The past few months have given testimonial to just how primitive we remain as human beings. The killing of 28-year-old Michael Brown by a police officer in a suburb of St. Louis, and the ensuing protests and strong-arm police responses, has captured the attention of the international news media. I grew up in Brown’s neighborhood, and find it surreal to see daily films of the streets I used to walk with cousins and friends. My brother and sister-in-law spent the first two years of their marriage living in Canfield Green, the apartment complex where the young man was shot.
The street displays of anger remind me every evening of a particular passage from the Christian scriptures, perhaps the most misunderstood clause in the Bible … for God so loved the world. It is a cliché in circles of faith to speak of God’s “unconditional” love. But, most of us have a very difficult time believing such an outrageous idea.
Deep down too many of us believe that God doesn’t “so love” the world as it is, but the world that might become. It is an image of love predicated on what you might become, and what I might become. Too bad such an understanding squeezes out room for paradox and mystery in our understanding of love.
In contrast, a belief in unconditional love sets us free in our being and breaks us open to a new potentiality for our becoming. Behavior is modified on a certain path of development precisely because of having been touched by love, not to mollify a Being threatening consequences for an alternate course. This is a tough thing to learn that usually requires a transformative experience of some kind.
My experience came as a young seminarian in a neighborhood not far from where Michael Brown was killed. In the 1980s I spent the better part of five years living in one of the poorest neighborhoods in north St. Louis. The police district of this community had the highest crime rate in the city at the time, and the metropolitan area had the unique distinction of the murder capital of the United States for many of those years. Drug deals occurred outside the window of my bedroom in full view every day, and acts of violence, murder and senseless killings occurred regularly on the mean streets of a 35-40 square block area.
Most of the people living in that region of the city were good and decent folks. A significant number had the financial means to move to a better neighborhood, but chose to stay and help a struggling community. Eventually property values dropped to a level that made it difficult, if not impossible, to move. Many political, law enforcement and educational leaders had decided this neighborhood was a lost cause by the early 1980s. Too many politicians spoke in platitudes, too many police appeared lackluster in their commitment to the people in the community, and too many educators were ineffectual in inspiring youth and were merely approaching their vocation like a job.
Since then, those problems continued to fester for an additional 30 years and set the table for the tragedy and spectacle that has followed Brown’s death.
In those years, I entered deeply into the experience of the neighborhood. I was robbed at gun point by five guys, burglarized five times, and caught in a half dozen situations in which I was not quite sure if I was going to get out alive. These became badges of common ground and experience with the community. I didn’t know one person in the neighborhood where I worked and lived that did not have a family member or friend shot, kidnapped, knifed or killed.
The first time I spoke at a funeral home—in a section of town just a short distance from the region now capturing international attention—a pastor with a scheduling conflict asked me to provide a reflection at the wake of a deceased young man who had shot his pregnant wife and then killed himself. Just as the service began, news arrived that the woman and baby had died. To this day I have never been in a room bearing such inconsolable grief or had to struggle to say something comforting before a mystery in life so far beyond my comprehension.
The cumulative effect of all of these experiences at a young age resulted in the beginning of a profound existential crisis. I began to not only doubt in an unconditionally loving God, but even the existence of a Divine Being. The riots in St. Louis the past few weeks have brought all of these memories back, as I struggle to find hope in a desperate situation with no easy exit. The news about Brown also brings back the memories of how I came to really believe in an unconditionally loving God.
During that time of my life, living not far from Ferguson, a burned out former missionary pastor, who was also struggling with his own existential crisis, taught me what that love really is. He had recently returned from a challenging couple of years serving in Latin America. In a military crackdown, foreign-born priests and ministers had been rounded up, arrested and imprisoned. Sometimes they were tortured and killed. Probably suffering from post-traumatic stress, and clearly harboring feelings of betrayal and bitterness, he returned to the U.S. and was assigned to one of the parishes in my region.
After a particularly long run of bad news in the neighborhood, this same pastor and I were having a cup of coffee one evening in the kitchen of a parish rectory. We discussed recent events, reviewed personalities in the community, and assessed the lack of short-term and long-term opportunities for most of those individuals and the broader community. I struggled out loud with the ultimate meaning of it all. I also waxed and waned for some time on the litany of questions forming in my mind. Chief among them was the Sisyphean realities facing a struggling poor person or a neighborhood like north St. Louis—the same of which exist in nearly all metropolitan areas in the U.S. and even around the world. What could you say meaningfully and with hope about life to those who had been dealt a hand with so few options? Macbeth’s observation seemed so dead on accurate: “life … is a tale, told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.” The inescapable logic of some of the most dismal existential literature seemed apparent.
My burned-out friend responded with something directed as much to himself, I suspect, as to me:
“If God really loves humans, then what we live with here is the human condition God has loved through most of history. We walk into these situations with the hopes of changing the world for the better, but this only happens on a grand scale at certain times in history, and that’s not likely to happen during your life. Our call, our mission, and our real work is to love the mess. That’s where God is found – in the mess. Nothing gets better until we take that first step.”
As bizarre as those comments seemed at the time, they rang true with crystal clarity on the level of my experience. From the moment of that kitchen conversation, I stopped trying to find God in this or that good thing amidst so many seemingly bad things. Rather, I sought to find God buried deep within the warp and woof of the mess of the human condition in one particular context – the context known by Michael Brown.
The more I performed this mental and spiritual exercise, the more I noticed something fascinating. No matter what was going on in the neighborhood, like most of the people in the community I admired the most, I could still find comfort in the situation, and particularly in the shared experience of carrying the community’s burdens together.
Suddenly I noticed that there were more saintly clergy, cops, educators, and social workers in the neighborhood than I had noticed earlier. Even though there was much to truly weep about, I found more things about which to celebrate than to complain. I now had a new and growing understanding of what “God so loved the world” means. God doesn’t love a fabricated world in which everyone behaves or an idealized world in which people can reach the golden ring of a utopian society. No, God so loves the mess and if God loves it, so must we.
We then come to a harder truth and paradox of us as humans trying to practice unconditional love. As humans, we can alleviate pain, but we also aggravate it and cause it. We can create beauty, but we also produce our own shore of ugliness. We can speak the truth, but our lives are equally riddled with falsehoods. We live in a mess and have melded into the mess, becoming indistinguishable from it. Our roots are interwoven with the wheat and the weeds. However, God knows this and still loves.
I find my prayer for all of those standing on the streets in Ferguson, Missouri to be that they find liberation in taking the next step into the heart of God, and learn to love through the mess.