riot: a violent public disorder, specifically a tumultuous disturbance of the public peace by three or more persons assembled together and acting with a common intent
The Merriam-Webster definition of “riot” brings to mind familiar headlines clamoring about shards of broken store windows, flames shooting out of vandalized houses, vicious swarms of malcontents pummeling police blockades with sticks and fists. Other definitions concur with these images: a riot is a violent protest by a crowd, a wild or turbulent disturbance created by a large number of people, a “concerted action made in furtherance of an express common purpose through the use or threat of violence, disorder, or terror to the public, resulting in a disturbance of the peace” (the legal definition offered by Cornell).
Riots incite fear. They destroy once orderly neighborhoods, threaten the security of our foundations by taking a bludgeon to them. They are all that is chaotic, wild, and wrong about people who are angry and want change. These are a people of legitimate cause using illegitimate means.
So the headlines tell me.
The framing of riots as often irrationally violent has emerged again, this time in reactions to the #BlackLivesMatter movement, which technically started with the events in Ferguson but truthfully roots itself to slave rebellions of years ago. “Those are two different situations!” you may cry out, but let’s take a look: Both involve an oppressed population (black people) reacting to violent subjugation (slavery and police brutality, respectively), channeling their anger and grief through physical means of resistance.
Now, I am NOT saying that some elements of riots such as looting, punching, killing people, wrecking community buildings are moral. I AM pointing out that the overwhelmingly negative meanings attributed to riots and the way the term is applied predominantly to movements led by people of color is not only undeserved, but also uncompassionate. We are quick to judge, slow to draw close and show curiosity in the stories of others to better understand where their pain comes from.
What if we stopped using the term “riot” in ways that dismiss and diminish the legitimate anger of marginalized peoples?
A professor at my alma mater once told me that the English language is dying. Everyday we are losing words through the sieve of our desire for instant gratification and either/or syntax. Examining layers, contradictions, perspectives, requires too much effort. Instead, we toss out complexities and replace them with overly-essentialized categories (i.e. liberal vs. conservative, pro-life vs. pro-choice). The nuances of human motivation and action disappear as we brush broad swathes of color across the canvas of communities. Black women are angry. White people are racists. Latino men are criminals. Asian women are submissive.
Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie responds prophetically to this rhetorical reflex:
The single story creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story.
We are losing the words to understand and empathize with each other. We coast on tropes and go-to pop phrases as we drink white tears, roll our eyes at naive liberals, groan over the narcissism of “this” generation, and chide black people to just “get over it” already. We see each other through a single facet of glass, and our vision wanes as consequence.
Returning to the question of how we can use the term “riot” in a new way, as I surveyed results on the net, other definitions began to link together. The oft-maligned Wikipedia reminds us that riots are “a form of civil disorder lashing out against authority…a reaction to a perceived grievance or out of dissent.” Another cue came from an unexpected source: a property insurance coverage page that cited “riot” as synonymous with “civil commotion.” Riot was suddenly transforming from a simplified headline about chaotic violence to motions, both bodily and internal, to challenge oppressive power.
One word finally connected the motley collection of definitions like a shot of electricity firing through once disparate synapses: upheaval. Upheaval could signify revolutions by guillotine and one form of violence being replaced by another; it could also point to a complete turning-upside-down of a world already disordered. Upheaval could be the smashing of foundations to create a better structure in their place–not gentrification, but restoration.
It then occurred to me that while MLK championed the idea that “Riot is the language of the unheard,” the language of riot is also the language of Jesus Christ. Christ’s life on Earth pulses with stories of public displays of challenge to long-established religious and political officials, including broken vendors’ tables in a desecrated temple and rebellious dates with the outcasts and unpopular. Christ challenged the gender, ethnic, socioeconomic, sexual, religious structures of his time and exposed them for their inadequacy and corruption, their failure to live up to the covenant mandate:
‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these. (Mark 12:30-31).
Christ then took it a step further and illuminated the truth of Scripture by turning everything the people knew and lived by upside down. He abided in the tension of controversy as he offered an unpopular response to the Caesar question (Matt. 22:15-22) and developed alliances with prostitutes and community sell-outs (aka tax collectors). He overturned fixations on personal piety and religious ritual and instead commanded the privileged to lay down their power, sell their possessions, and follow Him (Luke 12:32-34). This is the man who applauded a representative of the oppressive occupying force (a Roman centurion) for his faith and healed his servant (Matt. 8:5-13). Then came the Cross.
The Cross of Christ is the ultimate symbol of riot. Jesus’ sacrificial death momentarily shoved the world into a state of chaos as the sacred temple Veil was ripped, the ground itself rocked with tremors, and blood streamed from a beaten body and pooled at the feet of the terrified ones watching. All the cries of the abused, the violated, the oppressed, the lost, the unheard thundered above his bowed head. The darkness of a people estranged from God and enslaved to sin was broken by slashes of lightning that mimicked the aching stretch of his arms upon the wooden beam.
Hell emptied itself and Heaven touched Earth for the first time in centuries as the way to God’s throne was cleared at last, mediated by a soon resurrected Christ. He had thrown everything into violent, visceral upheaval, and we are still experiencing the vibrations.
The riot of the Cross challenges all that is disordered in our society and invites our participation in a holy commotion that will write a new draft above our stained histories. This draft is the Kingdom of Christ being ushered in now, though not yet in its final published form. In this draft, we are charged to disturb the status quo, remake the hierarchies of power, demand justice for the marginalized, innovate new words to love and live with each other.
God writes the new draft of a Kingdom manifesto on a scroll of grace, unfurling to coil around each person with a binding embrace. This grace acknowledges our grievous wrongs and our depraved brokenness, both individual and systemic, but rather than charting an arc towards death, it writes us into new roles: redeemed rioters on Gospel terms. With renewed minds, we grow into our roles, stumble, and keep marching so that someday we will see the fullness of a radically altered world.
When the words “grace riot” materialized as a potential title for this blog, my first reaction was….NO. Too politically-charged, too cheesy, too punny (a seasoned quirk I am well-known for). When “riot” nagged at my thoughts, I sighed and pored over definitions for it, and my perspective shifted until I could think of no other fitting title.
I have felt burdened to write for a long time, to write beyond my usual boundaries of poetry and the occasional memoir piece. I feel the weight of words unwritten for far too many years of my passivity and fear. I was afraid of having a public voice; I was afraid I didn’t have one. I don’t even honestly know what God will compel me to write about on this blog, all I know is that I must. In some small way, I must lean into the vibrations of riot and allow myself to be shaken, and with that, hopefully shake into being the world as it should be–shalom.