“I see you’re reading the right book for this morning,” the old man said in his thick German accent. He was standing behind me as I paid my breakfast bill at a Denny’s Restaurant in L.A. in early May of 1992. The night before, the city had exploded into violence when it was announced that several white police officers had been acquitted for beating a black man named Rodney King.
The book I happened to be reading at that time was a biography of Adolf Hitler.
The old German went on: “We fled Germany in 1937. When times are crazy, people will do crazy things.”
“I don’t think we will ever elect someone like Hitler here in America,” I said.
“We didn’t think so either,” the old man replied.
I remember that morning well. If I close my eyes I can still see the black smoke over the freeway and smell the ashes in the air. I remember the National Guardsman with his M16 patrolling by a boarded up and vandalized store front just down the block from the college where I taught night class. I remember the grocery store closed and locked and the ATM’s shut down and the signs explaining that this was due to “the civil unrest.” And I remember feeling really pissed off. And I felt it all again this week watching the scenes from the riots in Baltimore on TV.
The old German was right. When times are crazy, people will do crazy things. And there’s a very thin line separating peaceful normality from insanity. It takes, it seems, only a single incident to detonate an explosion that has been primed for a very long time. What response is appropriate from people of the Christian faith?
The appointed lessons from the Revised Common Lectionary for Easter 5 Year B seem to speak to me about our current situation in America. We are told in the Gospel reading (John 15:1-8) that we are to abide (that is, make our home, live, dwell, be constantly rooted) in Christ.
“Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing.” (John 15:5)
And how do we know we are abiding? The Second Lesson (1 John 4:7-21) explains:
“…if we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us. By this we know that we abide in him and he in us, because he has given us of his Spirit.” (1 John 4: 12-13)
At moments of great anger like this it’s pretty hard to abide in love for our fellow human beings. There is pent-up rage from those who feel trapped in poverty and oppressed by a system of exclusion. There is also fear and anger and disgust at the sight of those who let wanton anger lead them to acts of vandalism, thievery, and destruction which violate the laws of God and civilized society. We can only get past the lines which separate us if we are willing to abide in Christ.
It has been twenty-three years since the riots in Los Angeles, and yet the recent unrest in Ferguson, Missouri and Baltimore, Maryland indicate to me that we have not grown up as a nation, and have not learned anything from past failures. We can point all the fingers we want, create all the public policy we want, and pass all the laws we want, but nothing will change unless we learn to abide in Christ. Apart from him we can do nothing, and our reactions will only be reflections of our angry and fearful selves.
To abide in Christ will mean to recognize that God crossed the divide and shared all of our human suffering, prompting us to cross our own social divides and experience open empathy. In the First Lesson from last week’s lectionary, Peter and John crossed a divide by taking a man who was a beggar—one living on public assistance and, subsequently, outcast from the community—and restored him to independence and fellowship. In a pericope which precedes this week’s First Lesson, the same two apostles cross another boundary and share the Gospel with the hated Samaritans. In the lesson assigned for Easter 5 (Acts 8:26-40), Philip, prompted by an angel of the Lord and at God’s behest, welcomes into fellowship a man of a different race, a different nationality, and a different sexual orientation—a man who would otherwise be refused fellowship in the existing culture.
I don’t think we’ll ever elect a fascist government here in America, but without a spiritual awakening, all I see is constant repeat of the frustration and anger we’ve seen in the past. Jesus did not come to create an earthly kingdom. Jesus came to bring us to true repentance when we experience his love, his suffering, his resurrection, and his forgiveness. Nothing changes unless our hearts are changed first.
Let me know what you think. Thanks for reading.