Saying 'Peace, Peace,' When There Is No Peace

By Angela Denker 5-01-2015
A police car at a solidarity for Baltimore protest in Washington, D.C. Image via
A police car at a solidarity for Baltimore protest in Washington, D.C. Image via JP Keenan/Sojourners

"They treat us like animals," a member of the Bloods told WBAL's Weiner. "And now we're acting like animals ... I don't agree with it, but I understand it."

The gang members spoke of unity, of their cause of justice lifting them out of the turf wars and causing them to shake hands with rival gangs — not to kill cops, but to protest peacefully, united together as black men who didn't want to die or go to jail.

"They've looked at us this way for so long," another said, and I kept replaying his words.

I am the "they." The white suburban homogeneous masses who pack organic snacks for their children and watch baseball practice and hockey games and worry about vaccinations, not lead poisoning.

The "they" who offer platitudes for peace but neglect the righteous cause of justice.

The "they" who say, "Well, we don't really have any black people in our church or in our community. We're here for Jesus, not to talk about race."

I have so many times felt that pull into suburban silence, the right perhaps to post about gay rights but not about race, to say, “Oh that's very sad,” but not take it any deeper.

I've felt odd, wondering about my place at the table among my activist friends, white and black, who live in neighborhoods like the one where Freddie Gray grew up. What could I possibly have to say, typing on my MacBook, sitting on my Crate and Barrel couch wearing JCrew flats? The pressure is to keep the status quo. Perhaps to say, “I'm praying for peace in Baltimore,” and sip my latte.

-

On Monday night as I read and watched the unfolding news coverage of riots, my Facebook newsfeed bombarding me with posts both from activists and from folks who hated the rioting but didn't care about Freddie Gray, I thought about saying a prayer for peace.

I started to pray, but God interrupted me, in the words of the prophet Jeremiah:

"They have treated the wound of my people carelessly,

saying 'Peace, peace,' when there is no peace.

They acted shamefully. They committed abomination.

Yet they were not ashamed."

Was I the “they?”

Who are God's people here?

There is no peace in Sandtown-Winchester, Baltimore today. Perhaps it has never known peace, since or before the April riots 47 years ago after Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s death.

Baltimore has the highest concentration of heroin users in the country. To be born into Sandtown-Winchester is to be born into a neighborhood where your own home might literally poison you, where one-third of homes are abandoned, where murder happens at twice the city's already high average.

Imagine, for a moment, that you are Freddie Gray. You were born two months early and spent the first five months of your life in the hospital, before heading to a home with dangerous levels of lead. There are few trees or parks; your mom can't afford swimming lessons or tee ball or toys; and the adults you know either barely get by on assistance or low-paying jobs, or they become a part of the neighborhood's most viable industry — the drug trade.

What do you do? College — heck, high school — is out of the question. You survive. You live. You sell and use a little marijuana, maybe a little heroin. You get arrested and instead of rehab or treatment you go straight to jail, where you learn more about criminality and become more hardened. The Baltimore of the waterfront, Camden Yards, the museums, Johns Hopkins University — it may as well have been Paris. You've never left the West Side.

And the stories came floating out: Freddie Gray already had a spinal condition. Freddie Gray injured himself. The rioters are thugs. 

It sounded like a dismissal. Who is responsible? Anyone but me. I am not a part of this. I am above it.

"They treat us like animals," said the young man on WBAL. 

Freddie Gray died, and we didn't care.

But why would they destroy a business?

-

We pray for peace on Baltimore's West Side, as if when the rioting stops and all goes back to "normal," it will be peaceful.

We say we don't understand why rioters would ruin their own neighborhood — as if their neighborhood wasn't already ruined by disrepair and disregard by the city, by a blind eye, by failing schools and laws that punish blacks and whites differently when it comes to drugs.

We speak as though they are rioting in Central Park, and if they'd just stop rioting, the flowers would bloom and wouldn't it be lovely again in Sandtown-Winchester. 

The riots are a symptom, not a cause. The cause is deeper, rooted in classism and racism and legions of young people America forgot, left to languish in houses full of lead and overcrowded, angry jails full of young black men who never got a chance. 

It's not about race in the same way Ferguson was about race, and yet race colors everything we say about Freddie Gray and about Baltimore.

-

Blogger and author Jen Hatmaker became one of the first prominent white Christian voices to speak up about Freddie Gray. In the Washington Post headline she identified as "a white mom of two black children." She took a brave stand to pledge her support and alliance to the cause of racial justice.

Unlike Hatmaker, I will never have to have "the talk" with my pale-skinned, redheaded son. I am a Lutheran pastor of a predominately white congregation on Chicago's North Shore. What have I to say? My son benefits from the same system that led to Freddie Gray's death.

But as a white mom of a white son in the white suburbs — as a woman who would dare to call myself a disciple of Jesus — I am compelled to speak by the same Bible that resists calling for peace where there is no peace. I am compelled to speak by the same Jesus who said He came so that the oppressed may go free, the captives may be released, and good news might come to the poor.

As long as the struggle for racial justice is only a black and brown struggle, it will be incomplete. 

My struggle is not that of the African-American mother, struggling to save her son from being unjustly accused, imprisoned, or maybe even killed.

But as a follower of Jesus, I must struggle with her. I must lift my voice and say that what is happening in Sandtown-Winchester — what happened to Freddie Gray — what happened to Eric Garner — what happened to Michael Brown — what happens to young black men across the United States each and every day is not right. It is not just. It is not constitutional. It is not what Jesus would have done.

We have been comfortable out here in the suburbs, isolated and at peace, for far too long. We must become uncomfortable, as our brothers and sisters of color have been, for far too long.

May we become bothered and begin to pray, not for peace but for justice — not when riots begin and property is damaged, but every time a young black man dies.

Rev. Angela Denker is a former sportswriter turned Lutheran pastor in Chicago. Denker covered the 2009 Super Bowl and was published in 2007 in Sports Illustrated. She blogs at Overwhelming Jesus.

Don't Miss a Story!

Get Sojourners delivered straight to your inbox.

Have Something to Say?

Add or Read Comments on
"Saying 'Peace, Peace,' When There Is No Peace"
Launch Comments
By commenting here, I agree to abide by the Sojourners Comment Community Covenant guidelines and acknowledge that my comment may be published in the Letters to the Editor section of Sojourners magazine.

Must Reads

Subscribe