Who are Christians to be in solidarity with? And what does solidarity look like?
Hundreds of Baltimore clergy linked arms and took to the streets this week in an effort to restore peace amid the unrest caused by the death in police custody of Freddie Gray, April 19. WBAL reporter Deborah Weiner described the remarkable scene. “These are the church leaders who are putting themselves in harms way to end the violence … they are linked arm-in-arm … one gentleman is in front in a wheelchair.”
This was a sign of solidarity for peace and transformation.
Weiner continued: “I asked the clergy what they thought of the State of Emergency that the Governor declared. They said there has been a State of Emergency way before tonight in Baltimore City, an emergency in poverty, lack of jobs [and] disenfranchisement from the political process.”
In an editorial, The Baltimore Sun called on “the thousands who have already marched in peaceful solidarity with the Gray family’s cause, and the many thousands more who have silently supported them, to take back the movement, to drown out those few who choose chaos over order.”
Gray, a 25-year-old black male, died of spinal cord injuries following his arrest by the Baltimore police department. The city was already in the process of dealing with broken relationships between police and the community in the shadow of allegations of police brutality for years. Statistics show that a black male is four times more likely to be shot by police than a white male in Baltimore. Many people, including good police officers doing their duty, have been injured.
Violence and looting is wrong and unacceptable in any situation, even as a reply to injustice.
But let’s acknowledge that this is not an isolated event. Let acknowledge that this riot, this curfew is about more than one confrontation between police and one man. This event is about more than what happened in Baltimore. This event is more than violent anarchists using a situation. In this day and age that might be a comforting thought.
Too often we tend to be cause-and-effect thinkers when it comes to issues of race and violence. Baltimore Councilman Nick Mosby suggested that racial and societal healing can only happen when we stop narrowly focusing on the latest victim and begin to think more deeply about the way we continue to avoid the hard work of what it means to be a civil society that benefits its people.
I was moved deeply by Mosby's belief that the violence experienced in Baltimore this week is not primarily about Gray’s death, but rather the fruit of decades of growing anger and frustration over a system that has failed the city’s largely black, urban population. The violence and looting are symptoms of much deeper, and systemic issues that leave privileged groups in power and other folk perpetually at a disadvantage.
The social determinants of violence are clear. (See previous post "Prayer for the United States".) Violence is linked intimately to a lack of education and economic opportunity.
We would be naïve to think that society affords all of us the same opportunities. For some people--perhaps even most people--options seem perpetually limited. Some people take one step forward only to find the systems they must deal with day in and day out push them two steps back. This creates a deep sense of anger and frustration, which breeds violence.
The question then becomes--at least for me as bishop--what is the Church’s response? How do we understand our vocation to strive for justice and to respect the dignity of every human being?
How do I understand the gifts I have been afforded and the opportunities I have been given, knowing the reality for many others is not the same. I have to pause before speaking and ponder my place in this conversation. I must address squarely the racism that has benefited me. I must not be afraid to own my opportunities, safety nets and benefits. I can choose to get angry and reject this reality by being defensive. I can chose to ignore it. But what happens if I, as a Christian (Episcopalian and Anglican), chose to live into my baptismal covenant.
First, we must refuse to cast blame, which is an instinctive response to feel more comfortable. Brené Brown defines blame as the discharging of emotional discomfort. By casting blame, we distance ourselves from responsibility and we wrongly assume that nothing we do helped to create the unfair systems. It is what St. Paul called “the powers and principalities” that breed violence, division and a consistent gap in opportunity between whites and non-whites.
If we are blaming someone else for the violence and racism in our world, we are part of the problem, for in blaming we fail to see our deep interconnectedness as human beings and how our behavior and thinking always creates the behavior and thinking of everyone else.
Second, we must work for political change without naively assuming that political change will bring deep healing. We cannot ignore the fact that some policies leave certain groups of people at a perpetual disadvantage. We must be thoughtful about working to bring change to the political arena in a way that does not cast blame or settle for quick-fixes.
Third, we must engage society faithfully around these issues. As James Davison Hunter notes, the Church’s chief task is to be a “faithful presence” in society. Jesus just called it being salt and light. Perhaps this means mentoring a child at an underprivileged school or getting involved in an organization that helps create jobs. But if our presence is to be effective, it will entail personal sacrifice. Perhaps what is so appealing about blaming others and advocating for political solutions doesn’t require us to actually get bruised and bloodied as we work for transformation and change. I don't actually have to get to know someone different than me or care about the things they care about.
The way of Jesus is the way of the cross, with bruises and blood. The measure of our faithfulness as the Body of Christ is never whether we inflict bruises (on whoever we are convinced is to blame) but whether or not we love people enough to receive bruises. Think about it. Jesus’ commitment to the truth didn’t lead to someone else’s death, but rather to his own.
The question then is how are we supposed to die, be uncomfortable, let go of past behaviors so that others might have life and have it abundantly. The mere existence of racism or another’s impoverishment calls us to personal transformation.
Fourth, we must be realistic about the deeper problems that persistently create violence, which is not a lack of education or economic opportunity alone. These are symptoms of the much deeper problem: sin. Sin is what allows me to believe that unity is rooted in skin color and not grace. Sin allows me to think that I am entitled to what I have because I have worked hard. Sin allows me to think that I exist apart from you and that there is such a thing as a “pure victim” apart from Jesus Christ.
As Bishop I am mindful of how deeply sin dwells, not just in society, but in my own heart. But I am also confident and hopeful because I know the power of God’s reconciliation, which for me is not some lofty idea but a theological truth. From a Biblical perspective, it is not so much that we need to be reconciled with one another, as it is that we are reconciled already–with God and with each other–as an act of sheer grace.
God has chosen solidarity with us so then with whom shall we show solidarity?
As Christians, we do not need to bring the Kingdom of God to earth. We just need to wake up to the great theological truth that in Jesus Christ God’s Kingdom is already here. It is a Kingdom that celebrates diversity of every kind. People from “every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages” are part of God’s Kingdom (Rev 7:9). It is a Kingdom where Freddie Gray and the Baltimore police department already stand together reconciled under the foot of the cross, and where violence gives way to economic opportunity for all as “swords are beat into ploughshares” (Isaiah 2:4).
Our vocation as Christians is simple. We are to make real social change happen and to be a sign that points to God’s all-inclusive Kingdom where all people have access to education, health, relationships and meaningful work. This will in-turn repair the unjust structures within society.
But let us not forget that real and lasting growth begins at the root. Transformation happens when we (as individuals) work on the sin that is in us and seek to live differently. Transformation happens when we see ourselves as members of the one, reconciled human family and begin working to repair the unjust structures within our own heart.
So let us chose solidarity with Freddy Gray because black lives matter. Let us chose solidarity with our black brothers and sisters because of our past and our potential future. Let us chose solidarity with the people of Baltimore who seek to be a better city tomorrow.
I also stand in solidarity with God and I will show this solidarity by working for the greater good because all lives matter, and how we live matters, long before the living is done.
- "Christianity is not a theory or speculation, but a life; not a philosophy of life, but a life and a living process." Samuel Taylor Coleridge
- "Most people are willing to take the Sermon on the Mount as a flag to sail under, but few will use it as a rudder by which to steer." Oliver Wendell Holmes
- "Perfection, in a Christian sense, means becoming mature enough to give ourselves to others." Kathleen Norris
- "Do all the good you can, by all the means you can, in all the ways you can, in all the places you can, at all the times you can, to all the people you can, as long as ever you can." John Wesley
- "The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting; it has been found difficult and left untried." G. K. Chesterton
- "One of our great allies at present is the Church itself. Do not misunderstand me. I do not mean the Church as we see her spread out through all time and space and rooted in eternity, terrible as an army with banners. That, I confess, is a spectacle which makes our boldest tempters uneasy. But fortunately it is quite invisible to these humans." C. S. Lewis
- "When we say, 'I love Jesus, but I hate the Church,' we end up losing not only the Church but Jesus too. The challenge is to forgive the Church. This challenge is especially great because the church seldom asks us for forgiveness." Henri Nouwen, Bread for the Journey
- "Christians are hard to tolerate; I don't know how Jesus does it." Bono
- "It's too easy to get caught in our little church subcultures, and the result is that the only younger people we might know are Christians who are already inside the church." Dan Kimball