The news this week of the shooting death of 50 year-old Walter Scott at the hands of a police officer in North Charleston, South Carolina, was horrifying. The initial police statement, the video footage of the event, and the distance between the two has, in the eyes of some, finally forced a discussion about the plight of black men in America. Similar deaths in Ferguson, Missouri, and New York City last year opened a (sometimes hostile) conversation, but now there’s no getting around the questions.


America certainly does not have the corner on racism, but there is a particularly persistent link between race and violence in America that is hard to ignore. Growing up outside Dartmouth, Nova Scotia, at the border between a black community and a predominately white one, I remember well the race riots that burst out in the early 1990s at Cole Harbour High School. But as troubled as Nova Scotia’s history with race might be, Canadians haven’t generally seen it assume the deadly force Americans have.

Historian Mark Noll attributes the difference between the neighbouring countries to “the fact that the United States was once a slave-holding society,” and refers to “the kind of violence that slavery built into American culture” (From Every Tribe and Nation, 76). I’ve recently been reading The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, the 19th century abolitionist, and this shooting feels strikingly reminiscent of  murders of slaves as Douglass describes them. Looking beyond historians for a similar link, the 1991 rap song “Can’t Truss It” by Public Enemy also explicitly links blacks’ experience as slaves in early America with their present-day life.

The past has an inescapable effect on the present. It’s not only at the level of societies and nations that this is true. Our childhood shapes who we are in adulthood. Experiences in adolescence and early adulthood continue to affect the way we operate later in life. The past is always with us.

The Christian church has always attempted to shape its life by keeping the past at the front of its members’ minds. We celebrate the Lord’s Supper, remembering that our life is defined by Jesus’ action for us as he headed to the cross. We continue to take as authoritative one book from the distant past, believing that the God who acted there and then still speaks to us here and now through its pages and acts among us by his Spirit. Above all, we do in miniature each Sunday what we did on a large scale last week: celebrate Easter, the central event of world history, when the one who was crucified for our sins was raised to life again.

Can the death and resurrection of Jesus build peace, hope, joy, and communion with God into our lives as powerfully as slavery built violence into contemporary American culture? Or is it only life’s horrors that can work so powerfully? When Jesus serves the bread and cup, he says, “Do this in remembrance of me.” Most Christians have understood that this act of commemoration involves more than mere memory. He is present with us as we look back in faith to what he did.

It seems to me that most of the time, our future biographers and historians would be hard-pressed to say, “those people are who they are because of what happened to Jesus on Golgotha two millennia ago. Peace and self-sacrificing love of God and neighbour was built into them by the cross and resurrection of Jesus.”

But this is exactly what should be the case. John writes, “We love, because he first loved us” (1 John 4:19). Paul echoes this thought when in Philippians 3:10 he refers to knowing “the power of his resurrection and participation in his sufferings.” Our life is entirely shaped by these events: “I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I now live in the body, I live by the faithfulness of the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (Gal. 2:20).

Can Jesus’ past become as inescapable to our present as the violence in the world’s past has become to it? Can we become the picture of an entirely different way of life to our own culture? We won’t see a full correspondence between Jesus’ past and our own present until his kingdom comes in its fullness, but in the meantime we can commit the cause to the God who raised Jesus from the dead, “who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine” (Eph. 3:20).