There’s something about shattered glass. It crosses a line for middle-class white people like me. Because it’s visceral. It means that order has been disrupted. The integrity of a building has been violated. Boundary lines have been transgressed. Rain will get inside. People can reach in and grab things if they want to. An alarm will presumably be going off. Whoever owns the building will have to put up a tacky looking tarp until they have time to repair the glass. It will look like those permanently half-finished buildings in third-world countries with exposed rebar and abandoned shells of rooms filled with chunks of concrete. That’s why broken windows are so “violent” to white middle-class America. This “violence” isn’t necessarily connected to actual human suffering. It is rather a “violence” against our sense of stability, which depends upon smoothly plastered drywall and unbroken windows to establish clearly defined boundaries between what gets in and what stays out.
Let me be clear that I’m not an apologist for breaking windows. There’s no question that it’s violent. People can get hurt; small business owners lose a ton of money. But what about all the other violence that the people of Baltimore have suffered? What about the violence that Freddie Gray suffered? Can something be called violence if it hurts people and destroys their lives even if it doesn’t disrupt my sense of social stability from my vantage point in front of the living room TV? John Angelos, the COO of the Baltimore Orioles, described some of this hidden violence in a series of tweets he sent out this weekend:
My greater source of personal concern, outrage and sympathy beyond this particular case is focused neither upon one night’s property damage nor upon the acts, but is focused rather upon the past four-decade period during which an American political elite have shipped middle class and working class jobs away from Baltimore and cities and towns around the U.S. to third-world dictatorships like China and others, plunged tens of millions of good, hard-working Americans into economic devastation, and then followed that action around the nation by diminishing every American’s civil rights protections in order to control an unfairly impoverished population living under an ever-declining standard of living and suffering at the butt end of an ever-more militarized and aggressive surveillance state.
Can it be called violence when corporate globalization and a Wall Street-triggered recession wipe out middle and working class jobs? Can it be called violence when state and city governments are cutting taxes so hard to draw business that they can no longer afford to build parks and recreation programs that provide positive outlets for youth without money? Can it be called violence when students in overcrowded classrooms in under-resourced schools don’t have the textbooks they need? Can it be called violence when families are torn apart as their fathers are incarcerated with ridiculous mandatory minimum sentences as part of the failed drug war? Can it be called violence when the only jobs available are in the service industry whose minimum wage requires single parents to work 80 hour weeks to stay afloat?
The reason why none of these things count as violence to most middle-class white people like me is is not because they don’t cause harm and not because they aren’t the result of greed and other real sins. It’s because they don’t pose a threat to the happily humming autopilot routines of our busy daily lives elsewhere. But broken windows and people climbing on top of cars signify the possibility that there might be a breach in the continuity of “the way things have always been.” If enough people decide to stop working and go into the streets to smash windows instead, then our social order is in trouble. That’s why we need the police to clean up the mess and get the poor brown people back in line so that the cheerfully oblivious parade of our progress can continue.
The protests in Baltimore, Ferguson, and other places have brought into focus for me the difference between law and order and justice. Law and order describes a world where boundaries remain predictable and inviolable. Windows aren’t broken, traffic isn’t stopped, business as usual hums along. Law and order works for the people who aren’t living in the broken down apartment complex with kids attending the underfunded school system trying to support a family with a service industry job while being humiliated and physically endangered by authority figures whose job is to keep the system humming whatever the collateral damage.
You have to have some form of law and order within a society. Law and order is a good thing! The problem is when people think that justice is the same thing as law and order. People who cannot think beyond a law and order paradigm do not have any concept of justice beyond following the rules or receiving the consequences for breaking them. If no laws have been violated, then injustice doesn’t exist because what’s just and whats lawful are thought to be identical.
The justice that the Bible describes goes a whole lot further than law and order. Justice is God’s demand for a society that proactively seeks the welfare of all of its citizens, especially those who are crushed by the law and order measures meant to keep the overall system running smoothly. Justice is the vision described by the prophet Micah 4:3-4
He shall judge between many peoples, and shall arbitrate between strong nations far away;
they shall beat their swords into plowshares,
and their spears into pruning hooks;
nation shall not lift up sword against nation,
neither shall they learn war any more;
but they shall all sit under their own vines and under their own fig trees,
and no one shall make them afraid;
for the mouth of the Lord of hosts has spoken.
A world where each family has their own vine and fig tree is a world where people can beat their swords into plowshares. You cannot call it justice to tell people who never had their own vines and fig trees to suffer quietly and not break any windows so that those of us who are privileged can stay in our happy autopilot existence.
I don’t know exactly what I could personally do to contribute to justice for Baltimore any more than I know how to contribute to justice for the under-resourced neighborhoods of New Orleans. But I agree with my friend Nathaneal Snow who said, “The riots are an indictment, not [just] against the oppressors, but against those who are good, but have not done justice. The riots are an indictment against me.”
Law and order protects me from having to take direct responsibility for the well-being of communities that have been destroyed by our socioeconomic system. But it will not protect me from the God who will not be impressed that I kept my nose clean and minded my own business when his demand on my life was justice for all his people. As long as I am oblivious to the suffering of God’s people, I am part of the violence that Satan inflicts upon them.