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The passion of George Floyd

What the unjust crucifixion of Jesus teaches us about how Black bodies are treated today.
Peace & Justice

While the celebration of Easter Sunday—the resurrection of Jesus Christ—is still fresh in our minds, many of us are reflecting on the trials that our savior faced in his short lifetime. At the same time, we can’t ignore another important trial that is currently taking place in Minneapolis: the judgment of Officer Derek Chauvin, who squeezed the life out of George Floyd, a 46-year-old Black man, nearly one year ago.

During the holiest week of the Christian calendar, I did my best to catch up on Chauvin’s trial. I, like many others around the nation, heard several testimonies, listened to different narratives, and considered countless interpretations from the media and other “experts.” I was reminded that justice for the Black community lies in the hands of white men who have had their knees on the necks of Black people for more than 400 years.

As I watched the trial, I was struck by the comfort of the white police to apply force on a Black body without thinking of any retribution, let alone the demands of simple humanity. I found myself making parallels between Floyd’s death and the other story that was playing out in my head during Holy Week—the passion of Jesus Christ on the cross.

The facts of Floyd’s death are well-known. At 8:09 p.m. on May 25, 2020, police stopped Floyd on the corner of 38th Street and Chicago Avenue in Minneapolis after a store cashier reported him for using a counterfeit bill to buy cigarettes. Officer Chauvin pinned Floyd to the ground with his knee, causing him to suffocate. Onlookers heard him shout “I can’t breathe”—a phrase that soon took root in the Black Lives Matter movement.

We know that Chauvin kept his knee on Floyd’s neck for at least eight minutes; during this time someone called for emergency medical assistance, which arrived at 8:20 p.m. An ambulance followed at 8:27, and an hour later Floyd was pronounced dead at the hospital. This was the passion of George Floyd.  

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Although the word passion has taken on additional meanings in common parlance, in biblical terms the passion relates to the mistreatment and suffering of Jesus Christ. That story concludes with Christ’s unjust crucifixion.

In a similar way, Floyd’s story ends in death by suffocation, for a presumed $20 crime. Across the United States, we are witnessing in real time a wider story we could call the passion of Black Americans unfolding on city streets, in prisons, and in court rooms.

We also know what happened in Jerusalem 2,000 ago. We have eyewitness accounts, thanks to the gospels, that tell us that during the Jewish celebration of Passover, Jesus was arrested in the garden of Gethsemane (John 18:1–12), then sent to a trial overseen by Pontius Pilate, the governor of the province. We read that Pilate ordered Jesus’ crucifixion for treason, claiming he had paraded himself as the “King of the Jews” (John 18:28). We know from the historian Josephus that Pilate had been working in agreement with the religious authorities to plan Jesus’ execution, simply for his teachings. At the time, no one challenged the sentence—and as today, silence equals death.

Jesus was arrested for having the audacity to speak out in spaces the authorities of the day wanted to control. Floyd’s primary crime was being a Black body in a white space. The consequence of that trespass is something that every member of the Black community fears every single day. As a frequent victim of police profiling, I too can empathize with the threat that people who look like Floyd—who have similar skin tones—have experienced for hundreds of years.

Across the United States, we are witnessing in real time a wider story we could call the passion of Black Americans unfolding on city streets, in prisons, and in court rooms.

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Jesus was powerless on the cross, yet the soldier still pierced his side with a spear and “immediately, there came out blood and water” (John 19:34). As Floyd lay under the knee of Chauvin, handcuffed and unresponsive, he was still seen as a threat to the police.

Like Jesus on the cross, Floyd’s Black body was subdued and dying, yet the police officers, like the soldier who thrust his sword into Jesus’ body, still needed to demonstrate their control, power, and dominance. As Chauvin continued to press on Floyd, when the paramedic arrived, almost immediately, according to the newspaper accounts, “his breath was gone.” It is a different time, a different land, with different authorities, but the story is the same.

Jesus was condemned because of the jealousy of both the government and the religious authorities: They saw him as a threat to their power. As I thought about this, I found myself wondering: Are white males jealous of Black bodies? Do they see them as threats to their own sense of power and authority? I remembered that Chauvin said, “We had to control this guy because he’s a sizable guy.” Once again, I could see the parallels to Jesus’ death.

As I watch Chauvin’s trial, which by association is also Floyd’s, once again, I experience a sense of powerlessness. I watch again that tragic video, shot by a quick-thinking young girl, just 17 when she filmed the scene, who had stopped at the store for a single purchase. I see the brutal violence toward a man who reminds me of my Black father, of my Black brother, of my Black cousins and friends, and of myself. I see my brother gasp for air and beg for breath, while the tormented bystanders are forced to watch, incapable of interceding—just as John and Mary standing at the foot of the cross were unable to save their friend and son.

The teenager who filmed the video of Floyd’s death testified at the trial, saying, “It’s been nights I stayed up apologizing and apologizing to George Floyd for not doing more and not physically interacting and not saving his life.” She feels guilt for not physically intervening, despite the armed officers at the scene. Did Simon of Cyrene, the African man who helped Jesus carry the cross, feel a similar guilt and shame whenever he remembered the day Jesus died?

Easter Sunday does not erase the violence and injustice of Good Friday.

And yet like the witnesses who recorded Christ’s death, this teenage girl has had an essential role in the passion of George Floyd; her videotape has the potential to help bring Floyd’s assailant to justice. The video proves that, in broad daylight, America showed her disrespect for Black bodies. Thanks to the account the teenage girl’s camera captured, we know that Officer Chauvin murdered George Floyd.

American Catholics, the resurrection of Jesus does not mean we have a free pass to stop fighting for Jesus. Easter Sunday does not erase the violence and injustice of Good Friday. That same violence and injustice is all too alive today; we can see it in the passion of George Floyd that continues to unfold in the trial of Officer Chauvin. In the words of Pope Francis in his Easter Sunday Urbi et Orbi message this year, “The Easter message does not offer us a mirage or reveal a magic formula. It does not point to an escape from [racism], the difficult situation we are experiencing. . . . That is today’s scandal.”

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The church calendar grants us the liturgical Easter season that we have celebrated for more than 2,000 years. If you are American, Christian, and Catholic, this is the time to share your Easter wishes with your loved ones. I beg you to also send blessings and prayers to the Hennepin County District Court, where the time has come for Officer Chauvin to face his accusers. We all await justice for Floyd and the countless other Black people who have died at the hands of police officers.

I pray for America’s conversion, reconciliation, and healing; I pray that one day we will live in an America that no longer commits crimes on Black bodies.

We cannot sit around waiting for justice. The passion of Christ—and the passion of George Floyd—demand that as Christians we stand up, speak out, and act.


This is an adapted chapter from Patrick Saint-Jean, S.J.’s forthcoming book The Spiritual Work of Racial Justice: A Month of Meditation with Ignatius of Loyola (Anamchara Books).

Image: Vasanth Rajkumar, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

About the author

Patrick Saint-Jean, S.J.

Patrick Saint-Jean, S.J. is a native of Haiti and a member of the Midwest Province of the Society of Jesus. He currently teaches psychology at Creighton University in Omaha, Nebraska. He is the author of The Spiritual Work of Racial Justice: A Month of Meditation with Ignatius of Loyola (Anamchara Books).

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