I spent the years of my life between about 14 and 24 living in areas where I was one part of the minority population in Tampa as well as South-Central Los Angeles (where I attended college at USC). In both places I was as poor as my neighbors, but there was always a great deal of difference there that kept matters at a distance. As someone who has always observed others, I noticed how the fellow kids on the school bus would often tend to leave me alone to read or do homework on the bus, or make jokes that I was “air conditioning” so I was able to sit in the back because my pale skin would hold less heat, or something like that. When our family would drive into our neighborhood, it took years for the local gang (they weren’t very bright) to stop trying to sell us drugs and recognize our car was a local one and not someone trying to buy from them. Less than a block away from where I lived in two directions there were deaths of a violent nature, one of them from someone flipping a stolen car while being chased by the cops. Since we lived near cemetery row, at least they didn’t have to take the body far.
It is intensely frustrating to grow up in poor areas. This is true of poor rural areas (where I spent my childhood until the age of 14) just as it is of the poor urban areas where I spent my adolescence and young adulthood. Some of these frustrations are because of the lack of opportunity. I knew very young that if I was going to escape a lifetime of grinding and soulless poverty that it was going to be my brains that would do it, since my athletic talent was not scholarship material, I didn’t enjoy farming or other blue collar labor, I wasn’t good at selling things, and my looks were certainly not going to be my ticket out. Everyone has to identify their strengths and use them to their best advantage, and having lived a tough life I am generally pretty tolerant to people who seek to leverage their gifts to a better life, so long as they do so in a way that benefits society at large. By and large, regardless of my rather ambivalent relationship with authority, I tend to be a law and order person who opposes wicked laws nonviolently, but will obey laws even when they are immensely inconvenient to me, something which appears increasingly quaint in our society.
There is something consistent about many of the areas of urban poverty where I have lived, and that is their lack of respect for property, whether times arer good or bad. If their team wins a championship, there is looting and rioting. If some kid gets killed after committing suicide by cop, there is the same rioting and looting. One has to wonder whether the inner city is a place where people have but one trick to try to show frustration, or whether there is any widespread desire to actually better a community through hard work and sheer stubborn determination, and the use of one’s gifts for the good. For the most part, law abiding people do not have anything to fear from the law , which, it should be noted, is one of the essential points in Paul’s commentary in Romans 13 about the legitimacy of the power of the sword existing even in corrupt states for the purposes of executing evildoers. If Paul commanded obedience, apart from deliberate and nonviolent disobedience, for which he accepted punishment, to a government ruled by the corrupt Roman emperors, there is no way that the police forces of Los Angeles or Ferguson are beyond the moral duty to respect, regardless of our feeling about the sort of people that are drawn to be police officers .
Ultimately, the looting and rioting in Fergueson, or in the many other places where denizens of the inner city have destroyed their own neighborhoods as well as the stores of the few people brave enough to serve the ungrateful people who often live in such places. How are people going to acquire property, or have good jobs in their neighborhoods, without respecting the property of others? When I was growing up, I knew I did not want to stay poor forever, and I knew that I had at least some talents and abilities that would allow me to earn a decent life. I have never particularly desired fame or massive wealth, just enough to keep the debt collectors and the gnawing hunger away, and to provide a life that is decent and honorable . Such a life is not out of the reach of the people of the inner city, but as long as it is a life that is labeled and insulted with names like “oreo” and “Uncle Tom” by those who are envious of success but not willing to work hard nor have the same sort of loyalty to community well-being or obedience to the law, it seems as if there will be a great deal of urban malaise that remains, not because of racism, but because of the endurance of cultural traits that hinder success.
The courts will decide what happened with that young man in Ferguson, whether he was killed by a cop in cold blood or whether he foolishly attacked an armed officer of the law. Thankfully, they are not to be decided by a lynch mob in the court of public opinion. The people who riot and loot today, who taunt the cops and seek martyrdom as a way of proving illusory racism will have to decide for themselves, and so will everyone who cheers them on from the peanut gallery or elsewhere, whether it is to be preferred to live in bitterness and spite holding others in contempt for what is at least largely one’s own fault, or whether one prefers to do what it takes to get better in life and to succeed, and to let God avenge. Life is too short to spend it wrecking our own chances for a better life through self-destruction. In the end, success is the best revenge, better still when our success can build up others around us. Why not build towards that, rather than destroy that little which has been left in our care?
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