Originally published May 1, 2015, at “Liberation Theology Lutheran.” Republished with the permission of the author.
My inner sociologist has found the last week interesting, as the crisis in Baltimore grew worse and worse and then a curfew seemed to solve much of the immediate problem. Despite having a B.A. in sociology, I really don’t understand riots that end in people burning their own neighborhoods.
Oh, I understand the anger. Most of us do. I understand the frustration of the slow pace of social change, of feeling unvalued. I understand the nihilistic joy that comes from destruction.
It intrigues me that so seldom in U.S. history do we see people torch government buildings. Perhaps they are more protected or perhaps riots escalate and no one says, “Hey, let’s move this demonstration to the true source of our misery.”
It’s hard to move a group, especially a group that’s in a bad mood.
In these days, those of us who have ever worked for a better world may be feeling discouraged. We may wonder if anything that we do will make a difference.
So, I wanted to offer two quotes of consolation. I listened to the latest episode of the radio show “On Being”; Margaret Wertheim is part of a huge project, Crochet Coral Reef. She talks about why the project is important and how it is a metaphor:
“One of the things about the reef project that I feel is important is that it’s a constructive response to a devastating problem. I think most people, as I am, are completely freaked out about the problem of global warming. What can we do? Can we do anything? And the reef project – the Crochet Coral Reef project is a metaphor, and it goes like this: If you look at real corals, a head of coral is built by thousands of individual coral polyps working together. Each coral polyp is a tiny insignificant little critter with almost no power of its own. But when billions of coral polyps come together, they can build the Great Barrier Reef, the largest living thing on earth and the first living thing that you can see from outer space.
“The Crochet Coral Reef is a human analog of that. These huge coral reef installations that we build with communities are built by hundreds and sometimes thousands of people working together. So the project capitulates, in human action, the power and greatness of what corals themselves are doing. And I think the metaphor of the project is, look what we can do together. We humans, each of us are like a coral polyp. Individually, we’re insignificant and probably powerless. But together, I believe we can do things. And I think the metaphor of the project is we are all corals now.”
And to return to theology, which often informs my thinking on social justice:
Easter promises us that our efforts will not be in vain. In “Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church,” N. T. Wright says forcefully, “what you do in the Lord is not in vain. You are not oiling the wheels of a machine that’s about to roll over a cliff.” (p. 208)
For many of us, the most difficult part of Jesus’ mission that he gives us will be the willingness to believe that the arc of history bends toward justice, as Martin Luther King Jr. reminded us. The arc of history also bends toward beauty and wisdom and love and mercy.
Some of us are so beaten down that we forget. Some of us would have no problem being crucified for our faith, but it’s much harder to believe in God’s vision of a redeemed world and to work to make that happen. But Scripture and thousands of years of theology make it clear, as Wright says, “We are called to live within the world where these things are possible and to agents of such things insofar as they lie in our calling and sphere.” (p. 248)
I’m glad to wake up this morning to hear that Baltimore was quiet again last night. But clearly, we all still have work to do in bending our current arc of history toward justice.