Thursday, December 24, 2015

Christmas 2015

Dear friends,
It’s about 70 degrees and raining out this morning, but the lights on the Christmas tree and the presents around its base insist that it is late December, so “merry Christmas!”
We still live in metro DC, but it feels more the way I imagine Miami does just now, so perhaps we’ll go in search of some Caribbean Christmas music, and let In the Bleak Midwinter rest for another season.
It does seem just now that the climate has changed more in the past year than we have. Life continues to be rich with the ordinary and filled with the day-to-day of school, work, and all of the little things that make up our time circling the sun.
The kids are all third-years in their respective academic endeavors: Hannah in high school, Martin as an undergrad at VCU, Bud doing doctoral work at UC Santa Cruz. It’s crazy to consider that in less than two years we will truly be empty-nesters, but, as the song says, “time like an ever-rolling stream soon bears us all away.”
Too morbid for Christmas? I hope not, because the old hymn does not fill me with any dread, but, instead, reminds me that we are all given this time and while time may well roll on forever, we will not. So, the question for us always is, what will you do with the time you’ve been given?
Here’s a bit of what we did with the gift of the last year.
Hannah grabbed hold of high school and embraced the challenge of three sports and more AP classes than I, not being an AP math student, can count. She continues to excel academically and compete on the track, in the pool, and on the cross-country course with some interesting mix of stoicism and laughter. She enjoys the exercise almost as much as she enjoys complaining about it, but she rarely misses a practice and gets positively jumpy when she hits the down time of late spring. The new year will bring a new urgency to her college considerations. She’s visited UVA and VCU, and we’ll add Stanford to the list when we go out to visit her big brother in the spring. There will be others, too, I’m sure. When not in school, you could usually find the girl curled up with a book, watching the Nationals disappoint us local baseball fans, or working at Camp Hanover.
Modern chess.
Delanie, Martin, Bud,
Hannah, and cousin Willamae
playing games at Thanksgiving 
Martin, meanwhile, spent most of 2015 in and around Richmond. He was only home for short spells, and is loving most aspects of life in RVA. School is, well, school, and it is, as it always has been for Martin, a necessary task but not necessarily a source of deep joy. He is studying social work, and has tremendous gifts for the compassionate work that lies ahead. Meanwhile, Martin’s deep joys come from his friendship circle, including his long-time girlfriend, Delanie, his housemate, Ford, his roommate from Mary Wash, Thomas, and a list of folks from camp and school, as well. We’re happy to know most of these young adults, and find our own deep joy in the kinds of people drawn into relationships with our kids. If you’re in Richmond, chances are you can find Martin either hanging out with friends, banjo in hand, or out on one of the local disc golf courses hating the game he loves to play.
Martin launching a disc
off the top of the world.
Bud, meanwhile, is getting into the Christmas spirit by teaching his sister binary arithmetic – for fun. That kind of sums them both up – she’s a math geek, and he’s a born teacher. He’s also a remarkably smart young man who finds his own deep joy in the complex intellectual challenges that he confronts in his computer science studies of games and playable media. He’s in his third year of life in California, and still mostly loving it. The one major drawback, of course, is distance from those he loves, including Monica, his girlfriend of almost six years. He has done a fair amount of writing, some publishing, and several academic conference paper presentations in the past year. If you Google him (well, first, that would be weird…) you’ll probably find some of his platform studies work, and chances are you won’t understand it any better than you would my dissertation in post modern philosophy. Nuts … trees, you know. 
Golfer. Disc. Basket.
Bud shooting from a
difficult lie.
When he’s not nose to the digital grindstone, you can probably find Bud on a disc golf course or out coaching the Slugs ultimate Frisbee team. His ultimate passion did cost him a fairly serious knee injury last year, and that has kept him confined to the sidelines since last spring.
selfie with guitar
The boys have infected their father with their love of discs, and, as a result, if you’re looking for David some place other than church, there’s a good chance you’ll find him on a disc golf course, as well. Throwing plastic had to replace running as the exercise of choice when foot and leg injuries curtailed running in mid-summer. I hope to be back at running early in 2016, but middle age brings challenges that they don’t tell you about when you’re 20! It also brings perspective, and with that a keen appreciation for the gift of good work. The year in the life of the wee kirk saw major change as we renovated a 75-year-old worship space to create a space more amendable to creative liturgy and broader community use. If you’re looking for an intimate space to make music, hit us up.

A 2015 highlight: showing
Crooked at the Floyd
Country Store in January.
Cheryl’s work at the big library on the hill continues to feed her, and, thanks to the powers that be, it feeds the rest of us, as well. She still loves going to work, enjoys her colleagues (most days), and finds challenge and fulfillment in working with educators who use the library’s incredible on-line resources. If you’ve never visited the website, you should take a minute and treat yourself. If you’ve never visited the library in person, you should take a day or two and treat yourself. Cheryl gives a great tour, and is always happy to welcome visitors to what we both think of as the most beautiful public space in DC. When not at the library, Cheryl can be found knitting, baking, reading, or enjoying the regular stream of folks who find their way to our little house in S. Arlington.
We got away from home a few times during the year, heading out the Santa Cruz to visit Bud and the beach last spring, and making short trips to visit the grandmas in Chattanooga and NE Ohio at various times over the summer. But for the most part we were happy to stay home and welcome others.
Some years ago, on one of our beach vacations, the kids noticed that so many of the beach houses have ridiculous and pretentious names. They decided our humble abode needed one, too, so we christened it The Randolph. Our motto: Welcome to The Randolph – enjoy fine dining in an atmosphere of casual chaos! Come and see!

Hospitality is the heart of faithful living. When we welcome strangers to the table we take our leave as sojourners on the way. When we sit down together at table to break bread we build, repair, and sustain the relationships that make life worth living. In a world that dwells these days in so much darkness, when we create welcoming tables we light a candle whose flickering flame may seem small and insignificant. But, as my friend David LaMotte suggested in a song, the light of just one candle defeats all the darkness in the world.
Holding you all in the light through these holy days.
the Lederle-Ensign household

Monday, December 14, 2015

Mondays with Martin: Kairos Time

One day last week on Facebook a friend tagged me in a post recalling something I said about kairos time in a sermon more than a decade ago. It wasn't so much the content (which he certainly didn't recall) but, rather, the concept of moments in the roiling stream of chronos when the future hangs in the balance.
In the New Testament, kairos is the Greek behind "the fullness of time," and it is used to name the moments when God's purposes in the world are fulfilled.
There's a quote on the wall of the MLK memorial that names the stakes:
"The measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience but where he stands in times of challenge and controversy." In other words, we measure ourselves by where we stand in kairos moments.
We are living in just such a time, and we stand to be measured with great scrutiny by those who come after us. If you are paying attention, these are not days of comfort and convenience. That's true even if you're not paying attention.
Willful ignorance is possible, but blissful ignorance is not. Ignorance will not bring comfort when it comes to climate change, to gun violence, to terrorism, to racism, or to so many other challenges that we face. You may choose to live in ignorance and denial, but when the sea levels rise your Miami Beach mansion will still be under water. You may choose to live in ignorance and denial, but you can be victimized by random gun violence at the movies, or the all, or the middle of the street in the middle of the afternoon. You may choose to live in ignorance and denial, but if you travel by air you know that you cannot choose comfort and convenience in the age of terror.
If we choose to live in ignorance and denial we choose the mark by which we will be measured, and we will fall far short of it. Comfort and convenience are no longer on the table. We live in a time of challenge and controversy.  If we choose thoughtful engagement we do not guarantee the outcomes that we desire, but thoughtful engagement with the challenges of the present time is the only way we can possible achieve such outcomes.
If we want a future in which we are no longer threatening death to the only planet that we know of that supports life, we must thoughtfully engage the challenge of climate change, and we must move rapidly away from our reliance on fossil fuels. This much is clear.
If we want a future in which we are no longer threatened by random gun violence, we must thoughtfully engage the issue, and we must pass laws that regulate the gun market and eliminate easy individual consumer access to weapons designed for warfare.
If we want a future in which we are no longer subject to significant threats from terrorists, we must thoughtfully engage global diplomacy and economics, and recognize that the strategy we have pursued for the past 15 years has increased both the number and influence of terrorists.
If we want a future in which we are not riven by racism we must thoughtfully engage our own history.
Where we stand in the present moment will be how we are measured by future generations -- if there are future generations to measure us.

Monday, December 07, 2015

Mondays with Martin: The Stones Themselves Will Shout

Visitors to the MLK Memorial frequently ask why the relief was sculpted by a Chinese artist. The artist, Lie Yixin, is a master sculptor whose work is featured in more than 100 monuments in his native land, but his selection for the King memorial remains controversial.
His signature block is, to me, one of the small treasurers within the MLK Memorial. I find it particularly beautiful, and point it out to visitors whenever I can.
When I'm asked why the figure of King was sculpted by a Chinese artist I'll sometimes direct visitors to this quotation carved into the granite just behind the figure of Dr. King: "If we are to have peace on earth, our loyalties must become ecumenical. Rather than sectional out loyalties must transcend our race, our tribe, our class, and our nation, and this means we must develop a world perspective."
Ecumenical is one of those wonderful words whose Greek roots suggest relationships lost in translation. We tend to use the word these days, if we use it at all, to refer to multiple churches of various Christian denominations or, more loosely, to mean inclusive. Its Greek root, oikoumenikos, can be translated as from the whole world, which gets more closely to what King was suggesting, but it still misses my favorite connection.
If you pull the Greek apart just a bit further you eventually get down to oikos, or house. Oikos is the root of economy, which means literally the rule or order of the house. Thus to be ecumenical is to be concerned with every house, to include every household in one's circle of care and compassion.
We don't hear much about ecumenism these days, and I certainly don't see much of ecumenical concern in the news of the day. Indeed, just the other day, Jerry Falwell, Jr., president of Liberty University, told students that they should arm themselves in order to "end those Muslims before they walked in."
The cheers of the students drowned out the rest of his sentence leaving me to wonder where "those Muslims" were walking in. Into houses? Into houses of worship? Into places that house businesses? Into the broad American economy? Into any place in the wider world?
If we are to have peace, we have to think beyond the narrow confines of our own households, the narrow confines of those who look like us, think like us, worship like us.
At the memorial the stone that the figure of Dr. King is carved into comes from China. The stone that his words are carved in comes from Canada. The stone that forms that broad walkway through the memorial comes from the United States. If we are silent about the urgent necessity of developing a global perspective, the stones themselves will shout out loud.

Monday, November 30, 2015

Mondays with Martin

After a string of beautiful Mondays, this one dawned cold, grey, and damp. That seems about right for the end of November in these parts, and it is a good way to begin Advent: waiting for the light to come.
I pay more attention to Mondays now that I am volunteering at the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial most every Monday. Since the humidity broke in early September, we've had one remarkably gorgeous Monday after another. I'd gotten so spoiled by them that I stopped taking pictures at the memorial if there was the faintest hint of haze or a single cloud in the sky, and still my phone is full of pictures taken on stunningly beautiful and crystal clear Monday mornings.
So as I strolled around the plaza this morning, enjoying the solitude that comes even to busy National Parks on days such as this one, I did so appreciating a different beauty.
I've been humming this David LaMotte song lately. Its refrain strikes me as perfect for Advent: "all the darkness in the world can't extinguish the light of just one candle." I was humming it as I paused in front of these words from Dr. King: "Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that."
It's not just the shortness of the days that makes this time seem dark. Wars and rumors of war dominate the news, which is interrupted regularly by spasms of violence of a more domestic sort. Too many of our aspiring national leaders truck far too often in lies and propaganda. Signs of hope are difficult to discern amidst the darkness.
All of that was running through my mind as I read again King's words, and pondered how one carves a stone of hope out of a mountain of despair. Just about then a lovely young African American woman, with her baby in a snuggly on her chest, stopped to take a picture of a middle-aged white couple posing in front of the 28-foot tall relief of Dr. King. I walked over to greet them and offer brochures, and asked, as I always do, "where are y'all from?" Turns out the young woman lives in DC, and the couple are her in-laws visiting from Michigan for Thanksgiving.
We chatted for a while, and I shared some basics about the memorial's history and design. As the young mom and her mother-in-law wandered off toward the FDR Memorial, the father-in-law paused to thank me, saying, "I really appreciate your passion for this place."
I thanked him for the kind words, and I silently thanked their family for embodying a sign of hope for me. Dr. King gazes out from the granite relief with a pretty stern and serious visage, but I think there's a twinkle in his eyes sometimes, even in the gloom and grey, when he sees people striding toward freedom.

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Well, Bless His Heart

I’m happy for Tony Campolo. Really. I am. I just don’t get the fuss over his finally coming around, coming out, coming over, or whatever other phrase you choose to describe his declaration of support for the acceptance of gays and lesbians in the life of the church.
In a statement released this week, Campolo wrote, “It has taken countless hours of prayer, study, conversation and emotional turmoil to bring me to the place where I am finally ready to call for the full acceptance of Christian gay couples into the church.
When I read that, there was big (ol’ southern) part of me that just wanted to say, “well bless his heart.”

I don’t doubt the sincerity of Campolo’s current conclusions nor of his struggle. Though we’ve met once, I do not know him personally and I’m certain he has no recollection at all our meeting. Seven or eight years ago, I provided transportation at some event where he was a speaker. I wound up driving him and his wife, Peggy, from their hotel to the venue. He was charming, as was she. I have no memory of the content of any conversation. It was probably traffic or weather. That’s what we talk about in DC when we don’t know what else to talk about.
I’m certain that I did not press him on his views on GLBTQ concerns even though I could have. It’s not like everything that he needed to study wasn’t already widely available at that point, and it certainly wasn’t like there hadn’t been countless years of prayers from marginalized sexual minorities around the world suffering oppression and outright persecution.
Christians who take scripture seriously know that God hears the cries of the oppressed. That’s what God does. The cries of the oppressed penetrate the heart of the Divine. Alas, God’s servants, as faithful as they may be, often do not hear those same cries because we tend to be deafened by our privilege. That same privilege often blinds us to others around us, and deaf and blind we stumble through life trying to stay safely within the protective bubble of our own privilege.
Campolo writes about his hours of prayer, study, conversation and turmoil. I suspect the conversation and turmoil are deeply entwined, and probably central to his change of heart for they are marks of relationship. In my experience, nothing bursts the protective bubble of privilege more effectively than authentic relationships with people who do not share the same privilege. My bubble gets burst like that all the time. Campolo goes on in his statement to describe both the importance of his own marriage and of the relationships that he and his wife have with same-sex couples. He writes,
Our friendships with these couples have helped me understand how important it is for the exclusion and disapproval of their unions by the Christian community to end. We in the Church should actively support such families. Furthermore, we should be doing all we can to reach, comfort and include all those precious children of God who have been wrongly led to believe that they are mistakes or just not good enough for God, simply because they are not straight.
Amen to all that.
At the same time, though, there is that part of me that just doesn’t get the fuss being made about the turmoil that some evangelical leaders are in now that marriage equality appears poised to become the law of the land. Why all the public hand-wringing about their struggles in 2015, when so little attention was paid when the first brave Mainline Protestant leaders began working for the full inclusion of GLBTQ folks in church and society back when I was a teenager? That was news.
My own beloved tells me that I’m the big brother in the prodigal son story here – the one who stayed faithfully at home and resents the party being thrown for the son who went walkabout. She’s probably right. She usually is.
But I still don’t understand the attention that gets paid to evangelicals who finally catch up to where their Mainline sisters and brothers have been for so long. I don’t understand the attention paid to Tony Campolo right now. I didn’t understand it when Rob Bell declared that he no longer believed in a literal hell. I didn’t understand it when Rachel Held Evans declared her acceptance of evolution.
These positions are nothing new under the theological sun, so I don’t understand why they are news.
It’s not that I want a pat on the back for learning about hell as an important myth from a Presbyterian Sunday School teacher in the early 1970s, nor special commendation for embracing Darwin’s worldview as a teenager. It’s not that I want a party to celebrate my support for marriage equality – support, by the way, that cost me a job years before I chauffeured Tony and his wife around DC.
To the contrary, I’ve been blessed by the education my Presbyterian family encouraged, and I’ve been all the more blessed to be in a rainbow party for many years now. I treasure the relationships that are the bearers of that blessing. The education led me to seek relationships with people who do not share my privilege as a straight, white, Protestant, married, middle-class, educated, American man.
I still don’t have nearly enough bubble bursting relationships, and I have lots of bubbles that still need bursting. Such bubble bursting comes as a great blessing, and maybe that the news.
So, I reckon I’ll pass the blessing along, and when Tony declares his support for same-sex marriage, and Rob leaves behind a literalist understanding of scripture, and Rachel pushes for women’s ordination in evangelical circles, I’ll just say, “why bless their hearts.” And I’ll mean it. Blessings on these fellow travelers, sojourners seeking broken truth one broken-open and thus blessed heart at a time.

Sunday, May 03, 2015

May 4, 1970. Of Sacred Memories and Histories.

As many years have passed since I stood vigil at 3:00 a.m. May 4, 1980, on the spot where Jeffrey Miller was murdered by National Guardsmen 10 years previous, as had passed in 1980 since the end of World War II. For my 20-year-old self, Hiroshima, Auschwitz, D-Day were ancient history, but for my 55-year-old self the days at Kent State were just before yesterday.
It makes sense, of course. We remember the history that we live with far more clarity and urgency than the history our parents lived, and anything older than that is lost to dusty textbooks and web sites we’ll never visit. Vietnam, Martin Luther King, Jr., Watergate – the history that shaped my childhood and formed the lens through which I view the world mean no more to my young adult children than D-Day did to me.
Of course, what I experienced at Kent firsthand was the memorialization of the history of an event that had taken place a decade earlier – May 4, 1970. Thus, what I learned was not so much the history, but the history of history. That is to say, what I experienced at Kent during my time there, was the struggle over how we choose to remember.
The first time I set foot on the campus, in the late winter of 1978, much of the site of the 1970 shootings was behind chain-link fencing. The school had decided in the mid-1970s, against significant opposition and active protest, to build a gym and student-activities center that would cover much of an expanse of grass that had been the site of protesters encountering the National Guard in the moments before the guardsmen opened fire, killing four students and wounding 13 others.
I had a lot of fun playing basketball on the courts and swimming in the pool during my student days, yet I never walked past the building without thinking about what had happened there to kids who had been my own age. I don’t think I was particularly unusual among the student body around 1980, and given that many of our professors had been on the faculty in 1970, the shootings were a living memory for the campus community.
It is literally impossible today to see how the confrontation unfolded because there’s a sprawling gym complex there, and given that it’s ancient history to the 20-year-olds who pass it on their way to class, I’d be willing to bet that few of them ever give much thought to what happened there way before their time.
On the other hand, the university seems to do a much better job of sharing its own story now than it did when I was a student. Throughout my time on campus, the prevailing attitude from the university administration was best summed up as, “we’re trying to move on,” which always sounded like, “we’d just as soon forget the whole thing, and we’d certainly prefer that everyone else forget it, too.”
Yet beginning almost immediately after the shootings, KSU students led the struggle to remember the shootings. The May 4 Task Force, a student group founded in 1975 by shooting survivors, has spent four decades engaging succeeding generations of students and working to ensure that the truth about the shootings is uncovered as fully as possible and remembered as accurately as possible.
If you click on the KSU web site today, you’ll find a home page photograph of an official state historical marker that stands adjacent to the parking lot where the slain students were standing – or crouching behind parked cars or walking past on the way to class – when the machine guns opened fire on them. The marker is part of a far more significant public memorial effort than most of us imagined possible in the late 70s and early 80s.
After all, President Nixon had reduced the need for remembering when he declared, on the day of the shootings, that “when dissent turns to violence it invites tragedy.”  In other words, “move along folks there’s nothing to see here because these kids brought this on themselves.”
For me, the lesson of Kent was always strikingly simple and obvious: if you strike at the empire hard enough the empire strikes back, and their guns are always loaded.
I acknowledge freely that my takeaway is a minority view, and there are probably other lessons to learn from the history about the mistakes governments can make and the activist role that students can take in pushing to correct those errors.
The lesson that lies behind all of that, though, is sure this: the history of history is itself a struggle worth engaging. So as May 4 rolls around once more, I am thinking tonight of the young man or woman who will be standing alone at 3:00 a.m. with a lantern in a space marked off on the asphalt where 45 years ago a college student was murdered by a government run amuck.

Whatever the so-called lessons of May 4 may be, the lives of Allison Krause, Jeffrey Miller, Sandra Scheuer, and William Schroeder should be remembered, and what was done to them on a spring day in Ohio should never be forgotten.

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

A Crazy Week … and It’s Only Tuesday

Like so many others, I’m trying to sort out and understand the ongoing events in Baltimore. That’s our neighboring presbytery, and many friends and colleagues work in the areas torn apart by the strife and struggle.
I wish I had some profound wisdom to offer that would make a difference, but my thoughts are just about as profound and organized as a Facebook feed. Indeed, from that confused feed I pull down these random thoughts and observations:
A colleague in California who observes:
When Hungarians took to the streets in 1956, with fire and violence, it was called a "revolution" and hailed in Western news sources. When African Americans take to the streets, with fire and violence, it's called a "riot."
A local colleague who notes:
Have been reflecting on how many people I know who have spent their daily lives for years working in different ways to affirm that Baltimore's#BlackLivesMatter, and how much those people inspired me growing up to become an activist.
A colleague in Baltimore wrote:
The African-American activist and public intellectual, Cornel West, says that “justice is what love looks like in public.” For me last week, putting love into action looked like joining in a nonviolent march for justice for Freddie Gray. We were black and white, young and old, Christians, Jews, and Muslims – all marching together.
Another colleague in Baltimore posted:
Violence is what happens when grief has nowhere else to go and black Baltimore is tired of grieving its young men.
My own status today reads:
Trying to understand violence is not the same thing as justifying it.
I was born in 1959, in Jim Crow Alabama. My parents moved the family from Tuscaloosa in the midst of the long and sometimes violent effort to desegregate the University of Alabama in part to get away from the violence. I remember the long hot summers of the mid-1960s and the fires in the streets following King’s assassination in 1968. I didn’t understand, of course, because I was a child. I remember the fires in the streets following the Rodney King verdict in 1992. I’m not sure I understood much then, either, and I don’t pretend to any great understanding at this point.
I do think that pointing at the violence of looters and asking “why?” is asking the wrong question of the wrong people. For one thing, there’s a great deal of social science and even brain research into mob behavior that explains some of what we see: the anonymity and collective responsibility of crowds – “everybody was doing it” – are well-understood aspects of crowd behavior.
As reported by MIT News last year, the journal Nueroimage published an article in which researchers noted that "A group of people will often engage in actions that are contrary to the private moral standards of each individual in that group, sweeping otherwise decent individuals into 'mobs' that commit looting, vandalism, even physical brutality." This is especially apparent in emotionally charged situations.
The research showed changes in brain activity that help explain what social-scientists call “deindividuation” experienced in mob behavior.
In other words, if you ask people who participate in looting why they did it they’ll probably point to the same sorts of personal responses in the midst of the experience that eventually rest on some combination of the observations of social scientists: everybody was doing it; I got swept up in the crowd.
In a society that so richly values the right of the people to assemble, these observations are not a lot of help. After all, it does great violence to our most cherished values to say, “don’t assemble,” even though we know – scientifically as well as intuitively – that assembled crowds may not behave in ways that we like or approve or even in ways that the individuals who comprise the assembled crowd approve.
I write this at the very moment when a lot of other friends and colleagues are, in fact, assembling (and also posting about it on Facebook) in front of the United States Supreme Court as the court hears arguments on the same-sex marriage case before it. I didn’t go down to the court this time (largely because I had a really “on” weekend, and I desperately needed some introvert time today) but I’ve been part of the mob scene on the occasions of other marriage equality hearings and decisions, as well as countless other marches and demonstrations.
A few commentators have noted the contrast between the peaceful gathering in front of the court today and the instances of violence just a few miles up the road in Baltimore.
Such observations are strikingly ahistorical. After all, the modern GLBT rights movement began with the Stonewall riots in 1969.
The difference today is that GLBT people have a voice and the political, economic, and cultural power to amplify that voice all the way to the Supreme Court. Thanks be to God, the voices of those long silenced are now being heard in the halls of power.
As Martin Luther King, Jr., observed in 1968 about disturbances in American cities over the previous several summers, “a riot is the language of the unheard.” King said,
I would be the first to say that I am still committed to militant, powerful, massive, non-violence as the most potent weapon in grappling with the problem from a direct action point of view. I’m absolutely convinced that a riot merely intensifies the fears of the white community while relieving the guilt. And I feel that we must always work with an effective, powerful weapon and method that brings about tangible results. But 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.
In Baltimore in 2015 the conditions are as clear and obvious as the flames:
  •  As reported last fall by the Baltimore Sun, “Over the past four years, more than 100 people have won [a total of $5.7 million in] court judgments or settlements related to allegations of brutality and civil rights violations. Victims include a 15-year-old boy riding a dirt bike, a 26-year-old pregnant accountant who had witnessed a beating, a 50-year-old woman selling church raffle tickets, a 65-year-old church deacon rolling a cigarette and an 87-year-old grandmother aiding her wounded grandson.”
  •  According to the ACLU, from 2010 to 2014, 31 people died following encounters with the Baltimore police.

This violence at the hands of those charged with keeping the peace continues to be an ongoing fact of life in a community that has also suffered greatly from economic conditions over which they have no control caused by economic policies and practices in which they have no voice. These are the “contingent, intolerable conditions” that must be the acknowledged context for any conversation about what is happening this week in the streets of Baltimore.
What does the church have to offer to any of this? Following King, we can and we must witness to the power of nonviolence. However, the witness to nonviolence loses all its moral authority when it becomes a too easily employed scolding judgment on the desperate actions of victims of such systems and structures. As King so clearly understood, that witness must come in practices of solidarity with the oppressed and in acts of disruption targeted carefully at systems and structures of injustice. In other words, the witness to nonviolence cannot be confined to lofty observations from the safety of pulpits (or blogs or Facebook), it must be incarnate in the street.

For the God of the oppressed is already in the streets.