“I can’t breathe,” is the statement that has been heard around the world through mass media and social media. A statement exclaimed from the now deceased Eric Garner as his life was being choked away from him. It’s simple. When we can’t breathe, nothing else matters. And this is the sentiment that is pervading every level of our society from pundits to the poor. It’s unfathomable to think that the value of a person’s life can be taken with such minimal regard. Just as unconscionable is how polarizing this and many other examples that we’ve been inundated with since the Trayvon Martin case. The invention of camera phones and social media brings the stories we’ve only heard about to life and that cannot and should not be ignored. As it stands, many have decided to pick a side.
Division within communities is overtly apparent between those who have been vocal about their discontentment with police brutality and seeming failure of the judicial system to hold individuals responsible as well as those who have taken the position of being deaf by volition. In response, many have taken to the streets and are streaming their comments through various social media outlets. Passions are running high at an alarming rate, provocations through protests for change have ensued and prescriptions to resolve these societal struggles lie outside the realm of both local and national levels. In response to the tragedies that have befallen our nation, Al Sharpton now urges a national march on Washington to serve notice to our leaders, politicians, the powerful, and the weak that we will no longer stand for the inequities that are still so prevalent in our communities. The hope is for those who have been empowered to legislate and serve the people – to essentially “raise their game.” Pshaw! The very notion that some social movement is what this or any other nation needs pales in comparison to the greatest power to which we have access. However, I’d like to quote a couple of socialists before explicating this power of which I speak.
- Charles Till defines social movements as a series of contentious performances, displays and campaigns by which ordinary people make collective claim on others.
- Sidney Tarrow defines social movement as collective challenges [to elites, authorities, other groups or cultural codes] by people with common purposes and solidarity in sustained interactions with elites, opponents and authorities.
Civil Rights Activist, Al Sharpton, calls for a national march on Washington because, in his words, “We have no confidence in local state prosecutions, because state prosecutors work hand in hand with the local police.” Therefore, this campaign would coincide with the words of Charles Till and Sidney Darrow. So, kudos must be given to the Rev. Al Sharpton! I agree that we must not put our trust in local state agencies to deal with or handle the systemic issues plaguing our communities. They do not possess the insight nor the foresight as to how to build communities that are vibrant, life giving and life sustaining. They don’t know how to create transformative, empowering communities that build up and not tear down. A community as I just described requires the unique ability to see beyond what the world sees. Therefore, seeing beyond requires an individual not to ignore the glaring issues, but at the same time not be consumed by what is seen. In reality, what is seen is what has always been in our world – brokenness.
We’ve always been in a world that has been filled with violence, murder, racial tension, corruption, rich and poor people, the powerful and the powerless, and the affluent and those pushed to the margins. People are used to a world that produces minimal to no hope. How do we respond to the depravity that infects our world? What do we do with the anger that rests in our hearts as our hearts ache at the condition of the world? Where do we find hope? Do we find hope through ranting our displeasure through various media and social media outlets? Do find hope by wielding our power of public demonstrations through protests and marches? Sadly, all of our efforts to remedy the brokenness create little to no progress, but yield only a deeper level of hopelessness. The power to transform never rested upon any one person or group of people. The power to transform is not of this world, nor has it ever been. The power to transform exists only in eternity, an eternity that entered this world through Jesus and finally resides in everyone who surrenders to the Lordship of Christ. The power I speak of is simply the gospel of Jesus Christ.
When we look at Jesus’ earthly ministry through the pages of scripture, we’re able to peer into His methodology for community transformation. Am I saying that protests and public demonstrations should never occur? Not at all. I am suggesting that these social movements be understood as a means and not as the solution to all that is wrong in this world. Obviously, Jesus participated in some forms of public demonstration to communicate His displeasure. However, they were the means and not the ends for community transformation. Community transformation began at the local level with relationships, with individual(s) and small communities (families) that led to eventual and apparent change.
An example of local and grass roots change is personified in the life of the maniac in the tombs – a man that exhibited demonic torment with poor community efforts to help him. The demon oppressed the man spiritually and the community oppressed him physically. The community’s effort to “fix” the problem only created further pain and isolation of this man. An encounter with Jesus changed all of that. Transformation was the result of the encounter, and the no-longer demon possessed man found himself desiring to follow Jesus. But he was denied that opportunity. He was left with a mission. The transformed man was instructed by Jesus to participate in the transformation of the community in which he lived. Jesus told him to go to “your friends and tell them how much the Lord has done for you (Mark 5:19).” Obedience to these instructions followed because he went throughout the Decapolis (group of ten cities) while, at the community’s request, Jesus departed.
Later, in Mark 7:25, there is a significantly different tone emanating from the community. No longer were they requesting that Jesus leave, but the community brought other broken people to Him. What changed? The man formerly known as the maniac happened! The “once demon possessed” man that experienced both spiritual and physical oppression was transformed and called to participate in the community’s transformation. What ensued was the Decapolis was turned upside down. No longer were the people in the community rejecting the power, but embracing the power that transforms lives and communities.
How do we practically apply this to the societal ills that we encounter in this world? We start with establishing a Christocentric posture. A Christocentric life demands love of God and neighbors. Therefore, the relationships that we have and will have create the synergy to effect change. A gospel-centered approach allows for us to start close then move outward. The gospel challenges us to see where there is brokenness, engage it, and see it transformed. One life (community) at a time becomes infectious to other lives (communities). The initial communities aren’t the only ones to feel the ripple effects, but adjacent cities and beyond.
Unfortunately, grass roots transformation rarely receives the type of attention that marches and other forms of public protests receive. Therefore, the body Christ must resist the temptation of desiring to be seen and heard, but allow our lights to shine that men may notice and turn to God. This is the Christocentric approach of local and national transformation. Simply put, we trust in the power of Jesus’ transformation rather than the power of people’s demonstration.
Steven W. Bell is the pastor of Otter Creek Community Church in Little Rock, Arkansas, a multigenerational and multicultural church.