Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Fists and Flames: Baltimore's Agony is Ours

The fires of Baltimore's street violence (from BBC)
Baltimore, Maryland has flared up in recent days with multiple expressions of conflict, from protests to riots, looting, and physical destruction. The media present the latest American "city in flames" that has caught the camera eyes of the world (who do their best to show as much fire as possible).

The Baltimore Sun: fists and flames.
I share in the common concern. How can we begin to take the steps needed to make healing possible for these deep wounds in our society? This is an urgent question, even though I fear that the road to healing is a long and difficult one.

This time, these events have also struck me in another way: Baltimore is not so far away from my home.

It's a couple of hours' drive east and arching north. Much of it is a very pretty country drive on old Route 340, passing Berryville and through Harper's Ferry where the Shenandoah River empties into the Potomac.

We are connected, at least remotely, by water to the Chesapeake Bay area with its history and its world of life. Nevertheless the Blue Ridge sets us apart. Even though it poses no physical barrier for travel today (and multitudes make the trip daily), the ridge is still there like a mysterious boundary that carves out this region as a distinctive place from America's East Coast.

The Blue Ridge and the Shenandoah Valley are the beginning of Appalachia. We cannot entirely feel like "the East" in these mountains, because there was a time when we were "the West." Two and a half centuries ago, Appalachia was the English frontier.

Perhaps that is why Baltimore (and even Washington DC and the "Northern Virginia" suburbs) seem remote to our quiet life out here. It is not hard to feel like we are in a kind of shelter. Indeed, this might not be the worst place to be if all heck breaks loose in the sweeping population centers of this country.

Still, I think we are in danger of forgetting that the violence in the news is showing us a picture of our own lives. How often is rural life a realm where poverty remains unnoticed, where indifference pushes aside any effort to understand our neighbors?

This is, indeed, the long and old story of life in Appalachia.

There is no real escape from confronting the cycle of violence. All the burning cars should not obscure that fact that even many peaceful protests in Baltimore's streets are heavy with frustration. And we don't have the luxury of hiding away under the shade of the leafy trees of western Virginia.

Rural life and city life: we are closer than we think.
There is no escape from the cycle of violence or the
search for justice, peace, and healing for all of us.
The streets and dirt roads and backwoods of Appalachia are heavy with frustration.

My life is heavy with frustration. How am I dealing with that?

Does the lack of struggle and turmoil in my own heart indicate the healing presence of grace and virtue, or rather does it signify that I have made a truce with mediocrity, that I have allowed myself to stop wanting the fullness of life?

Open violence and human conflict certainly stem in part from the devolution of our society to the fringes of civility, the opportunistic predation of bandits and demagogues, and even the sensationalist provocation of media attention.

But sometimes thrashing and screaming are expressions of pain and the desperate struggle for a tenuous life that is nearly lost. Sometimes... in Baltimore, in the Shenandoah Valley, in my own heart.

The cries of the wounded are piercing and disturbing, but they are driven by the wild strength of desperate hope. They make us afraid, but we have the responsibility to listen and to try to understand and share in the awful pain.

No one wants riots, or anger, or a troubled soul. But real peace comes from commitment and humility, work and suffering.

The alternative stands before us: we can embrace the hard and messy struggle for a peaceful people who journey together upon the road of life, or we can resign ourselves to the silence of corpses.