Understanding Is Not Condoning

The deluge of images cascading across every conceivable media outlet has concentrated primarily upon the chaos and destructiveness of the Baltimore Uprising, but conspicuous by their absence have been images of peace and reconciliation, of mournful image bearers trying to navigate the bewildering wastes of fractured race relations to sprinkle grace upon the combatants. Unfortunately, the technocracy and its white discourse makes such ecumenical coverage unlikely, to say the least. When such discursive practices structure the conversation by laying pre-arranged track for most of our thought about the subject, it’s no wonder there’s so little real engagement with the issue at hand and the underlying causes informing it; as Willie Jennings has noted, we tend to place a premium on order far more than we do upon justice. What’s worse, easygoing Caucasian consumer superiority deceives us into conflating the two. No wonder then the news is awash with so much handwringing over “thugs” ruining their own city: what other interpretative option is available to comfortable, affluent whites? The theology of glory sieve we’ve been “nurtured” in admits no alternative.

Enter Propaganda and his piece for the Washington Post offering four helpful ways to think through the quagmire of issues at work within the Uprising. Here’s one of the best insights he offers a largely clueless white church who can’t recognize its own moral incompetency on race matters:

When the Los Angeles riots exploded, I was a preteen. As the images of Rodney King’s beating played on the news, my family grappled what to do. I vividly remember not being angry but being bewildered.

My grandmother refused to stay with us even though she lived four blocks from the epicenter of the riots. Her refusal made me realize that she lived through the Watts riots in the 1960s. So I did a little research project and hunted down anything I could find on Martin Luther King Jr. speaking about the Watts riots. One quote from “The Other America” speech stuck with me:

“It is not enough for me to stand before you tonight and condemn riots. It would be morally irresponsible for me to do that without, at the same time, condemning the contingent, intolerable conditions that exist in our society. These conditions are the things that cause individuals to feel that they have no other alternative than to engage in violent rebellions to get attention. And I must say tonight that a riot is the language of the unheard.”

A man who lived his entire life defending and practicing nonviolence knew rioting was wrong. He did not defend it, but he also understood it. The work that it takes to understand something humanizes politics.

There’s a little bit of what Prop’s grandma used to call “shut your mouth grace”: understanding and empathy aren’t the same as rubber stamping the course of action a person takes, though we typically make it out to be. This is more than simple ignorance, though: it’s a lack of imaginative insight into the being of others who do not share our approved identity badges and therefore a tacit dismissal of the challenges they regularly face and the wrongs they regularly endure. We need a new set of eyes (a New Covenant set of eyes) to see bodies and the humanity they manifest differently because Isaiah’s indictment is as pertinent as ever- justice and renewal will only issue from our no longer hiding from our own flesh (Isaiah 58:7). May God make Propaganda’s and others’ words more than words- may they be Spirit and life that cause the scales to fall from our eyes and sew peace in the midst of carnage and hate.
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