Come in! Come in!

"If you are a dreamer, come in. If you are a dreamer, a wisher, a liar, a Hope-er, a Pray-er, a Magic Bean buyer; if you're a pretender, come sit by my fire. For we have some flax-golden tales to spin. Come in! Come in!" -- Shel Silverstein

Monday, July 16, 2007

Bishop Beckwith: The Newark Riots and the Legacy of Violence

Forty years ago this week, the city of Newark erupted in five days of violence, which claimed the lives of 26 people, caused millions of dollars of damage – and sullied the reputation and fabric of life in this city for at least the next generation. The reasons for the rebellion/riot/revolution are many and multivalent, and we need to keep sorting through the stories and evidence -- for our learning and healing. Yet at its root, I believe that the violence of 1967 emerged from a toxic combination of fear and frustration.

The fear was of the other – separated by race and culture and history, and an insidious legal and economic system that was organized to maintain the separation. The frustration boiled over as more and more people felt that there was no way to break through the fear, and fear’s manifestation of racism, economic inequality, and the devil knows what else.

Much attention has been devoted to enumerating the sequence of events of 1967 -- and uncovering new evidence, and evaluating mistakes and misjudgments. That is important and necessary work. But there is a subliminal danger in thinking that violence is limited to situations and places where the fear and frustration quotient is especially high; places we have been told to stay away from – inner city neighborhoods, the West Bank, Iraq, and Afghanistan.

But violence does not have such obvious boundaries. It turns out that violence is one of our most serious cultural diseases. While most of us recognize that violence is a disease that needs curing, it is perhaps less obvious for us to realize that we have been taught – for at least a millennium - that violence is the cure to the disease. We retaliate. We punish. We seek vengeance – done with permission and in the expectation that it will make things better.

It doesn’t.

Now I can say with a measure of self-righteousness that I have rarely, if ever, engaged in physical violence. I was lucky. I suppose it helped that I have three younger sisters, whom my parents insisted were off-limits to me in terms of physical retaliation. And every coach I ever had drilled into me the discipline to never fight – even when physically provoked.

But verbal violence is a different matter. If someone has done something to me, I think of what I can (and should) say about them. I don’t know if I have ever verbally trashed anyone, but I have filleted a few people over the years. I have done it because other people do it. I have done it because, for a moment or two, it made me feel good. Verbal violence has become a kind of cultural sport – and we play it because – in the short run anyway, putting someone down gives the illusion of lifting oneself up. If we sacrifice someone else, then we will be spared. One of the unwritten rules of this cultural sport seems to be that it is best played if the offending person is not around, but a lot of other people are. All of which creates another illusion -- the verbally assaulted person doesn’t hear what is said about them, and the speaker gets to let off a little steam and perhaps showcase some linguistic flourish. No harm, no foul.

Yet no matter how we arrange or gerrymander these scenarios, they still involve violence. Fear and frustration bubble up in toxic ways – and while the direct or indirect verbal assaults don’t leave physical scars, they nonetheless create lasting wounds.

Jesus lived in a world that was arguably more violent than ours. Violence was official policy in the Roman Empire. Yet instead of tapping into the rampant fear and frustration felt by the many recipients of Roman violence and using it as a basis for a violent counterinsurgency, Jesus employed the God-given gifts of wisdom and love. Drawing on the witness of the Hebrew prophets, and in confidence of his deep and abiding relationship with God, Jesus stepped in between violence and the victims of violence. And his presence in that dangerous place has been our ticket to freedom ever since – because it set us free from the need to engage in physical or verbal retaliation.

We are called to stand with Christ in that place between our violence and our victims. Sometimes that means standing between our own ego, which wants to retaliate – and our Christ-nourished soul, which yearns for humanity’s full freedom. We have had many examples of prophets and saints who have stood in that place – Mahatma Gandhi, Desmond Tutu, Martin Luther King Jr.; and I would add my college music professor Henry and my sister Andrea. Their words and actions -- by intention, instinct or grace, have helped to provide us – for an instant or a lifetime, with a vision of freedom. Freedom to live in the greater fullness of Christ’s blessing.

Have a refreshing and transforming summer.

In peace,

+Mark Beckwith


Caminante said...

I remember that Life magazine cover (I was 10 that summer), as well as I remember dimly the events of that summer, knowing that something was going wrong in a place called Newark and wondering if it would spread to a nearer place, Bridgeport CT.

Muthah+ said...

Lisbeth+, the church has gotten to the place where we are being violent in the name of Jesus. I spent the day in an ecclesiastical trial where allegations were made that cannot be supported with the facts. The violence has destroyed one man's career and his heart which loved the Church is now broken. It may destroy another man's career because he was not careful about what he said about another.

Both of these men started out with great hearts for Christ and the Church but because we have allowed pastoral care to be managed by insurance companies and lawyers, both will be lost to the Church because they cannot step back and know forgiveness, know reconciliation, know the love of Christ between them.

I do believe in our legal system in the Church because it is the only alternative we have to violence. But the verbal abuse that we often heap on others does more damage than the physical violence could ever wreack.

I have appreciated you care you have shown; your willingness to apologize. It is the kind of thing that signals that we are human and at the same time loved by God. I am sorry there are those who cannot accept apologies. There is a time when we must recognize that we must go on. What is done, is done. There is time to shake the dust from our feet.

The violence of lips that seems to continue to characterize certain segments of the Church must be addressed. But once addressed, must be passed by. To entertain them any longer just adds to the violence.

If we really believe that we have nothing to fear in Christ Jesus, we need not fear what others might say about us, the Church, or what we do. We may not engage such violence any longer without participating in it.

Nicholodeon said...

Oh I had forgotten all about the horrors of Newark of 40 years ago!

At the time I was Anglican, living in New York.

Thank you for presenting this history to us. And I have to say to myself, 'How quick I forget.'

Not on topic: Rev Kaeton, I read with interest of your trip to Belize, and (gasp!) felt every bump in the ride when I thought of your painful back.

Suzer said...

When reading this, I was reminded of an article I read about Gandhi's grandson. He said his grandfather once caught him throwing out a not-quite fully used pencil, and admonished him. He explained that throwing out that still useful pencil was an act of violence -- violence against nature and the tree that was sacrificed to make the pencil, against the lead that was used to create it, and against those who were too poor to afford even the small luxury of a pencil. (I'm paraphrasing, but I'm sure you get the point.) I had a difference view of violence after reading that story.

Thank you for posting Bishop Beckwith's timely essay. I can certainly stand the reminder, as I'm sure others can, too.