When Baltimore erupted, no one was surprised. It was coming; a long time coming. According to a recent article in The Atlantic and a previous report by the Baltimore Sun, the smoking brew concocted and now spilling over in Baltimore was both predicted and predictable. There is no shortage of politicians and pundits on cable news or worse, Facebook enthusiasts, offering their particular spin about why Baltimore set aflame this past Monday.
And sadly, our quick-draw, knee-jerk opinions were just as predictable as the hot house exhaust flaring up in Baltimore.
Here’s how we got here: America is more divided and partisan than we have ever been – according to a study I read last week, but now can’t find you’ll just have to trust me. Partisanship requires those opposed to us necessarily be the responsible party for most (if not all) of the negative events we experience. In response “we” are responsible for most (if not all) of positive events. When we’re faced, then, with troubling, complex, disruptive events our response is to retreat to long-held (though perhaps un-investigated) assumptions regarding the nature of the world; we’re right, they’re wrong. These assumptions are often built on a rickety sub-structure of limited, unevaluated, and unscrutinized experiences.
This means whatever the problems are in society only exist because not enough people think like me, act like me, and vote like me. For instance, on Twitter yesterday, I read someone who blamed the outbreak of violence in Baltimore on the fact that Baltimoreans consistently voted for Democrats. Another blamed the problem on lack of fathers and morals (though I’m not sure what he could possible know about the fathers of the six police officers who arrested Freddie Gray nor anyone else’s father in Baltimore).
The other side of the aisle blames violent, largely unregulated and hard to prosecute police and/or Baltimore’s divestment in the community as culprits. When we find ourselves in upheaval, we tend to blame all the people and structures that we blamed for everything bad already. The problem is always “those people.”
But this kind of uncritical, factish, politicized, assumptive blaming is quickly making us all dumber and, worse, less Christian. When we fail to imagine that a situation may be more complex and systemic than the narrowness of our pre-existing categories and commitments allow, we have become Job’s friends.
Many of you will know Job’s story. Satan makes a wager with God and Job is trapped in the middle. In a flash, Job loses his possessions, his children, and his health. He doesn’t lose wife, but she enters and exits the scene pretty quickly, never to be heard from again. In short, Job loses it all. We see him in the scriptures with shards of clay pots picking away at his sores. His life is in ruins!
And then Job’s friends – religious folks – show up.
At first, they demonstrate good friendship. They sit with Job for seven days and don’t say a word. (Most of my friends are preachers, so there’s no way they could not talk for seven days.)
Then Job’s friend, Eliphaz, begins to speak. Eliphaz’s speech is courteous and gentle – at first. He talks about a vision and about a “tent-cord” – which is an image for disaster that comes to the wicked. At the heart of Eliphaz’s speech is a desire to make it easy for Job to repent, to get his act together, and return to being an upright citizen.
In Eliphaz’s world, a world built on the theology of Proverbs which understood an if/ then system of reward and punishment, Job’s predicament is a result of Job’s inability to play by the rules. For him, Job simply needs to do the right things and none of this would have ever happened.
But then Job responds.
Job says he doesn’t understand what’s happening. He’d rather be dead than in this situation…and then he turns to Eliphaz and says:
“Anyone who withholds kindness from a friend forsakes the fear of the Almighty.” Job 6:14
Job listened to his friends, but he knows Eliphaz can’t know the whole story because he doesn’t know the whole story. He says:
But my brothers are as undependable as intermittent streams,
as the streams that overflow
when darkened by thawing ice
and swollen with melting snow,
but that stop flowing in the dry season,
and in the heat vanish from their channels. (Job 6:14–17)”
This is Job’s message for the church: “Streams that stop flowing are no streams at all.”
Job’s friends proved guilty of the same thing many of us suffer from: When the moment calls for kindness and solidarity, we offer indictment and injury. What’s more, our injurious and fault-finding responses run counter to the express teachings of the New Testament.
Perhaps a better, more healing response might be to embody the instruction of St. Paul: “Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse. Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn. Live in harmony with one another. Do not be proud, but be willing to associate with people of low position. Do not be conceited (Romans 12:14–16).”
When someone – or a community, city, state or nation – is suffering a crisis, our opinions about the cause of their suffering or our beliefs about their own role in their distress prove us to be both undependable and purposeless – streams that stop flowing are no streams at all.