A Little “Believing Thinking”
On the morning that we left for our long planned and greatly anticipated trip to see family in Minnesota in August of 1965, the Watts Riots were well underway in South Central Los Angeles. As we drove east out of Southern California I remember sitting in the back seat of the family sedan with my two sisters beside me and seeing the orange glow of the city burning in the predawn sky, and being truly afraid. We are all products of our experiences and perceptions, and this is part of mine. The confusion I felt as a 12 year old boy watching the streets of his city become a battlefield drawn along racial lines and the very real fear that I had that when we got back that there would be nothing left, that our home and neighborhood would be gone, burned to the ground by angry lawless mobs, no doubt contributed to my “law and order” mentality.
A product of the 1950’s, I was already living an “Ozzie and Harriet” life in an Eisenhower Republican household where authority was respected and those who wielded it were believed to be invariably just and fair, only looking to serve and protect, with our best interests always in mind. These assumptions framed my perceptions then, and continue to shape them now. And so, after a week like this one that we have just been through as a nation with the racial violence and civil unrest in a St. Louis suburb flaring up daily, I find that all of those old fears and convictions get stirred up in me once again.
Today I know that authority routinely gets abused, that those who wield it can often be cruel and corrupt, and that power in the service of prejudice and systematic oppression is utterly demonic, and yet my basic orientation is still on the side of law and order. Romans 13:1-5 looms large in my thinking, both spiritually and politically.
Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. Consequently, whoever rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves. For rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong. Do you want to be free from fear of the one in authority? Then do what is right and you will be commended. For the one in authority is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for rulers do not bear the sword for no reason. They are God’s servants, agents of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer. Therefore, it is necessary to submit to the authorities, not only because of possible punishment but also as a matter of conscience.
I still want to believe in freedom and justice for all, in the structures of authority for the establishment and maintenance of the social order, and that the system, while frail and flawed, will not fail if left to run its full course. With this as my interpretive grid, I view the events in Ferguson, Missouri, in a certain way.
I truly grieve the death of Mike Brown, and I want to give the benefit of the doubt to law enforcement. I am respectful of the constitutional right of peaceful assembly and public protest, but I am disgusted by the rioting and looting. I want the investigation of what happened to be allowed to objectively unfold without a rush to judgment from either side, and if it should turn out in the end that the tragic death of this young man was unjustified, then I want the structures of law and order that we have established as a people to serve the interests of justice to be brought to bear and the police officer who was involved in this incident to be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.
In my world, from the vantage point of my experiences and perceptions, this all seems to me to be completely reasonable. But I know that my African American brothers and sisters have a very different set of experiences and perceptions that lead them to some very different conclusions. Where I can trust, they are suspicious. The structures that have served me and my interests so well throughout my life have oppressed them, and the system from which I have directly and repeatedly benefited has dramatically failed them at any number of points throughout our long national history, and so while their most natural reflex to an event like this one is pain and powerlessness giving way to outrage, mine is patience and perspective grounded in the belief that justice will finally prevail. This leaves us sitting and staring across a wide divide of differing experiences and perceptions at each other, mystified at the conclusions that the other is drawing, and perhaps even a bit skeptical of the sincerity and depth of the faith that the other asserts is at the very center of their being, thinking and acting. So, how do we break this deadlock? How do we move forward together as a people, especially as people of faith?
Theologian Miroslav Volf argues that in order to navigate this kind of social divide that we as Christians have got to come to terms with “the inner logic of the cross” (Exclusion and Embrace 214). He explains that he had just finished preaching on Romans 5:6-11 during which he had passionately argued that “we ought to embrace the other as God has embraced us in Christ” when he was asked if this meant that he could embrace a Cetnik, one of the notorious Serbian fighters who in the winter of 1993 were desolating Miroslav’s homeland and destroying his people? Could Miroslav, a Croat, embrace a Serbian soldier? And his honest answer was, “No, I cannot – but as a follower of Christ I think I should be able to” (9).
It was the tension between his allegiance to the God who on Calvary’s cross set out to embrace those who were estranged from Him, and his own personal and painful experience of estrangement from the Serbians, his people’s despised enemies, that caused Miroslav to reflect deeply on how we can embrace those from whom we are estranged. And he concluded that the only way we can do this is by learning how to “enlarge our thinking.” He said that “in a creaturely sort of way” we need “to emulate God’s way of knowing” in Jesus Christ (251). This is what’s at stake when we talk about the Incarnation, about how God became one of us, about how Christ was “fully God” and “fully human.” In the mystery of God putting Himself in our place and carrying the full range of our experiences as human beings from birth to death into God’s very own heart, we have a model for how we can and must move from hostility to hospitality ourselves.
While not denying our own individual identities, experiences or perspectives, we have to risk taking a step outside ourselves just like God did in Christ. We must cross over the dividing wall of suspicion and hostility that separates us from each other. And we must enter the world of the other deep enough to be able to hear with their ears, to see with their eyes, and to feel with their hearts. And then when we cross back over the divide that separates us from each other, we must then be prepared to bring bits and pieces of their world back with us into ours so that the perspective of the other always stands beside our own, in dialogue with it.
This is how the stranger, the other, can become the familiar, the friend. But to do this the barrier of fear must be deliberately breached. The wall of suspicion must be consciously stepped over. The divide of enmity that separates us must be crossed. New possibilities in our relationships with each other must be envisioned. And Miroslav Volf says that it’s the cross of Christ that inspires and empowers us to be able to do this. In the outstretched arms of Christ on Calvary we can see the embrace of God taking in those who were once separate and strangers, and it pushes us to do the same thing. “God’s reception of hostile humanity into divine communion is a model for how human beings should relate to each other” (Volf 100). It takes effort, and it takes time, and it takes sacrifice, but as followers of Jesus Christ we really have no other choice. “The love of Christ constrains us” (2 Corinthians 5:14). DBS+