Baltimore and Beyond: Cities that Wait for the Storm Cloud to Blow Over May Blow Up

Baltimore and Beyond: Cities that Wait for the Storm Cloud to Blow Over May Blow Up May 2, 2015
© 2007 Bart Everson, Creative Commons
© 2007 Bart Everson, Creative Commons

The Onion recently wrote an article titled “Baltimore Residents Urged To Stay Indoors Until Social Progress Naturally Takes Its Course Over Next Century.”

Whether we approach the recent events satirically or not, our nation’s cities cannot wait for the ominous storm cloud filled with racial strife in places like Baltimore, New York, Ferguson and beyond to blow over. Cities that wait and are not alert to take proactive action to bring their divided communities together may blow up. As one civil servant in Portland, Oregon said to me the other day, “A house divided against itself cannot stand.” My friend, Robert Wall, Portland’s former Fire Chief, was alluding to Jesus’ words, which Abraham Lincoln also referenced. Let’s put the statement in biblical and historical context.

Many religious leaders had hoped that Jesus’ powerful teaching and action would blow over. But they came to realize that they needed to step in and do something to try and discredit him. So, in one instance, they accused him of casting out devils by Beelzebub rather than acknowledge that the Spirit of God moved in and through him. Jesus challenged their way of thinking. He argued that no way would Satan be fighting against himself. A house divided against itself will not stand (Matthew 12:23-32). Jamieson, Fausset & Brown provide the following paraphrase of Jesus’ response:  “No organized society can stand—whether kingdom, city, or household—when turned against itself; such intestine war is suicidal: But the works I do are destructive of Satan’s kingdom: That I should be in league with Satan, therefore, is incredible and absurd.” No matter how absurd, these religious leaders did not cease to oppose Jesus. The conflict only intensified. Providentially and beneficially for all those in need of deliverance, Jesus did not blow over. The Spirit of God continued to blow healing through him.

Abraham Lincoln built on Jesus’ logic in his famous address. Nor did he think the tensions over slavery would blow over. As he writes in his “House Divided” speech,

We are now far into the fifth year, since a policy was initiated, with the avowed object, and confident promise, of putting an end to slavery agitation.

Under the operation of that policy, that agitation has not only, not ceased, but has constantly augmented.

In my opinion, it will not cease, until a crisis shall have been reached, and passed.

“A house divided against itself cannot stand.”

I believe this government cannot endure, permanently half slave and half free.

I do not expect the Union to be dissolved — I do not expect the house to fall — but I do expect it will cease to be divided.

It will become all one thing or all the other.

Either the opponents of slavery, will arrest the further spread of it, and place it where the public mind shall rest in the belief that it is in the course of ultimate extinction; or its advocates will push it forward, till it shall become alike lawful in all the States, old as well as new — North as well as South.

Lincoln referenced Jesus’ words, recorded in all three Synoptic Gospels, in this speech, which he delivered during his hotly contested campaign against Stephen Douglas for U. S. Congress. Though Lincoln lost the Senate race, the speech and the events which led to it, including the Dred Scott Supreme Court case of 1857 (see also Dred Scott), propelled him to the White House in 1860.

The tensions over slavery did not blow over, but led to the Civil War. While one could claim on one level that slavery ceased to exist, the tensions resulting from slavery continue on in our land. A recent article in NewGeography titled “America: A House Divided Over Race” claims that we all have to deal with the issues rather than fall prey to placing all the blame on this or that ethnic demographic, political party, or civil service department. We must all be alert and do what we can to move past the racial and class divisions that are widening in cities across the land, and which fuel explosions involving law enforcement.

In some cities, usually smaller and whiter to start with, we are seeing a pattern of what amounts to “ethnic cleansing,” as increasingly isolated communities get driven out of their enclaves by relentlessly rising rents and the loss of blue-collar jobs.

This process is particularly notable in San Francisco, where the black population already is roughly half what it was in 1970. In the nation’s whitest major city – Portland, Ore. – African Americans are being pushed out of the urban core by gentrification, partly supported by city funding. Similar phenomena can be seen in Seattle and Boston where longtime black communities faced near extinction.

Under these circumstances, a degree of racial animus seems inevitable…

My friend, the civil servant in Portland, told me that our city needs to be alert, as do others. In other words, we cannot wait for the wind of racial tension and animus to blow over. Portland and other cities like it will eventually blow up, if white residents remain indoors rather than engage constructively to build infrastructure that serves all communities well.

Here are some questions we should all pose in search of concrete answers:

First, how are city planners and those overseeing funding in cities like Portland setting in place foundations for minority communities to thrive economically in the city proper?

Second, how are churches led by white pastors in the suburbs and cities partnering with their minority counterparts to address not simply the symptoms of the problem but the structures that create the inequities?  Their service to provide care to schools and neighborhoods is important, especially if and when they work with the churches led by people of diverse ethnicity such as Dr. Leroy Haynes, Jr., who has advocated politically for these constituents over the years. Dr. Haynes, Pastor Cliff Chappell, Pastor David Greenidge, Pastor Eric Knox and Pastor Mark Strong are some of the leaders whose voices we need to hear and from whom we need to learn and support in addressing the deep divisions in cities like Portland.

Third, how are we partnering with organizations that are making a difference to address the systemic problems? Take for example the work of Straight Path, Inc., in Portland:

Straight Path, Inc. is a grassroots community-based organization committed to assisting individuals and families overcome barriers created by poverty, dysfunctional families, gang affiliation, histories of substance abuse, past criminal behavior and institutionalization. Straight Path, Inc. is founded on the belief that with love, guidance and support all people are capable and worthy of leading healthy, productive and spiritually rewarding lives.

We need to support such important enterprises. We can find them in the various cities where we live.

Back to The Onion article, residents in Baltimore, Portland and elsewhere sickened by indifference and affluenza don’t need to remain behind doors until the winds of racial animus blow over. In fact, we must not. Otherwise, our own cities may blow up, as we are witnessing across the nation. God will use us to heal our nation’s and cities’ wounds, as we partner humbly with at-risk communities. We do not need to be paralyzed by fear and the overwhelming sense of need. Following Jesus, whose Spirit never blows over, we can make effective change—even now, as we take steps to build the beloved community. Only a united house will stand.

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