The Common Good

Tearing Down the Thin Veil: 20 Years After the Rodney King Riots

HAL GARB/AFP/Getty Images
A rioter breaks a glass door of the Criminal Courts building, downtown Los Angeles, 29 April 1992. HAL GARB/AFP/Getty Images

This weekend, if you can believe it, marks the 20th anniversary of the Los Angeles riots that followed the verdict in the Rodney King trial that acquitted four police officers of any wrong doing. Maybe some of us are old enough to remember the beating that King took as he was being arrested.

Maybe some of us are old enough to remember the violence that followed. Fifty people died in the riots.

Why do we bother to honor such memories? Why do we hold them up? St. John of the Cross, the Carmelite mystic, writes of a temporal veil that separates us from God. It's an unavoidable separation, he said, that every creature encounters.

We live in time. God does not. He also said, however, that by grace that veil can be torn, time and memory collapsing in upon one another and we are no longer separate from God.

James McClendon, the 20th-century Anabaptist theologian, wrote of eschatological time, that time of God's Presence, as a compression of time. We live in God's immediate now, the past and the future compress into the fiery present.

Why do we remember? So we can be more like God. We pull the past into the present. We embody the desired future in the present.

If we want to know when God will reign, when justice will be done, when people won't die in riots or suffer at the hands of those pledged to protect them, we have to pull the past and the future into the present moment of God. We have to open our minds, hearts, and souls to God. God wants to rend the veils separating us from God and one another.

Time collapses, compresses, into St. John's fire of divine love.

I was about to graduate college the year when the riots took place. I didn't know it at the time, but the events of that day would play a part in my decision to live and work at Richmond Hill, a community working toward racial reconciliation in Richmond, Va., that celebrates 25 years of ministry this year.

I remember people asking me even then if we needed to work on racial reconciliation in this country. The Rodney King trial and the riots that followed convinced me that we did...and that we still do.

Now is the time.

God is ready to tear down the veil that separates us from one another.

May we pray with St. John of The Cross:

O living flame of love
That tenderly wounds my soul
In its deepest center! Since
Now you are not oppressive,
Now Consummate! if it be your will:
Tear through the veil of this sweet encounter!

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