A bigger circle in Baltimore and Burundi

There’s trouble today in two places I know and love: Baltimore and Burundi.
I spent over forty years of my life in Maryland, not far from Baltimore. During the last six or seven years of my work there as a pastor, I was blessed to have friends who worked in the neighborhoods of the city that are on TV this week. They regularly invited me to spend time with them and learn what life was like for them.
I recall a walk down some of those streets back in early 2009, just after the economic meltdown. I was spending the day with a pastor who loved the city and was showing me what he and his congregation were doing to make a difference.
“It’s ironic,” he said. “Everyone is in a panic because the national unemployment rate is around 9 percent. Let me tell you – the unemployment rate in this area has been around 18% as long as I’ve worked here.”
Then he added, “When unemployment for white folks hits 9 percent, it’s called a great recession and a national emergency. When unemployment for African Americans is 18 percent, it’s normal and no big deal.”
That’s some of the background to the anger that’s erupting there this week. Add to that mass incarceration (the new Jim Crow), and to that young black men being killed by police, and to that underfunded public schools … and you’ll wonder why there hasn’t been more trouble sooner.
It’s easy to condemn desperate people who do wrong and destructive things – as a small number of people have been doing in Baltimore in recent days. It’s a lot harder to take the big planks out of the eyes of the rest of us … larger numbers who also do wrong and destructive things, not by burning cars and buildings or throwing bricks, but by standing idly by while our neighbors suffer from the long-term effects of unemployment, white supremacy, white privilege, systemic racism, and structural injustice.
Pay attention to the rage and hopelessness of the rioters, and pay attention also to the decency and dignity of the many who are responding in mature, generous, and healing ways. And then decide to add your voice and energy to the latter.
Whatever our race, religion, or politics, let’s take the opportunity of this moment to deal with underlying social and spiritual causes – in ourselves, in our society. Let’s learn how the many and diverse acute symptoms we’re seeing trace back to some underlying chronic diseases, and let’s start treating the sickness, not just the symptoms. And through it all, let’s not stop praying that God’s dreams come true here on earth … especially in the beautiful and beloved city of Baltimore.
Readers of my books know that one of the places on earth that most has won my heart is Burundi in East Africa, just south of Rwanda and east of Congo. Its population is about the same size as Maryland. You may have heard that unrest has broken out there again – the consequence of the president deciding to run for a third term, in spite of the fact that the constitution has a two-term limit. Many of us fear that this political unrest will reignite old tribal hostilities (created by colonialism) … and that external forces from neighboring countries will get involved.
From Baltimore to Bujumbura, we human beings love to cling to our little boxes of hostility – boxes of race, religion, tribe, nation, party, ideology. In the name of our little boxes, we marginalize, ignore, oppress, and evil kill others, as if their lives don’t matter because they identify with another box.
For me, to have faith in God means to step out of my little boxes into a bigger circle, a bigger sphere, called by some of us “the commonwealth of God” or “the ecosystem of God” or “the beloved community.” In that larger circle of God’s love and grace, little boxes of hostility – this religion/that religion/nonreligious, slave/free, male/female, straight/gay, rich/poor, white/black/brown/whatever – fade away. We discover one another as human beings, as sisters and brothers. In that larger circle, all are beloved. All are neighbors. All lives matter.
In Baltimore. In Burundi. Everywhere.