This week, all eyes are on Baltimore.
There are reports on police officers’ indifference about Freddie Gray, neglecting to buckle his seatbelt while he was in custody, and refusing to get him medical attention in a timely manner. There are reports of similar mistreatment stemming back decades.
There are reports of angry rioters smashing glass and setting property on fire, as if to fill the void of police officers’ indifference with a violent rage that cannot be ignored.
As we watch the news this week, it’s easy to assign blame to either or both sides, and it’s safe, from the comfort of our living room recliners, to prescribe solutions.
We advocate for police to act with fairness and restraint.
We advocate for protesters to swallow their anger and practice peaceful non-violence.
We advocate for the dueling sides to come to the table and use dialogue to open helpful, healing lines of communication.
But if we leave it at that, if we see this only as a black-versus-white, privileged-versus-poor, powerful-versus-powerless problem, we’ll miss the point.
If we prescribe hard-to-swallow medicine for Baltimore and then walk away without taking it ourselves, we’ll miss the biggest lesson to be learned from this situation.
Because Baltimore isn’t just about people who live in a city in Maryland. Baltimore is about each of us.
Baltimore is about the false dichotomies we each create, dividing the world into “us” and “them.”
It’s often more subtle than black versus white, or police versus civilians, but it’s just as harmful.
It’s “Us the Republicans” versus “them the Democrats.”
“Us the Christians” versus “them the nonbelievers.”
“Us the progressives” versus “them the fundamentalists.”
“Us the straight” versus “them the gay.”
“Us the men” versus “them the women.”
“Us the legals” versus “them the illegals.”
“Us the taxpaying” versus “them the unemployed.”
“Us the homeschoolers” versus “them the public school-attendees.”
The divisions go on and on and on.
After we’ve drawn the line that distinguishes “us” from “them,” we behave more like Baltimore than we’d care to admit.
This week, out of one side of our mouths, we’ve said, “Violence is not the answer. Anger doesn’t solve anything. What we really need are peaceful negotiations….”
But with the other side of that same mouth, we verbally attack the people who stand on the other side of the lines we’ve drawn, lobbing bricks of anger, hostility, sarcasm, exaggerations and lies at the other side.
We justify our behavior by telling ourselves the same things the rioters in Baltimore are saying — that we are right, that the other side deserved it, that if we don’t act extremely we won’t get their attention.
This week, if we sit at home watching the news, telling the police in Baltimore to treat people with dignity and respect, and telling the protesters to use peace instead of violence to address injustices, we are hypocrites if we give Baltimore advice that we ourselves refuse to take.
For those of us who profess to follow Jesus, we cannot tell other people to practice Jesus’ words without heeding them ourselves. We need look no further than the upcoming 2016 presidential campaign to see the opportunities we have to live out Jesus’ radical message of peace, to transcend a system that divides “us” and “them,” and to stop using these artificial divisions as excuses to treat other people worse than we treat ourselves.
We cannot call for unity in Baltimore when we are constantly drawing lines that distinguish “us” from “them.”
We cannot tell rioters to be peacemakers when we ourselves are not living in peace with the people in our lives, whether they’re personal relationships or public figures.
We cannot tell people in Baltimore to love their enemies when we treat our own enemies with disdain and disrespect.
We cannot recite the words, “Blessed are the peacemakers,” while using anger and fear to stir up suspicion of the “other” side.
We cannot accuse others of “destroying America,” when we’re destroying it ourselves by refusing to calm down and use peaceful dialogue to understand the other side, reach compromises, and work for helpful solutions.
We cannot repeat Jesus’ words to turn the other cheek and walk the extra mile while we’re using all the verbal weapons we can find to fight for every millimeter of the moral high ground.
We cannot pray “In Baltimore as it is in heaven” without first praying “In <em>me</em> as it is in heaven.”
In the days and weeks and months to come, instead of distinguishing ourselves from “them,” let’s see the world as simply “us,” where everyone is our fellow human being created in the image of God.
Let’s remember that we are to love not only the least, but also the worst, of these.
Let’s love, pray for and bless our enemies.
Let’s stop using rage as a shortcut to reconciliation.
Let’s stop choosing weaponization over peace.
Let’s come to the table, lower our voices, lay down our anger, surrender our rights, treat our enemies with respect, and choose radical peace over angry protests.
This is good advice for Baltimore.
It’s even better advice for the rest of us.