Meeting in the street
Psalm 85 was appointed for Sunday, August 13, the day after violence erupted in the streets of Charlottesville, and one of its more poetic verses stood out for me:
Mercy and truth have met together; *
righteousness and peace have kissed each other.
It seemed so incongruous with recent events that it begged me to ponder it more. So, I looked up the verse in Eugene Peterson’s translation, The Message, and found that Peterson translated the first half of the verse, “Love and Truth meet in the street.” More irony. Sometimes I think this is God’s way of trying to get my attention. And from there, my thoughts led from the streets of Charlottesville to Richmond, by way of a baseball field in Alexandria.
When an angry and unhinged man opened fire not long ago on GOP congressmen practicing baseball, some were certain that liberals were to blame. It was “the Left’s carnage-inducing words and blood-soaked images,” said the National Review, that led to this shooting and that precipitated violence on the campuses of Middlebury, Berkeley, and others. Now, an angry and unhinged mob of white supremacists has precipitated horror and violence at UVa, and some are certain that Donald Trump is to blame.
Maybe the blamers on both sides are right. Our words and uses of imagery do have a way of becoming flesh and dwelling among us, whether it’s Kathy Griffin with an image of a decapitated Donald Trump (she repented), or it’s Donald Trump who tells cheering rallies that sometimes look more like mobs that he’d like to punch a protester in the face, he’d like to see some of those protesters carried out on stretchers, and he would gladly pay the legal fees for anyone who did his dirty work for him (to my knowledge, he hasn’t repented). But blaming might be a primary reason that mercy and truth are having such a hard time meeting; righteousness and peace aren’t about to kiss each other.
Much of the righteousness in evidence after Charlottesville is like the righteousness in evidence after the shooting of the GOP congressmen on the baseball field in Alexandria – it’s more indignation and blame than it is a righteousness that is in love with peace; it’s more I-told-you-so exasperation than it is truth snuggling up to mercy. Both of these events, the violence in Charlottesville and the shooting in Alexandria, were precipitated by people who were angry, unhinged, and so utterly convinced of their own righteousness that peace and mercy got kicked to curb.
Which of course has me wondering, what will it look like when mercy and truth meet together, when righteousness and peace kiss each other? Can it happen in Richmond?
Sometimes, I think I see mercy and truth approaching each other, as pastors like my friend Reuben Boyd at Third Street Bethel AME Church call for a prayer vigil this Wednesday night, and as leaders like Mayor Levar Stoney in Richmond lead our community in civil discussions about the place of Confederate monuments like the ones on Richmond’s Monument Avenue. But it’s going to take time and determination. These are people who are arranging for mercy and truth to meet on the street—on our street, Monument Avenue. They are just a couple of the people who make me hopeful.
But ironically, on Saturday I was finishing Colson Whitehead’s acclaimed novel, The Underground Railroad. This powerful book features savage slave owners, runaway slaves, and brutal slave catchers. Some of the scenes are so cruel, bloody, and barbarous, I had to stop reading for a while. But I always picked up the novel again, consoling myself about the more savage and evil scenes that, fortunately, this was a work of fiction and that, however much it might resemble history, at least we’ve come a long way over the last century and a half. It wasn’t a willful or heartless denial, but it was denial nonetheless. And that’s when news came about the historic events unfolding in Charlottesville.
I used to think of Richmond’s Monument Avenue mostly as just a pretty street. And I used to think that Mayor Stoney’s call for “adding context” to the monuments there was a sensible, middle way. But as much as I admire his effort, I’m increasingly skeptical.
People like Colson Whitehead remind me how impossible it is to adequately contextualize such monuments and all they represent – the way of life these men were defending was so horrific, and the consequences for American history to this day have been so devastating, that Whitehead had to employ a kind of surrealism alongside the historical details in his novel to make the point. And the very real events in Charlottesville yesterday suggest that monuments like these do little to educate or ennoble. Instead, it seems these looming and intimidating images are symbols loaded with energy for white supremacists, and they are catalysts for the worst in human nature. Surely these monuments do little for society except to incite violence in angry white people, denigrate African Americans, and infuriate, or at least frustrate, most everyone else.
Mercy and truth aren’t likely to meet under circumstances like these; righteousness and peace are not set to kiss.
Still, in spite of my skepticism, I am hopeful. As I said above, it will take time and determination if we are going to have mercy AND truth, righteousness AND peace. And that means we’re going to need patience, which a wise person once pointed out is integral to the theological virtues of faith, hope, and love. Faith, he said, is patience with God. Hope is patience with ourselves. And love is patience with each other. We’re going to need all three.