Transforming Riots into Redemptive Movements

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Rioting has never been too far removed from the Christian narrative.

Upon hearing the tragic news that the Ferguson Grand Jury refused to indict Officer Darren Wilson for the murder of Mike Brown, an uprising immediately ensued within the city. Windows were broken. Buildings were burned. Weeping mothers refused to be comforted. As a result, many doubt whether anything good will ever be resurrected from the rubble.

Moreover, Christian leaders from around the nation are deeply reflecting on the manner in which they will address the teeming aggression and violence. Though they do not wish to condone the violence, they do not wish to nullify the palpable pain of a community enshrouded in grief and rage. Though they do not wish to endorse the actions of the rioters, they certainly do not wish to aid the forces that caused the riots to begin in the first place. How will they respond? What source has the power to bring peace to the grieving masses without circumventing the mandate to militate against the status quo which, essentially, is the impetus for all riots.

Ironically, few Christian leaders realize the key to transforming riots into redemptive movements of purpose abides in their own tradition. Christianity, after all, was borne out of the riotous discontent of the marginalized masses. Jesus was raised in a community of unrest. First century Palestine, much like present-day Palestine, teemed with political unrest and social angst. Galilee, the region in which Jesus was cultivated, was a hotbed of political and social hostility. Many Jews, burdened by the yoke of Roman oppression, resorted to riotous violence once they rendered ‘civility’ as being unable to engender social change. Consequentially, the Romans met the violence of Jewish protesters with an even more visceral form of violence. The agonizing sight of Jewish political agitators hanging from Roman crosses was an all too familiar sight to the community – and Jesus.

Make no mistake about it; the violent tactics of the Roman Empire were employed upon the Jewish community to keep them in line. Fear of annihilation was the Empire’s greatest weapon.

Jesus was all too aware of this.

As an adult, Jesus traveled throughout the neighboring villages of his homeland proclaiming with force and conviction the Kingdom of God. Jesus’ Gospel, or “Good News”, ran in stark contradistinction to both the oppressive laws of Rome as well as the ethic of accommodation espoused by many of the priestly aristocracy (much to the delight of their oppressors). Jesus’ message spoke directly to the heart of the discontented masses. His message was so powerful, in fact, that it attracted a man named Simon who was a known zealot (revolutionary freedom fighter). Interestingly enough, this same Simon became one of the 12 apostles. What type of Kingdom was Jesus proclaiming that would engender such a response from a rebel freedom fighter?

More importantly, what type of Kingdom are we proclaiming today?

One of the seminal moments in Christian history involves Jesus publicly displaying hostility in the Temple by overthrowing tables and driving out corrupt merchants as well as their livestock. Though this event has been preached endlessly, few have grasped the revolutionary significance of Jesus’ public act of aggression. Jesus’ actions not only imaged forth the discontent of God; his aggression was also a profound public display of solidarity with the oppressed, many of whom, had experienced the brunt of the empire’s exploitation for far too long. Jesus performed in public what many marginalized and oppressed Jews talked about doing in private.

In many ways Jesus was, and is, the People’s Messiah.

Does that mean that Jesus condones the Ferguson riots? Of course not. What it does mean, however, is that aggression, rightly positioned, does have a place within the Kingdom Jesus proclaimed. Today, many Christians are advocating for protestors to simply ‘be more like Jesus’. When they say this, they inevitably mean the Jesus that has been co-opted by Western imperial powers. This Jesus is a sanitized Messiah who never turns over tables or yells at authority. Though many within the Church have been narcotized by the imperial God-Man, this description of Jesus would have been foreign to the first century communities who found hope in his prophetic demonstrations of discontent.

While Jesus never broke windows, burned buildings, or assaulted law enforcement officials, he was accused of disturbing the peace and criminal property damage. It is widely believed in many scholarly settings that Jesus’ aggressive actions in the Temple sealed his fate. Quite simply, governments do not hang you naked outside the city for preaching about heaven and love. They will, however, hang you, without reservation, for making a public demonstration of the corporate pain felt by the marginalized masses. Needless to say, this vision of Jesus will not make an appearance in many Sunday morning sermons. I will leave you to decide why.

Today, many people are wondering if anything good can come out of the riots that set Ferguson ablaze. Amidst such palpable hopelessness, many doubt whether life can be resurrected. Ironically, the Bible records a similar question. When confronted with news that the Messiah had been found, a young man named Nathanael asked where the alleged Messiah grew up. Upon hearing that Jesus was from Nazareth, a town replete with broken dreams and social unrest, Nathanael skeptically inquired if anything good could ever arise from such a place. Upon being introduced to Jesus, Nathanael questioned the validity of his ministry no more.

Right now, many people are skeptical if God even hears their groans. Appealing to a docile, esoteric deity who is functionally impotent in the face of apparent injustice will no longer suffice. Instead, those of us who have faith in God must introduce this generation of freedom fighters to the God who can redeem any riot. The fingerprints on the turned tables of history will provide all the evidence they need.

 

James Howard Hill, Jr. is currently a graduate student at Southern Methodist University where he is completing his Master's degree in Theological Studies. A subversive theologian who considers himself ontologically Hip-Hop, James is an activist-scholar called to labor beside those commissioned to bridge the gap between the Academy and the community. He is lover of Dostoevsky novels and a connoisseur of 90's black sitcoms.

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