The Common Good

Confronting Urban Violence with Jesus' Nonviolence

This morning as I was running on the treadmill, I was also watching CNN. A story came on about a shooting in Washington, D.C. The police chief was speaking, with the mayor of D.C looking on. She stated, "people are just ready for acts like this to stop." I didn't get a chance to see who was involved in this latest incident of urban violence, but it led me to reflect on the violent acts committed in my own city of Minneapolis involving young African-Americans in most cases. This statement raises the question, "How do we stop the violence in our inner-cities?"

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On one level we must address this issue from the standpoint of individual responsibility. As the primary means for solving conflict, churches and other ministries must develop ministry initiatives that deal head-on with the issue of violence. Peace and nonviolence cannot be seen as an outdated strategy of hippies and those who participated in the part of the civil rights movement directed by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Many young people in the city lack a strategy free of violence to deal with loss, anger, stress, and not being able to have what they want immediately. Ministries to children, youth, and families must contain initiatives for conflict resolution rooted in the teachings of Jesus.

Jesus has something to say in Matthew chapters 5-7 about conflict resolution and specifically on how to deal with enemies. These biblical principles must be contextualized for today. We can also look at chapter 3 of 1 John. By pointing back to the story of Cain and Abel in this chapter, John reminds us what happens if our souls are not being driven by the love of God. What led to Cain killing his own brother is today at the root of violence in the city as well as the suburbs. The lack of being filled with God's love through the indwelling of the Holy Spirit is a major factor in a person's ability to attempt to take the life of another human being. Such actions are also also easier when you don't see the other person as just as much God's beloved as you are. Sometimes the ability to attempt to take the life of another begins with not seeing oneself as the beloved of God.

The second factor that must be considered in order to deal with violence in the city is a willingness to acknowledge the realities of class and race. What is behind so much violence in the city among so many African-Americans? There is a connection among poverty, race, relationships, and violence. To deny this is to ignore some root causes that go along with individual responsibility. Inner cities are the way they are on purpose. The White Flight of the '60s and '70s played a role. The Educated Black Flight of the '80s played a role as well.

This is not a guilt trip for those in the suburbs, for I live in the suburbs myself. The issue is figuring out how to live in the suburbs and still have a heart for the city. This was the place of Nehemiah in the Old Testament. It broke his heart to know the city of Jerusalem was in ruins and he took some of the responsibility for why this was the case. We must acknowledge the systemic issues behind urban violence and take responsibility as well. Those living outside the city must take responsibility and work with those in the city to be salt and light.

Nonviolence cannot be an ancient social strategy that was just good for a season. We must raise up a generation who are able to experience "a peace that passes all understanding" so that it might "guard our hearts and minds."

Efrem Smith is the senior pastor of The Sanctuary Covenant Church, with the vision to be an urban, multi-ethnic, relevant, holistic, and Christ-centered community. He has held leadership positions in organizations such as the Boys and Girls Club of America and Fellowship of Christian Athletes, and is the author of numerous articles and books, including The Hip-Hop Church. He blogs at efremsmith.com.

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