Treating the Wound: Theological Reflections on our Charlotte Protests

“From the least to the greatest of them, everyone is greedy for unjust gain; and from prophet to priest, everyone deals falsely.  They have treated the wound of my people carelessly, saying, “Peace, peace,” when there is no peace.”  Jeremiah 6:14

On Thursday morning, two days after the police-involved shooting of Keith Lamont Scott and the violent protests in the University area, one day after the shooting of protester Justin Carr during in Uptown, I gathered with other leaders at the Galilee Center on Central Avenue for our monthly council meeting.  One white woman said, “I just can’t believe this happened in Charlotte.”  A black woman responded, “I don’t understand the surprise.  This issue [frustration over inequities that tracks largely by race] has been festering in Charlotte for such a long time.”

These two reactions from compassionate, engaged Charlotteans epitomize the “two Charlottes” that I have come to know over my last three years serving as an Episcopal priest in Uptown Charlotte.

Like many cities in the so-called “new South,” Charlotte have been proud of how it responded to racial unrest in the 1960’s and 1970’s.  A prominent narrative among Charlotteans is that (unlike the “old South” where there were protests and riots and resistant white people) white business leaders in Charlotte had relationships with black business leaders and were able to “work things out” during the Civil Rights era, even as historically black neighborhoods like Cherry and Brooklyn and First Ward were dismantled in favor of “development.”  The story one part of Charlotte tells itself is that the city was a national leader when it came to desegregation of schools and the city’s response to Swann vs. Board of Education.

But clearly there is a different story told by others in the city.  Often I’ve not heard that other story, maybe because I’m not black, maybe because I haven’t been places to where it is told, but I’ve seen it.  I see it when I look at a map of Charlotte’s high poverty areas or of our food deserts or of our lower performing schools and notice they are also the places where people of color live in higher concentrations. I see it when I go to the Urban Ministry Center and the large majority of our homeless “neighbors” are black.  I see it when nearly every person who comes to St. Peter’s begging for a bus pass, money for hotel night or food is black.  And I’ve seen it in the anger and outrage on our Uptown streets these last two nights.  There is more than one story about the Queen City and race.

Over these last days, it has become harder to believe that only the first story is true.  One wonders if some in Charlotte have developed a habit of saying “’Peace, peace,’ when there is no peace” (Jeremiah 6.14).  But even before that, the truth of the second story and its consequences on human lives was starkly revealed when Charlotte came in 50th out of 50 largest metro areas in a study measuring economic mobility.  In this city, the third largest banking center in the United States, if you are born to parents whose income is in the bottom 20%, you only have a 4% chance of rising to the top 20th income percentile.  Through serving on the Housing Opportunity Foundation board, I’ve learned that our city lacks 30,000 needed units for affordable housing, meanwhile there is high-rent apartment boom in Uptown.  There just aren’t market incentives to build affordable housing or even mixed-income housing.  Kudos to the City for mandating some affordable housing near Uptown in the plans for the redevelopment of Brooklyn Village, but that barely scratches the surface of the need and certainly doesn’t address the underlying structural issues.

The truth of this second story reveals “the wound” of God’s people in this city, and I suspect some of us have “treated the wound carelessly,” as the prophet said.  The wound hasn’t been acknowledged, treated, healed; it has festered.  But now as a result of spilled blood, with the deaths of Carr and Scott, the economic cost of effectively shutting down Uptown for three days, and our public image tarnished, perhaps the wound will be tended.

Honestly, I suspect things might get worse before they get better.  This Sunday we hear again from the prophet Jeremiah for our Old Testament lesson (32: 1-3a, 6-15).  Jeremiah is a prisoner in the court of King Zedekiah of Judah, a King who has proved impotent in light of huge Babylonian force. The mighty nation of Babylon has already invaded and deported many Jews from Judea.  Earlier Jeremiah cried out: “Is there no balm in Gilead?”  (Jeremiah 8:22) The answer appeared to be no.  Things were about to get worse.  Babylon’s troops were right outside the city walls, poised to besiege, ruin and destroy Jerusalem.

But before Jerusalem is destroyed, Jeremiah does the strangest thing.  He purchases land.  Signs the deed right in front of the king.  Makes sure the deed is preserved in an earthenware jar that will survive the impending destruction.  Jeremiah won’t ever return to Jerusalem; he won’t build a house or tend that soil.  It is going to get worse before it gets better.  But Jeremiah enacts hope – in the public square.  He doesn’t just feel hopeful; he acts hopefully.  He demonstrates outrageous hope because the Lord told him, “Houses and fields and vineyards shall again be bought in this land” (Jeremiah 32:15).

Acts of outrageous hope: that is what I think we are called to as God’s people.  Folk who can stand to see the wound; folk who know it might get worse before it gets better, but still listen for God’s promise of healing and act like they believe it – even if it won’t be fully realized in their lifetime.  What does that look like for each one of us?  What does it look like for St. Peter’s?  What does it look like for our city?