This past Sunday afternoon, I drove just a few miles west of my neighborhood to visit the corner of Sherman Blvd. and Burleigh St. in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Amid a crowd I stood, looking at a huge gas station and multiple vehicles, all completely destroyed. Hundreds of feet of yellow caution tape divided this chaotic tableau from the surrounding neighborhood, transformed by riots in a single night. The damage was extensive: other buildings set on fire, bricks tossed, windows smashed, businesses raided, guns shot. The violence prevented any emergency response from being affective. The Milwaukee Fire Department couldn’t extinguish fires in a timely manner.
Police and their vehicles were put in harm’s way, and some police officers were even assaulted while sitting in their vehicles. Innocent journalists and other “white people” passing by were intimidated, chased after, and violently beaten. As a result, many innocent people were hospitalized that night. The nation looked on, through news and social media. The message was clear: Milwaukee is not a safe place to live, and the “black community” is to blame.
In our day and age, the media loves to sell a good story. However, I was seeing something far less radical than what Facebook and Twitter portrayed. I was seeing and hearing positive and encouraging news, face to face, in the lives of the black community. What the world sees trending on social media is (shockingly?) not the full truth.
That Sunday afternoon, I witnessed a community that was peaceful, considerate, and concerned about how to help repair the ruins together. Many Christian pastors and priests were present, committed to bandaging wounds instead of opening more. To be sure, there were small pockets of teenagers and young adults expressing their hunger and thirst for “justice.” For a brief time, there was a small "no justice, no peace" outcry, followed by a much louder cry of "no Jesus, no peace.” The black community I gathered with was not a bunch of “thugs,” or hypocrites, or nobodies. They were great people from that neighborhood. They did not want the initial riots, and they certainly did not want any more. It was a privilege to listen to and pray with those who were struggling with anger, fear, and resentment that day.
Outsiders like to criticize and share “proof” of how bad the black community of Milwaukee is. They stereotype, gossip, and tweet about how much better or wiser they are than those within the black community of Milwaukee, but those trends won’t bring healing to those inside who are really suffering through this tragedy. Of course, riots don’t heal anything either; they just open up the same old wounds, and created some new ones. But the wounds are very real, and much healing is still needed.
Milwaukee is the most segregated city between black and white people in all the large cities within our country. There is also a shocking economic gap between those who are black versus those who are white. Milwaukee has the largest gap in unemployment between blacks and whites in the country, and the second biggest gap in income. And to a large extent, that unemployment gap has little to do with their willingness to work and maintain a job; it actually has more to do with how they are treated (and mistreated) within our city. There is a stigma attached to being “black” in our city which is completely unwarranted, and extremely obvious if you live and work downtown in the city, as I do. Such intense segregation and economic gaps don’t happen overnight, either. They occur when multiple layers of distrust, resentment, prejudice, and bigotry pile up and stagnate, pushing people outside of their lives, and shutting the doors for re-entry behind them. After those doors are shut, the cries against real injustice do not receive a fair hearing.
Here in Milwaukee, the wounds are real, but healing those wounds is also a very real possibility, too. I gained a lot of insight after speaking with many that Sunday afternoon. For sure, police brutality, bigotry, and racism all need to be addressed and mitigated in order to heal much disparity within our city. I overheard some people saying that “living wages” will heal their economic wounds. Others suggested that more government programs are needed to create more jobs or help single parents struggling to raise their kids out of poverty.
For many more, however, I heard it said that education would solve our problems, and to a great extent, I agree the most with that last suggestion. I definitely think that education will solve a lot of our problems, and prevent further decay of our city, but the education I’m thinking of is probably not what many people imagine when they hear that term being used. When I think of a reform in our “education”—a reform that will actually heal the wounds in our city—I think primarily of liturgical reform. I think of the habit-forming power of liturgies, and how many of the secular liturgies within our city rival historic Christian liturgies without even knowing that’s what’s going on.
I’m not just talking about the liturgies that Christians participate in for a couple hours on Sundays, either. I’m thinking about the habit-forming power of everyday, prayer-filled, communally-engaged, imagination-forming, race-and-class-transcending, Scripture-saturated liturgies. I’m thinking of a liturgy that begins on Sunday morning, extends another six days of creation, forming you and filling you, and then finds rest and renewal the very next morning. I’m talking about a life patterned by and saturated with a love for Christ, his people, his word, and the world he was raised from the dead to save.
I’m not talking about a life that is guided and swayed by the latest trends in social media or presidential prospectives. The kind of liturgical reform of which the Scriptures speak is holistic, and that what our city needs. Only a holistic approach to healing the liturgies of our city will do.
As James K. A. Smith has suggested, in order for this holistic approach to succeed, the “needle of our loves” ((James K. A. Smith, You Are What You Love: The Spiritual Power of Habit (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2016) 84.)) need to bend toward Christ, the “magnetic north” of our everyday compass. That is accomplished primarily by what we train ourselves to do daily—the rhythms we pursue, our liturgical formation—and not as much by the mere information we receive throughout each day. What all people of Milwaukee need, then—including the black community suffering from recent tragedies—are people who are the hands and feet of Jesus walking among them, helping and healing and judging justly among them, in our city, every day.
In order to be delivered from the wide variety of rival liturgies pushing people away from the source of true love, justice, and peace, Christians need to be inviting more people into their lives. Christian living, not mere believing, needs to become the new normal in our city. Instead, much of what we currently have are ghettos of denominational beliefs which think our city’s problems can be fixed by handing out bible tracts or inviting people to the latest concert at Sunday worship.
I contend, rather, that people within our city need to recalibrate their hearts with the Biblical story, a story of true hope and justice and peace, a story in which every end receives a new beginning, and every death in Christ is followed by resurrection. If people in our city want true justice and peace, the Christians need to repent and correct their adherence to secular liturgies of “justice” and “peace” which actually perpetuate a confused and (dare I say) nebulous idea of what the true injustices are all around us. Instead of keeping a great distance between “us” and “them,” separating “clean” and “unclean” like pharisees, we need to be incarnational, making all things clean.
A common response I hear from those who disagree (most often among those living in the suburbs outside our city), is that this will never happen. I’m too idealistic. People either can’t change, or won’t change. Everything will just get worse. If the black community won’t change, then there’s no hope for them. It’s best to just get away from all “their” troubles, and let the fires die out by themselves.
My response to that eschatological and ethical pessimism is simple. Get to know people in our city. Get to know, especially, the black community in our city. Take time to listen to them. Discuss their hopes, dreams, frustrations, and troubles. Pray with them and for them. Weep with those who weep, and rejoice with those who rejoice. Serve them, and be willing to be served by them, too. Nobody in our city is so rich that they don’t have something to receive from their poor neighbor, and nobody is so poor that they don’t have something to give to their rich neighbor, to be a blessing in their lives. We all have something to give and receive. But do the daily rhythms of our lives reflect that? Does our Christian worldview reflect that?
This is something we need to educate ourselves to believe and live out. Our daily liturgies need to make more room for this real and necessary change. If the rhythms of daily life don’t make room for our neighbors, we ought to change that. To the degree that we don’t change that about ourselves, this generation may never know the peace that Jesus offers the world. If this generation does not seek his face, we’re only hurting ourselves and our neighbors by postponing the inevitable. Jesus will wait for another generation that seeks his face. Jesus is making all things new.
For those across the country and around the world reading this, please keep the city of Milwaukee continuously in your prayers. Pray for those leading by example. Pray for those oppressed. Pray for the Church to be a living sacrifice in this city. Pray for God’s justice, and God’s peace.
Jonathan Sedlak is a licensed master electrician and certified electrical contractor in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, a student at Theopolis, and a member of Christ Redeemer church (ACNA).
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