Lament in a Time of Rage and Despair

“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.” – Martin Luther King

“This is not in the spirit of Martin Luther King Jr. This is chaos.”  – Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms

“I understand having anger and grief during this time. But this is not that. This is wanton destruction and violence.” – Minnesota Governor Tim Walls

“This is what it looks like when justice has been denied for a long time.” – Ben Jealous (former NAACP president)

Our nation is now dealing with two crises: the ongoing COVID19 pandemic (current death toll in US is 109,000 at the time of this writing) has been eclipsed by civil unrest in the aftermath of the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis Police. Peaceful protests across the nation have turned into violent clashes with police and National Guard, along with a rampage of looting and destruction.

There is a simmering rage in our cities, like the dry tinder of a forest just waiting for some spark to be lit and explode into a raging fire. The horrific murder of George Floyd — in broad daylight, at the hands of callous police officers, who knew they were being filmed, with bystanders begging them to stop — has proved to be that spark.

As a white pastor living in a predominantly white community just North of Minneapolis, with many friends in the areas affected, I’ve been thinking a lot about what’s happening. I know that many voices are weighing in on this situation. I’m adding to that cacophany today because I think that members of my congregation should hear my perspective on this, and I offer it in the hope that it might help them, and maybe some others, as we think, pray, and work together on this.

1. The explosion of violence and looting we are seeing is not just about racial tensions. *

*After several days have passed, and new events have emerged, I’ve changed my mind about this point somewhat. Rather than erase it, I’m just going to leave it as is, but add some “clarifications and second thoughts” at the end of this section.

In addition to a powerful wave of rage in response to yet another killing of an unarmed black person (more on that later), there are two things going on — one is getting lots of attention, and the other not enough.

What’s getting lots of attention is that there are different kinds of people doing different kinds of things — there are legitimate protesters and callous opportunists. We keep being reminded that there are “bad apples” swooping in on lawful protests, and their goal is to incite violence, steal, and destroy. It’s a progression: First there are peaceful demonstrations. Then comes the violence, property destruction, and looting. In nearly every press conference with officials around the US, they’ve tried to push the narrative that the violent protesters were “not people from our city (or state) … they’re trouble-makers or anarchists who are coming in from somewhere else.”

There is undoubtedly some truth to this, but it can’t be the whole story. There are now protests happening all across the nation. Do all the anarchists have a “not in my neighborhood” rule? Are they all just getting in their cars and driving to a different state to do their looting and destruction?

I doubt it. Arrest records keep showing the vast percentage of people being detained ARE, in fact, local. Every city and state has its own gathering of violent, rage-filled people, willing to steal and destroy.

____________________________________________________________

Do all the anarchists have a “not in my neighborhood” rule?

Are they all getting in their cars and driving

to a different state to do their looting and destruction?

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This brings us to the second, more uncomfortable truth: there are a lot more people with a lot more rage than people want to believe.

Obviously the spark of our current civil unrest — and the primary issue people are protesting — has to do with racism and policing. But it’s also fueled by the fact that people are already on edge after being locked in their homes due to coronavirus restrictions, and are frustrated by the social and racial disparities being revealed.

Divisions between the “haves” and the “have-nots” have only gotten more stark in the wake of the coronavirus. Who’s more likely to get the disease? Who’s more likely to lose their job? Who’s more likely to be ruined financially by it because of lack of — or terrible — health insurance? It’s the have-nots … who are disproportionately people of color.

Even a cursory viewing of video from the current riots shows that many of the protesters are white — it’s not just black and brown people — and they seem just as angry as anybody else. Are they just there to support their friends of color … or do they carry rage and cynicism of their own about “the system”? I think it’s the later. It’s about white police killing an unarmed black man. But it’s also about the growing inequities in our society, and large numbers of people who’ve lost trust in government and court systems to change that.

I haven’t seen specific research (yet) to demonstrate it, but here is my theory:

Protests that turn into riots —

with rampages of destruction and looting —

are a sign not just of rage, but also despair.

Everyone asks, “Why would people do this? Why are they destroying their own cities and neighborhoods?” It’s not simply because they are angry, it’s not simply about “not having a voice” to change things … it’s because they don’t trust “the system” to do what it’s supposed to do (provide protection, root out injustice, reform bad laws, hold people in power accountable, etc). It’s a sign of alienation as much as it is anger. And to be honest, this, to me, is as worrisome as anything.

EDIT: Clarification and Second Thoughts:

After further thinking about this, and as the protests have gone on — even expanding around the world — I’ve changed my mind (somewhat) about this point. I now think that, by and large, these protests really ARE about racism, as well as police brutality. What seemed to me early on as a more large-scale rejection of “the system” really seems to have been a minor part of the issue. Over time it’s become clear that what we’re seeing is rage and protest directed against police brutality, especially towards people of color. I don’t want my speculation about a larger-scale discontent and disillusionment that I’m seeing to take away from that. (By the way, I still DO see a rage emerging among the “have-nots” in our society, and growing disillusionment about the capacity of our institutions to fix our problems. More protests and riots could very well come in the future about these broader issues … but that doesn’t seem to be what’s happening right now.)

2. White people should be quick to listen, slow to speak, and careful to judge about issues related to race.

Getting back to the subject of race, it’s important for each of us to recognize the limitations of our perception and understanding. Growing up white, in a predominantly white community, I have no idea what it’s like for my black and brown brothers and sisters. And it pains me to see and hear other white people presuming to judge how African Americans are thinking and responding to the circumstances in our country.

My years as a pastor in Chicago, and my friendships with African American parishioners and fellow pastors taught me so much. Mostly they taught me how much I don’t know about how they experience the world. I learned to listen — not just out of respect, but because they have so many helpful insights and such important wisdom.

I agree with former president GW Bush, who recently wrote:

“Laura and I are anguished by the brutal suffocation of George Floyd and disturbed by the injustice and fear that suffocate our country. Yet we have resisted the urge to speak out, because this is not the time for us to lecture. It is time for us to listen. It is time for America to examine our tragic failures — and as we do, we will also see some of our redeeming strengths.”

Black friends have told me about the stress they feel as parents, because of fears that any ordinary encounter with police could escalate and end in the death of their child. They describe needing to have “the talk” with their kids — especially sons — about how they need to be especially careful and docile if they ever encounter police … because of the worry that police will feel threatened, and the situation will go bad, and they will be killed. For my white and foreign friends, this a VERY real fear … I’m not exaggerating or making this up. 

Listen to these words, written by a black pastor friend in Chicago named Ed Rockett. He posted this several days ago on social media, as his response to this week’s news:

I’m a Black, educated man in America. I’ve been racially profiled. Pulled over by police. Forced to get out of my car for no reason at all. Frisked unjustifiably. Made to put my bare hands on a cold car in the dead of winter. Called all manner of obscenities. Forced to lie on the ground. Had guns drawn on me and my friends, and was afraid that we wouldn’t make it to our destination. Fortunately, I made it home. Tragically, George Floyd didn’t make it home. Ahmaud Arbery, he didn’t make it home.

I survived that night years ago to go into corporate America, only to find the same racist, arrogant white folks maintaining a glass ceiling that made advancement difficult for me or anyone that looked like me. I survived that night to enter into business partnerships with racist white folks whose sole intent was to try and learn a previously unlearned skill set, and then try and cut me out of subsequent deals.

I was fortunate to survive that night to start a business, complete two more degrees, start a family, pastor 3 churches, and become a Bishop in the Lord’s church all before the age of 40. But George Floyd didn’t survive. Ahmaud Arbery didn’t survive. Breonna Taylor didn’t survive. They were murdered in cold blood!!! And I am sickened to my core; not only for my brothers and sisters that didn’t survive but also knowing that this could have been/could be me. Or this could be/could have been my children, a relative, a friend or someone that I know.

As I continue to process this week’s events and aftermath, I am reminded that Black folks always survived through resistance and hope! My hope is that unlike the aftermath of Rodney King, Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, and the host of others before and after, we gain an understanding that we can’t continue to do the same thing over and over and expect a different result.

We’re mad. We’re disgusted. We can’t BREATHE! But we’re still here; and as such we have a responsibility to be RESPONSIBLE, put aside differences and build a collective social, political and economic base that will demand change and ensure that the lives of our brothers and sisters were not lost in vain.

You may have already seen the following video, recorded by Trevor Noah, South African immigrant and host of “The Daily Show.” If you haven’t seen it already, it’s worth watching. You may not like or agree with everything he says, but it will help you understand the mindset of protesters, rioters, and looters. Notice what he says about the “social contract,” and how its violation leads to social unraveling:

Before we move on, let’s hear from one more African American leader. Martin Luther King, Jr. said this in a speech at Stanford University in 1967. Not only is it relevant for today, it seems prophetic for having been said so long ago:

“I think America must see that riots do not develop out of thin air. Certain conditions continue to exist in our society which must be condemned as vigorously as we condemn riots. But in the final analysis, a riot is the language of the unheard. And what is it that America has failed to hear? It has failed to hear that the plight of the Negro poor has worsened over the last few years. 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, equality, and humanity. And so in a real sense our nation’s summers of riots are caused by our nation’s winters of delay. And as long as America postpones justice, we stand in the position of having these recurrences of violence and riots over and over again. Social justice and progress are the absolute guarantors of riot prevention.”

3. We can no longer tolerate racism and abuse in our police force.

Of course, it should go without saying that likewise, we can no longer tolerate racism and abuse in our court system, in health care, housing, or education. But those are topics for another time. Let’s talk today about law enforcement.

I served as a police chaplain for a number of years, and have had many parishioners and friends in law enforcement. I love and respect them so much for the work they do, and I know it takes an incredible toll on them. Police officers need our prayers and support. The vast majority are great people, and serve honorably in a very challenging job. I find it hard to watch video of the riots, in part because I can’t imagine how challenging it must be for police and national guardsmen to keep their calm and show restraint, while being taunted, having rocks and garbage thrown at them, and undoubtedly fearing for their own safety.

All of that is true, but something else must also be said, and I think I have at least a little experience and credibility to say it: the culture and system of law enforcement has to change. Ultimately, that’s what the current civil unrest is about, and we cannot afford to miss this moment.

In 2014 “The American Conservative” published an article that is even more relevant today than it was then. The provocative title says it all: “Seven Reasons Police Brutality is Systemic Not Anecdotal.” I encourage you to read it. As with the Trevor Noah video above, you might not like or agree with everything it says, but the article will make you think. I’m going to list the seven reasons given in the article below. The article expands on, and demonstrates each of the “reasons” with anecdotes and research, but here they are, just so you can see them:

  1. Many departments don’t provide adequate training in nonviolent solutions.
  2. Standards for what constitutes brutality vary widely.
  3. Consequences for misconduct are minimal.
  4. Settlements are shifted to taxpayers.
  5. Minorities are unfairly targeted.
  6. Police are increasingly militarized.
  7. Police themselves say misconduct is remarkably widespread.

An Analogy — a Time of Reckoning For Pastors

As a pastor, my ministry has taken place during a time of reckoning for pastors and priests who abuse their authority. I have served on boards that sought to institute changes in disciplinary procedures. On multiple occasions I have served as either a consultant or adjudicant in situations where pastors were disciplined or removed from office.

Everyone hates those situations, and even the harshest of clerical critics will readily acknowledge that the vast majority of pastors are faithful and ethical in their work. But what about those few who aren’t? How do we deal with them? In our denomination we’ve been taking extreme measures to change our training, our culture, and our policies to root out the “bad apples” in our profession.

Fair or not, the law enforcement profession has a reputation for NOT doing this: for protecting its own … for its lack of transparency and accountability. Word on the street is that fellow officers will cover for each other, that they won’t “rat each other out.”

What infuriates the public is not only that a police officer abuses his or her authority and attacks — or kills — a citizen unjustly. What infuriates the public is when fellow officers cover for the “bad apple,” when internal investigations grind to a halt or get covered up, when charges against officers get dropped (or never happen in the first place), and when these “bad apples” face no consequences and continue to “serve” in their role and abuse others.

That is what infuriates us … and that has to change.

In my early years as a pastor I was in a situation where I was called in to serve on a committee to decide what to do about a colleague and friend, who’d been caught crossing an ethical line. I won’t go into the details here, but suffice it to say I angered a number of people and lost a friend who couldn’t believe that I “didn’t have his back” when I was part of the decision to fire him. It was one of the hardest things I’ve had to do as a pastor, but I have zero regrets. As I told him then (and again later), “Yes you are my friend, and yes I do have your back, but that doesn’t mean I’m going to look the other way or not tell the truth about what you did.”

The “bad apple” in your profession is not your friend.

Law enforcement systems have to change to make officers more accountable, and the culture of closing ranks to protect fellow officers needs to change … especially in cases where racial disparity is involved. If not, police forces risk losing legitimacy in the eyes of their community. Do you think I’m being overly dramatic? Just watch the news.

Last year, before the latest spate of race-related killings, the LA Times published an article with jarring main point as its headline: “Getting Killed by Police is a Leading Cause of Death for Black Men.” The whole article is worth reading, but note the following:

About 1 in 1,000 black men and boys in America can expect to die at the hands of police, according to a new analysis of deaths involving law enforcement officers. That makes them 2.5 times more likely than white men and boys to die during an encounter with cops.

Scientists are increasingly studying police violence as a public health problem whose long-term harms radiate far beyond the original victim.

A study published in the Lancet last year found that police killings of unarmed black men were associated with an increase in mental health problems such as depression and emotional issues for black people living in the state where the killing took place.

“The United States is unique among wealthy democracies in terms of the number of people that are killed by its police forces,” says Justin Feldman, a social epidemiologist at the New York University School of Medicine. “I think the No. 1 thing it comes down to is a lack of accountability by police departments, both legally and politically.”

I was especially struck by the quote in the Lancet study (Lancet is a medical journal). It bears repeating. They found that police killings of unarmed black men “were associated with an increase in mental health problems such as depression and emotional issues for black people living in the state where the killing took place.” Not just immediate family and friends … but black people living in the same state!

4. It’s not enough for followers of Jesus to “not be racist” … we must be anti-racist.

So where is the church in all this? Tragically, the church in America has condoned, or given tacit approval to racism. Too often, we’ve been silent about this very pressing issue in society.

“Silence in the face of evil is itself evil; God will not hold us guiltless. Not to speak is to speak. Not to act is to act.”

– Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Racial disparity is an issue of justice, and in matters of justice, God takes sides. God is not neutral. God takes the side of the oppressed, and against those in power. It doesn’t matter how many Bible studies or praise gatherings we have, if the church sides with the oppressors and against the oppressed, we are not on God’s side, and it will not go well for us.

In Amos chapter 5, the prophet calls out the Israelite nation for the injustice it tolerates. The rich levy unfair taxes, the innocent are oppressed, bribes are taken, and the poor are deprived of justice in the courts. In the context of that society (which sounds depressingly similar to our own), listen to what God has to say about their “church gatherings:”

“I hate, I despise your religious festivals;
your assemblies are a stench to me.
Even though you bring me burnt offerings and grain offerings,
I will not accept them…
Away with the noise of your songs!
I will not listen to the music of your harps."

Amos 5:21-23

Bible passages like that are what keep pastors like me up at night. Sure, we are trying to do our part in putting church activities together, helping people pray and praise God. But to what extent are the things we tolerate so destructive to our witness, and so offensive to God, that they cancel out the good that we are trying to do?

The more entrenched the church is in division — and what is racism if not division? — the less like Jesus it is. In the early church, much work was needed to break down the dividing wall of hostility between Jew and Gentile. Jews had great animosity towards — and disdain for — Gentiles. And now they were being forced to live and work together as fellow church members. It was not easy!

This issue is directly addressed in multiple places in the New Testament, most notably and directly in Galatians 3:28. Paul explicitly says,

“There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free man, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”

Galatians 3:28

A great article by Derwin Gray and Frank Viola, written in 2013 after the Trayvon Martin shooting trial, expands on this issue, and talks about the “theology of unity” in the early Christian church. This teaching in the Bible was written to directly challenge the racial division that emerged as the church grew. The Bible passages mentioned in the article could not be more clear: Jesus Christ is the great unifier — and to the degree that we tolerate racism, we fail to be the kind of community that Christ came to establish.

It was years ago that Angela Davis who said:

“In a racist society it’s not enough to be non-racist — we must be anti-racist.”

That is, we must specifically and directly oppose racism wherever we see it. In order to do this, we need to acknowledge how destructive it is to denigrate fellow men and women who are made in the image of God.

And we can still be anti-racist even if we are confused about it and struggle ourselves. As Ijeoma Oluo puts it: “The beauty of anti-racism is that you don’t have to pretend to be free of racism to be anti-racist. Anti-racism is the commitment to fight racism wherever you find it, including in yourself. And it’s the only way forward.”

June 16 Edit — One More Resource

Finally, I want to add another article link to this mix. This one is notable because its author is David French, a Christian conservative who frequently comments on social issues. He writes of his experience as a conservative, white Christian, adopting a child from Africa, and starting to see the world in a different way, as a result of seeing how she was treated. That’s interesting, but it’s not the astonishing part. What I found so astonishing and disturbing was his account of what happened after he wrote pieces that challenged “conservative political correctness” — in other words, articles that were critical of president Trump, and articles that talked about racism. His article is, I think, really helpful for conservative white Christians, to help them understand what’s happening right now.

So What do we do? What is our response?

In light of all that is happening, I suggest four things:

(1) Listen — I’ve already talked about this. We need to listen to the voices of those who’ve been on the receiving end of discrimination and abuse, simply because of the color of their skin. And as I pointed out in the beginning, we should also be listening for — and paying attention to — the signs of hopelessness and despair that surround us.

(2) Lament — In theology, lament is the honest response of faith to evil and suffering. In generic use, the term “lament” is a descriptor for “loud grieving.” But it has a particular usage and place in the life of faith. Lament is our expression of grieving the pain and suffering we encounter … and the Bible gives us ample space to do this. Scholars tell us that fully one-third of the Psalms are prayers or songs of lament. The fact that lament figures so prominently in the Bible means that it has an important place in our spiritual lives. There is a time for exuberant praise, happiness, and gratitude, where we celebrate the victories we encounter … but there’s also a place for lament when we encounter defeat and loss. This is one of those times — both in the face of losses related to covid19, and the suffering and loss evident in our current civil unrest.

(3) Pray — This is a time for listening to one another, and praying to God — both with prayers of lament and with requests. If lament is asking “Why God?” then prayer is asking God for forgiveness and help. God’s promise in 2 Chronicles 7:14 seems so relevant and focused to our needs today that it’s uncanny: “If my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and I will forgive their sin and will heal their land.” This is the promise that we hold our hope for. The promise that God will hear our prayers, and bring about change in our society we feel powerless to enact, and don’t even dare hope for. Please commit to pray.

(4) Advocate — Advocate for change. We may feel alienated from “the system,” and we may feel despair about the possibility of meaningful reform, but we still have a voice, and we should use it. Don’t cast rocks, cast your vote. Contribute your time and resources as you’re able.

This is a hard subject to write about, because people have diverse and strong feelings about the subject matter. If you have comments or questions, please send them as emails, using the “contact me” feature.

1 thought on “Lament in a Time of Rage and Despair”

  1. Mark,
    Your words are words of truth and action. Action in thoughts and deeds. Tim and I are blessed to have you and Charlene in our life!

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