Reflections on the 2015 Baltimore riots from Tony Campbell, and how we can see hope.

photo courtesy of Reuters/Jim Borg

By Tony Campbell, director of African American/black ministries, missional engagement, and global mission

Another shooting of a police officer in New York City. Another death of an unarmed, young African-American male, this time in Baltimore. Another riot.

At times it seems like we are caught in a horror story that never ends. From North Charleston to New York and Baltimore, just when we thought we had heard about the last death, something else happens.

The ongoing story has brought me to the same emotional state I was in years ago with regard to the story of apartheid that unfolded in South Africa. It seemed like every day the news told of another death and another tragedy happening there. I thought it would never end. And now here we are again.

With each new chapter of this recent story, most of the debate in America has centered on who is at fault—who is to blame. I don’t think that debate will get us to peace, nor do I think that is the question we should be asking as Christians. I believe that God loves all. I believe that God wants police officers to live. I believe that God wants black men to live. I believe that God wants our cities and business owners to be safe. I believe that the question for us is not “Who is to blame?” but “How do we take responsibility and do what it takes to live together in peace?”

For African Americans, we need to once again commit to nonviolence. The destruction in Baltimore is not helpful to anyone. We need to seek ways to make a point without harming anyone else.

For African Americans, we also must ask why so many of our young men are in the wrong place at the wrong time. We must seek ways to deepen the level of discipleship in young African-American males. We must seek ways to increase the quality and availability of education opportunities for those young men who live in poverty, in hopelessness, and with a false sense that God has abandoned them. The church must find a way to bring Christ back into the lives of these young men.

For all of us, of every color and nationality, we need to ask how we can bring change to our communities. How do we as Christ-followers deepen our discipleship and love for one another and for all people? How do we strive to understand each other deeply and with the heart of Christ?

Lastly, the police must figure out how to do a better job of establishing good community-police relations. Members of law enforcement agencies take an oath “to protect and to serve”—to protect and serve the whole community and not exclude African-American males. There are police departments in urban settings that have figured out how to do this. They protect everyone; they don’t harm African-American males or anyone else. If some police departments have found ways to build good community-police relations, this tells me that it is possible for all of them.

Ultimately, the question is, “How do we ALL work together to change and bring peace?” 

Years ago, during that violent unrest in South Africa, I attended a lecture by Allan Boesak, a South African Dutch Reformed Church cleric. That night, he said that one day South Africa would be free from violence. With all the heartbreaking stories in the news, I thought there was no way he could be correct. But I was looking through the lens of media coverage, and Boesak was looking through the lens of faith. And two years later, Nelson Mandela walked out of prison.

I had thought South Africa would erupt in a sea of violence, and wreck on the shores of despair. To my great surprise and joy, the opposite happened. The South African people found the shores of peaceful coexistence. I believe it is because they stopped asking who was right and who was wrong, and instead asked, “How can we live together?” They stopped seeking who to blame and instead sought to learn how they could live together.

That gives me hope, for Baltimore and beyond.

General secretary Tom De Vries wrote in a recent edition of the AspenWind e-newsletter: “As the RCA, we have declared our commitment to racial reconciliation, to justice, and to the equality of all people. We are called to earnestly pursue and seek peace, reconciliation, and justice. Back in January, authors from around the RCA shared their experiences with racial prejudice. You can revisit the ‘It’s Time’ series here.”