There is an Irish proverb that says, “Everybody focuses on the drinking and not the thirst.”
That got me thinking about current conditions in America. Recently the President of the United States sent out a tweet that said, “...when the looting starts, the shooting starts.”
This was in the wake of the murder of George Floyd by a police officer who kneeled on Floyd’s neck for 8 minutes and 46 seconds. It was in the wake of a pent-up anger that has been rising among Black people for decades. The president was focused on the “drinking,” without trying to understand the thirst. The thirst for justice, the thirst for accountability, the thirst to be understood. I think the President's tweet was misguided and actually acts like gasoline to the growing outrage.
While he was alive, Martin Luther King, Jr. was committed to nonviolent protests. Whenever someone acted out, be it by violence or vandalism, King was asked to give a response and condemn those actions. Here is what he said:
“It is not enough for me to stand before you tonight and condemn riots. It would be morally irresponsible for me to do that without, at the same time, condemning the contingent, intolerable conditions that exist in our society. These conditions are the things that cause individuals to feel that they have no other alternative than to engage in violent rebellions to get attention. And I must say tonight that a riot is the language of the unheard. And what is it America has failed to hear?… It has failed to hear that the promises of freedom and justice have not been met. And it has failed to hear that large segments of white society are more concerned about tranquility and the status quo than about justice and humanity.”
A large segment of white society continues to be more focused on tranquility and the status quo than about justice and humanity. Now let me be very clear, I think whenever violence or vandalism occurs it is counterproductive and wrong. But it is unfair to lump looters in with peaceful protesters. Protesters are peacefully protesting. Looters are looting. They're NOT the same. Understanding why the protests have spread to over 2,000 cities and towns in all 50 states, as well as in over 60 other countries, is important. If peaceful protests are not listened to, disruptive riots will be the result. When the foundation of fairness and law an order is in question, the answer is not to forcibly silence people. The answer is to try and understand the thirst.
One of my Black friends was explaining it to me recently. She said when she was only eight years old, she got slapped by a police officer. Police in her community did not look out for people who looked like her. She saw unfairness, injustice, and Black lives being affected because of corrupt police.
Kalief Browder was held for three years at the Rikers Island jail complex, without trial, for allegedly stealing a backpack. Because he was not willing to plead guilty, his family was not allowed to post bail, For two of those years between 2010 and 2013, he was in solitary confinement.
Two years after his release, Browder died by suicide at his mother's home. His death was the result of the mental, physical, and sexual abuse he sustained in prison. All because he allegedly stole a backpack. His story is told in compelling detail on Netflix.
Breonna Taylor had her home knocked in with a battering ram. Police shot and killed her. They went to the wrong door, and the people they were actually looking for were already in custody. The police neglected to mention any of this on their report. The police report stated that Taylor had no injuries, even though she died from gunshot wounds. It also stated that no forced entry occurred, even though the officers used a battering ram. The police department said that technical errors led to a malformed report… can you understand why people are mad?
The only excuse for not being mad is ignorance. But for those who are paying attention, for those who have lived out these stories for decades, outrage is the rationale response.
Trying to silence outrage by condemnation and force is like trying to put out a fire with gasoline. Without a recognition that the system is unfair, people will revolt against the system. Any system that allows the police to break into someone's home, shoot them eight times, and neglect to mention it on their report is an unjust system.
Recently I have been part of conversations about the removal of confederate statues. I have heard people say, “There are legal means to remove them.” This would be the ideal, but it is not always the reality. As a reaction against removing confederate statues some southern states have made the removal of all public monuments illegal.
Consider what the confederacy actually stood for. These rebels fought a war for their right to own slaves! Honoring any confederate “hero” is a shameful glorification of that history. If the courts don’t take down the statues, I understand why they would be vandalized.
If there was a statue of Hitler would anyone say, “don’t vandalize it”? Any society that would defend the glorification of Hitler should be shamed. Just as any society that would defend the glorification of the confederacy.
The vast majority of these Confederate monuments were built during the era of Jim Crow Laws from 1877 to 1964. They were not built as memorials but as a means of intimidating African Americans and reaffirming white supremacy after the Civil War. Can you understand why some people might want to smash things? It is outrageous to be more mad about the removal of a monument to Stonewall Jackson than about the unnecessary loss of life of Breonna Taylor.
So many people fear that social justice is a conspiratorial movement to bring in Marxism. But what if it’s just about telling the truth? As Bryan Stevenson says, “Before there can be reconciliation there has to be truth telling.”
It’s easy to point the finger at rioters and say, “just follow the law.” But adding more law and order doesn’t fix the problem, if it is the order of law itself that is in question. The riots are symptomatic of a larger pain. It’s not about the drinking, it's about the thirst.
One day Jesus was talking to a Samaritan woman. He told her, "whoever drinks the water I give them will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give them will become in them a spring of water welling up to eternal life" (John 4:14). This woman had been married five times, she likely felt shame about that even though it wasn't necessarily her fault. At the time, a man could give a woman a certificate of divorce for basically any reason. In a patriarchal culture that would be a very deep source of shame and it would be unjust.
At the heart of the longing for justice is the desire to be understood. Jesus understood her situation and showed compassion for her. She wanted a husband, but she didn't have one. Jesus said to her, "You are right when you say you have no husband. The fact is, you have had five husbands, and the man you now have is not your husband. What you have just said is quite true" (John 4:17-18).
People were focused on the failed marriages without understanding the thirst. The thirst to be loved. The thirst to be understood. When Jesus sat with her and had compassion for her, he fulfilled the deepest desires of her heart.
Salvation never comes by condemnation. "For God did not send his son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him" (John 3:17).
Salvation comes through the truth of being fully known and understood. Everybody focuses on the drinking and not the thirst. But Jesus understands. In the Sermon on the Mount he put it like this, “God blesses those who hunger and thirst for justice, for they will be satisfied” (Matthew 5:6).
Notes & References:
Kevin McGill is a pastor living in Troy, Idaho. He and his wife have two young children.
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