The greater part of the life of the Christian is ordered around controlling our reactions. Left unchecked our reactions are often as bad as or worse than what we’re reacting against, even when they’re fueled by a sense of justice.
Watching the recent violence in Ferguson and Baltimore, and the violent reactions to the violence in Ferguson and Baltimore, and the violent reactions to the violent reactions to the violence in Ferguson and Baltimore, I have one thought that won’t leave my head. By and large, the fellow believers I’m encountering are making a monumental mistake. It’s a mistake that has an established pedigree among us, but it’s also one that helps perpetuate the kind of incidents like the ones currently in the news. We find ourselves asking, why can’t protesters act like good citizens? Why don’t they show themselves to be worthy of justice by controlling their violent and senseless reactions?
In short, we insist upon the perfection of victims before we champion their cause.
This is common among the American Evangelical culture I’m a part of, as evidenced by my Facebook friends’ postings and comments. Oh, so the police savaged a young man when arresting him? Our first reaction is to ask, “But was he or wasn’t he breaking the law?” If the answer is in the negative, we still expect that, given the neighborhood, he probably already has a rap sheet, so the immediate cause for arrest isn’t as important: the bottom line is that the good guys were after a bad guy. And only then might we move on to asking slightly less problematic questions like, “What might the police have done differently in apprehending the thug?”
But then before we get a chance to think all of this through, in reaction to the police crackdown, there’s a violent public reaction. We shake our heads and conclude, “See? The police have to be tough because they’re attempting to corral wild beasts.” We look upon a people group systemically oppressed, neglected, and abused by the people put in charge of them and, lumping them all together into an isolated Them, we demand that everyone in the entire group be prudent, impassive, and blameless in all their reactions before we will consider jumping to defend them. We are somewhat relieved to be able to conclude, “You know, if They would just behave, the police wouldn’t have to get so tough on Them.” This encapsulates most of the conversation I have heard from people around me. Strangely, the police are not held accountable in this way: we can watch whole swaths of their number in a city indicted for corruption and charged with excessive force brutality year after year, and still the presumption of right and justice is on them (or should I say Us?).
Why is this? I’m afraid it’s because the police stand for the positional righteousness we believe is our own. The excuses that “everyone makes mistakes,” “there are occasional bad apples,” etc. mount up so that, on the whole, it’s a rarity that the badged upholders of our system are considered anything but heroes put in a bad situation even when they fail most egregiously–after all, they’re our proxy, standing up against bad guys who almost invariably have it coming to them for some transgression, past, present, or future. Yet the societally marginalized are not beneficiaries of this presumption of holiness; They must earn their righteousness by sinlessness. When They riot, when Their children loot places of business, we look upon Them with scorn for their inability to keep control of Themselves.
This is wholly and completely un-Christlike. It is the very definition of anti-Christ.
The story of the woman caught in adultery is often trotted out in times like these, but I beg of you, those of you who have ears, to really hear it.
We have no idea what brought this woman to the point of adultery: was she seeking the affection of someone outside her abusive marriage? Or maybe she was lascivious and insatiable in her lust. We don’t even have the slightest indication that the woman was penitent of her moral failure–she was caught in the act, after all. Jesus – our professed Lord and Savior, our example and teacher – does not demand her moral uprightness; he doesn’t insist that she grovel or beg for mercy or promise to do better, that she listen to his speech about the evil of her actions, that her sentence be commuted to something better than the death penalty provided that she demonstrate her repentance.
“Let him who is without sin cast the first stone.”
Jesus does not address the sinner first. In fact, there is no “sinner” vs. “sinless” demarcation at all. With that one simple statement, our Lord demolishes the wall that We – the good guys, the righteous lawkeepers – have constructed to save us from the likes of Them – the people from whom the laws were surely created to protect Us. Jesus demands that the sinner’s accusers be righteous before the accusers enforce their punishment.
“Go, and sin no more.”
We want to focus on the second imperative: surely sinning no more is the prerequisite for grace? No — too late: her savior has already sent her forth with a life-changing, “Go.” He sets her free from her past transgressions and then he imparts to her a future, sending her hurtling toward a life of purity with a propulsion of extravagant, unexpected, unsought grace. He doesn’t just loose her from the rote consequences of the laws that the lawkeepers had held her accountable to: his grace simultaneously binds her to the pursuit of a righteous heart. It is the kindness of the Lord, not the threat of punishment, that leads to true repentance.
It’s commonly recognized that Jesus was much harder on the righteous than he was on the sinners of his day. In bewildered revulsion people named him “a friend of sinners.” And this is why: Jesus treated disenfranchised sinners as victims of the righteous rulers. Leaders have to be held accountable for their failure to administer the balm of true righteousness to the sufferers in their charge. No doubt there are many sins that no one can blame anyone but the sinner for, but what of the hosts of sins bred in an environment unrestrained by justice, peace, or the presence of true holiness? The perpetrators of sin are the victims of sin, and sin isn’t cast out without healing the one who embraced it. The strong man of sin must be bound before sending away the devils.
Those who would be leaders cannot cure sin in others without removing the stumbling blocks, the largest of which is their own oppressive sin. Those with righteous power are supposed to send forth sinners in grace; they are supposed to empower them with mercy and commission them with justice. There is no doubt a need for repentance on the part of the sinner and for those who are being destructive and violent to be held accountable or somehow prohibited from enacting their rage in ways that harm the innocent. But can we expect to elicit this repentance by sending in those they see to be the oppressors to put a boot on their necks?
“What, you want police officers to just let people do whatever they want? To wink at their crimes?” I’m not trying to dictate the actions of law enforcement here. That’s a monumental task that I’m not fit for. I do want those who call themselves Christians to consider that our first duty is to sit at the feet of Jesus and learn from him rather than trying to cram him into our prized, safe societal structures, and that sometimes our obedience to him will look insane to our carnal minds. But primarily right now I want to implore bystanders with cultural and societal influence to avoid both the automatic defense of police and the knee-jerk condemnation of those who are reacting in unfortunate ways from within a system of oppression that may have even been partially their own fault but has undoubtedly festered in a corrupt and dehumanizing environment of a militarized police force. Jesus’ example is that we should dismiss the sin of the powerless long before we shrug off the transgressions of the powerful. At very least we must avoid denying that the bad reactions of Them are indeed exceptions while using those exceptions to excuse the atrocious actions that We have been all too happy to wink at. And yes, it may spiral to a point at which the oppressed become oppressors, and that will be awful as well. But it won’t ever justify our looking down our noses from Our side of the wall and cheering Their deposition.