3 May 2015
“When [Paul] arrived in Jerusalem, he tried to join the disciples, but they were all afraid of him, not believing that he was a disciple.” (Acts 9:26) In the name …
In case you’re not familiar with this entire story, Paul is chosen by the resurrected Jesus of heaven to be one of His apostles, and Paul comes to accept this responsibility with gusto. I think I have mentioned it before, but there was a list composed of the most influential people in world history. Paul actually came out on the list above Jesus. The logic was that Jesus is the reason for Christianity, the world’s most numerous religion, but Paul is the one who spread it most successfully and laid the groundwork for it to become a world religion. But before Paul embraced Christianity, he was one of her most ardent opponents. The earliest Christians were terrified of him and his religions pogroms. This is why when Paul returns to Jerusalem and he seeks out the community of the earliest Christians no one will accept him. He wants to be a part of the church, but the church, which at that time is only people and not buildings, evaporates every time he makes the attempt to join them. They’re terrified of Paul. His past is defining his present. What he once did is preventing him from becoming what Jesus said he was supposed to become.
That understandable but unnecessary fear of the man almost prevented Jesus’ most successful missionary from ever visiting one town, preaching one sermon or making one convert. The church would have become a radically different entity if fear had its way 2,000 years ago. I thought about that when I watched the riots in Baltimore. There is a fear and an estrangement in poor communities of colour that is clearly exemplified in their relations with their own police departments, and those police departments are fearful of what they can expect in certain areas of their own cities. I heard an interview with the Police Chief of Springfield this past week. He said the same tensions exist just 30 miles from here and that they could be set off just like they were in Baltimore or New York City or Ferguson.
Persistent poverty can create a breeding ground for so much destruction. When people feel that their lives are wasted, they have noting to lose. In the newspaper there was a picture of the marchers in Baltimore, one of the placards I saw read: “Racism is the disease. Revolution is the cure.” When enough people feel disenfranchised, when enough people feel locked out of opportunity, when enough people are surrounded by constant violence, the possibility of not only riots but revolution becomes real. On one of the news-networks I heard the comment that there is greater economic opportunity in Nigeria for a black man than there is in certain parts of Baltimore. The President of the Baltimore City Council said that gang leaders are more respected in their communities than politicians. If the ballot doesn’t work to change things, people will look elsewhere, and that becomes extremely dangerous for everyone.
In 1968 after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr, the peaceful protests of this Christian minister disappeared and riots broke out all across America. The social and economic justice that he sought peacefully did not materialize and after he died in Memphis, Tennessee struggling to gain fair pay for black sanitation workers who were paid less than their white counterparts, all heck broke loose across this great nation of ours. Today the economic disparity between the rich and the poor is as great or even greater than it was then or at any time in our nation’s history. A not-insignificant portion of our population may be locked into poverty generation after generation, and they see the rich getting richer and richer. And the separation that is caused by race, economics or even politics can lead to a fear of those who are different, and to an often unnecessary and imagined fear of those who are different.
There are obviously thugs among the protestors. They use any opportunity for illicit self-gain. There are also obviously racist police officers who target people of colour. In both cases they are a small number of everyone involved, but separation and fear can make the few seem like everyone. I have a great deal of respect for those men and women who venture into the most dangerous of situations, often times while crimes are right then being committed, where guns are common and where drugs erase commonsense, but I also respect the frustration of too many people locked out of the American dream. You can’t keep people in under-funded and poorly equipped schools so that they can’t learn the skills or acquire the knowledge needed to find a good job, where their communities surround them with constant and common lawlessness so that they never know any other model, and then expect only the police to solve the problem. And you can’t expect that no suspects will be injured or worse when the police have to take a possibly dangerous person into custody.
Fear and separation exasperate these unpleasant truths because one group doesn’t trust the other. However, remember Paul. He was excluded because of what he once was. It didn’t matter who he had become. And thank God for Barnabas. He was the one brave enough to reach out to Paul. He took the chance and reached across the divide. He wouldn’t allow past transgressions to forever keep them separated. He hoped for a changed and better future. Martin Luther King addressed Stanford University with these words in April 1967, nearly 50 years ago: “Riots do not develop out of thin air. Certain conditions continue to exist in our society which must be condemned as vigorously as we condemn riots.” Separation and its associated violence and destruction have lasted for too long. We need more people like Barnabas, people willing to take the chance and bridge our divides. Paul was an amazing gift to the church and he changed the world, and that was only possible because of Barnabas. May we pray for those today who will be like Barnabas, who will help mend what has torn us apart and who will hopefully bring us back together. May we pray for that amazing gift of unity, not uniformity but unity, and may our modern Barnabases help change our world for the better. In Jesus’ name we pray. Amen. (+)
Fr. Randolph Calvo