Baltimore. I don’t know much about Baltimore, really, but I’ve been asked about it, about the Church’s reaction to it too many times to count. Doan and I like to go to several places there, both upscale and not, mostly for seafood or beer or both. I happily or absentmindedly drove past Baltimore a lot, several times a year for my entire adult life, without visiting or thinking about it; I haven’t even watched The Wire. When the nominations for bishop of New Jersey came out a few years ago, Doan noticed that an old friend of hers, Allen Robinson, was not only nominated but living in Baltimore and so we visited several times. Fr. Robinson is rector of St. James Church Lafayette Square, Baltimore, the oldest and largest black congregation in the city, and he is one of the most capable men and priests I know. He has not been having a pleasant spring.
As little as I know about Baltimore, I know that something is not right in Baltimore. As Bishop Stokes wrote to the diocese this week, “what began as peaceful demonstrations in the wake of the death and burial of Freddie Gray exploded into violence and vandalism when some, mostly teenage persons, in the community took advantage of the outrage over Gray’s death and desecrated the funeral by creating mayhem in the streets.” Bishop Stokes went on to say that “This abhorrent behavior should not, however, distract us from the deeper problems and issues that lie beneath the surface in Baltimore and across our country.”1
The bishop is correct, of course, even if I couldn’t take my eyes off of young men flinging cinder blocks at firetrucks or taking a knife to a fire hose, which not only puts out fire but provides a level of protection for the firefighters using it. That gave me an immediate, visceral reaction; I was angry – if I could have stopped him myself, I would have.
But in the aftermath, I had to think of the other things I would stop, given the chance. I come from a family that prides itself on our service, and I automatically side with those in who would keep us safe from harm. But just as the Church has to own up to our own transgressions, we cannot be blind to the abuses inherent in a system that is not far removed from slavery and Jim Crow. We cannot turn from our Christian brothers and sisters in Baltimore and around our great nation and tell them that all is well, be blessed, and then walk away from their troubles. It just doesn’t work that way for the Christian.
That’s a scary thought, really, that just being a Christian means that we have to address the issues of our society, as dangerous as they may be. The blessed Apostle John, the beloved disciple, tells us today that fear is real, but that “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear. For fear has to do with punishment, and he who fears is not perfected in love.” Fear, as McLaren tells us, “is a shrinking apprehension of evil as befalling us, from the person or thing which we dread.”2
And so as Christians, called to the perfect love that casts out fear, we must confront our fears as they present themselves. Here are my fears about Baltimore: I’m afraid that I’m complicit in system that keeps the poor afraid, and keeps them poor; I’m afraid that some presume that police officers are the bad guys; I’m afraid that I’ve let issues of race get in the way of wisdom; I’m afraid that I haven’t done anything about any of this, and most of all, I’m afraid that I like it this way.
But, thanks be to God, there is perfect love in Baltimore. There, as Fr. Bret Hays says, “we can see peaceful protests and demonstrations demanding justice and reform. Clergy marching in the streets as real peacemakers, not wannabe activists. Storefront churches acting as refuges, and offering long-term hope by engaging with youth. Larger churches organizing the collection and distribution of food and other essentials. And everywhere, neighbors helping neighbors, strangers and friends healing the fabric of their neighborhoods.”3
So it seems that love is driving out fear. But there is work to be done, prayers to be said, our peace to be given and peace to be received. The only way that Baltimore, and indeed our nation, is to cast out fear is with perfect love, the love that only Jesus can model, can give, and can provide to us, the kind of love that gives us boldness even in the face of our worst fears. What are our fears here in Bordentown, and are we willing to let love drive them out?
1The Rt. Rev. William Stokes, From the Bishop, Good News in the Garden State, April 30, 2015. http://myemail.constantcontact.com/Good-News-in-the-Garden-State–April-30–2015.html?soid=1109091349525&aid=LJHKJwhZrDQ
3The Rev. Bret Hays, Sermon for the 5th Sunday of Easter, 2015