The Language of the Unheard

I think America must see that riots do not develop out of thin air. Certain conditions continue to exist in our society which must be condemned as vigorously as we condemn riots. But in the final analysis, a riot is the language of the unheard.

The Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., “The Other America”, 1967

In response to the murder of George Floyd by Officer Derek Michael Chauvin of the Minneapolis Police Department on 25 May 2020, protests marched in Los Angeles, Denver, Louisville, Memphis, Washington D.C., Columbus, San Jose, Boston, and other cities. Some of them turned violent, and some of them grew into riots. Voices from many sides have condemned the murder of Floyd (the latest in a disturbing pattern in 2020), the rioters, or both. Others have chosen to remain silent. The heated battle over police accountability in the United States and what constitutes an effective response once again rages over the Internet like wildfire.

Between 1767 and 1768, the Parliament of Great Britain passed a number of acts collectively known as the Townshend Acts. They were so unpopular in the American colonies, especially in Boston, Massachusetts, that when the HMS Romney arrived in port and began impressing sailors, the Romney‘s men were attacked by gangs.

In 1770, after a prolonged feud between the Sons of Liberty and the British soldiers over the raising of celebratory poles, a mob captured a group of soldiers who were posting handbills. A riot broke out, and while no one was killed, some were wounded.

The Boston Massacre later in 1770, in which a mob harassed and beat British soldiers and led to the death of five civilians, further raised tensions between the British and colonial governments.

A law designating trees of a certain size in New Hampshire as belonging to the Crown for the building of ships was never a popular law. But in 1772, men attempting to enforce the law were hauled out of their inn rooms and beaten by a mob. They were run out of town on their horses, which had been mutilated by the same mob.

The HMS Gaspee was boarded and burned in 1772 while it attempted to carry out enforcement duties.

1773 saw the infamous Boston Tea Party, a protest against taxes in which a mob boarded the Dartmouth, Eleanor, and Beaver, dumped their cargo of tea and caused over $1.5 million in today’s USD in property damage. Others destroyed another shipment of tea that was already stored ashore. Greenwich Township experienced a similar event a few months later.

All of these events were key events leading to the American Revolutionary War, the secession of the thirteen colonies, and the establishment of the United States of America.

The Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. is most remembered for his speeches and for his tireless nonviolent activism against the evils of racism and segregation. Most forget that his activities were illegal, and that he was arrested nearly thirty times. He broke laws. He disobeyed police orders. He blocked roads and walkways, disrupting travel. He deliberately provoked violent responses to get local and national attention to his cause. Some of the demonstrations he organized became violent, despite his efforts. He invoked the Boston Tea Party more than once in his speeches. While he himself didn’t riot, he understood why they happened.

During his 1963 imprisonment in Birmingham he composed his famous letter condemning white moderate clergy for paying lip service to the cause of justice while criticizing his methods. He had little tolerance for those who focused more on the inconvenience of fighting for justice than on the injustice and reasons for the protests themselves.

In response to his activities and views, his house was bombed. He was stabbed. The FBI tapped his phones and executed a coordinated counter-intelligence operation against him. And finally, on 4 April 1968, he was assassinated while government agents watched.

While King himself didn’t riot, he understood why riots happened. He spent his career working tirelessly with far too few tangible victories. He understood that there was a point beyond which a person could not be pushed, where the only outlet left for their pain and anger at injustice was violence. When oppressors listened to no other language, the language of riot is the last resort of those who cannot be heard in any other way.

23 February 2020: Ahmaud Marquez Arbery is murdered by two men (one a former police officer) who thought he matched a description of someone who might have committed a robbery earlier in the year. They chased him, cornered him, and murdered him. He was out for a jog. It took over a month for any charges to be filed, and only because video of the murder was leaked to the media.

13 March 2020: Breonna Taylor is murdered by police officers executing a no-knock warrant at her residence. They had a warrant for another individual, and had arrested him before arriving at Taylor’s apartment, but they still executed their warrant on Taylor’s residence because they suspected it was used as as drop point. Taylor’s boyfriend, not knowing who was breaking down their door or why, fired to defend himself and Taylor. The police officers responded with overwhelming gun fire, striking Taylor eight times and killing her. It was over two months before media attention forced a deeper investigation.

25 May 2020: George Floyd is murdered by a police officer in broad daylight surrounded by witnesses. The officer, claiming contrary to video evidence that Floyd was resisting arrest for a non-violent charge, knelt on Floyd’s neck for 5-8 minutes. Floyd complained that he couldn’t breathe, that he was suffocating. The crowd that had gathered around begged the officer to let Floyd up off the ground. Instead, the officer continued kneeling on Floyd’s neck until he lost consciousness. It wasn’t until the ambulance arrived that the officer stood up; but Floyd was already dead.

Australian bush fires. The assassination of an Iranian general. A presidential impeachment trial. COVID-19 pandemic. Stock market crash. Lockdowns and stay-at-home orders. Mosque shootings. It has not been a good year.

On top of it all, as the above three nationally-known murders demonstrate, the black community continues to experience what they have always experienced, what the Reverend Dr. King experienced seventy years ago: grave injustice that continues to be ignored or outright supported by oppressors in power, especially among police forces. Very little has changed since his time. Laws have changed, but rather than eliminating racism, they have merely forced it to adapt characteristics just subtle enough to be ignored by the white community.

In the wake of such injustices, the oppressed are often told to wait–to let the established systems run their course. To not rush to demand the justice they deserve. It will all work out, they say.

Except it doesn’t. It is as the Reverend Dr. King says in the aforementioned letter:

Lamentably, it is an historical fact that privileged groups seldom give up their privileges voluntarily. Individuals may see the moral light and voluntarily give up their unjust posture; but, as Reinhold Niebuhr has reminded us, groups tend to be more immoral than individuals.

We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed. Frankly, I have yet to engage in a direct action campaign that was “well timed” in the view of those who have not suffered unduly from the disease of segregation. For years now I have heard the word “Wait!” It rings in the ear of every Negro with piercing familiarity. This “Wait” has almost always meant “Never.” We must come to see, with one of our distinguished jurists, that “justice too long delayed is justice denied.”

Direct, intentional action is thus required. But what kind of action?

The most frequent criticism of rioting is that it is counter-productive, working against the intended cause, and harms innocent bystanders. Other methods of protest should be used instead.

But when vigils and protests organized in Ferguson, MO, police arrived in riot gear and used force to disperse them.

When Black Lives Matters stages rallies and protests, they are branded as disturbers and smeared in media outlets.

When Colin Kaepernick made a simple, silent protest by kneeling during the National Anthem before a football game, the backlash was so severe that he was blackballed in the league.

There is no form of protest acceptable to those in power.

The history of this country, its very founding, is built on the backs of violent protest, riot, and revolt. Because we, Americans descended from their struggle, identify with the rioters, we excuse their violence. We even celebrate it. It is no coincidence that a once prominent wing of a major political party named itself the Tea Party.

Paradoxically, the history of this country, it’s very existence, is built on the backs of slaves and their descendants, who have cried out, pleaded, protested, and rioted for freedom and justice, only to have their voices silenced by systemic oppression.

Consistent with the faith and practice of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, every minister of Word and Sacrament shall speak publicly to the world in solidarity with the poor and oppressed, calling for justice and proclaiming God’s love for the world.

Constitutions, Bylaws, and Continuing Resolutions of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, 7.31.02.a.8

How does a Christian, a Lutheran, an ordained Minister of Word and Sacrament, respond to riots that result from never-ending oppression and a refusal of those in power to do more than enact token reforms designed to pacify protestors but not address any of the systemic issues?

It is part of my calling, my vocation, to draw on the long Christian tradition of walking alongside the poor and oppressed. Christianity was not born among the social elites or the upper class. It was a movement that appealed to and protected the poor and the lower class. The prophets denounced the rulers and upper classes because they oppressed the poor. The early church took seriously its mission to take care of the poor around it. To live as a Christian is to live outside the realm of comfortable, the realm of power, the realm of status and wealth; and to live a life on the margins, with those who have been forced there. This is a calling I struggle every day to fulfill.

It is therefore incumbent upon me, in any situation, to be aware of the dynamics that power the systems of oppression around me, and to subvert them. Jesus of Nazareth, the Christ, was roundly criticized by the powers of his day for calling tax collectors (scammers) as his disciples, for associating with sex workers, the ritually unclean, the sick, the poor, foreigners, women, and others on the margins of his society. He frequently argued with the religious elite and teachers of his time, interpreting the sacred scriptures in a way that favors the poor. As a result, he was executed by the state as a criminal and seditionist.

In the Holy Baptism administered to me, Holy Spirit gave me the same mission she gives to all Christians in their baptisms–to follow in the footsteps of Christ Jesus. Through my ordination, I am called to be a leader among followers. I am tasked with leading by example–again, a task I struggle with daily–in confronting oppression the same way Jesus did, by standing with the oppressed, fighting alongside them, supporting them in their struggles, and, when necessary and asked, to use my voice to amplify theirs if their oppressors refuse to listen to them alone.

None of this is without risk. There are consequences for actions, whether they are legal or illegal, right or wrong. When the early Christians confessed their faith during periods of violent persecutions, they knew that they would suffer the consequences–mainly, death. They did not expect that their right cause would somehow spare them from the consequences of their confession.

On the other side, reparations and penance are essential to Confession and Absolution. When I sin, and I confess my sin, the God I worship, the God of mercy and grace, forgives me as truly as my parents forgave (and continue to forgive) me for all the crap I put them through. But I am still expected to make amends for my sin to rebuild the relationship I wounded. When someone comes to me in my capacity as a pastor to confess and receive forgiveness, I pronounce God’s forgiveness for them, and then help them find ways to make their amends.

It can be argued that both the murder of George Floyd which catalyzed the riots, and the destruction of property resulting from the riots, are wrong actions. Both may (or even should) have consequences. What they are not is equal. One was an act of an oppressor exercising evil over the powerless. The other is a desperate gasp, a reaction to justice still denied, fueled by the agony of constant abuse heaped upon them.

The riots that have taken place across our country are the last resort of the oppressed who have tried every possible way to have their voices be heard, to be recognized as human beings imbued with the imago Dei, to be granted justice by a system that was built purposely and intentionally to exclude, demean, and dehumanize them. The riots are more successful than other approaches because they cannot be ignored. They would not be necessary if the other protests, the other approaches, led to justice and systemic change.

If given the choice between supporting the voiceless who have been systematically disenfranchised to the point that protest upon protest yields little results, and rioting breaks out; or taking the position of the “white moderate” decried in the Reverend Dr. King’s letters who values order and propriety over justice and the lives of the oppressed, then my Christian calling is clear–I must walk alongside those pushed to rioting. And I must keep walking alongside them until they are free.

I don’t like rioting. I don’t like looting. I don’t encourage anyone to do it. But I support the reasons why it’s happening. These riots didn’t just pop up out of nowhere–they are the logical result of oppression continuing despite the peaceful protests, despite the tireless advocacy, despite exhausting other avenues of resolution. This was true in the years leading up to the American Revolutionary War. This was true in the decades, the centuries leading up to and beyond the Civil Rights Act of 1964. And it’s true today.

Riots are the language of the unheard, for they are the only language oppressors can still hear when they’ve shut out all else.

Until we choose to no longer be complicit in the oppression of black lives; until the black community no longer needs to be afraid; until justice is freely given instead of wrestled out of the grip of the powerful; until Black Lives really do Matter; until the unheard are finally heard without needing to resort to the language of riot; until then, my calling as a baptized Christian and ordained minister of Word and Sacrament in the church of Christ leaves me no other choice.

[Jesus said:]
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
    because he has anointed me
        to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
    and recovery of sight to the blind,
        to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

Luke 4:18-19 NRSV

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