“If you want peace, work for justice.”
I’ve never been especially fond of this saying. It seems too simplistic, too clichéd. It’s sometimes used to excuse bad behavior, as in, “Because there is no justice, you will get no peace.” But this pithy bon mot was among other thoughts slamming through my head all night as I watched rioters rampage through parts of my beloved city.
First, looting is not protesting. Baltimore held hours of peaceful protest for several days, including the march from Freddy Gray’s impoverished West Baltimore neighborhood to City Hall on Saturday. The percentage of thugs and troublemakers who broke off to begin looting after that respectful rally was small, but of course alarming and attention-grabbing.
Police showed remarkable restraint Saturday night as they were taunted and pelted for several tense hours. Could I endure hours of having someone shove a megaphone into my face, cursing, slandering and inciting violence, without striking back? Could you? Could the megaphone-wielding protester?
We are facing–not just in Baltimore, but nationally–legitimate anger about cases of police brutality. The Freddy Gray case is particularly egregious, and the video of his arrest shocking. But his grieving family has stated multiple times that they want only peaceful protest.
And the rioters? So many of them were adolescent boys in city school uniforms—khaki pants, colored polo shirts, occasional backpacks. To them,this was a field trip on steroids, a joy ride under the ubiquitous police helicopter searchlights. They showed no respect for authority, no fear of punishment—surely learned behaviors. We deplore their criminal activity, but need to address the issues underlying their anger.
Pastors were out in full force, protecting small storefront businesses, standing between violent protesters and the police, and calling on people to stop the violence and go home. Pastors like Dante Hickman of Southern Baptist in East Baltimore (whose new senior center was burned to the ground) gave Biblical, measured responses in a time of frayed and flaring tempers.
I wish the front page of today’s Baltimore Sun showed Robert Valentine, an older African American veteran of the armed services who stood alone, erect and unarmed, to protect a line of riot-gear clad police. “I’m just a soldier,” he said when a CNN reporter asked him who he was. “I was in Vietnam. I’ve seen worse than this,” he said, indicating the rioters. He wore a large gold cross. He had no fear because he knew who holds his life in His hands.
In his new book Merciful, veteran Christian community development pastor Randy Nabors writes, “The patterns of inadequate home training, misbehaving children, inadequate school education, misbehaving teens, generating early pregnancy and single parent homes, young adults with functional illiteracy, inability to go to college or to find solid career-type jobs, susceptibility to gangs, drugs and criminal activity (and thus higher rates of incarceration) deprive many black communities of the human capital by which to build a future, namely marriageable and employable males….” If you want to become an intelligent and merciful giver, read this book.
If you want a balanced interpretation of generational poverty, how some government programs create dependency, and the responsibility of the church, read Merciful. “Generational poverty tends to destroy an achiever value system…and results in the loss of aspiration. [It} creates a vicious cycle where cause and effect seem predestined to continue endlessly.” We saw the frustration and fruit of generational poverty Monday night.
While the rioters were running the streets, Craig was with our youth group at church. Faith Christian Fellowship’s youth minister, Blake Scheidt, used events of the last week as a teachable moment. What does God say about justice and poverty? How do we respond to injustice and racism? Youths shared their frustrations, studied the Bible, and prayed with leaders who have demonstrated their commitment to them and to the neighborhood. We thank God for Blake and his wife Leeza. We also thank God for Emily Sippel, who works fewer hours in her medical practice so she can volunteer with youth. And Devin Brown, raised primarily by his strong, single mother in the neighborhood. Devin and his new wife Danielle, recent college & grad school graduates, are among those quietly investing in youth.
Work for justice is sloppy, time consuming, and discouraging. You will be disheartened at times. You will want to quit. You will be attacked, sometimes by those you invest in. You will wonder if you make any difference at all. But you do. As a veteran of over 30 years of urban ministry, I can promise you that you do.
When we began in ministry almost 35 years ago, we were strongly influenced by the books of Dr. John Perkins, whom many call the father of today’s Christian community development movement. He said that because of the legacy of broken promises and broken relationships in at-risk communities, Christians needed to make long-term commitments. Stay until you can reproduce yourself, he said. Dr. Perkins is 85 years old, and recently spoke at a church in Baltimore. He referenced Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.
“I want to fly-—but I am caged because my people are caged, killing each other… the human race is caged killing each other. I almost flew when I left Mississippi. When I came to Jesus Christ, I thought I was free but my people were dying back in Mississippi…. I came back and I got into the cage with them.nI’m going to be in that cage until I die. I’m still singing the so-called Old Negro hymn— I’m going to fly away some bright day when this life is over… that is what the church is promised. When we hear his voice we are going to fly away with him… but in the meantime I want to be faithful.”
Let’s be faithful in loving Jesus and loving Baltimore.