Over the years, I have met some types of people who, strangely in my opinion, have believed that anger is unbecoming for a Christian. Most people understand that there is a place for anger in our lives, although it needs to be tempered with judgment and compassion. The bigger question is what role anger plays and how we use it for positive purposes. Clearly, anger can be poisonous if unchanneled or misdirected. At the same time, suppressed anger can lead to sadness and even depression when we fail to give ourselves an outlet for legitimate reactions to injustice, or indifference, or even just incompetence in situations where competence truly matters.
It may be clear by now that I am not leading into one of my nicer, happier blog posts. I have not written much lately because I have been very busy both professionally and personally, the latter attested by my previous blog post about our home kitchen renovation, an undertaking that requires some patience amid necessary temporary disorganization. While I have been absorbed in such matters, a number of unpleasant events have unfolded on the world and local scene that have me very concerned about our moral fiber and angry about the tone of much of the public dialogue on those events. Let me start with the world scene before I focus back on Chicago.
By now, anyone unaware of the terrorist attacks in Paris on November 13 could fairly be assumed to have been sleeping under a rock. The attackers, allied with Islamic State, killed 130 people and wounded many more, indiscriminately shooting at a variety of public places including a concert hall and restaurants. It was indisputably a despicable act, one that cries out for authorities to carry out justice, and certainly raises questions about security in many of our public spaces and how we can better protect people from those who clearly lack a conscience about murdering innocent and unarmed people. It is entirely proper to react to such circumstances with a mixture of anger and sadness, no matter what justifications the attackers claim. It is equally clear to anyone who is not incurably prejudiced that most Muslims want nothing to do with such people, any more than most Christians would agree with the tactics of the shooter who killed three people at a Planned Parenthood clinic in Colorado Springs.
In fact, to escape just such brutal butchery, thousands upon thousands of ordinary Syrians of all faiths have been fleeing their homeland in recent months. Any thinking person must realize that it takes a great deal of both fear and courage for any person or family to flee their homeland to find a better life elsewhere. Most people are deeply averse to abandoning their native land. During World War II, millions of Jews, Gypsies, homosexuals, and other targets of the Third Reich perished not only because of the barriers to emigration erected by democratic nations including the United States, but because they were in many cases deeply reluctant until it was too late to believe that matters would become dire enough to require them to do so. There is far more push than pull for those who risk all to become refugees.
So how do numerous American politicians, including those in Congress and presidential candidates, react? We get calls to bar or severely restrict Syrian refugees on the grounds that we have no way of guaranteeing that just one of them might be a terrorist. There is, of course, no way of disproving a negative. And sincere Christians and patriotic Americans who believe in this country’s highest values must be nearly aghast at hearing someone like Donald Trump appear to suggest a database for American Muslims and the possibility of closing mosques—a concept eerily akin to the Nazi requirement that Jews wear yellow Stars of David. The underlying strategy is to make anyone who voices opposition to such measures suffer the blame when something inevitably goes wrong in a world where we can pretty much count on another terrorist attack somewhere, somehow, some day. Like the Boston Marathon bombings, which involved young men from Kazakhstan, not Syria, who grew up in America but dramatically lost their way, to put it mildly, and whose relatives were despondent over their actions, much like some of the relatives of the Paris attackers. It is not unusual, in fact, for such criminals to be lone wolves, alienated from their own families. In this respect, at least, they have much in common with the home-grown mass shooters who have repeatedly plagued American communities in recent years.
But there is a way of asserting a positive vision driven by compassion and common sense instead of directing fear and anger at people who are seeking refuge from the very terrorists and hypocritical bullies who engineered the attacks in Paris. And it is deeply rooted in both Christian and Jewish teaching. Let us start with the Old Testament passages concerning Jewish approaches to the topic:
Deuteronomy 10: 19 You shall love the stranger, for you were once strangers in the land of Egypt.
Leviticus 19:34 The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God.
You might not know, from recent political reactions to Syrian refugees’ pleas for assistance, that the Bible ever offered such advice. Some 26 governors, mostly Republican, have vowed to keep Syrian refugees out of their states, including Gov. Bruce Rauner of Illinois. The U.S. House of Representatives demanded stringent measures before allowing such refugees to enter the country. Admittedly, we want to screen people for questionable backgrounds before admitting them, but many such mechanisms are already in place, and we have not been open to very many Syrian refugees so far. But let us move on to explicitly Christian teachings in the New Testament:
Matthew 25: 35 I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me.
Matt. 25:40 Truly I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of my brethren you did it to me.
To give credit, by the way, I have lifted these passages directly from the website of Cois Tine, an outreach project of the Society for African Missions. Whatever else the critics of Syrian immigration may say, this is clearly a Christian organization based in the Gospel and aware of its message of welcoming the stranger in need. It is just as clearly an organization concerned about social justice on a global scale.
My point here, however, is that there is more than legitimate reason for me to feel serious Christian anger at the sheer ignorance of the reaction to the dire prospect of numerous Syrian refugees desperately fleeing war, barbarism, murder, enslavement, and every other horror being inflicted on Syrian Muslim and Christian alike in a multi-sided conflict in which human compassion has not merely taken a back seat but has been crushed underfoot in the battle for survival. And while we who are privileged to live an ocean away from such conflict cower in fear of widows and orphans, it is Turkey, the nation next door to the conflict, which has just agreed to accept refugees in exchange for financial assistance from Europe. And before any cynic can scoff at the fact that Turkey negotiated financial aid for its generosity, we should note that Turkey has already hosted thousands of such refugees at great expense to itself with only a fraction of the resources available to the U.S. and most of the European community. It would be the height of hypocrisy to criticize Turkey, of all places, for seeking additional resources to handle the job. Few other countries could claim to be as vulnerable to attacks by Islamic State terrorists.
Admittedly, the United States has suffered its share of terrorism. The September 11, 2001, attacks claimed more than 3,000 lives. They also caused us to take airline security far more seriously. But it is also worth noting that, after that tragic episode, numerous people across the nation, including prominent political leaders, had the courage and integrity to object to targeting Muslims for discrimination and abuse. Where are those voices now?
If there is a legitimate basis for Christian anger, it is the righteous anger that should object to mistreating and isolating the stranger who seeks safety on our shores.
By the same token, we should be angry about the violence already occurring on our streets. Disappointingly, some of that violence seems to be emanating from those sworn to protect us. And just as I firmly believe that most American Muslims are peace-loving people who came here to enjoy freedom, so I also still believe that the vast majority of police are sincerely committed to protecting the public from criminal activity and want to uphold the values that their badges represent.
But there are others, and sometimes the code of silence among fellow officers allows them so much latitude to engage in abuses of power that the results become outrageous. Such now appears to be the case in Chicago with the shooting in October 2014 of Laquan McDonald, a young man trying to recover from drugs, with a troubled history that made a solid start for his life problematic, but who did not appear to pose an imminent danger to police when Officer Jason Van Dyke shot him 16 times, killing him. A police video released only after a judge’s order in response to multiple Freedom of Information Act suits by journalists show he was walking away from police when shot. He had a knife he had used to slash the tires of a police car. He was admittedly a troubled young man, but police handle numerous similar situations daily involving the mentally ill and the drug-addicted without killing anyone.
If that were the entire story, the outrage that triggered protests on Black Friday on Chicago’s Magnificent Mile on Michigan Avenue might not have entailed the level of anger that it did. We have learned that two officers immediately after the shooting demanded access to a security video from a camera at the nearby Burger King at 41st St. and Pulaski Avenue. The next morning, the Burger King manager and his employees discovered an 86-minute gap in the video covering the time of the shooting. Other police shooed away eyewitnesses from the scene without collecting names of those who could become material witnesses to a murder. Cameras from other police cars all seemed to be missing the audio that would have revealed police conversations at the time. Later, the city council, at Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s request following an investigation, quietly approved a $5 million settlement for the young man’s family to avoid a messy lawsuit. And no one can explain the video gap and missing audio other than to refer to technical difficulties.
Let’s cut to the chase. The public, including numerous African-American clergy, is angry for a reason.. The city cannot reasonably rely on a “trust us” rationale for these unexplained gaps, some of which potentially constitute evidence tampering and obstruction of justice, both of which are crimes whether committed by officers or civilians. It is time for an independent prosecutor because it will be hard for any of the players, whether aldermen who approved the payout, the mayor, the police chief, or state’s attorney, to be taken seriously without a thorough investigation beyond their control. It just does not pass the smell test. This is truly a test of the integrity of the system, and the famous “Chicago way” is in no way compatible with Christian ethics. It is also true that many honest Chicago police officers fear retribution from fellow officers if they speak up. That said, there is a time for courage and convictions. This is that time.
Many people have fairly also raised the question of the reluctance in the black community to speak up, or “snitch,” about gang activity that has resulted in far more deaths than have resulted from police misbehavior. This is a legitimate issue that affects much more than black Chicago. It affects civic morale citywide. When witnesses to crimes refuse to cooperate with the police, the gangs win, hands down. The police cannot properly prepare a case against gang criminals when witnesses refuse to help. This reluctance seems to have two key sources: first, a legitimate fear of gang retribution as a result of speaking up. These people have to live in these neighborhoods and are often unprotected, even by police. Second, however, the very reputation for abuse of power that the Chicago Police Department creates with such fiascoes as the Laquan McDonald case only serve to contribute further to the mistrust that many people feel toward the police. Being caught between gangs and corrupt police is truly a formula for creating a cynical public. We have a long way to go in this city in restoring the sort of trust that will let us overcome the plagues of violence that afflict us.
So where does that leave the question of Christian anger that I raised at the outset? We have to help channel that legitimate righteous anger at social and official injustice into a productive passion for justice that forces solutions and makes clear what a truly compassionate, caring society looks like. Martin Luther King, Jr., helped show us the way. So did Mohandas Gandhi and Nelson Mandela. We have seen significant moral leadership before, and we can all help provide it if we muster our courage and root our moral beliefs in hope and compassion rather than fear and prejudice. I know we can do it, and I have said my piece.
Call me the angry Christian. I am proud to be angry when it matters.