Last Wednesday I took advantage of a bit of free time to watch a couple of innings of the Orioles-White Sox game. Happily for Orioles fans, Baltimore won that match 8 to 2. But sadly for us all, the game was played in an empty ballpark. Watching it was a bizarre experience: images on the Jumbotron, music between batters, a full cadre of cameras and announcers, and no one in the stands.
Last Monday’s civil unrest in Baltimore was disturbing on so many levels. The then-unexplained death of Freddie Gray in police custody was just one more instance of an unarmed black man dying at the hands of police in a year already overloaded with such incidents. The violence itself was unsettling first because it changed the character of what had until then been an entirely peaceful protest. And, as in all such disturbances, the violence further damaged a neighborhood already stressed by poverty, unemployment, and crime.
Wednesday’s ball game wasn’t the only TV I saw last week. On Monday night I watched some of CNN’s live coverage of the disturbance, and I was less shocked by the images than I was by what one of the CNN anchors had to say. “It is hard to believe this is happening in a major American city.” “I don’t remember seeing anything like this in the United States of America in a long time.” “This is a scene that a lot of us never anticipated seeing in a city like Baltimore.”
Really? I grew up in Los Angeles, and I still remember 1965 in Watts and 1992 in South Central L.A. And then there’s Ferguson, Missouri a mere five months ago. CNN’s memory lapse wasn’t the worst. The people on Fox News characterized violence as positively un-American, one of them saying that Baltimore “looks like some riot in a third world nation”. Violent protest may be upsetting, disturbing, and disappointing, but it certainly isn’t un-American. We’re a country that got its start with a revolution and solved its biggest social problem with a civil war. Violent protests are not something new in American life. There was Shay’s Rebellion in 1796, the New York draft riots of 1863, the Chicago Haymarket riots of 1886, the Bonus Army March of 1932, and of course the Long Hot Summer of 1967 and Washington’s own riot after Martin Luther King’s assassination in 1968 to name a few. Baltimore’s response to Freddie Gray’s death is only the most recent example of a longstanding American practice of taking it to the streets. Violent protest is as American as apple pie.
And now, thanks to the charges filed against six Baltimore police officers last Friday, we have an inkling of the originating act of violence that caused the death of an innocent young man who was ridden around roughly and then blamed for his own death. Violent street protest is almost always a response to an originating act of violence. Slavery, segregation, economic injustice, aggressive policing—all these are acts of coercive force which sooner or later will necessarily provoke a violent response.
That Baltimore officials have acted decisively to charge the officers involved is a cause for hope in an otherwise depressing routine being played out in American cities right now. Just as in 1967 and 1968, something is desperately wrong in the racial politics of our nation. God is saying something to us in the streets of Baltimore, Ferguson, Oakland, and New York. We have the opportunity—and the responsibility—to read the current moment and respond.
The theologian Karl Barth once said that Christian preachers should hold the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other. How might we put the Bible and the newspaper together today? This morning’s Gospel is relevant here. It gives us Jesus’s well-known allegory of the vine and the branches [John 15: 1-8], a familiar yet challenging text. Here is the part we always remember: “I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinegrower,” says Jesus. “Abide in me as I abide in you. “ Here is the part we always forget: “He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit.”
“I am the vine, you are the branches”—a saying that has brought comfort and joy to Christians over the centuries, an extended metaphor suggesting our unity, our oneness in Christ. The vine, of course, was also a traditional metaphor for the people of Israel [Psalm 80]. In John’s rendering, Jesus himself is the new Israel and all of us who believe in him are what Paul would call “members one of another.” [Romans 12:5] But the more we press on it, the more we see that Jesus’s use of this figure is not just about Jesus and the church. To say that Jesus is the vine and we are the branches is to suggest something about the nature of God and the world. All of us are woven together in one fabric of life. We are all in this together. So one thing we hear in today’s Bible-newspaper dialogue is a word of human solidarity even in hard moments like Ferguson or Baltimore. We cannot look at these events—the protests or the violence that occasioned them—and not see ourselves implicated. Jesus is the vine, we are the branches. We are all in this together.
But what are we to make of God’s role as the vinegrower? “He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit.” The Greek verb here (airo) suggests both cutting and cleansing. The cheering news is that we are all connected to each other through our oneness in Christ. The sobering news is that God is at work in events that try and test and shape us into the people God intends us to be. Just as you would not let a rose bush grow wild but would cut it back to enhance its fullness, so it seems God uses hard events in our personal and social lives to shape us for God’s own purposes. To describe this process of trial and testing, the Hebrew prophets often compared it to the smelting of precious metals. Jesus uses the figure of the gardener and the vine.
As I have thought about Baltimore this week and what God might be saying to us through it, I have continually been drawn back to Abraham Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address, delivered just weeks before his assassination in 1865. We all remember his stirring words, “with malice toward none, with charity for all.” We often forget the words that precede them. Looking for divine meaning in the civil war then drawing to a close, Lincoln poses this question: is the war God’s judgment for the sin of slavery? If so, then his conclusion is inescapable:
Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman's two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said "the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether."
It is hard to look at the events in our cities in this year alone and avoid the conclusion that we are still living out the scourge of which Lincoln spoke. As a people, as a nation, we are still paying for the sin of slavery and its subsequent mutation into racism, segregation, mass incarceration, police brutality, and a massive disparity in economic opportunity. We cannot live in true harmony in America until justice prevails. As Jesus reminds us, we are all branches of one vine. And as Jesus warns us, we cannot escape the consequences of actions done by us or on our behalf.
Revolt and unrest will continue until we attend to their causes. We cannot observe the events in Baltimore and not see ourselves implicated in their origin. Jesus is the vine. We are the branches. God uses history to prune and shape us to God’s own purposes. We have a ways to go to be the healthy, fruitful people God wills and calls us to be. If we look to Baltimore and dismiss it as a city of lawless thugs we will be missing the message we should take from this moment. The sin of racism is alive and well in our nation. Our job, as God’s people and Jesus’s followers is to face into it and not look away.
As Christian people, we must read the death of Freddie Gray and the protests that followed it as signs of the work we all have yet to do. We are members of each other. We will only heal our nation as we attend to the lingering effects of slavery, the originating act of violence that still ricochets through our history over time. The events in Baltimore are painful, but let our pain be that of a pruning moment that heals and shapes us into a people formed for justice, compassion, and love. In this hard news there is good news. All this suffering, injustice and pain can bring us to something healing and hopeful and new. In the words of the Psalmist [Psalm 19.9] and our 16th president, “The judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.” Amen.