This I know, for the Bible tells me so. His name is George Floyd, and yes, I am my brother’s keeper

The first anniversary of George Floyd’s passing is on Tuesday 25th May. In this chapter length article, I reflect on the lessons we might draw from the Genesis account of Cain, Abel and Lamech and the tragic events in Minneapolis a year ago. The biblical account also makes passing comment about the progress of civilisation and leaves some clues about law and order in society, which I consider in regard to current developments in space exploration and the US presidency.

Genesis 4 Now Adam knew Eve his wife, and she conceived and bore Cain, saying, “I have gotten[a] a man with the help of the Lord.” And again, she bore his brother Abel. Now Abel was a keeper of sheep, and Cain a worker of the ground. In the course of time Cain brought to the Lord an offering of the fruit of the ground, and Abel also brought of the firstborn of his flock and of their fat portions. And the Lord had regard for Abel and his offering, but for Cain and his offering he had no regard. So Cain was very angry, and his face fell. The Lord said to Cain, “Why are you angry, and why has your face fallen? If you do well, will you not be accepted?[b] And if you do not do well, sin is crouching at the door. Its desire is contrary to[c] you, but you must rule over it.”

Cain spoke to Abel his brother.[d] And when they were in the field, Cain rose up against his brother Abel and killed him. Then the Lord said to Cain, “Where is Abel your brother?” He said, “I do not know; am I my brother’s keeper?” 10 And the Lord said, “What have you done? The voice of your brother’s blood is crying to me from the ground. 11 And now you are cursed from the ground, which has opened its mouth to receive your brother’s blood from your hand. 12 When you work the ground, it shall no longer yield to you its strength. You shall be a fugitive and a wanderer on the earth.” 13 Cain said to the Lord, “My punishment is greater than I can bear.[e] 14 Behold, you have driven me today away from the ground, and from your face I shall be hidden. I shall be a fugitive and a wanderer on the earth, and whoever finds me will kill me.” 15 Then the Lord said to him, “Not so! If anyone kills Cain, vengeance shall be taken on him sevenfold.” And the Lord put a mark on Cain, lest any who found him should attack him. 16 Then Cain went away from the presence of the Lord and settled in the land of Nod,[f] east of Eden.

17 Cain knew his wife, and she conceived and bore Enoch. When he built a city, he called the name of the city after the name of his son, Enoch. 18 To Enoch was born Irad, and Irad fathered Mehujael, and Mehujael fathered Methushael, and Methushael fathered Lamech. 19 And Lamech took two wives. The name of the one was Adah, and the name of the other Zillah. 20 Adah bore Jabal; he was the father of those who dwell in tents and have livestock. 21 His brother’s name was Jubal; he was the father of all those who play the lyre and pipe. 22 Zillah also bore Tubal-cain; he was the forger of all instruments of bronze and iron. The sister of Tubal-cain was Naamah.

23 Lamech said to his wives:

“Adah and Zillah, hear my voice;
    you wives of Lamech, listen to what I say:
I have killed a man for wounding me,
    a young man for striking me.
24 If Cain’s revenge is sevenfold,
    then Lamech’s is seventy-sevenfold.”

 25 And Adam knew his wife again, and she bore a son and called his name Seth, for she said, “God has appointed[g] for me another offspring instead of Abel, for Cain killed him.” 26 To Seth also a son was born, and he called his name Enosh. At that time people began to call upon the name of the Lord.

Genesis 4 ESV. Genesis 4:1 Cain sounds like the Hebew for gotten ESV Gen 4:2 Lit. Breath or Nothing NKJV Gen 4:16 Nod means wandering

What exactly is the nature of the tree of knowledge of good and evil? There are many enduring mysteries in the Bible, most especially in the opening chapters of Genesis, and this is one of the juiciest. There are plenty of things we do know, because we are rather good at finding things out, but a whole bunch more that we still do not, and that is very good for our humility. There are certain important things that we can only know if God tells us about them. What is exciting about Genesis is that God does tell us, which is what theologians mean by revelation.  We don’t need to study stories about feral children for long to know that we rely on our parents and community to bring us into the world.  Our communities are as much a womb as our mothers were.  And Genesis speaks to us on God’s behalf, to provide an environment to nurture the eternal in us.

As Adam and Eve discovered, we know that God was very serious when he told our first parents not to do something. The wonderful thing about having parents is that they can teach us things- what to do, and especially what not to do. Learn from our mistakes. We can’t make you behave- in fact we have to admit that we can’t control you at all!  When you are older, we might eventually stop telling you what to do, but at least we can keep reminding you about what not to do. You want to be your own man, your own woman? Well and good, for you are indeed formed in God’s own image and likeness, and sent out into God’s good world to be a very fruitful seed and to multiply life and good works – forty, sixty, one hundred-fold. But also know this. Death was a fact of life before we came along, and the inescapable lesson of Cain was that having freedom means that you can also sow death.

Might this all suggest that the quality of knowledge of this very particular tree in God’s garden is not so much in the fruit of the tree itself but in God’s words to His children about it?  The kind of knowledge that our elders offer to us as the fruit of lived experience- the ever-sharp taste of memory, of life lived in freedom which goes somewhat according to the way they intended, yet not quite. And that ‘not quite’ is painful and has unintended consequences in the lives of the community. Sinful consequences. Looking back, it is often easier to be clear about what we wish we had not done- because we find we are challenged to take responsibility for what we started: what we set in train, as an inescapable chain of cause and effect that began with us. With me.

1.Cain and Abel, ivory panel from the cathedral of Salerno, ca. 1084.

If only Cain had listened to his parents.

What might Adam and Eve had to say to Cain and Abel, their first children?  That must have been an awkward conversation. ‘Listen lads- we stuffed up. We’re out of Eden now- we can’t help that.  But there is value in going on with life. God is still with us.  That has to be a reliable foundation for hope. And whatever you do, take His word seriously.’

Look at these two boys. Chapter 4 introduces us the results of Adam ‘knowing’ Eve: Cain, whose name many of the versions tell us in a footnote sounds like the Hebrew for ‘gotten,’ so the American English is quite informative in this regard. Cain is at once the possession of his mother- a name evoking the universal image of a mother cradling her child- and a gift, a specific and personal gift of God. Which is also what we commonly hold on to before the little mite has done anything good or bad.  Commentary on ‘Abel’ is less common, and we may be brought up short to find the alternative renditions as ‘breath’ or ‘nothing,’ in the NKJV.  Remember that God breathed into Adam, creating his life from clay, and this breath will return to God at death, leaving only dust. So together, the boys are ‘sons of their father’, and ‘sons of their Father.’

Genesis 4 verses 2 and 3 transport us to a world within the worlds of the text.  Cain discovers that he is different.  Different to his brother Abel.  There are different ways to make one’s journey on in life, even while being in community, in the same family.  Cain discovers what we all know; that life is unfair. We don’t always get what we hope for, even what we think we deserve for our honest hard work.  The text puts it like this. The two brothers bring an offering of their best work to God’s altar. I expect they put fire to the portions, and they turned to ash and smoke.  How did Cain know that his offering was not accepted by the Lord? Did the smoke go sideways instead of rising upwards? Or was the fire somehow prematurely snuffed out?  I don’t know, but Cain knew that his offering was not regarded.   As he looked across, he saw that his brother’s offering was accepted. In that instant, wild and unruly thoughts formed in his mind.

In the previous chapter, it took the whisperings of the serpent to set off the internal dialogue in Eve’s mind, which ends with her ‘seeing’ what was good and pleasing and desirable. But there is no whisperer to blame this time.  Cain sees what he chooses to see, and he comes to know what he decides is the case. In Genesis 3, the couple wait until judgement comes to them. In Genesis 4, Cain takes charge of judging the situation for himself.  “It’s not fair.

In the garden, the couple are left to discover the consequences of their collective choice, until God comes to search for them in the cool of the day.  For Cain, there is unexpected grace. Well, that’s what grace is. Unexpected! Though the humans have been banished from the garden, God’s voice comes immediately to Cain more clearly than the conviction of his own conscience.  God speaks to Cain in straightforward terms, just as parents should, making complicated things simpler, giving life wisdom with urgency and clarity.  Just as in Genesis 3, Cain discovers that there is something outside of himself that is opposed to wisdom, and is opposed to him. But this is not what is important, so much as who ought to be in charge.  Our feelings and emotional responses may seem inevitable, but God leaves Cain without excuse.  Sin may well be crouching at your doorway with ill intent- what mysteries are yet hinted at here? But the choice is yours.  God tells Cain that he can rule over his decision. Being out of Eden is not the issue. My parents’ failures are not the issue. The reality of unfairness in life is not the issue. Freedom still applies.  Your emotions may be running ahead of you, but the decision is still to be made, and you are the ruler of that decision. You must- God speaks in the imperative! – must rule over it. Or as the American Standard and Amplified versions translate it, ‘you must master it.’  Now this is wisdom, informed by God’s direct revelation.  We may not understand the forces arrayed against us, from without and within, but at this juncture God still assures Cain of the potential to be ruler and master of his own decision. What tragedy follows.  Cain has the roads of right and wrong illuminated before him, and the offer of the Divine Companion to assist him, but he turns from God’s inviting hand and shuts down the dialogue. He becomes a tyrant: taking mastery of his own mind and becoming ruler of his own actions.  He makes himself the judge of God’s personal words of warning and wisdom. His father had been given charge of the field – to till and watch there. Cain goes to the field to create murder. ‘So you want a blood sacrifice do you? My grain offering isn’t good enough? Well that can be arranged.’ Cain rose up against his brother Abel and killed him. His response to inequality is to blot out the other- even his own brother. This is no solution. The God who put ‘adamah in charge of His garden knows what is in His soil.  Spilt blood can be seen from the farthest distance, even from the heavens above.

The scripture does not tell us how Cain did the murderous deed. The disadvantage of creating pictures to tell the biblical stories to the illiterate is that the artist has to imagine certain details that are hidden, and perhaps diverts attention away from what is revealed.  In an ivory tablet from Salerno cathedral, made around 1084AD, Cain is depicted pinning Abel’s body down with his foot, with both hands around his brother’s neck, strangling him. As his oxygen supply is cut off, we see Abel looking back to the event that apparently led to his demise at the hands of his brother. Even making an acceptable offering to God seems not to have been sufficient to protect him from ultimate harm. Life really is not fair.

The scriptures have provided us with great gifts of divine revelation. Warnings about the nature of knowing good and evil that are inseparable from the profound truth of knowing God personally and literally, and divine affirmation of the reality of personal freedom, moral choice and responsibility.  Now then, about responsibility.  There is no time for Cain to hide in the bushes.  ‘Adam, where are you?’ becomes, ‘Cain, where is your brother?’  As I may have said more than once myself, denial of knowledge can be attempted as a strategy to avoid responsibility. ‘I don’t know!’ says Cain to God.  Then he gives away more than he intends. ‘Am I my brother’s keeper?’  As if the suggestion that the divine dominion mandate was only to ‘work and keep’ (ESV) the ground of the garden, but not his brother also.  ‘I only have to keep charge of the ground that produces grain- that’s what my father said you told us to do. Nothing about watching out for people. Each person looks after themselves- its none of my business what he does or where he goes.’

Methinks he protests too much.2

We would not tell the rest of the story this way. God does indeed pronounce a curse on Cain, but it is Cain himself who first says to God that ‘from your face I shall be hidden.’ Cain pronounces judgement on himself: here still is the sufficiently vertical plumb line of conscience. It is Cain who ‘went away from the presence of the Lord and settled in the land of Nod, east of Eden.’  And once again, the gift of the life of God in human beings continues in grace, for Cain ‘knew his wife’ and a new community is formed.  Cain’s own mother Eve speaks out what he would not admit or take responsibility for, naming her third son Seth, ‘appointed,’ after Abel, ‘for Cain killed him.’ It is the mournful cry of all mothers, lamenting the destruction wrought in the world by one woman’s son on another, while holding onto their dream of a better future that, somehow, perhaps, God has planned.

History has repeated itself again and again.  We are told that no one listens to that either.

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I was born in August 1968, four months after the assassination of Dr Martin Luther King on April 4 in Memphis, Tennessee.  While I was kicking about in nappies, the space race was in full swing.  As Apollo 8 returned from the first circumnavigation of the moon, bearing a photograph of the luminous blue dot of Earth hanging alone in the blackness of space, the US media commentator Walter Cronkite reflected, ‘A year of trouble and turbulence, anger and assassination, is now coming to an end in incandescent triumph.’  Just another year later in July of 1969, Apollo 11’s ‘Eagle’ lander touched down, then relaunched and successfully returned the first two men to walk in the dust of the moon, leaving two sets of footprints, the American flag, and several kilos of space junk.  The memorial plaque they delivered reads, ‘We came in peace for all mankind.’

4 Nixon greets the Apollo 11 astronauts Armstrong, Aldrin and Collins on July 24th 1969 at the MQF.

It was impossible to know whether Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin might be exposed to some virus or bring some infection back to Earth from the moon, so while President Nixon was very keen to be seen as close to the returning adventurers, he was obliged to greet and congratulate them from outside the mobile quarantine facility the three astronauts were transported in after being plucked out of the sea.  As it turned out, there was no cause for alarm, so that part of the routine was cut for Apollo 12, which flew the round trip without a hitch in November of the same year.

While the race to the moon, announced by J F Kennedy at the start of the decade, on 25th May 1961, began as a crude political race between rivals – the Communist Soviets versus the underdog Americans- the Apollo programme had morphed into a full blown scientific, technological and commercial endeavour.  The next mission was Apollo number 13 of 20, but, for the media, the novelty was wearing off, and regular shows were filling television screens around the world, until shortly after Commander Fred Haise called back to Houston from about half way to the moon to say that ‘we’ve had a problem.’ An electrical component manufactured two years earlier had malfunctioned when stirring the main oxygen fuel tank, though fortunately, by a quirk of design, there was nothing else nearby to ignite, so the three crew survived the explosion.  Back on Earth in their training camp, NASA astronaut Ken Mattingly did not have German measles, and he helped his former crewmates work up the rescue procedure that would get their crippled spaceship back to earth.  Restarting the flight computer after shutting it down to conserve battery power was a particular challenge. Although not landing on the moon shortened the overall mission time, there was insufficient oxygen to sustain the three crew in the command module.  They adapted the ‘scrubbers’ which remove carbon dioxide from the cabin to avoid all being suffocated before getting home, which required several metres of duct tape, plastic bags and even the cover of their flight manual.

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Of course, I was not old enough to know any of this at the time.  As a 12 year old boy, I compiled a paper project on the space programmes of the USA, USSR and even the UK, but my sources of information did not include any film footage.  My maiden Aunt Betty shared her collection of Time LIFE magazines from the era of the moon landings, which printed the enthralling photographs from the lunar missions, while also reporting on the multiple tragic fatalities in the Kennedy family in the USA at the same time. I was aware of the violence and protests against apartheid in South Africa as I got older, but I remained largely ignorant of the systemic inter-racial tensions in the USA that culminated in the cowardly shooting of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King until many years later- really past the date I left school, I think, and only then did I come to appreciate the significance of King’s leadership in the struggle for racial equality.  I certainly understood that the legacy of segregation of blacks from whites was the reason that the US space programme placed white men in the glamorous seats inside the rockets and control rooms.  My understanding has become deeper over the years as black life stories and perspectives have been listened to and broadcast- indeed, in as much as I have made the effort to find out what their perspectives are.

It is rather easy to reduce the key messages in Genesis 4 to simplistic statements about jealousy and fratricide.  ‘What a bad boy that Cain was! Its no wonder no mother gives that name any more.’  We must not misunderstand what the text is telling us about ourselves.  The wrong question to ask is, ‘Am I Cain or am I Abel?’  We are all Cain, and God is certainly speaking to all of us, if we will listen.  It is also true that we are all Abel- or at least could be.  But just as a key lesson of Genesis 3 is that we are Adam and Eve, and that God comes chasing after us despite breaking our vertical relationship, so the paramount lesson of Genesis 4 is that we are Cain and we have broken relationship with our brothers and sisters. Yet our horizontal relations are not to be considered independently of God. Genesis 4 says this in several ways, and here are just two.  Both brothers are making offerings to God. Secondly, the chapter is concluded with the statement, ‘At that time people began to call upon the name of the Lord.’ (4:26 ESV) Some say that Genesis 4 is a lament over the ghastly decline of the state of humanity, but this diagnosis must be countered by hope, which God sustains and even Eve gives voice to, the mother of both murdered son and murdering son.

We have a choice about what we will say; what we will confess, what we will speak into being. Our parenting is tested by the failures of our children. Our identity as children is tested by our responses to our own failures, and especially those of our own parents, for they are not perfect either. Did I need to say that? Yes, I do, for silence can so easily give place for condemnation.  Through our next words we set out boundaries for the future; through our words we affirm the space in which we will reorient ourselves, horizontally and vertically and in time.  And if we will speak words that engender conversation, and give names to what hope can lie ahead in God’s grace, through repentance and forgiveness, then we can be co-creators of community. Through our words we can master ourselves and empower one another to corporate mastery.

This opportunity was grasped by President Kennedy the very day after the assassination of Dr King, when he kept his appointment at the Cleveland City Club on April 5th 1968.

For there is another kind of violence, slower but just as deadly, destructive as the shot or the bomb in the night. This is the violence of institutions; indifference and inaction and slow decay. This is the violence that afflicts the poor, that poisons relations between men because their skin has different colors. This is a slow destruction of a child by hunger, and schools without books and homes without heat in the winter.

This is the breaking of a man’s spirit by denying him the chance to stand as a father and as a man among other men. And this too afflicts us all. I have not come here to propose a set of specific remedies nor is there a single set. For a broad and adequate outline we know what must be done. When you teach a man to hate and fear his brother, when you teach that he is a lesser man because of his color or his beliefs or the policies he pursues, when you teach that those who differ from you threaten your freedom or your job or your family, then you also learn to confront others not as fellow citizens but as enemies – to be met not with cooperation but with conquest, to be subjugated and mastered.

We learn, at the last, to look at our brothers as aliens, men with whom we share a city, but not a community, men bound to us in common dwelling, but not in common effort. We learn to share only a common fear – only a common desire to retreat from each other – only a common impulse to meet disagreement with force. For all this there are no final answers.

Yet we know what we must do. It is to achieve true justice among our fellow citizens. The question is now what programs we should seek to enact. The question is whether we can find in our own midst and in our own hearts that leadership of human purpose that will recognize the terrible truths of our existence.

We must admit the vanity of our false distinctions among men and learn to find our own advancement in the search for the advancement of all. We must admit in ourselves that our own children’s future cannot be built on the misfortunes of others. We must recognize that this short life can neither be ennobled or enriched by hatred or revenge.

6 President John F Kennedy at the Cleveland City Club on April 5th 1968.

Not only does Genesis 4 weave a strand of hope into the accounts of Cain and Lamech and the destruction they bring to community and all of God’s creation project, it also subtly outlines the landscape for the development of civilisations.  The children of Cain and Lamech are those who go on to build cities or to dwell in tents.  Verses 21 and 22 tell us about the invention and development of musical instruments- the technology of the arts, while others develop ‘instruments’ of bronze and iron.  The cultural language of Genesis and the Old Testament as a whole is that of the Late Bronze Age, and we now understand much more about the spectacular flowering of civilisation in and beyond the ancient Near East in the millennia before Christ.  The production of bronze was no parochial matter- the tin for this alloy was sourced along trade routes from what is now Afghanistan, while copper was mined in Crete in quantity and traded via ships across the Mediterranean to meet the tin in smelting and forging.  If musical instruments were made, then so were weapons and tools of all kinds.  These little verses, as so often in the biblical texts, are subtle signposts with momentous implications.

[7Top left] Sons of Zeus, Apollo with his lyre and Dionysus with his pipe, engaged in a ‘Battle of the Bands.’ Yet in Gen 4:22, the Jubal is the father of those who play both lyre and pipe. [Right] So-called ‘Standard of Ur’ at the British Museum. This reconstruction of the ‘Standard of Ur’ shows the occupations and technologies of war on one face (TOP THREE ROWS notably including several of its crushed and trampled victims), and those of peace on the other, include a musician with a stringed instrument. (LOWER THREE ROWS) (By contrast, Gen 4:21-22 does not distinguish the uses of the items made of bronze and iron.) One hypothesis is that this so-called ‘Standard’ was instead the decorated sounding box of a musical instrument. [Lower left] Enlargement of musician with lyre.

If it is possible to fashion a bronze tube into a musical pipe or a trumpet, then it’s an inevitable sequence of steps to intricate tools and weapons, and then to guns and projectiles. And once the chemistry of forging can develop into the chemistry of portable fuels, then the fuel can be put inside the metal tube and BOOM- we’ve got rockets! Well, there were a few failed ‘booms’ and blasts before the rockets went anywhere, but the progress from air ships to aeroplanes to supersonic flight to earth orbiting rockets was accomplished in just over half a century.  But this narrative of science and technology is a different one to that of Genesis 4, which takes it as read that fire is a key development in human technology, but does not draw attention to it. The two brothers each make a burnt offering; that assumes knowledge of fire.  Cain’s descendants advance from bronze to iron technology; that implies the profound control of fire in combination with materials with sufficient insight that will lead, by routes of enquiry of varying fruitfulness, to our technological present which includes a new age of space travel driven by private enterprise as well as national governments.  Yet Genesis is silent regarding political and governmental institutions, which lie entirely in the realm of human freedom. Not all human institutions are equally likely to facilitate and protect such freedom, however.  Perhaps Lamech recognises this, so he tries to multiply the protection that God gave to his forefather Cain through his own invocation of extrajudicial vengeance.

The Genesis text elegantly sews together the various aspects of developing civilisation, even in so few words. Both arts and sciences are interwoven with the allusions to geographical variety of community and the continuing accounts of individual life histories.  Music is mentioned before technology- or are these categories really separate in the view of the biblical authors?  Whatever the answer to that question, archaeology certainly evidences that both are evident in all human cultures, and there is a creative synergy between them.

Whatever the long-term benefits of the extended Apollo programme might have been, once the USA had beaten the Russians to the moon, who then gave up their own ambitions to carry out a manned landing, the astronomical cost to the American taxpayer became the focus of attention. In particular, this was becoming a social justice question as well as an economic one.  As we read, JFK was highly sympathetic to the protests led by MLK and community leaders around the US, and some say this was why Kennedy was assassinated.  His successors at the White House were less biddable, but there are other means of marshalling political pressure.  Lyric writers create ways of saying things in public that it is hard to get into newspapers. By the late 60s, the upcoming jazz and soul poet Gil Scott-Heron was writing street poetry which boldly critiqued environmental, military and capitalist issues. He also took on structural racism.  Here are the lyrics he wrote in 1969 for his debut album ‘Small Talk at 125th and Lenox,’ which complained that swathes of the black community had little to celebrate in this decade of technological conquest that sent white American test pilots to the moon, but without tangible benefit for blacks in the US as a whole. 

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Gil Scott-Heron

Gil Scott-Heron – Whitey On the Moon (Official Audio) – YouTube

http://www.youtube.com › watchLyrics

A rat done bit my sister Nell.
(with Whitey on the moon)
Her face and arms began to swell.
(and Whitey’s on the moon)

I can’t pay no doctor bill.
(but Whitey’s on the moon)
Ten years from now I’ll be payin’ still.
(while Whitey’s on the moon)

The man jus’ upped my rent las’ night.
(’cause Whitey’s on the moon)
No hot water, no toilets, no lights.
(but Whitey’s on the moon)

I wonder why he’s uppi’ me?
(’cause Whitey’s on the moon?)
I was already payin’ ‘im fifty a week.
(with Whitey on the moon)
Taxes takin’ my whole damn check,
Junkies makin’ me a nervous wreck,
The price of food is goin’ up,
An’ as if all that shit wasn’t enough

A rat done bit my sister Nell.
(with Whitey on the moon)
Her face an’ arm began to swell.
(but Whitey’s on the moon)

Was all that money I made las’ year
(for Whitey on the moon?)
How come there ain’t no money here?
(Hm! Whitey’s on the moon)
Y’know I jus’ ’bout had my fill
(of Whitey on the moon)
I think I’ll sen’ these doctor bills,
Airmail special
(to Whitey on the moon)

Source: LyricFind Songwriters: Gil Scott-Heron ‘Whitey on the Moon’ lyrics © Carlin America Inc http://www.youtube.com › watchLyrics

The Shuttle programme gradually become a more inclusive project in terms of the ethnic diversity of those given roles inside spacecraft, as well as those who contributed from outside the hatch assisting astronauts into orbit.  In this crew photograph, Joan Higginbotham (centre front) joined Robert Curbeam (rear left) and Sunita “Suni” Williams (Native American ancestry, back row, second from right) on STS-116 as Mission Specialists, which launched 9th December 2006.  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/STS-116#Crew_notes

As is well documented, the Apollo programme did not exert special control over the narratives told by their crew.  The live broadcasts from space, and the earth-bound interviews before and after their spectacular trips, permitted agency to the astronauts to select and package their own scripts. The Apollo 8 crew chose to open a Bible to select the reading from Genesis 1, while no one dreamt of telling Neil Armstrong what to say when he stepped out onto the lunar surface.  However, the American education system became far more prescriptive. The wall of separation between church and state, followed more recently by the prohibition of prayer in schools meant that the study of literature remained as the major plinth on which moral standards and ethical analysis of community life could be appraised.  Onto this podium was thrust Harper Lee, and her singular lifetime contribution, ‘To kill a mockingbird’ which has been held in the inky and dirt-stained hands of generations of American school children.  It also reached the canon of my secondary school reading experience.

In her fictionalised and foundational tale of the American community in formation, Harper Lee sets up a meeting, as it were, in a field outside of Eden, of two children with The Parent.  If momentarily concerned that Atticus, the lawyer and father figure, speaks in a stereotypical dominating and privileged male voice, then we should be reassured that it is Miss Lee who puts all the words into his mouth.  You may recall that Atticus is with his children Jem and Scout, discussing the recent conviction of Tom Robinson, the black man scapegoated as the attacker of a white woman. Jem is appalled at the injustice that he has witnessed, despite his father’s best efforts to reason that Tom is innocent. Their conversation unfolds- edgy, shocking and honest as their intimate familiarity enables each to respond with agency and insight as the two children discover the realities of injustice in the world made and being made by their forebears and elders. Let’s join them and listen in.

Jem says to his father

‘Then go up to Montgomery and change the law.’

‘You’d be surprised how hard that’d be.  I won’t live to see the law changed, and if your live to see it you’ll be an old man.’

This was not good enough for Jem. ‘No sir, they oughta do away with juries.  He wasn’t guilty in the first place and they said he was.’

‘If you had been on that jury, son, and eleven other boys like you, Tom would be a free man,’ said Atticus. ‘So far nothing in your life has interfered with your reasoning process.  Those are twelve reasonable men in everyday life, Tom’ jury, but you saw something come between them and reason.  You saw the same thing that night in front of the jail.  When that crew went away, they didn’t go as reasonable men, they went because we were there.  There’s something in our world that makes men lose their heads- they couldn’t be fair if they tried.  In our courts, when it’s a white man’s word against a black man’s, the white man always wins.  They’re ugly, but those are the facts of life.’

‘Doesn’t make it right,’ said Jem stolidly.  He beat his fist softly on his knee. ‘You just can’t convict a man on evidence like that- you can’t.’

You couldn’t, but they could and did.  The older you grow the more of it you’ll see. The one place where a man ought to get a square deal is in a court-room, be he any colour of the rainbow, but people have a way of carrying their resentments right into a jury box.  As you grow older, you’ll see white men cheat black men every day of your life, but let me tell you something and don’t you forget it- whenever a white man does that to a black man, no matter who he is, how rich he is, or how fine a family he comes from, that white man is trash.’

Atticus was speaking so quietly his last word crashed on our ears. I looked up, and his face was vehement.  ‘There’s nothing more sickening to me than a low-grade white man who’ll take advantage of a Negro’s ignorance. Don’t fool yourselves- it’s all adding up, and one of these days were going to pay the bill for it. I hope it’s not in your children’s time.’

Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird. 10
May 25th 2020. George Floyd dies after being arrested by police outside a shop in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Footage shows a white officer, Derek Chauvin, kneeling on Mr Floyd’s neck for several minutes while he is pinned to the floor. Mr Floyd is heard repeatedly saying “I can’t breathe”. He is pronounced dead later in hospital. Chauvin’s three other police colleagues are not visible in this image, hidden by the police cruiser. 11

In the scripture, God opens the pages of our collective history and shows us who we have been; what we have done, both as individuals and as society through history- at least, the books are opened just enough for us to see the horror.  Back on November 22nd 1963, Abraham Zapruder was filming the President’s motorcade passing through Dealey Plaza in Dallas, and so happened to capture the moment that John Kennedy was shot, though not the face of the shooter.  Now we have social media to make many more of us joint witnesses with God when human blood is spilt. Anywhere in the world that the camera goes, there we too can be, alongside the one filming, alongside the person being filmed. Following the completed trial of Derek Chauvin, we now know that we stand on the sidewalk with 17 year old Darnella Frazier as she filmed and published full and true testimony of the gross injustice done to George Floyd in the name of the Police Department.  We have now heard from their superiors that Chauvin and his colleagues were not following their proper training in their persistent actions, or in their persistent inaction.  As Harper Lee put it, ‘something in our world made these men lose their heads,’ and our horror is complete as a child films murder in Minneapolis.

Tony L. Clark holds a photo of George Floyd outside the Cup Food convenience store, Thursday, May 28, 2020, in Minneapolis. Floyd, a handcuffed black man, died Monday 25th May in police custody near the convenience story. 12

If we were indifferent beforehand, now we are shaken to the core. God’s response is more grace, coupled with justice, though not yet of the final or ultimate kind, so change is possible- perhaps even forgiveness and redemption.  The way forward is not clear, but God clearly heard the voice of Abel’s spilt blood in the field, and repeats it back to us.  I can stand up with Tony Clark and say George’s name.  I can give my breath to the truth, that black lives matter because they are the lives of my sisters and brothers.  To whom am I speaking?  I’m not sure, though I know that all heaven is listening, and that counts for something.  As we all speak the truth in love together, we can yet see to it that every man, including every black man, gets a square deal in court and in every field and city.  If I stand with my black brother and sister, perhaps they will come to believe that the way of violent protest and conflagration is not the way to peace and community reconciliation.  What sort of fire would God’s Spirit have us light?

May 30th 2020  ”Angry protesters in Portland, US state of Oregon, have started fires inside a building that holds the county’s sheriff’s office, during protest against killing of George Floyd by police.”  In real life, the roles are reversed: instead of the white lynch mob baying for Tom Robinson’s blood, now the black protesters are attacking the sheriff’s office.  13

For a few days prior to the tragic events in Minneapolis, the story of the resumption of manned rocket launches from US soil since the Shuttle was retired had been gathering pace.  Following an abort three days earlier, the first crewed launch of Elon Musk’s manned Falcon 9 rocket took place on May 30th, with a ‘Dragon’ capsule carrying two men to the International Space station to join the Russians already in residence there.  Until Space X developed this private launch technology, NASA had been paying handsomely for a lift on the Russian’s fourth generation Soyuz MS rocket to get to the ISS.  About $80 million a seat, I hear.

May 20th Veteran NASA astronauts Bob Behnken, left, and Doug Hurley are welcomed at Cape Canaveral for the first crewed flight to the International Space Station on Space X equipment. 14
May 30th 2020.  Space X  ‘Falcon 9’ taking off to the ISS, watched by a small in-person audience including POTUS Donald Trump and VP Mr and Mrs Pence. 15

There is a visceral elementality to rockets, and especially the launching of this pillar of flame ever upwards into the darkening blue sky.  I can imagine that I know what this is like inside the capsule, lying back helplessly as the engines beneath roar into life powered by the chemical reaction 518 500kg of purified kerosene and liquid oxygen.  I expect I would be holding my breath, though that would be utterly futile if the controlled combustion tipped over into an explosion.  Of course, I don’t know really, but I can reflect on the science and something of its meaning for us all.  We do share an ambition to rise from the ground, to go upwards, and to do so requires that we take a little bit of Earth with us- a capsule, a little bit of Home.  In every living cell of my body, enzymes and mitochondria are processing the fuel I have eaten, mostly glucose, combining it in a long series of elegantly regulated biochemical reactions with the oxygen gas that I have inhaled, to release energy in an almost invisible and barely detectable manner.  Lift your palms and hold them just a centimetre or two (an inch!) away from your face, and you will detect the heat which spills out of our bodies. Such is a sign that the provisions I bought from the convenience store is now fuelling my life, and this continues all the time I keep breathing.  What a fragile adventure this life is, which we all share in common.  We biologists talk about ‘burning up food’ when explaining respiration to our students, but this is a metaphorical fire.  Control is everything, and our metabolism gives us a wonderful mastery of the ways our bodies grow, move and develop. What is more, we fit into the ecosystems of the planet that takes the invisible carbon dioxide molecules we then exhale, recycling this photosynthetically to regenerate new food materials and oxygen once more.  So there is the potential for us to tread lightly as we live, leaving the world more or less as we found it.

The rocket privateers have not quite reached the same levels of sustainability just yet, but it has been a wonder to see how this generation of rockets can now reliably launch, sending their payloads into orbit, while the boosters with their engines land again safely to be reconditioned and reused. The black and white rocket that pushed Hurley and Behnken up into the sky from the same launchpad that sent twelve men to the moon a generation before is powered by nine state of the art Merlin engines.  At ignition, a high-pressure stream of RP1 low sulphur rocket fuel is pressurised and mixed into a spray with chilly liquid oxygen before the expanding jet of plasma flame thrusts the whole kit and kaboodle into the blue yonder, barely avoiding shaking everything above it to bits as it punches a hole in the atmosphere, reaching ten times the speed of sound.16  The first stage burnt up its fuel in 158 seconds- there is a pause for a breath in the cockpit at the first stage separates and flies (!) back to the ground.  Eight seconds later, the second stage bursts into life and continues its climb beyond the atmosphere for another seven minutes. There is no oxygen here- the fire is only possible because both fuel and oxidiser have been brought along in the huge tanks within the flimsy skin of the rocket.

The exact time taken to reach orbit varies very slightly, though the basic fact remains- either you get to space in around 8.5 minutes, or you don’t get there at all.  There is a narrow range of values to stick in the equations to escape the Earth’s gravity and reach orbit- too slow and you run out of fuel. Whatever the size of payload, you must get to 17500 mph, ‘escape velocity’ its called, and so there is only a little variation that can be tolerated.  All the key factors must be coordinated and optimised to make this perilous journey possible.  Minor deviations must be corrected quickly, and that means teamwork as well as precision engineering.

You may be anticipating the contrast that I am going to draw.  We are still utterly shocked and appalled and in grief, and the passing of a year has not yet facilitated the transformations  that we continue to hope for.  So I choose to add my voice in telling the story of my brother George and in some of my own words, as well as I can.  I intend to speak the truth, even in love, as I have hope that doing so may supply my contribution to help us to take mastery of our collective future.

Officer Chauvin and his three colleagues were called to the Cup Foods convenience store on the 25th of May last year, apparently over a question of a fake banknote being used to purchase cigarettes.  The decisions they then made were out of all proportion to this complaint.  In circumstances complicated by the all too frequently repeated claims of ‘failure to cooperate’ and ‘resisting arrest’, the officers together pushed George Floyd down onto the ground in the street, his face pushed down into the tar under their combined body weight.  Having restrained him completely and applying handcuffs, Derek Chauvin continued to kneel on George’s back and neck, while the others looked on without comment.  According to corroborated medical testimony after the event, this unauthorised means of restraint not only had the effect of preventing movement, but it also pressurised Floyd’s chest cavity with such force that one lung remained permanently deflated.  What air supply he had left was progressively reduced as the pressure was maintained- initially he could be heard protesting ‘I can’t breathe’ but as his oxygen store was exhausted, even the body camera/microphone of the officers could not pick up what George tried to say.  With teamwork and responsible implementation of standard police training, we are told, the alarm signs could have been acted on, and ultimate disaster averted.  But we now understand what the community in America has come to dread.  Chauvin and his colleagues had lost their heads.  The smoke went sideways, or something, and Chauvin could now only see what he had decided to see, and now all four officers were no longer servants of community law and order, but became self-appointed tyrants; judge, jury and executioners.  Sin desired to have them all, and now we see Derek crouching on George’s neck for ever and a day.  At the time this was reported, we were told this was 8 minutes and 46 seconds.  In court it was established from the police bodycam record that in fact Chauvin deprived Floyd of oxygen over nine minutes and 29 seconds.

According to the NASA press kit17 for CRS6 which sent the Dragon capsule to orbit on the way to the ISS, the combined flight time for the first and second stages of the Falcon 9 rocket was expected to be nine minutes and thirty seven seconds from launch to Earth orbit.  Subtracting the eight seconds for first stage separation gives a total burn time of nine minutes and twenty nine seconds. 

9 min 29s.  The time it takes a two-stage rocket to actively launch two men into orbit beyond the boundaries of our common God-given home.

9 min 29s.  The time it took for one man to deliberately squeeze out the breath of life bestowed by God from his brother.

18. Space X Demo 2 on ISS 31 05 20

It is true that there have been many black astronauts in the space shuttle programme, and on 15th November 2020, Victor Glover and a Japanese astronaut were part of the first manned Space X crew to go to the ISS from American soil.  Nevertheless, there is still a long way to go before the diversity of our communities is fully reflected in such activities, and in society more generally.  I can’t help thinking that if Gil Scott-Heron were still alive, he would say that precious little has changed since he penned ‘Whitey on the Moon’ in 1968.  You will excuse me if I suggest the following supplementary verses to his lyrics, giving voice to some of the other symptoms of racial oppression in the US that have been reported here in Britain.

‘2020 Whitey’s on Space Station’

My name is George-now I can’t breathe
(but Whitey’s on Space Station)
I’m goin’ now, don’t lay a wreath
(while Whitey’s on Space Station)


NYPD’s wearin’ army kit
(while Whitey’s in his suit)
He’s tazin’ me, I’m gettin’ hit!
(but Whitey’s looking cute)


The virus come- I lost Mcjob
(but Whitey’s on the Station)
I call for help, now I’m ‘in a mob’
(Whitey’s payin’ no attention)


They’re shootin’ me- I just went runnin’
(while Whitey’s on the Station)
Should I have seen that coming?
If my brother’s on the Station?

I wonder why she’s uppi’ me
White lady in the park
I’m speaking up for wildlife here
‘cos this earth is Noah’s Ark

Is it my place to speak for others, for people and communities who are different to me, whose experiences are different to mine, whose pain is not my pain?  Have I any business in seeking to tell others’ stories with my words?  I think that Genesis 4 makes it plain that God does call us to exactly this.  Cain is called to account for his relationship with his brother and with God all at once and in the same breath.  God initiates this conversation, as we have already seen.  God says that we are made as one race, and yet we are different. That is what we see in the sons of Eve and the sons of Lamech.  If we try to dodge the question, God comes back to us to challenge us to find out how to ‘keep’ not only the land and sea but also our brothers and sisters.  If Cain refuses to speak on his brother’s behalf, then God speaks as He certainly hears the blood speak from the ground.  And then God partners with others who speak up for justice so that the community can go forward- which is what Eve does.  Should I speak?  Yes, though my voice is not privileged above another’s voice.  I can use my voice to echo and reinforce the call for justice and peace as others cry out- and in our partnership wrongs can be put right and all will be ennobled and enriched.

The language of division and the urge to violence are intoxicating and corrosive.  Cain banishes himself from God’s Presence into the east: fast forward five generations and Lamech is lamenting the consequences of murder.  The threat of multiplied vengeance is the only prescription he can imagine.  The use of rap by Gil Scott-Heron as a poetry of socio-political protest has been developed by Hip Hop musicians in recent decades, and some of these artists are now crossing into the wider political arena, especially as part of #BLM.  They have discovered that at this critical time, they can speak with authority to those who respect them, yet feel ignored by the oppressive system.  In speaking, they can facilitate agency, and build bridges to others with whom there has not been common cause, but now reciprocate the desire and determination to do so.    

The Standard of Ur, 2600-2400 B.C.E., shell, limestone, lapis lazuli, and bitumen, 21.59 x 49.53 x 12 cm (British Museum, London) The Standard of Ur with viewers. Steven Zucker, Smarthistory co-founder. CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

As violence began to rise in Minneapolis and Atlanta after George Floyd was killed, Michael ‘Killer Mike’ Render joined Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms and Atlanta-native rapper T.I. in a press conference on May 29th addressing the protests in response to the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery.  He wore a T shirt which read ‘Kill your masters’ clarifying that he meant at the voting booth, standing before the cameras to say,

…I don’t want to be here. But, I’m responsible to be here because it wasn’t just Doctor King and people dressed nicely who marched and protested to progress this city and so many other cities. It was people like my grandmother, people like my aunts and uncles, who are members of the SCLC and NAACP.

So, I’m duty bound to be here to simply say that it is your duty not to burn your own house down for anger with an enemy. It is your duty to fortify your own house so that you may be a house of refuge in times of organization. Now is the time to plot, plan, strategize, organize, and mobilize. It is time to beat up prosecutors you don’t like at the voting booth. It is time to hold mayoral offices accountable, chiefs and deputy chiefs.

I’m mad as hell. I woke up wanting to see the world burn down yesterday because I’m tired of seeing black men die. He casually put his knee on a human being’s neck for nine minutes as he died like a zebra in the clutch of a lion’s jaw. And, we watch it like murder porn over and over again. That’s why children are burning [businesses] to the ground. They don’t know what else to do.


It is the responsibility of us to make this better right now. We don’t want to see one officer charged. We want to see four officers prosecuted and sentenced. We don’t want to see Targets burning. We want to see the system that sets up for systemic racism burnt to the ground.


As I sit here in Georgia, home of Stephens, Georgia, former vice president of the Confederacy … White man said that fundamental law stated that whites were naturally the superior race, and the Confederacy was built on a Cornerstone. It’s called a Cornerstone Speech. Look it up. The Cornerstone Speech, that blacks would be always be subordinate … That officer believed that speech because he killed that man like an animal.

This city’s cut different. In this city, you can find over 50 restaurants owned by black women. I didn’t say minority, and I didn’t say women of color. So, after you burn down your own home, what do you have left but char and ash?

I’m glad they only destroyed some brick and mortar, and they didn’t rip a father from a son. They didn’t rip a son from a mother like the policeman did. When a man yells for his mother in duress and pain and she’s dead, he is essentially yelling, “Please, God. Don’t let it happen to me.” We watched that.

I don’t have any good advice. What I can tell you is that if you sit in your homes tonight instead of burning your home to the ground, you will have time to properly plot, plan, strategize, and organize and mobilize in an effective way.


Two of the most effective ways is first taking your butt to the computer and making sure you fill out your Census so that people know who you are and where you are. The next thing is making sure you exercise your political bully power and going to local elections and beating up the politicians that you don’t like.
I want you to go home. I want you to talk to ten of your friends. I want you guys to come up with real solutions. I would like for the Atlanta city police department to bring back the community review board, one that Alice Johnson was formerly under, under Chief Turner. We need a review board here because we need to get ahead of it before an officer does some stupid shit. We need to get ahead of it.

We don’t need a dumb-ass president repeating what segregation has said. “If you start looting, we start shooting.” But, the problem is, some officers black, and some people going to shoot back. And, that’s not good for our community, either.

I love and respect you all. I hope that we find a way out of it because I don’t have the answers, but I do know we must plot. We must plan. We must strategize, organize, and mobilize.

19

Those who know me well don’t need to be told that I’m really into 80’s music. That’s not Ice-T, Ice Cube or even DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince. I mean Joseph Haydn, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Ludwig van Beethoven. Yes, that’s the 1780s, when MUSIC was really invented. These three dudes changed the world particularly because the rich elites of Europe employed them to produce their wallpaper music, in a kind of ‘Battle of the Composers’. But being ‘the best of the best of the best, Sir!’ they wrote music that was not only foot stomping but changed how people thought about themselves. Yet yesterday’s novel creations become today’s established traditions and tomorrow’s fusty old history, and its not just eras that seek new ways to express themselves musically. I read that after the US Civil War, slaves that were able to pick up instruments created ragtime, which later became jazz, which evolved into blues and then soul and funk and so we get to hip hop. Or something like that. So where does war and politics and social commentary end and the leisurely pursuits of music and song begin? Where is the line? I guess there isn’t one. Asking whether the so-called ‘Standard of Ur’ was a political banner (including the lyre player) or was itself part of a musical instrument is perhaps to miss the point. Music is socio-political, from one end of the scale to the other. Michael ‘Killer Mike’ Render is simply crossing a thin line back into civil politics to speak as a man rather than a musician, making a creative contribution to the community cause of looking the divisions of race and class and power in the eye and beckoning our hearts toward peace.

A year on, especially through the continuing challenges of the global pandemic, it is becoming possible to forget how entrenched the challenges are for my American friends, and how these challenges are not much addressed by the verdict of one court or the sentencing of one ex-policeman.  Nor is it at all mended by the change of presidency.  As some repeat, Trump is and was a symptom, not the cause. Many millions voted for Trump, and even voted for him the last time: 74,222,958 million, to be exact, which is more than have ever voted for any other presidential candidate, save Joe Biden.  However the malaise that is signified by Donald Trump is to be mended, it is not simply by the removal of a statue from a plinth, or even a figure from an Oval Office desk.

Author and journalist Ta Nehisi Coates, son of a former Black Panther, writing in The Atlantic back in October 2017 put his finger on something of what it is about whiteness that endures in the shadows of culture in America, and more widely, no doubt:

It is insufficient to state the obvious of Donald Trump: that he is a white man who would not be president were it not for this fact. With one immediate exception, Trump’s predecessors made their way to high office through the passive power of whiteness—that bloody heirloom which cannot ensure mastery of all events but can conjure a tailwind for most of them. Land theft and human plunder cleared the grounds for Trump’s forefathers and barred others from it. Once upon the field, these men became soldiers, statesmen, and scholars; held court in Paris; presided at Princeton; advanced into the Wilderness and then into the White House. Their individual triumphs made this exclusive party seem above America’s founding sins, and it was forgotten that the former was in fact bound to the latter, that all their victories had transpired on cleared grounds. No such elegant detachment can be attributed to Donald Trump—a president who, more than any other, has made the awful inheritance explicit. 

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21

I do not claim to know what was in President Trump’s mind when he gave instructions for the road across from Lafayette Square to be cleared from protestors, or to have discernment of what his motives were when being photographed while solemnly holding a Revised Standard Version of the Bible aloft.  One politician who accompanied Trump from the White House said afterwards that he actually didn’t know where they were all going, and imagined they were going to the site of a toilet building that had been damaged in the earlier unrest, during which fire had also been set to St John’s Episcopal church.  Media crew were still able to film the scene as heavily uniformed police in gas masks moved out across ‘H’ street NW, the colonnade and steeple of St John’s rising like a multistage rocket behind them, beckoning our gaze upward to the ever-watching heaven.  As the smoke from flash grenades and the last of the tear gas dispersed, Trump picked out his position in front of the church notice board. He awkwardly held the thick bible this way and that, finally judging that a vertical position over his right shoulder gave the most presidential impression.  The television camera zoomed in and a female reporter called out a question to the President, ‘Is that your Bible?’  As I watched, it seemed to me that Donald Trump suddenly found himself in the witness stand which he had so strenuously avoided during the bungled impeachment hearings; then, to his own surprise, he replied to the question, promptly and with unexpected reverence, ‘It is a Bible.’ Rarely has this POTUS spoken with such regard to both syntax and clarity of meaning.  It is said that a picture speaks more than a thousand words. At this moment, the words trumped the pictures, as he quietly confessed, “I am not the keeper of this Bible.”

I’ve heard a report22 that some Christian supporters of Mr Trump expressed their approval when they saw the live media footage, exclaiming excitedly, ‘He’s doing a Jericho walk!’  Surely it should take more than a journey across ‘H’ street NW to qualify as a ‘Jericho walk’?  In Joshua 6:2, Israel is led by Joshua in obedience to God’s specific instruction that they should put themselves in harm’s way, walking around the foreign city in silence, with fully robed priests and the ark of the covenant, in full view and exposed to the insults-or worse- of the residents of the fortress city.  The Israelites certainly did not have the benefit of salvoes of tear gas to quell muttered mockery from the fortified walls of the city.  If there is such a thing as a ‘Jericho Walk’, it is not a dance in which one imitates moves from a ‘Tik Tok’ video.  It was only by the obedient shout of faith that their breath was released and their voices ultimately raised on the seventh day.  They would win the day by nothing other than their obedience to the word of the God who knows them.  In Acts 19:14, seven sons of Sceva attempt to exercise deliverance power by invoking the names of Saint Paul and Jesus of Nazareth, like a magic incantation, but discover all too late that they have no spiritual authority of their own.  The demonic personalities send them packing in a riot of violence, because, in the final reckoning, heaven does not know them.  Neither are their names given in the text- only that their father was ‘Sceva’.  Once, being in the family of the Jewish High priest was some qualification for victory at Jericho, but no longer; nor is holding up a Bible in order to admire its cover.  Being known by Jesus, whom Paul preached- that is how the walls of our hearts have come down, and how our motives might be conformed more closely to those of Jesus of Nazareth- the real Jesus who shows what love really looks and acts like. None of us were or are beyond the reach of such love- even Rahab the prostitute was known by name and spared from the rout of Jericho. Love that, above all, embraces those who seem in some way or another different from us- and yet, in the final judgement, are really the same.  If we will accept it, God’s love will regard and accept us all and lift us up.  Such is God’s love that is prepared to speak my name. Yes, Jesus loves me, for my Bible tells me so.

Now I give breath to what I know: George is my brother, and yes, I am my brother’s keeper.

The words and symbols of Genesis have resonated in cultures across the world since they were inscribed in scripture: wherever they are told, reminding us, telling us, confronting us with everlasting truths that are being retold in this latest chapter of today’s news of humanly created tragedies.

Washington DC Mayor Muriel Bowser has officially deemed the section of 16th Street “Black Lives Matter Plaza.”  It now bears an indelible mark visible from space: a “Black Lives Matter” mural in giant, yellow letters, made by the members of the Washington DC community. 23

On June 17th 2020, Philonise Floyd, brother of George Floyd, addressed24 the “Urgent debate on systemic racism and police brutality in the United States,” requested by the Africa Group of the Human Rights Council at the United Nations by recorded video message. Like this photograph taken from low earth orbit; as another photograph taken on the return trip of Apollo 8 from the moon, he addresses us all who have heard and seen these things.

“You watched my brother die. That could have been me,” Philonise said. “I am my brother’s keeper. You in the United Nations are your brothers’ and sisters’ keepers in America, and you have the power to help us get justice for my brother George Floyd. I am asking you to help him. I am asking you to help me. I am asking you to help us – Black people in America.”

As we have persevered through this year since the death of George Floyd, and the few short weeks since Derek Chauvin’s conviction for George’s murder, I see how Philonise Floyd has absorbed the account of Cain and Abel and made it for us another story of Two Brothers, in which the surviving brother gives the lesson.  Such was John F. Kennedy’s request in 1968: Philonise indeed stands as a father and as a man among other men. This son and brother can now become a father to us all, if we are willing to interpret his plea that way. 

I am not asking for myself. I am asking for my brother.

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(c) Stephen Thompson 2021

  1. Cain and Abel, ivory panel from the cathedral of Salerno, ca. 1084. 10 x 22 cm. Louvre, Department of Decorative Arts, Richelieu, first floor, room 2, case 13  OA 4052 Jastro. Public domain.
  2. One of the more interesting quotes by Shakespeare: it’s almost always misquoted as “Methinks the lady doth protest too much,” Queen Gertrude’s line is both drier than the misquotation (thanks to the delayed “methinks”) and much more ironic.  From https://www.enotes.com/shakespeare-quotes/lady-doth-protest-too-much-methinks
  3. MLK1-e1425078846103 robgreenfield tv BING CCO 1 6 20
  4. Nixon greets Armstrong Aldrin and Collins 24 July 1969 NASA
  5. Fred Haise, Jim Lovell and Jack Swigert arrive on USS Iwo Jima, April 17th 1970. NASA
  6. REMARKS TO THE CLEVELAND CITY CLUB, APRIL 5, 1968  The following speech was transcribed from a news release version, which is located in the Speech Files of the Robert F. Kennedy Senate Papers at the Kennedy Library. https://www.jfklibrary.org/learn/about-jfk/the-kennedy-family/robert-f-kennedy/robert-f-kennedy-speeches/remarks-to-the-cleveland-city-club-april-5-1968
  7. Greek gods with instruments; Standard of Ur British Museum; enlargement. https://smarthistory.org/standard-of-ur-and-other-objects-from-the-royal-graves/
  8. Gil Scott-Heron, ‘Whitey on the Moon’ Lyrics © Carlin America Inc, http://www.youtube.com › watchLyrics ; gil-scott-heron-2-320 BING CCO; https://www.washingtonpost.com/arts-entertainment/2018/10/13/why-first-man-prominently-features-gil-scott-herons-spoken-word-poem-whitey-moon/
  9. NASA STS-116 crew; https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/STS-116#Crew_notes
  10. Harper Lee, To Kill A Mockingbird. July 11, 1960
  11. Officer Chauvez kneeling on George Floyd BING Free to share and use tesnimnews 1 6 20
  12. george-floyd-onyx-truth BING Free to share and use 1 6 20 Tony L. Clark holds a photo of George Floyd outside the Cup Food convenience store, Thursday, May 28, 2020, in Minneapolis. Floyd, a handcuffed black man, died Monday in police custody near the convenience store. (Jerry Holt/Star Tribune via AP)https://www.onyxtruth.com/2020/05/31/george-floyd-talked-about-black-on-black-crime/
  13. Portland Justice Centre set on fire BING free to share and use tasnimnews 1 6 20 https://www.onyxtruth.com/2020/05/31/george-floyd-talked-about-black-on-black-crime/
  14. NASA astronauts Robert Behnken, left, and Douglas Hurley SpaceX Demo 2 Crew Kennedy Space Centre
  15. Space X Falcon 9 with Crew Dragon from LC 39A 30 05 20; https://www.theguardian.com/science/2020/may/30/spacex-nasa-crewed-spaceflight-launch-dragon-capsule-elon-musk-trump
  16. https://www.mirror.co.uk/science/how-long-take-space-astronauts-12473232
  17. https://www.nasa.gov/sites/default/files/files/SpaceX_NASA_CRS-6_PressKit-2.pdf page 6 Nine minutes and 29 seconds: This is the length of time prosecutors said Chauvin knelt on Floyd’s neck. It was often repeated in court and has become a symbolic number for activists, a rallying cry that is chanted at protests. An initial complaint against former officer Chauvin by the Hennepin County Attorney’s office counted eight minutes and 46 seconds. But during the trial, prosecutors pointed to police body camera footage to argue the actual time Floyd spent under Chauvin’s knee was significantly longer.
  18. Space X Demo 2 on ISS 31 05 20; https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/voices/what-everyone-gets-wrong-about-black-history-in-the-space-age/
  19. https://www.rev.com/blog/transcripts/rapper-killer-mike-speech-transcript-during-atlanta-protest; https://www.gpb.org/news/2020/06/03/black-community-leaders-weigh-in-on-killer-mikes-kill-your-masters-t-shirt; https://www.cfr.org/blog/2020-election-numbers
  20. https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2017/10/the-first-white-president-ta-nehisi-coates/537909/
  21. https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2020/jun/02/outrageous-christian-leaders-reject-trump-use-of-church-as-prop-during-george-floyd-protests
  22. https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2020/jun/03/donald-trump-church-photo-op-evangelicals
  23. Planet Labs Twitter 12 22am 6 6 20 BLM from space satellite
  24. https://www.ohchr.org/EN/NewsEvents/Pages/HRC43-Racism-Debate.aspx
  25. merch-husey-U-E2YLiv2G8-unsplash

Published by Stephen Thompson

Thinking inside the box is to be recommended for many reasons. I am creating this blog in May 2020 as we are encouraged to stay inside our boxes as far as possible, though we are allowed out- encouraged out, indeed- for exercise. By blogging, our thinking can also be allowed out for public exercise. Right now we need new thinking, new exercising of our mental faculties, and collective application of our thinking to the big idea of a healthy collective future. I am trialling my thinking in constructive theology, science and leadership in the light of my experience as a science teacher, theological student and as a representative of the Christian community in the county of Kent, in the UK. I welcome your partnership!

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