As a church planter and pastor in Baltimore, my soul is burdened with all of the hurt and pain in my city this week. Though it has been encouraging to know that more people from around the country are praying for my city than ever before, right now I wish the city I love could be famous for different reasons.
The injuries sustained by Freddie Gray and his subsequent tragic death in police custody have rallied Baltimore residents, who had peacefully protested for weeks. Based on the coverage from major media outlets, however, one would believe that the protests have been all about random riots, looting, and fires.
I’ve seen many on social media asking why someone would destroy the neighborhoods where they live and that none of this would be happening if people simply made better choices or parents did a better job of raising their kids. However, we must avoid the temptation of letting the media paint us an overly simplistic picture of Baltimore and her issues.
These protests and riots are not merely the culmination of the past few weeks’ events. They are the collective groaning of years of brokenness from systemic sin in our city under a brewing simmer that had finally reached this boiling point. In a city experiencing the gentrification of its neighborhoods, urban renewal often comes at the expense of the poor and disenfranchised. We are observing the collective despair of a city that has been like a powder keg waiting to explode, and the tragic events with Freddie Gray have been the match to light the fuse.
Systemic Brokenness of the City
As much as we may rightly despise the personal offense of the rioter, do we also condemn the sinful systems of the city that contributed to these events? The brokenness we are all witnessing did not develop over a few days, and the work to bring redemption to our city will require a long-term and sustained investment into the renewal of our local communities through revitalized and new churches filled with genuine followers of Christ.
Right now I wish the city I love could be famous for different reasons.
Though I believe it is necessary to understand the systemic brokenness manifested in protests, I also believe anger is an appropriate response to seeing some of Baltimore’s neighborhoods destroyed and burned. I understand much more personally Nehemiah’s tears over the destruction of Jerusalem as my own tears flowed with sorrow over the haunting images of my city. It is right to mourn and lament in the face of destruction.
I’ve also been saddened as I recognized a common theme in some of the tweets and posts shared through social media by some in the evangelical Christian community. I’m particularly concerned with references to rioters as “thugs” or “animals.” Even President Obama denounced the “criminals and thugs who tore up” Baltimore. Whether you advocate protest or believe it’s more harmful than beneficial, I want to suggest that there should be absolutely no room for this sort of labeling, as harmful and misguided as the rioters’ actions may be. The term “thug” gets casually thrown around during these situations—particularly when African American youth are involved—yet somehow the word gets lost when students destroy their campus by setting fires or jumping on cars after a national championship victory or loss. That’s just kids being kids. I believe we need to ask deeper questions why the word is used in one setting but not another.
I am not suggesting a lukewarm response to sinful and reckless behavior. But we must resist the temptation to condemn rioters as unsalvageable thugs and pray instead that God would transform Saul the persecutor into Paul the apostle. Rather than saying rioters get what they deserve even in the form of violence, may our response be deep sorrow for their sin and prayer that God would even use these events to convict them of sin and bring their hearts to repentance.
Thankfully property can eventually be replaced. But a mother does not get her son back.
My prayer for the larger evangelical community watching the events in Baltimore unfold is for God to increase our awareness of broken people and systems, so we might develop greater empathy. For many living and working in Baltimore, it is difficult to hear such vocal indignation about the looting and rioting yet such little outrage comparatively over the tragic, senseless death of this young man and too many like him. I ask you to resist the temptation to get so horrified about rioting that you forget the horror that a young man's life was taken.
As a Korean American, I still vividly remember the horrors of the Los Angeles riots. I absolutely detest looting. Thankfully property can eventually be replaced. But a mother does not get her son back.
Opportunity to Proclaim the Good News
In such troubling times I believe there is a tremendous opportunity for the church to demonstrate our belief in a gospel for broken sinners. The restoration and transformation of Baltimore and other cities like her happens when more and more disciples follow Jesus. More than talking, we need to be praying on our knees and working in the streets. May our convictions never lead us to withhold grace and mercy from another sinner in need of the redemption of Christ.
Though my heart is burdened for my city, it doesn't mean I'm disheartened. If anything, I have never felt more hopeful that God is doing something powerful in Baltimore. I am privileged that churches like ours get to walk with God as we preach the gospel to our city. Current events have brought to the surface the sin already there, and I firmly believe there will be much opportunity for the power of God to be known as we humbly cry out to him.
Many in Baltimore believe the larger world doesn’t care for this city and her residents. May the church prove them wrong.