I am ashamed of myself. I’m frustrated, disappointed, and embarrassed. But I think my shame proves a point, or, it has at least proved something to me.
-- I only listen to the riots –
Perhaps that is why they happen. Five months ago I wrote a blog post calling for Christians to listen to the riots in Ferguson. By no means did I, or do I think violence is an appropriate or righteous response to suffering, but I argued that it is our responsibility, as Christians, to listen to what the riot is telling us.
Any good parent knows what is happening when a child lashes out in anger, destroys something, and throws a tantrum. Is there sin in that action? Absolutely, but when mom looks underneath the surface what she finds is a child crying out for something in an unhealthy way. While the response may not be condoned, the underlying cry must be addressed or the problem will continue and will grow. It does no good to pretend that the child doesn’t have a right to his pain. It does no good to pretend that the parent is perfect and the child is ‘just a sinner.’ It does no good to ignore the problem.
I’ve ignored the problem for five months. I went right back into my safe, secure, and comfortable life. I promised to write a series of blog-posts challenging us, as Christians, to think more critically about the complexity of race relations, and the need for the Church to be a front-runner in speaking to the problem. But that was five months ago, and it took a riot to get me writing again. Granted, I have thought deeply about the problems in our country. But I haven’t acted on them in the capacity that I can.
It’s easy to look at the riot and shame them. It’s easy to look at the violence and condemn it. It’s simple to sit on the outside and say ‘why don’t you just stop,’ or ‘some people just like violence.’ Unfortunately, I think these answers miss the point. I think they fail to realize the complexity of the situation and the dynamics of power that are operating in the riots.
I will again repeat, so that I am not misunderstood, the violence is to be condemned. But we have a responsibility to look under the surface. What stoked the flame of this wildfire in Baltimore? A black man, who made eye contact with the Police and ran. He was chased and beaten, his spine was broken, and he died in the custody of those charged to ‘protect and defend.’ What fanned the flames of the spark? The city had no answers. It was one instance in a line of brutality that has shaped, shifted, and oppressed an inner city. A city fearful of the police.
I speak from experience. In 2010 I coordinated the Toys for Tots campaign in Baltimore. I visited countless section 8 housing centers. I went to churches and community centers. And I made countless friends along the way. As I drove around the city day in and day out I noticed three things: fear, poverty, and security cameras . . . lots of cameras. Fear and suspicion was part of the culture. Why? We’re quick to justify a Police officer who chases a man who does nothing wrong but runs. Why? Because the officer has a suspicion, one that looks in this instance to have been unjustified which led to the death of a human made in the image of God. So shouldn’t we be equally as fast in asking why fear and suspicion permeates the inner city? Or, put another way, why are we quick to justify one source of suspicion and ignore the other? That’s what the Ferguson riots brought – a question – why is fear and suspicion part of this city? Which in turn led to an investigation, culminating in a scathing report on racism and brutality in the police department. Or, the suspicion of the city was justified.
But perhaps that logic doesn’t work for you. Perhaps you’ve never seen the suspicion or smelled the fear of the inner city, I’ve only experienced it from the outside, I can’t pretend to really understand their pain. So let’s bring it home a bit, to an issue that concerns most of us, who don’t live ‘in the fear of discipline in the city.’ I’ve seen a number of comments, posts, and articles decrying the use of drones and spying tactics in America. We don’t want the NSA peering into our homes. We don’t want them listening to our conversations. And we don’t want them looking at our e-mails. So we run . . . we just run in a more dignified way. We write, we condemn, we criticize. Out of one side of the mouth we say ‘get out of my business’ and out of the other side we say that a black man deserved to die for running, or, for saying ‘get out of my business.’
I don’t know if we can have it both ways. We may be able to do some rhetorical gymnastics to justify our action while continuing to condemn the other. Something like, ‘well I said it in a responsible way, I wrote it online,’ or ‘I showed up to a town-hall meeting.’ But what happens when you don’t have access to a computer, and no one listens when you say ‘get out of my business, I’m innocent’?
I don’t pretend to know all of the answers. But I do think that we ought to refrain from irresponsible criticism and condemnation. I recall when Ferguson went up in flames there were a slew of blogs, facebook posts and comments taking the moral high ground in condemning the riots, calling on the city to ‘calm down’ to ‘listen to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’ and to stop with the violence. Once again, these blogs, posts, and comments are popping up – but where were the comments on racial injustice and oppression in the last five months? I didn’t see any. I saw silence on the evangelical blogs between Ferguson and Baltimore, I saw silence on facebook between Ferguson and Baltimore, I am ashamed that I was silent between Ferguson and Baltimore. Perhaps the fearful city’s answer to the question “why are you being violent again?” would be “because you don’t listen to me when I’m not.”
Can we condemn the violence of the riots? Yes, and we should. But we should also listen to them. We should wake up, and we should ask – why is this happening, and then, and I would submit to you only then can we responsibly open the question: where does the gospel fit in?
 I will grant myself a bit of consolation in the fact that my life has been upended by a series of PhD exams. The exams along with my regular pastoral duties have forced me into 70-80 hour workweeks for the past month. And, granted, if I hadn’t taken my exams yet I probably still wouldn’t be writing this post. I don’t know if that confirms or excuses my shame, I’ll let you be the judge.