Carrie Cunningham

Author of Meaning Train: Essays on Religion and Politics

For Love and Nonviolence: George Floyd and my Christian Journey

This essay is an expansion of the introduction to Meaning Train. 

I care about George Floyd.

In America and across the world, we were angry and horrified by the killing of Floyd. His senseless murder laid out for every one to see the grave inequality and violence toward African Americans  by American police. The peaceful protests are vital and should usher in meaningful reform.

Some writers have compared George Floyd’s death to the lynching of Emmett Till. This association is right. Till, a boy of age 14, was traveling to Money, Mississippi from Chicago during the summer in 1955 to visit family. He encountered a white woman in a grocery store and whistled at her. As a result, some of the woman’s relatives lynched Till. They reared him from his bed, savagely beat him and threw his body into the Tallahatchie River with a fan tied on his neck. In an ensuing trial, the men were acquitted by an all-male and all-white journey. As a result of Till’s death, many were inspired to start fighting against Jim Crow. Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King were among those who were galvanized to respond in what became the modern day civil rights movement.

The comparison of Floyd to Till moved me. As a student at Harvard College, I wrote about Till’s murder. I described the gruesome killing and then analyzed white and black feminist responses to the crime. White feminists like Susan Brownmiller said Till’s whistle to the white woman was sexist, a view I do not share, while black women like Angela Davis said Till’s murder was southern racism as its most egregious, I sentiment I believe. The bottom line of the paper, however, was that people of every gender and race should work together to fight injustice.

The Till paper was my first foray into writing about civil rights in American. What followed was a peripatetic and fraught journey from feeling rage about race to looking at it through the Christian lens of civil rights workers fighting injustice with love and nonviolence. My book Meaning Train: Essays on Religion and Politics is the fruition of my journey. It is a home that I put my heart and soul into.

My path towards becoming a Christian advocate of love and violence has been long and grueling but also meaningful and rewarding. I am imparting my story so that people can find a moral compass in which to buttress their activism as related to race. I hardly have all the answers, but I think love and nonviolence is the only way forward. For sure, it can change hearts and minds and replace racial discord with racial love.

Here is my story:

I grew up in an affluent home in Grosse Pointe Farms, Michigan. My interest in human rights was viscerally grounded in my father’s racism and antisemitism. His parents were from the South, and he was influenced by their loathsome views on racial and religious diversity. His bigoted animus against others not like him was often uncontainable and shook my precarious heart. Still, he had some goodness within him, and he loved our family. I forgive him for his views.

Coming from humble origins, my mom was a saint who gave my siblings and me insatiable love. Her altruism reflected the spirit of beloved community. She dedicated her life to service and philanthropy, raising money for schools and hospitals. My mom taught the necessity of grace by enduring hardship and caring about the world.

As a student at Harvard College in the 1990s, I valued the growth of my intellectual life. I majored in American history and minored in African history. The first class I took with my favorite professor, James Goodman, focused on 1920s and 1930s America. It changed my life. I learned how Franklin Roosevelt made some progress on race, and I was introduced to the Southern psychology of white hegemony. My work on apartheid was equally meaningful. This enlightenment about race in America revealed the potential source of my father’s vitriol. Moreover, enrolling in these classes offered an alternative world, like a cocoon that protected my tolerance.

After I graduated from Harvard, I worked for Massachusetts Governor William Weld in his Washington, DC office. A Republican moderate, Weld advocates for fiscal responsibility in addition to service and tolerance. He has been compared to John F. Kennedy and is a national treasure.

Weld has many good characteristics.  I agree with many of his policies. He believes in tax cuts and policies that promote economic fairness for people across the socioeconomic spectrum. He accepts immigrants, and he has castigated Donald Trump for his bigotry.  He advocates for civil rights and has spoken about economic justice. Additionally, he is kind and serene and charming with a good sense of humor.  He believes in honesty and integrity, traits that I have tried to emulate in my writing career.

Still, it was challenging to work in Washington, DC for a centrist politician in a town where the parties were so polarized. It was exhausting defending my views in addition to Weld’s. The cacophony of viewpoints frayed my moral compass, and I was faced with melancholy. My spirit of caring for others became cloaked as I could not find common ground policies that helped others and bridged partisan divides. I wanted to reflect Weld’s benign and altruistic being.

When my mom was diagnosed with breast cancer, I took a few years off from work. After she died, a friend gave me a book about Jesus which I read vociferously. It gave me tremendous solace. I needed relief from the emotional ache of my mother’s death and the violent and war-torn state of the world.

As I wrote in an essay for Meaning Train, Jesus embodies love and inclusion. His gentle nature coincides with his message: “He never condemned but encouraged. The Ten Commandments were not demanded but were calls for a benign dialogue. He came to save, not judge.” That’s why I value him.

Supported by Jesus’s example, my spirit of empathy and love for others returned. I found a new purpose to help the world via comity and nonviolence with humankind. Later, I learned about Judaism and Islam when I earned another bachelor’s degree from Wayne State University. I came to understand the urgent need for pluralism. We are all God’s creation, and thus, we should all love each other.

Meaning Train fuses the material I learned at Harvard with my religious education. From an examination of love and nonviolence and race in addition to a look at inclusion in major religions and the great moral witness of Bobby Kennedy, the book explores the wonder of human existence. It should captivate and stir the human soul.

The inspiration for the book is the notion of Beloved Community. Created and embraced by the 1960s civil rights leaders, the concept calls for solving human rights issues via nonviolence coupled with radical love and forgiveness. Based on the example of Jesus Christ, the notion guided leaders like Martin Luther King Jr. in addition to John Lewis and Fannie Lou Hammer. Together, with love and care in their hearts, they ended the segregation laws of Jim Crow and black disenfranchisement. They risked their lives so that people would know the necessity of equality and having a voice. Lewis thought it was like bringing the kingdom of God to earth while Hammer said it was like a table where everyone is included in a splendid feast.

“Without prayer, without faith in the Almighty, the civil rights movement would have been a bird without wings,” Lewis said.

With the creation of Meaning Train, I have reached a point in my life where my principles are sacrosanct, and my hopes are secure. I have recovered a deep need in my soul for empathy, meaning, goodness and love.

With Floyd’s death as a catalyst, there is hope that long-needed change will come. For sure, people throughout the country and world are clamoring in support of the Black Lives Matter movement. The inequality and violence that African Americans have endured must be eradicated. Moreover, there are policies swirling about that might begin to combat police violence. Banning choke holds in addition to transferring money from police budgets to social services and lifting the ban on felon’s right to vote are a good start.

I come back to love and nonviolence.  It lasts longer and is more durable than hate. It can transform souls and change society. The idea is wondrously expressed in a speech Bobby Kennedy gave after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr.:

“For those of you who were black—considering the evidence is that there were white people who were responsible—you can be filled with bitterness, and with hatred and a desire for revenge. We can move in that direction as a country, in a great polarization—black people amongst black, and white amongst white, filled with hatred toward one another.

“Or we can make an effort, as Martin Luther King did, to understand and to comprehend and replace that violence,” he said. “with an effort to understand compassion and love.”

God bless George Floyd.