floyd’s neck on May 25, 2020. As Floyd lay dying on the streets of Minneapolis he said, “I can’t breathe.” This cry had already been heard around the nation since the time Eric Garner was choked to death by a New York policeman back in July 2014. But, Floyd’s cry of “I can’t breathe” seems to have struck an even deeper chord of hopelessness. “I can’t breathe” is the symbolic cry of a people who feel that the smothering bonds of injustice have nearly snuffed out their hope.
Our nation has symbolically gone from “I have a dream” to “Hands up” to “I can’t breathe.” This might be the moment of holy desperation where we finally realize that the normal resources we draw upon for hope are bankrupt. The challenge of racism in our country cannot be solved by a political solution. The challenge of racism cannot be resolved by a new set of laws. The challenge of racism cannot be resolved by hoping that this whole incident will blow over and we can get back to normal. We, of course, need political courage. We may need new laws. But, none of that will address the depth of this wound. This is the opportunity which summons the church of Jesus Christ to rise up and be the church in the midst of human brokenness. It is the church that proclaims to the world that this is not merely a political problem, or a legal problem, or a problem of some bad cops. This is a heart problem. “This kind does not come out except by prayer and fasting” (Matt. 17:21). The bent knee of Derek Chauvin, as it turns out, is actually a sign for us. It serves as a kind of anti-sacrament. In other words, it was an outward and visible sign of death, rather than the true nature of a sacrament which is an outward and visible sign of a deep spiritual truth.
We have, as a society, been placing our knees on the necks of some of our most vulnerable citizens. It is now time—that moment of holy desperation—where we gather the courage to bend our knees, not in hatred, but in prayer. We need to bend our knees before the living God and cry out for him to change our own hearts. Of course we need to change police protocols. But that is mere window dressing if we do not get to the core problem, which is our own hearts. We need a great awakening in this country. We need a spiritual rebirth. We need to be changed from within. If the truth is told, George Floyd spoke for the whole human race when he said, “I can’t breathe.” There is no life in any of us unless and until we receive the breath of the Lord Jesus giving us new hope for a new birth and a new heart.
Lord, we are at that tipping point of holy desperation.