There was anger in our Centering Music this morning (“They Don’t Care About Us” by Michael Jackson), a lot of anger.
Michael Jackson filmed that video in the slums surrounding Rio De Janiero; communities of the extreme poor, trapped there for generations with nowhere to go, no escape.
For decades the Brazilian government refused to extend utilities, sanitation, roads or even law enforcement into these slums. Ultimately, they moved their Capitol elsewhere, escaping the angry vigilance of the poor looking down upon them from the hills above. They are still there: filled with suffering and the anger of a people left behind, cast aside as worthless. We see in the video that their anger is powerful.
At this point in time, Michael Jackson was the object of tabloid ridicule and accusations of child molestation, strange behavior and weird habits. He’d been sued; arrested; strip searched. I am sure he identified with the people in these slums because he felt abandoned and alone, he was struggling to not die, just like them. But, not dying is not the same thing as living. Life is more than merely existence continued.
This song is Michael’s response to that anger and pain; but with larger themes. Of this song he said: “… [it] is about the pain of prejudice and hate and is a way to draw attention to social and political problems. [In it] I am the voice of the accused and the attacked. I am the voice of everyone. I am the skinhead, I am the Jew, I am the black man, I am the white man. I am not the one who was attacking. It is about the injustices to young people and how the system can wrongfully accuse them.” He sought to turn his anger and hurt into a force for good; and yet the song ends in a scream.
We see such anger everywhere nowadays: in the anger of the Tea Party. The anger of those who’ve lost jobs or a home. The anger of Militants crusading against the Government, and the anger of Birdwatchers angry with those same Militants; in the anger being flung at immigrants and Muslims. We see it in the anger within #BlackLivesMatter, and in the anger directed against #BlackLivesMatter. We see it directed against those who differ; and in places like Syria, Iraq, and Israel.
This anger is reflected in the rhetoric of the many media figures and political leaders who seek to redirect it for their own benefit. It screams at us in songs, in the news, on the streets, and perhaps even from church pulpits. It is the same anger as we find in Michael’s song: borne out of being abandoned, of teetering on the edge of nonexistence, of desperation.
But are we listening for what lies behind this anger? Such anger is like when you’re drowning, struggling in the water and grabbing at whatever you can in an attempt to survive. In that desperate struggle, it doesn’t matter what your outstretched hands encounter: a life preserver, or a useless piece of trash floating by. You will grab on to it and won’t let go, no matter what it is.
Anger is a symptom, a reaction. Our natural reaction to anger is to become angry ourselves. We often react to the emotion without listening to the hurt and fear behind it. And so, our response is misdirected: we grab at whatever is nearby in our desperation. Since the anger’s source is not our target, we are continuing the cycle: the anger does not resolve. It mutates into new forms, springing up in unexpected ways and places.
God gave us anger for a reason. It can be a good thing. Jesus gets angry. Abraham got angry. Samuel, Jonathan, David, Elijah, Elishah, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Job, Peter and Paul all got angry in the Bible. Even God, who is “slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love,” gets angry. Many reject this seemingly angry God: they see the anger in the Bible, or hear it in misguided teaching, but they are rejecting God’s anger without seeking out or comprehending its source.
In High School, many of my friends were on the debate team. What I learned from them is that you do not comprehend an opponent’s argument, and cannot effectively respond to it, unless you can successfully defend their point of view. This requires you to deeply and carefully listen to what your opponent has to say.
In the Gospels, we find Jesus listening all the time. He listens to God in prayer. He hangs out with the poor, the dispossessed, the sinners – spending time with those not seen or heard by the rich and powerful; and he is greatly criticized for doing so. But, he also comprehends his critics, those in power, just as fully: Jesus listens.
Jesus condemns those in power not for being powerful, nor for being wealthy; but for not listening; for having no compassion; for not believing that God loves others just as much as God loves them; for not seeing or valuing our mutual heritage as children of God. He has harsh words for those who create caricatures of those who are different, and then impose these cruel stereotypes on others without making any attempt to understand the reality of their lives.
Like the Prophets before him, Jesus’ anger was directed against those who used stereotypes as excuses to maintain if not expand their own privileges and power. Things are no different in today’s world.
The #BlackLivesMatter movement encompasses the anger of the many who are labeled as poor, violent, druggies, or criminals just because their skin color is not ours. They are angry, and rightfully so, at how our legal systems, law enforcement and all of us who are not black, apply these stereotypes all the time, though we often do so unknowingly. Racism infects us and everything we know and do.
We benefit from a legal system that stains our souls with hateful crimes against many of God’s beloved children. Our racism, as expressed through this system we’ve built to “protect the public interest” (meaning our own interest): limits their lives, even ends them, and does so without consequence to us. They are condemned to death in the name of our own convenience and comfort. This must change if we and our neighbors are to be redeemed from our sin – not theirs. Yes, #BlackLivesMatter is full of anger, but that anger is rightfully and carefully directed at us because we are the source of their pain. Therefore, we must listen, and react prayerfully and thoughtfully to address the sin that is within us and within the system which sustains our privileges and dominance.
#BlackLivesMatter elicits angry responses from many in response to the anger they are being confronted with. They often unfavorably compare the anger within #BlackLivesMatter with their own hurts and losses; because they too are drowning: clutching at whatever they can, so that they will not die. But that will not help them live. They may see that others have troubles, but are too caught up in their own personal pain and the resulting anger that boils within them.
This is a pain we all know– the pain born of the mischances and missteps of life. But, this is not the pain that drives #BlackLivesMatter, because, no matter how hard they try, those with dark skin are guaranteed to never achieve or experience many or most of the things in life that I take for granted, simply because they do not have my white skin. Even Michael Jackson, rich and wealthy and black as he was, knew that pain that I will never know, and knew it all too well.
I am not condemning those who reject the message of #BlackLivesMatter. We naturally resent seeing someone receiving aid, special treatment, or compassion while we are struggling: sinking under a mountain of debt; or wondering if our part time jobs will be enough to pay the rent or put food on the table this week, let alone make up for our vanished pension. We pray that we stay healthy and that the car doesn’t die because we know that no one is going show up at our door to help us out. Those in the #BlackLivesMatter movement know no one will help them out either, and their anger has driven them to action directed at the root of their despair, us.
The feelings we experience when confronted with their anger are valid, just as their feelings are valid. It is unfair that after a lifetime of being a good citizen, of paying our dues, of doing the right thing, that we are left with nothing to show for it. We did everything right. We paid our dues. Why should we have to pay more, why is it up to us to get someone else out of trouble? We didn’t create this unfair system, and we have a hard time seeing how it benefits us. So, we’re angry, and rightfully so.
But this is a misdirection of our anger and injustices: we are laying the pain and perhaps the blame upon those who are pained and powerless, just like us. We are not looking to see what is behind the anger. And, like any issue of social justice, the solution is not to take away what little is being given to those in need, even if what we are giving them is what they really need (which it usually isn’t).
Rather, we must find ways to more fairly share the burdens we, and they, carry; rich and poor alike, so that everyone can go to bed at night without worrying about whether they’ll be arrested the next day, about their roof, about their next meal, or about paying the bills. #BlackLivesMatter helps us see a universal truth: that unless we start treating all people as human beings, we will all loose our humanity. We may not die, but we will no longer live.
How do we begin? Jesus showed us. We do it by listening: hearing their anger and pain, appreciating them for who they are; recognizing that their emotions are real and valid, and that their lives really do matter. We must ditch the stereotypes and learn who they are, and they will come to see God’s love growing in us.
When confronted with anger, we must begin by recognizing and affirming that the other’s feelings are valid. We can’t begin, and can’t succeed, by challenging their words. If we are to really understand where they are coming from, and understand what must be done to overcome the challenges we and they face, we must – as my debate friends taught me – be able to fully comprehend and defend their point of view – no matter whether they are a militant occupying a bird refuge in Oregon or are a #BlackLivesMatter activist here in our home town. This is why Jesus warns us that judging others is such a risky business.
We must invest in each other if we are to succeed. Defeating those who oppose us only means we’ve defeated ourselves. The battle is within us, not against us, and not against them. To overcome the challenges we all face requires that we all change.
To comprehend the other requires listening. Listening gives rise to understanding and compassion. Compassion gives birth to love. Love moves us to action. This is what Jesus did, and is what he calls us to do: to love our neighbors as ourselves, no matter who they are, no matter what they’ve done.
We have a right to be angry; but misdirected, unthinking action made in anger solves nothing. It only strengthens the anger and pain already present in our lives and everyone around us. To escape the anger that is killing us and our neighbors, we are not called to simply not die, but to live, to be healed, so we that may journey together in the fullness of grace and joy as God intended for us to do.
Therefore listen, learn, and love; so that we all may live and not die.
Delivered at ARK Community Church, Dalton MA, January 17, 2016; (Martin Luther King, Jr. Sunday).
Copyright (c) 2016, Allen Vander Meulen III, all rights reserved. I’m happy to share my writings with you, as long as proper credit for my authorship is given. (e.g., via a credit that gives my full name and/or provides a link back to this site – or just email me and ask!)