“Burn, Baby, Burn.” – Slogan chanted during the 1965 Watts Riot
“The real fire within the builders of America was faith. Faith in a provident God whose hand supported and guided them; Faith in themselves as the children of God.” – President Dwight D. Eisenhower, June 4, 1952
It seems that for nearly two years now, maybe longer, but at least since the onset of the 2016 political season, America has been at war with itself. “She’s crooked.” “He’s an orange buffoon.” “She’s ill.” “He’s unfit.” “Thief.” “Liar.” “Leftist, Rightist, KKK, Antifa, Democrat, Republican, Black, White, Hispanic, Asian, Xenophobe, Fascist, Snowflake, Femi-nazi, Patriarch, Homophobe, Trans-this, sis-that.” ENOUGH ALREADY!!
I could take a side. I have taken a side. I have argued, tried to persuade, tried to allow myself to be persuaded, but not much has changed, in me, or anyone who would listen to me. I haven’t seen anyone else change either. We talked at first, and then began to yell. Yelling eventually gave way to violence. It led finally to what we have collectively lived through in the last few months. Both of us, you and I, sitting apart in our separate bubbles of selective information, we watched in horror the aftermath of the congressional baseball practice, Charlottesville and the Berkeley Riots, both of them. We saw the same events. We interpreted them differently. We each saw the other as the cause of discord. We each blamed the other, and silently or aloud, hoped for the other’s demise. But we were both terrified, at least to a degree. If you had never seen this sort of thing it might be debilitating. My terror at all of this was slightly diminished by being able to see it from the distance that having lived a while can give. But I was scared nonetheless.
I’ve seen something like this before, so there is at least small comfort in recognizing patterns. Yet evenso, it is scary. I barely remember hearing of the Watts Riots, but I do a little. I’m not sure what caused them, but I remember parts of Los Angeles were burned by folks chanting, “Burn, Baby, Burn.” I most definitely remember crying myself to sleep as a child one night, as demonstrators set fire to the ROTC building at the university in my most provincial town of Lexington, KY. I don’t remember why they rioted, but I do remember that my cousin was caught up in it. He was mercilessly beaten by the police at that event. They broke his arm, bloodied him up good. I remember my nearly hysterical, tearful aunt, being called away from a family dinner to retrieve him from the police. I remember her anger. The National Guard was called out. For a couple of days my hometown was under martial law. Scary stuff for a kid.
Perhaps it is this scar from childhood that make the recent events, seem more troublesome, sort of like picking a scab. Maybe this is why I feel a bit panicked by the current civil unrest, if you can call it “civil.” But again, having lived through these things once, my panic is somewhat checked. I suppose those earlier times were, in fact, much worse. But even so, even having the gift of age and a historical perspective, I still HATE all of the rancor. It is as if I can hear a legion of ghosts chanting, “Burn Baby Burn. Burn Baby Burn. Burn Baby Burn.” I feel the frightened child clinging to my leg. The nation may not be on fire, but it has felt that way for nearly two years – maybe longer – that the nation is smoldering, ready to burst into full flame. But today, something seems different.
Perhaps it is an illusion. Maybe this is just wishful thinking; It is certainly not a prediction. Maybe this is just a hope, but today, as I write this, in Houston Texas, African-Americans are rescuing European Americans. European-Americans are rescuing Mexican Americans. Mexican Americans are saving European Americans. Coon-ass boys from Louisiana are pulling Texan Cowboys to safety in John Boats. Christians are helping Jews who are helping Muslims. Women wearing Cowboys Jerseys tending to other peoples’ children wearing Texans gear. A Republican President and a Republican Governor are standing shoulder to shoulder and side by side with a Democratic Mayor, all doing the best they can to help everyone. The petty rivalries and labels we use to divide and define each other, are laid aside, because we can see that they really are more harm than good. But there they are, all of them, all of those people who days before put great stock in those labels, there they are, there we are, working vigorously and tirelessly to save tens of thousands of people, not from each other, not from fire, but from water. And you know what? It seems to be working.
As I have said before, I am a person of faith. I have known Jesus, or at least known about him, for my entire life. He became very real to me on Sept 2. 2008, in a place, for a reason, and in a manner that I won’t go into here. Suffice to say, though, that since that moment, that very real moment, and perhaps even before, I am predisposed to look for the Divine Hand in the course of human history. I believe God does intervene, even if we misinterpret what is what, and what action is God’s action. It is precisely because I long to see God working in the world, that I am led to recall a story in the book I use as a pattern for my life. (There is great comfort in recognizing patterns. I think I have already said that.) It is the book most of you own, and most of you have read at least a little of this book. But if you haven’t, my book is a book about how, in the past, God has acted in the lives of people and in the nations of people, who seek after Him.
The story I am led to remember is one about a time when evil and violent men did all manner of hateful things to one another. God got really fed up with all of their evil doings and sent a flood to put an end to all of our foolishness. After the flood subsided something new and better was rebuilt. You know the story I’m talking about, most of you do anyway.
I realize that story, about that flood, is not perfectly analogous to the situation of our smoldering nation. But then no analogy is perfect, is it? But for those of us who like patterns, and who believe God works good in the midst of bad….well…. we’ve seen God use a lot of water to wash away a lot of bad stuff in the past. It’s a pattern we’re familiar with. In the story I’m talking about, God also promises he will never again use water to destroy the earth. But you know what? He never said he wouldn’t use water to straighten things out.
I’m pretty sure God didn’t send that hurricane which has caused so much hardship in Texas. But. If He did, and if we allow the waters of that flood to remind us of who we are as a nation, then I’m OK with it. It needed to happen. And, whether or not God caused the hurricane which has, for the moment, brought us together as one people, we do, all of us, have this rare unexpected moment to start over, to extinguish the fires of hatred, mistrust, resentment and violence.
Houston will dry out. I suspect that when things “dry out” a new fire may be lit among us. I hope it’s like the fire God used in another story in my book. It’s a story about God leading a nation through some tough times. I hope, I pray, when I next hear “Burn Baby Burn” it refers not to buildings lit by a rioter’s torch, but rather to that fire lit again deep within the American soul, like the one God used to lead His people. Maybe it’s this same fire to which President Eisenhower referred when he said, “The real fire within the builders of America was faith. Faith in a provident God whose hand supported and guided them; Faith in themselves as the children of God.” I think this time we can choose which fire we light.
I hope this writing “ages well,” as they say. That is, I hope the good and noble thoughts expressed herein come to pass. I don’t know if they will or not. As I said, I am not good at predictions, but I am pretty good, most of the time at recognizing what is right in front of me. Currently I see an opportunity to return to who we are….seems in Texas they already have. Time will tell if the rest of us follow. I hope we choose wisely. I, for one, have had enough of the old fire. I’m glad it got doused. Time for something new.