The following meditation was written by Doug Hood\’s son,
Nathanael Hood, MA, New York University
“At that moment the curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom.
The earth shook, the rocks split…” (Matthew 27:51)
Once again, within our lifetimes, our country is torn by civil unrest. Enflamed by widely disseminated smartphone footage of a Minneapolis police officer kneeling on the neck of George Floyd, an unarmed black man, until he suffocated to death, organized protests have popped up in more than 200 cities demonstrating against police brutality. For many, particularly those in minority communities, the George Floyd killing was the final straw: memories of Rodney King in Los Angeles, Michael Brown in Ferguson, Eric Garner in New York City, Breonna Taylor in Louisville, and untold more have boiled over into an angry wave of civil disobedience. While the vast majority of the protestors have been nonviolent—living less than a mile from Barclays in Brooklyn, one of the national hotspots for the demonstrations, I can personally attest to this—there has still been looting, vandalism, and the wholesale destruction of property on the part of many so-called “activists.” And while many police have acted responsibly and even admirably—in several cities officers have actually marched with and demonstrated alongside the protestors—there are still widespread reports of unprovoked police violence such as the use of rubber bullets against non-protesting bystanders and tear gas towards accredited members of the press.
Social media has been awash with images of the unrest, and several are undoubtedly bound for the history books. But one of the most powerful, in my opinion, show the walls of St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City the morning of May 30 after demonstrators desecrated them with antipolice slogans the night before. It’s an image to make one pause: here’s one of the oldest, grandest, and most sacred cathedrals in America, one which since its initial dedication has seen two World Wars, twenty-seven presidents, and countless worshippers baptized, married, and eulogized. Images like these shatter the aura of timelessness surrounding our holy spaces, reminding us of their presence in the eternal now. The church’s eyes might be lifted towards the eternal, but these pictures force us to remember and reexamine God’s mission in our everyday lives. So yes, the graffiti is a tragedy. One day the spray-paint will be washed away and St. Patrick’s Cathedral will seem as timeless as ever. But right now it—and the rest of the Christian community—is on the frontline of these riots.
How then should we react to these demonstrations? First, we must remember that civil disobedience and nonviolent protest are baked into the very DNA of Christianity. Jesus himself preached in the shadow of a violent colonizing force. His teachings flipped the societal status quo on its head, forcing the authorities to acknowledge the humanity of their subjects even as they repressed them. Consider Jesus’ command to turn the other cheek: by doing so, victims would force assailants to strike them a second time with the palm of their right hand (the left hand being unclean and unsuitable for striking), which in the customs of ancient Rome signified them as socioeconomic equals. We must also remember that destruction need not be a profane act. In fact, destruction is frequently a prelude to renewal. Remember that upon Jesus’ death, the Temple in Jerusalem was struck by an earthquake, the Temple curtain being torn asunder and the very stones smashed apart. The old ways needed to be destroyed before they could be restored with God’s new covenant. But—and this is important—nowhere do the Gospels say that anyone in the Temple was harmed or killed. In stark contradiction, the violent upheaval of the Temple led to the breaking of tombs and the resurrection of many “holy people” who returned to Jerusalem and “appeared to many people.” (Matthew 27:52-53) The destruction sanctified and gave life, it did not take it.
Perhaps we would do well to remember the teachings of Martin Luther King Jr., one of the architects of the American Civil Rights Movement. At a speech given at Stanford University in 1967, King famously reflected on the widespread rioting that ravaged the country. “I think America must see that riots do not develop out of thin air. Certain conditions continue to exist in our society which must be condemned as vigorously as we condemn riots,” he declared. He then delivered one of his most shocking (and frequently decontextualized) statements: “But in the final analysis, a riot is the language of the unheard. And what is it that America has failed to hear?” When we see the riots in our streets, the protests, the demonstrations—and yes, even the vandalism and destruction—we Christians must ask ourselves what we have failed to hear. What must we do to restore the Temple now that it’s being smashed again? How do we preserve and protect life without denying it?