Sometimes a Riot is an Act of God—
May 30, 2020 – David R. Weiss
and sometimes not. And these riots are BOTH—which makes them extraordinarily dangerous.
[NOTE: I am writing and posting this on the fly. I have been reading about fringe groups for some time (months!) now as an offshoot of my concern over the social chaos likely to ensue during as the climate crisis worsens … and as part of my writing on the pandemic and the role these groups have played at the edges of the “Open the Economy” protests … and as part of my work for racial justice. I am far from an expert, but unless you have devoted yourself to this topic, PLEASE trust me on this. These groups are NOT-NOT-NOT to be taken lightly. I may come back later and add in links to supporting articles, but for now I am just pushing this out the door as fast as I can.]
First, because we need to be very clear about this for the sake of long-term racial justice, these riots ARE an act of God: they are an instance of holy rage. And if we fail to perceive that, we are doomed to ever realize Martin Luther King’s (and God’s!) Beloved Community. There is no path to that community that does not run through Holy Rage. That is NOT the whole of what’s happening’s here, but we cannot miss this piece.
I’ve heard and seen many people criticizing the riots for causing such harm to innocent businesses. True, some businesses are hardly innocent, but there have been many black-owned, immigrant-owned, and other genuinely community-oriented business that have been harmed, even destroyed by these riots. How can that be the result of HOLY rage?!
Here’s what I mean. If a tornado tore through a couple block area of Lake Street or University, it would also take out a swath of businesses—some of which we might think were deserving of such “judgment,” while others would be tragic losses. And yet, we would still colloquially call that tornado “an act of God.” We don’t mean that these things are truly the acts of a capricious or vengeful God. The language may be archaic, but the phrase retains still today legal status for natural hazards that fall outside human control.
Moreover, today we could explain (and to an extent predict) the weather conditions—air pressure, temperature, wind, moisture, etc.—that produce tornadoes, but that doesn’t mean that they become manageable. They still wreak havoc when they erupt. And do so indiscriminately.
Now, consider—from a faith perspective, or even a humanistic one: human beings carry intrinsic dignity amplified by creative energy, emotional yearnings, and cognitive potential. Those are one set of “weather conditions”; then add onto to them 400 years of unremitting (shifting, changing, but unremitting!) physical, economic, political, social, psychological, and spiritual oppression. 400 years! You have all the makings of a societal tornado. All you need is a spark to set it off.
In this case the excruciating video of Minneapolis police officers effectively carrying out a public lynching of George Floyd. Coming on the heels of so many killings of black men and women at the hands of police—a civil institution that most white people (at least middle class and higher) have no historical understanding of, because we’ve always been taught they’re here to keep us safe. But many black people know the roots of police departments are interwoven with those of slave patrols in the South and equally oppressive anti-black/anti-poor/anti-union police in the North.
We (white people) see each individual police killing of a black person as a “tragic death” that we should (of course) be sad about and (maybe) try to prevent from recurring, although we’re as often likely to make excuses for why the dead person was really responsible for their own death. But black people see all these killings as a pattern that shows the racist depth of white society. And they see this with a clarity we couldn’t bear (it would call our entire way of life into question) and hence we mostly deny it. Black people, despite the grinding, heart-wrenching clarity of their lived experience in the world, rarely have the power to challenge it. So they endure (itself, a heroic deed).
But in moments like this, their God-given dignity, coupled with their generations-long experience of having that dignity denied and abused for so long, and then sparked by a particularly evil instance such as Floyd’s murder—that translates into a societal tornado, an act of God. What might begin as holy grief (which we can affirm) can, under the right conditions, transform into holy rage … holy because it is rooted, in part, in the holy yearning of their own inward God-given dignity to flourish. And that holy rage may well take the form of rioting that wreaks indiscriminate damage. And when it does the responsibility for that damage lies foremost with those who created, tolerated, and benefitted from the conditions that led to it. And that’s white people.
We white people sowed the seeds for this rage, and we tended the soil so carefully (so hideously well) for generations. If conditions are now right for societal tornadoes—which include ALL of public grieving, political protest, and economic riot (even some instances of looting), that energy is going to move beyond the control of any individual. And it is.
Thus, these riots are acts of God in that they flow fundamentally from holy rage at 400 years of white people brutalizing the sacred dignity of black people. Such riots are “simply” what happens when human dignity is ceaselessly oppressed. We act surprised and dismayed. And unless we can actually OWN the deep racism that is woven into our world to our benefit—and then actively invest our lives in working to change it … unless we can do this, we are doomed to see societal tornados like this happen again and again. And each time they happen, these riots will be an act of God beseeching us to recognize the extent to which we are denying the God-given dignity of others. We bring them on ourselves.
They are nothing less than the fiery wind of Pentecost beckoning us to hear. And I fear we are so determined NOT to hear anything that would challenge us to look inward into our whiteness and our white supremacist society, that we will use the destruction and the looting as a reason not to listen. But if THIS ASPECT of the rioting is an act of God, we are only attempting to stifle Pentecost. Which cannot be done.
Thus far, the unsettling, even terrifying holiness of riot. We need to recognize this aspect or we will waste this moment’s opportunity for repentance and transformation.
And yet—this is not all that is afoot in this moment, and that makes for a harrowing reality.
I have been reading—and now our elected officials are acknowledging—that there are a frightening assortment—growing (perhaps exponentially) by the day—of others “lurking” as “allies” among the grieving and raging masses, whose actions are NOT rooted in the dignity denied to or the life taken from George Floyd or the black community as a whole. Rather, they are rooted in the desire to seize this moment and twist it to purposes that are unholy. Among the protesters and looters (and both of these have a “right” to be there—and that is a hard truth for us to hear!), there are now also anarchists, white supremacists, anti-government actors, guns-rights fanatics, and accelerationists—none of whom give a damn about the black community, not its pain, its dignity, or its dreams. They are only interested in riding this holy wave of rage (for which we white people bear fundamental responsibility) into an unholy direction.
Anarchists see it an opportunity to disrupt society, but they have no common cause with the black community beyond that momentary coalescing of interests. White supremacists see it as an opportunity to insert themselves into a confrontation where they might be able to escalate things even worse into an all-out race war. They will feign being allies just long enough to set up conditions to for catastrophic reactions. Similarly, anti-government actors and guns rights fanatics (groups that overlap with but are not identical to white supremacists), are actually willing to stand with black people in opposing police/state-sponsored violence, because their goal is not race war but a war with the state itself. Yet they have zero interest in racial justice or any Beloved Community. They will betray black people the moment they’re no longer useful to their sense of war with the government. And accelerationists (who overlap with these other groups—sorry, but these are blurry, messy categories) are persons determined to wreak whatever havoc they can (and this is a moment pregnant with opportunity to do just that) in order to “accelerate” the fraying of society toward a future state that will NOT be friendly to black people.
Listen, there is real evidence that representatives of all of these groups are embedding themselves opportunistically within the masses gathered in response to George Floyd’s murder! They are coming from across the country to seize this moment of holy rage and spin it out of control. I suspect that is why the MN Department of Public Safety (who acknowledged their awareness of such groups within the protests) initially stationed the National Guard at the Fed and the capitol and power stations—because these things may well be the targets of some of these other groups when they’re ready to act. And it’s why they acknowledged (at the 1:30 a.m. briefing) that they have heard of persons coming to these protests with the goal of killing a national guardsman.
This is some genuinely unholy rage just waiting for the chance to creep out. And the Hennepin County Attorney’s game of slow deliberate investigation (even when carried out at “breakneck speed” as we wants us to believe) completely underestimates the peril of this moment. His inaction fuels the holy rage—and widens the window for unholy rage to build explosively.
And it seems clear after Friday night that both the mayor and the governor grievously underestimated the holy rage. Willing to offer words of authentic empathy, they nonetheless imagined themselves caught in the limits of what is realistically possible in the short term regarding politics or policy (to dismantle the racism endemic to the Minneapolis Police Department and elsewhere). And—as a result of that—they unintentionally exposed our community to a far greater risk of destruction. Can we get back from this edge? I don’t know. But the alternative is civic catastrophe.
And the protesters—at time (legitimately!) triumphant at the power they have touched in this moment—seem also oblivious to the threat posed to all of us (themselves included!) by persons/groups hiding within their numbers … who might be working to “guide” legitimate rage into actions that are intended for ends quite different than the protesters have in their heart and mind.
This IS a moment pregnant—painful, bloody, and labored—with possibility. And we dare not erase the holiness of the rage within the black community. It has sparked a HOLY riot tilting (HOPEFULLY!) toward social revolution and transformation, which would be good for all of us.
But, if we (any of us) remain unaware or are too quickly dismissive of the unholy elements (entirely outside the black community, and mostly from outside Minnesota) acting within this moment, it will become a moment of chaos, whose toll will be measured not in property loss, but in loss of life, safety, and trust in our community.
There is MUCH we need to do. In this moment, that doing begins by claiming each other as beloved members of a community not yet fully beloved, but presently under assault by forces from outside that hope to damage us all.
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David Weiss is a theologian, writer, poet and hymnist, doing “public theology” around climate crisis, sexuality, justice, diversity, and peace. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read more at www.davidrweiss.com where he blogs under the theme, “Full Frontal Faith: Erring on the Edge of Honest.” Support him in writing Community Supported Theology at www.patreon.com/fullfrontalfaith.