Let It Burn

Let It Burn May 31, 2020

“You can’t fan the flames and then condemn the fire.”

These were the words of my Governor, Andy Beshear last week after a protester hung an effigy of him on the lawn of the Governor’s mansion. Some local and state officials  condemned the act–but these were the very same politicians that had rallied with this group of radicals in recent days, encouraging their outrage and attacking the Governor. In other words– they fanned the flames, but then condemned the fire.

All of this happened before protests broke out in cities all over America, including here in Louisville. It was before fires started to blaze across America.

But now those words are all I can think of as I watch America smolder. These words are all I can think of as white folks insist “white lives matter too!” and judge protestors for not being more civil, more patient, more polite.

A police officer in Minneapolis murdered an unarmed black man on the street, in broad daylight, in front of a crowd and a camera. Police officers in Louisville entered the wrong apartment– looking for a suspect who was already in custody– and killed a black woman who was asleep in her bed. Two white men in Georgia jumped out of their truck and gunned down a black jogger in the street. Also in broad daylight. Also on camera. And now America is on fire.

I used to be a person who judged angry protests as counter-productive. I used to think that chaos and disruption was just an excuse to cause trouble and run wild, maybe a chance to loot a store and grab some free stuff.

But that was before George Floyd. Before Breonna Taylor. Before Ahmaud Arbery. Before the last couple of years when a killing of a black person–often at the hands of an authority figure– started appearing in the newsfeed with shocking regularity. Of course, these instances of racially-motivated violence aren’t new.

It’s just that there are cameras everywhere now.

Over the past several years, as more and more of these stories are captured in horrific detail, I’ve been much more intentional about reading things by authors of color, and learning how much our current culture and economic disparities were shaped by slavery; I’ve been listening to black leaders who are working for justice; examining my own privilege; and growing increasingly unsettled by the rhetoric of our political field, that seems to just amp up further every time there’s an incident.

And after these recent killings– murders that seem like a wave of some new evil but are really just the latest ebb of an ancient tide– I’m leaning less towards “be patient and politely ask for change,” and more towards… well, burn it all down. Because how can we ask folks to work within a system that does not work for them?

I’m not advocating for violence. And I know that some of these recent fires have maybe been started by white supremacists, trying to push the crowd of peaceful protesters towards all-out war. But I am taking a step back from the comfort of my white, middle-class, fairly sheltered existence and recognizing that the fires are not just chaos and aimless destruction. They are not just random acts of vandalism. They are the living embodiment of grief and rage. Real, raw, and age-old anguish, finally at an ignition point that cannot be contained. They are echoes of the Civil Rights movement, when noise and protest and chaos did finally, finally gather enough momentum to make some change.

And on this day of Pentecost, when people of faith gather to worship– however remotely– and celebrate the day when the flame of the Holy Spirit came to life among them, I wonder if us white Christians will sit here and comfortably condemn the fire again… without recognizing all the ways we’ve fanned the flame.

The story of Pentecost is one of the most mysterious in a sacred text that is full of mystery. A mighty rushing wind, a fire that burned overhead seeming to come from nowhere… “What does all of this mean?” asked the baffled crowd as the Spirit blew and burned around them. They couldn’t understand it– but suddenly, somehow, they could understand each other. They could hear and see other in ways they never could before. They could miraculously understand words spoken in foreign languages.

If fire can do that, then we need more fire.

What we’ve seen in recent days is not just fire and destruction. We’ve also seen fellow police officers speak out, condemning the killing of George Floyd. We’ve seen white people make a wall to protect protesters, and black people make a wall to protect police. (Is this ever complicated…) We’ve seen people working together to clean up their communities after a night of riots. Maybe there is something in this confounding paradox that sounds like hope.

Sometimes that Spirit fire burns in a community as a blaze of love or compassion; sometimes it burns as excitement or a worshipful energy that everyone experiences at once. Sometimes it is joy. But sometimes, what fire needs to do is literally burn something away and make room for new life. It needs to burn down centuries-old, death-dealing systems so that new ones can emerge. It needs to burn as righteous anger as white Christians feel the pain of our black siblings, for the death of their children, for the fear that they walk in daily. Maybe we need a little holy fire and thunder, to be able to hear and understand them when they speak that language of pain and suffering to which we’ve so long covered our ears. Maybe something needs to move among us and within us, in order to move US– out of our places of safety, and into action and the movement of change.

For years, we’ve taken part in institutions that contribute to inequality. Maybe we’ve voted for candidates that enact racist policies; or shopped at businesses that harm communities of color; or failed to expose ourselves to diverse voices; failed to teach our children a just history of their country; failed to name our own privilege. In whatever ways we have been complicit in these crimes, one thing is certain– if we have fanned the flames, we cannot condemn the fire now.

Maybe we need to just repent– and then let it burn.

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