What’s our Response? Race, Riot and Violence in America

We’ve all heard about the latest deadly attack at a historic black church in Charleston, South Carolina. We’ve all watched media coverage, heard journalists take on the matter, and discussed it in private. We’ve all thrown up our hands at the carnage and wondered what is to be done. And then we go about our daily lives.

There has been a lot of discussion of this apathy, what Jon Stewart called a “disparity of response.” (Regardless of how you feel about Stewart, his latest response to the shooting in South Carolina is spot on.) We are already talking about this most recent shooting in the sterilized terminology that allows us to separate ourselves from any sense of responsibility. Or perhaps, separating ourselves from a social ability.

I’ve been thinking about this topic a lot. I’ve been thinking about change, and about the kind of world I want my kids to inherit. I’ve been thinking about my social and spiritual responsibility. And I’ve been thinking about how I fit into this problem, and how I might fit into the solution.

This past Saturday was a rainy, gloomy sort of day and I found myself sitting on the sofa with a stack of back-issues of Time magazine. As I was reading the May, 2015 issues, I came across an article on the April riots in Baltimore.

I knew most of the details of the riots already, seeing as that was already over two months ago. What struck me, however, was the the way journalist David Von Drehle ended his piece:

But if the peace holds in Baltimore, it will not be because of outside intervention. Rather, the solution will have come from within. For every rioter, the city’s neighborhoods produced more men willing to lock arms to form a buffer between demonstrators and police, more teenagers willing to sweep sidewalks clean of broken glass. In one indelible image, a mother took her rampant son be the ear and hauled him home. When police cited reports that gangs were threatening to kill cops, members of the rival Crips and Bloods answered by calling for peace.

Von Drehle’s assessment that the solution will have to come from within is startling in both it’s simplicity and it’s turning of the tables; the idea that change must come from within our communities first and foremost, places the burden of responsibility squarely on our shoulders. 

I grew up white, in a mostly white community. I grew up privileged. To this day, I have to fight 30 years of naivety, bias and ignorance. To this day I live in a community that loves to make jokes about other races, immigration and about the poor or disadvantaged. I’m surrounded by people who get all riled up when they come across an individual who doesn’t speak English, which usually elicits a, “this is America, so speak English” kind of response.

I’m still amazed by American’s who think this way. Seriously? None of us are “from here,” unless your lineage is 100% Native American. I’m especially baffled when Christians respond this way. I thought that as Christians we believe that we are all strangers to this land.

I think that’s why I’m most upset by my fellow Christian’s response to this issue. As white Christians, living in America, we are the epitome of the accepted “other.” The Israelites, in the book of Exodus, were urged to “not mistreat or oppress a foreigner, for you were foreigners in Egypt.” This was the advice to the literal people of God. A select group of people that we, the white American, weren’t originally a part of. If there is any group in history that should understand acceptance, mercy and kindness, it should be us. Sadly, we couldn’t be any further from accepting.

Despite my sheltered upbringing, racism still doesn’t make sense to me. On a literal, social, spiritual or moral level, it makes zero sense to me. I cannot comprehend a mentality that ranks different races or classes the way I might rank books from most to least favorite. I can’t comprehend reducing human life to such a meaningless level.

As I’ve been thinking about what my response to these issues should be, I’ve had to resist slipping into a “woe-is-me, what can one person do” kind of helplessness. Then I read Von Drehle’s article. I also read a quote from Joe Klein in a different article, in the same issue as the Baltimore piece. Klein said, “I’ve always thought that cynicism is what passes for insight among the mediocre.”

“I’ve always thought that cynicism is what passes for insight among the mediocre.”

I was powerfully influenced by those words. I don’t want to be mediocre. I don’t believe I am, mediocre. I don’t want to be cynical about change. I want to believe in change, because I know just what I’m capable of accomplishing. I also know just how much I’ve changed personally in my short lifetime. Furthermore, I know that I’m the type of person who wants to be part of community that collectively stands together against the evil, and for the good. But what’s more, I don’t want to be cynical as a cheap way to escape my responsibility in the conversation. It’s easy for all of us to be cynical so as to not have to think about and form opinions to hard questions.

The secret of change is to focus all your energy, not on fighting the old, but on building the new. -Socrates

If lasting change has to come from within the community, then it has to start with the individual. It starts with you; it starts with me. We have to not only see the problem, we have to then become an active part of the solution. We have to enlist our family and friends in becoming part of the solution. This requires stepping up, and speaking out. It requires becoming a vocal agent of change. 

For me, I think this starts with proactively teaching my children of the value of life. I need them to understand, no, to believe, from a very early age that all life matters. I want them to value all races, all demographic groups, all denominations, gender groups, orientations and the disabled.

We’ve become adept at labels. We want to label everyone and everything. We label people groups, and then we categorize them. We categorize them based on their worth, their value, and their desirability. We categorize them based on how different they are from us, and how uncomfortable they make us feel. We categorize them so that we don’t have to understand them.  We categorize them so that we can mentally and morally separate ourselves from them. The result is an “us” vs “them” mentality, where we are always, always superior.

I believe in the sanctity of human life. I believe that if you are a living, breathing human being, that God created you in his image and placed you on this earth, just like he did me. Just like he did my own children. I refuse to categorize.

This is the attitude that I will teach to my children. This is the attitude I will carry with me as I go out, into my community to make friends, to form relationships, and to affect change. This is the attitude I will carry with me as I vote, as I have conversations about race and as I step up to carry the burden of responsibility to build something new.

3 thoughts on “What’s our Response? Race, Riot and Violence in America

  1. Rebekah, This is Powerful & thought provoking. Catching up on reading after trip. Love you.

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