Many of us have been watching with sadness, horror, fascination, and concern as the riots in Baltimore have raged and now quieted. Although much is not-yet known, we do know that Freddie Gray died while in police custody—another tragic death of an unarmed black man at the hands of police. The community has struggled to make sense of this inexplicable death, and some have reacted violently. From my couch and computer desk, I have watched these events unfold, comparing them in my mind with those in Ferguson and New York. From all the way in small-city Alabama, I have wondered what it is like to be on those streets, where anger and fear and grief fuel riots. It feels like I am a long, long way from there—both geographically and culturally. Down here, I get to ponder all of these things from a safe distance—far removed from the conflict—but I feel something pulling me back toward them. My heart feels drawn to those streets. I want to feel the emotions that have enveloped that community. I find myself looking for a connection—something that will tie my far-removed life with the lives of those in Baltimore.
One video of Baltimore seems to have captured the attention of people like me. For the last two days, the video of Toya Graham disciplining her hoodie-wearing son for throwing rocks at the police has been near the top of my Facebook feed. People in places like Decatur, Alabama, instinctively identify with a mother who is disciplining her knuckle-headed son…because we know what it’s like to discipline our knuckle-headed children…or what it’s like to have a mother yank us back by the collar because we are acting like a knuckle-head. As we gape with critical horror at the riots in Baltimore, we see that moment of rightness in a sea of wrong and think, “Hooray for something right.” But did we hear what Ms. Graham said about the moment? As NPR reported, when she was asked about the event, she said, “That's my only son, and at the end of the day I don't want him to be a Freddie Gray.”
Do we get that? Do we understand that the anticipated consequences of a black teenager throwing rocks at the police aren’t an arrest or a fine but another senseless death at the hands of the authorities? Do we understand what it means to worry that one’s hoodie-wearing child might be shot for no reason? Do we know what it means to kiss our teenager goodbye in the morning and drop on our knees at night to give thanks to God that he wasn’t shot? Surely all of us—no matter where we live—can agree that there is something broken in our country.
I don’t live with that fear. I live in a small city where kids ride their bikes all day and come home when it gets dark. I live in an almost all-white neighborhood where children are taught to ask the police for help if they need something. I trust that the authorities will take care of me and my family. If something goes wrong, I have faith that the justice system will deal with my situation honestly and openly. But that isn’t good enough. It isn’t good enough that I live without fear. It isn’t good enough that somewhere else, not all that far away from me, people feel that the police and the powers they represent are pitted against them. It isn’t good enough that I live in a bubble of security. That fear is real to others, and so it must be real to me.
Yesterday, the Episcopal churches in our area gathered for a shared Eucharist and pot-luck meal. We chose the propers for peace (including Matthew 5:38-48 as an expanded gospel lesson) to mark the occasion. We heard Jesus say, “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also.” In those words, we heard Jesus articulate a vision of peace that is not passive but active. We heard him call his disciples into a peace that is participatory, and we heard him challenge us to take up the work of peace. We heard Jesus say, “You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect,” and we acknowledged that peace isn’t easy. It’s hard, painful, costly work. But it’s our work—all of our work.
It is not good enough that we are removed from the conflict. Peace is not merely the absence of conflict or violence. Peace cannot exist in a bubble. Peace includes all of us—from way down here in a cushy neighborhood up to the streets of Baltimore and all the way to Palestine and Syria and Nigeria and beyond. What are we going to do? How are we going to be in the business of peace?
For starters, we must take the events of Baltimore—the death of Freddie Gray—into our hearts. We must let the bubble pop and allow the grief and anger and fear of far-away places infect our lives and break us. We must allow that tug of connection draw us all the way to places of conflict until we find ourselves fully immersed in them. Only then, only when we feel and know that the pain experienced in those communities is also our own, can we know what to do about it. Peace is our job. Reconciliation is our work. And it starts by feeling the urgent demand for peace. Let your heart be broken. Feel the vulnerability of others. Then ask God what you can do. You don’t have to solve the world’s problems all by yourself. But, if you let their problems become your own, you’ll know where to start.