Yesterday in Nashville, thousands gathered in holy rage to lift up the names of unarmed black folks who were murdered by police officers and white vigilantes. George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and so many more, including Nashville’s own: Jocques Clemmons, Daniel Hambrick, and Walter Johnson, Jr.
Thousands rallied at Legislative Plaza with flames of grief and outrage in their bellies and bones. After the rally, demonstrators marched, calling for the end to police brutality and to systems that keep their boots on the necks of black and brown communities across our nation. Break-off groups, hundreds strong, traveled to the centers of political and economic power—Central Precinct, City Hall, and Broadway.
And then the sparks flew.
The statue of a racist state lawmaker was toppled at the State Capitol. Police cars were damaged. City Hall was redecorated with spray paint and lit aflame. “You didn’t listen and now you have to,” scrawled one message across the building. After letting City Hall burn for nearly an hour, police stormed the scene, firing teargas canisters and flash grenades. Some factions of demonstrators moved to Broadway where they smashed windows and lit small fires in trashcans and a free-standing tourist sightseeing structure. People were arrested, a state of emergency was declared by Mayor Cooper and Governor Lee, and a 10:00 p.m. curfew was issued.
The images of thousands gathered in solidarity, of fire, teargas, shattered windows, and police in riot gear, are emblazoned on my mind. And the question on my heart this morning is this: What if what we saw in Nashville last night— and what we’re seeing across the country—can’t be easily dismissed as “a riot” or “looting?” What if what we’re seeing is something more important, more layered, more complex?
Today marks the beginning of the season of Pentecost in the Christian calendar—a season of learning from the flames.
This season begins after the violent murder of another unarmed brown man (Jesus) and a period of grief and uncertainty. Several weeks after his death, the apostles gather on the day of Pentecost. “There came a sound like the rush of a violent wind,” says the Book of Acts, and then the Holy Spirit descended, resting on each of them as tongues of flame. This baptism of fire became a uniting force, giving people from different countries the ability to listen and understand what the apostles were saying in their own native language. This day of fire also birthed the early church—gatherings of people who broke bread together and shared what they had in common (Acts 2-4).
So what if the fires we saw at City Hall and those we’re seeing across the country are not only the fires of destruction, but also the flames of possibility? What if these uprisings could offer us a path toward listening, understanding, healing, and creating new systems and structures that truly bring good news to the poor—liberation instead of oppression?
To be clear, I believe there are things that need to be toppled, destroyed, and burned to the ground: systems and structures of inequity, injustice, white supremacy. Systems where the rich get richer and the poor get prison. Systems that criminalize, cage, and murder our black, brown, and poor siblings.
And this can be holy work: proclaiming good news to the poor, freedom for the prisoners, recovery of sight to the blind, and setting the oppressed free (Luke 4). While many organizers and activists use tactics of non-violent direct action to bring about change, history also teaches us that sometimes the tables of powers must be overturned (Matthew 21).
Some people are calling what happened last night in Nashville “violence.” But what about the violence carried out by those in power on a daily basis?
What about the violence of our governor and state legislators who claim to be “pro-life” and yet refuse to extend medical coverage to hundreds of thousands of vulnerable Tennesseans?
What about the violence of our mayor, and even some council members, who allow funding for affordable housing, education, and other public goods to be slashed while they pour more money into systems of policing, including $17.6 million for a new sheriff’s headquarters and $12 million for 2 new police helicopters?
What about the violence of police bullets ripping through Jocques Clemmons, Daniel Hambrick, and Walter Johnson, Jr. in Nashville?
What about the violence of an economic system that gives away millions of dollars in incentive packages to wealthy corporations while thousands waste away on our streets for want of housing, health care, and hope?
What about the violence perpetuated by all of us who place property rights before human rights, who live as if some lives matter while others are disposable?
So on this day of Pentecost, in this season of fire and unrest, let us be wary of half-truths, narratives woven by those in power, and answers that feel easy, comfortable, and convenient. My prayer today is that we will have the courage to listen to what the uprisings across our nation are saying.
What will we learn from the flames?