It was difficult to find a place to park my car in the fray. As I walked through the sea of muddy, cold, bloody young people, the scene was shocking. This was ground zero. I got as close as I could and fixed my eyes down the street on a line of police officers armored head to toe in riot gear. The crowd is defiant at first but then starts to dissolve quickly by the bark and the sharp teeth of a police dog being guided through the melee.
An ambulance pulled up to the curb and there is a young man who is obviously embarrassed, hiding out in the open as his peers record every second of his worst moments for the world to see. The paramedics finally get him on the gurney and I see his face. His eyes are swollen and soaked with tears, his nose is crooked, he still tries to hide his face that is already hidden by a dark, crimson mask of mud and blood. I couldn’t believe all of this was happening in my front yard.
This was not the recent riots in Baltimore (or Ferguson or New York) this was a celebration of IUPattys Day, a student-driven holiday on campus at Indiana University of Pennsylvania where I am currently in mission. This year the new apartment complex on my block was the site of the biggest party of the weekend. Increasingly, this area is privy to more student foot traffic and as far as my yard is concerned, more student trash.
Every week we walk the grounds of our house to find beer cans, cigarette packs, lots and lots of empty Sheetz food containers, bottles, bags, shoes, etc. After IUPattys it was exceptionally worse. Not only was there more than a bag of trash scattered in the yard but our picket fence took some serious abuse. Planks were kicked in, points were cracked off, and our ceramic owl left face down in the grass.
The question that arises as I reach down again and again and pick up those beer cans and try to piece my fence back together is through the pain of this destruction, do I love my college students any less? The quick answer is I can’t and I won’t, the long answer is more complicated and perhaps will help look upon current events with a little more love.
Young people have an incredible amount of energy and a penchant for wanting be involved in something. At IUPattys, that involvement means destruction. Recently, in Baltimore the assembly had a different cause with very different emotion, passion, and energy behind it, but the result was still the same, destruction.
Watching the narrative of a burning Baltimore play out across multiple news platforms still makes it difficult to see the hearts of those rioting and looting. Still some watch these scenes and what they see is an enemy. The question then is how does Jesus call us to interact with our enemies?
Read Luke 6. Jesus’s claims about our property were something he wasn’t afraid to uphold himself. He wouldn’t tell us to offer up the other cheek without being willing to take his lashes and he wouldn’t tell us to offer up our cloak and tunic without being willing himself to hang naked on that cross for all to see. The protestors very well might be criminals and criminals take and destroy, but are we spending too much time counting what they’ve taken and not asking what we could be giving?
Grace is the first gift that comes to mind. We do not get to chose how the oppressed and the fearful react to oppression and fear. We also do not have the advantage that God has by seeing exactly what is in the heart of those breaking windows. However, we can remind them that Jesus died for every shatter and his love is always theirs for the taking.
Ears that hear might be another gift worth giving. Destruction and demonstration like we saw in Baltimore screams that they have something to say and are not being heard. Every demonstration wasn’t violent. The voice of Baltimore and other communities in the nation crying out is complex and requires attentive ears.
Then what do we do with all of this energy? The energy of our young people needs guidance and leadership. Without leadership they can leave worthy causes like the muddy, bloody student on the lawn in front of my house.
“If you’ve got the energy to destroy, you’ve got the energy to rebuild.” – Local Baltimore activist and radio host Farajii Muhammad
That is why I loved seeing Baltimore city councilmen praising the hundreds of peaceful protesters and de-escalators, watching Ray Lewis shrieking with grief that the vision of Baltimore’s builders is being ignored, and witnessing community volunteers with brooms in their hands sweeping up the ashes on the morning after.
Do the flames in Baltimore make you love those people any less? I hope not. My job on campus at IUP is to not love the partiers any less. Especially when it costs me something, my job is to give them grace, a kind ear, and guidance. However, more often than not, it also means cleaning up their trash.