On Saturday evening, our city reached a tipping point. The fear, frustration, and anger overflowed into the riots of Saturday night. The violence continued last night, except the violence erupted in the midst of heavily armored sheriffs in riot gear with the national guard in the wings. I spent a few hours on Sunday afternoon amidst the residents of Sherman Park, pastoral leaders, and community activists. I felt compelled to be on the ground in Sherman Park because of my belief in the Incarnation. Sherman Park is not my parish, but there are certain events that transcend my immediate pastoral responsibilities. The events of this weekend were one such occasion.
I returned again to Sherman Park to stand amongst African American leaders, civil servants, activists, and organizers. The events of the past few days have me reflecting on my role as an Anglican Priest in the Kingdom of God. The question to myself is this:
How do I remain first a citizen of the Kingdom, a servant of the King, while also being a peacemaker in the city of man?
Honestly, I feel tempted to align myself with those in the minority, the African American community. But I’m also concerned about the temptation to be ‘caught up’ in the moment. The expression of violence by many of the younger residents manifested in rioting, setting fires, shooting of guns, rolling cars, pulling white people from their cars because they are white…it is appalling. Yet, it is just as appalling to see our civil servants dressed in riot gear, which only escalates an already volatile situation, and hearing that our governor not only activated the national guard but also released them into action on Sunday night.
My challenge as a priest is to remain a non-anxious presence. My challenge as a priest is to ‘mind the gap’, stand in the tension and call for peace and calm from both parties. If I align myself with one party to strongly, I minimize my voice with the other. On the other hand, Jesus’ first sermon proclaimed: ‘liberty to the captives’ and ‘liberty to those who are oppressed’. In 1st century Palestine, Israel was captive to the Roman occupation. There was a very explicit oppressor. In the United States, historically the oppression of African Americans has also been very overt, and at times encouraged. Martin Luther King, Jr., writing just under 50 years ago had this to say about riots;
“But it is not enough for me to stand before you tonight and condemn riots. It would be morally irresponsible for me to do that without, at the same time, condemning the contingent, intolerable conditions that exist in our society. These conditions are the things that cause individuals to feel that they have no other alternative than to engage in violent rebellions to get attention. And I must say tonight that a riot is the language of the unheard. And what is it America has failed to hear?…It has failed to hear that the promises of freedom and justice have not been met. And it has failed to hear that large segments of white society are more concerned about tranquility and the status quo than about justice and humanity.”
Police violence against the African American community is not new. I’m sure to many this isn’t a surprise, especially if you are black. But for a majority of white people, this seems to be a new phenomenon. It’s not. It’s just now being seen for what it is because the minority has a voice and a medium to show what has been kept hidden by media.
As I priest, I have the difficult task of defending the powerless while at the same time, calling the powerless to a liberty that is beyond the liberty that can be found in any nation. I am called to stand in the midst of my minority brothers and sisters and confess that to this date I have never had the experience of being powerless and oppressed, and it is possible that I never will as a white male.
As I priest, I feel compelled to defend the powerless from those who abuse power. To stand alongside my African American brothers and sisters as they face officers, who for the “sake of peace and safety”, come with riot gear, tear gas, guns, and the law at their back.
As a priest, I also feel compelled to proclaim to those oppressed and captive, that there is a place where they are equal, they are brothers and sisters, where justice and peace truly reigns, under a merciful and just king. In the kingdom of God, I know the dividing walls of hostility have been torn down.
As a priest, I feel a need to also work hard to trust the rulers and authorities that God has placed over our city. I have to believe that those with the riot gear, and armored vehicles, really do desire to restore the peace and safety of the community. This is the harder call by far.
I don’t get to choose one side or the other. I need to remind both sides that no one is ever all right, nor is one side all wrong. Evil, selfish, and violent behavior is committed on both sides. The root of violence is fear, and when we are driven by fear we act preemptively with violence so that we are ourselves to do not experience violence first. Only peace will reign when we all commit to turn our swords into plowshares, to say; “this is my part”.
Until the law enforcement can say; ‘we were wrong’ and until the rioters can say; “we were wrong”, we will not experience an environment where reconciliation can happen.
As a priest, I have to proclaim that there is a king that knew that we would never be able to fully understand or own our wrongness. That we have a king who said; “Let me do it for you.” I will own your wrongness, I will bear your oppression, I will take on the guilt of your oppressor. I will bear the weight of pain and brokenness of this world, I will be the sin eater so that you can be with me and experience a peace that passes all understanding.
Peacemakers do not ignore oppression but they do accept that violence as the answer. Law Enforcement lay down your guns, rioters lay down your guns.